Perhaps you have climbed Everest, or Denali – and you want to finish up the 7 summits in style on Mount Vinson.
How hard can it be? After all it is lower, quicker and has a success rate of around 95%.
All that is true, but there are also some very distinct differences, some very important factors that make Vinson truly unique. And in some ways, more dangerous.
After all, Antarctic is the coldest, driest, windiest and overall average highest continent on Earth. Yes, a list of superlatives, but Antarctica at times is well deserving of all of them.
The eternal light in the sky, the weather, the cold, the very cold, and the wind.
From the time you arrive in Antarctica, until you depart, you will have 24-hour sunshine.
For some, a blessing. For others, the funny looking sleep masks from the plane may actually be useful. And eternal sunshine, while seemingly warming, can also be shaded by clouds or the ridges of Vinson you climb alongside on your way up the route.
When the sun goes behind the hill the temperature plummets, just like when the sun dips below the horizon on Everest and you go from cozy to freezing in just a few minutes.
On Vinson, you will want to time your ascent carefully, within those windows of sunshine. But fortunately you will never be in the dark, like on that long summit night on Everest or those predawn starts up through the Khumbu ice fall.
The one thing you can scratch from your kit list for Vinson is a headlamp.
The weather in Antarctica, like any mountain, can be unpredictable – at times highly localized and including fog, wind and more recently, even significant snowfall. While avalanches were once very rare, they now occur more frequently and can even sweep across the normal route to the summit.
The intense cold earlier in the season, or high on the mountain, can approach the magic minus 40 where both Fahrenheit and Celsius meet. With some added wind, this will very quickly induce frostbite to any exposed skin. Face masks are essential.
A change of clothing needs to be planned in advance, well before you are cold or think you need to change. The extremes of temperature can easily equal the worst, if not more so, temperatures on Everest.
Frostbite is perhaps easier and quicker to get on Vinson than any other peak, so much so that after one season, Dr. Chris Imray, an acclaimed frostbite specialist and 7 summiter in his own right, and I put together an article on our frostbite findings and recommendations. Well worth a read if you place a high value on your fingers and toes.
Living in minus 30 celsius at High Camp and above on Vinson, the physics that affect metal, batteries, zippers and velcro seem to change. Plastic can shatter or stick, zipper teeth fall out or unravel, or in the case of batteries, can cease working almost instantaneously. And be prepared for all the bristles to suddenly fall from your toothbrush. Good to bring along a spare just in case.
Headed for Camp 1 on Vinson, forever frozen.
Summit photos on a cold day can prove challenging and more than one team has tagged the top and turned immediately to their descent on a cold, windy day, foregoing even a single summit photo.
At 16,050 feet (4,892 meters) Vinson can seem higher, similar to Denali, due to its location in the polar regions. Climbers will often move quite quickly from their home to Punta Arenas, Chile, then on to Union glacier, have a quick stop for lunch and then be flown another hour over to Vinson Base Camp.
One minute you seem to be checking your luggage through Santiago, and the next you are helping pitch a tent in a windstorm with your baggage tags frozen to your zippers.
The workhorse of the polar regions, the Twin Otter.
The adjustment for travel, from central heating and restaurants to life on the ice can be quite abrupt. The 24 hour sunshine, the white in every direction, the expanse and the cold can be overwhelming on a tired mind and body – Antarctica is the only continent that people cannot live on without outside resources. For most of us, it is the most remote place we will ever visit, and it feels it.
While the Khumbu also seems to be Wi-Fi equipped at every stop, and Everest Base Camp without email now unheard of, Antarctica is limited to Sat. phones. You will not be surfing the net from your tent or be nearly as frequently in touch with family and friends at home.
With two camps on Vinson, the altitude can be adjusted to at a reasonable pace, the heights reached in a practical manner. When the sun goes behind the hills, be ready for the temperature to plummet – pitching a tent in the shade can be a very chilling experience. Working without gloves is pretty much impossible. The local operator, ALE, has an excellent route map and carefully calculated timings for climbing – you of course can move outside those but be prepared for an almost shocking amount of difference in temperature from sun to shade.
As you start up the mountain, fortunately the crevasses are better behaved and less of the behemouth variety you find on Denali, or with the instability of the Khumbu icefall.
None-the-less, crevasses are certainly present and prominent and all travel on the mountain is done roped up, besides one section of several 100 meters of fixed ropes.
Unlike just following the miles of fixed ropes on Everest however, you will actually carry a pack and use your ice axe. The climbing will all be done with your team roped together, pulling sleds from Base to Low Camp, then heavier carries with packs up to High Camp, and finally a much lighter pack to the summit.
While hopefully you either join a compatible group or climb with ALE guides, making sure you are paired with the right team and guide is essential. For reasons I have yet to fathom, a number of climbers, on what will be there only ever trip to Antarctica, want to move as fast as possible, experience the mountain as if it were a treadmill and get it over with and be gone as soon as they can.
Groups are known to gallop up and down, a night a camp, summit and go home before they have hardly realized they were there. If you are stuck with one of these groups, your chance of actually enjoying what for most will be a once in a lifetime experience will be just about nil.
Fully compétant climbers have at times been paired with hyper-athletes, only to see their own very realistic chances fade as they are literally rushed off their feet. Climbing Vinson at your aerobic threshold is neither recommended nor all that safe in the extreme cold.
Ask all the questions of the group you will be with first, on proposed schedule, on pacing, on motivations. And don’t hesitate to demand a decent chance, at your own pace for the summit. As the most expensive of the Seven Summits in terms of time spent vs. cost, you both deserve it and well and truly paid for it.
If you do want to set records, the Rolex Ridge is a rather nice route that has more elevation gain than the normal route and will provide you the chance to do 3,000 plu vertical mètres in under 12 hours. It has yet to have a second ascent.
All the time records on Vinson have pretty much been done unless you want to shave a few minutes here or there. If you are a mountain racer, best to choose another peak.
Like most of the big mountains, Camelbaks and hydration systems with tubes all freeze and water needs be close to your body – even a thermos won’t be warm for long on a summit day in Antarctica.
Leaving Vinson Base Camp for the heights. Veteran guide Scott Woolums ice axe/ski pole does double duty, all with a healthy dose of insulation.
With no Sherpa’s to carry your gear, group equipment, including tents, stoves, fuel and food will also be carried by your group. So sleds and packs will generally be far heavier than on Everest, and the pitching of tents and cooking of food will be more of a shared activity.
With ALE clients who book directly, tents, group gear and food is usually in place so loads consist of personal equipment and some food, with set camps and kitchens already in place, from Base Camp all the way through to High Camp. If you are with an independently guided group, perhaps best to pick one with a strong guide.
If anything, one of the biggest differences between Everest and Vinson is the aura and atmosphere. There are incredible vistas from start to finish. Just setting foot in Antarctica is a real adventure in itself – not to mention the flight on the jet to reach Union Glacier to get there, then the hour long Twin Otter ski plane ride to Vinson itself.
And while there are certainly people there, less than 20% of the numbers who normally summit Everest in a year will be climbing, spread over 2 months, so you will be much more alone and certainly won’t be standing in line.
You’ll be carrying bigger packs, but at the same time feel more self-sufficient, as your team will climb, cook and camp together, from Base Camp to the summit.
The cold at some point could well be the coldest cold you will have ever experienced on any climb, or perhaps anywhere in the planet and everyone needs to be prepared for that.
I ascended Vinson once with the exceptionally talented Italian Guide, François Cazzanelli, who recently put up a new route on Nanga Parbat. He had completed Everest earlier in the year and as we leaned sideways into a howling wind on the summit ridge with our group of five, he leaned over and shouted in my ear, “you are right Robert, it is colder than f—ing Everest.”
The unspoken part, of climbing in a white, icy and pure environment, of ascending with a small team, of looking out over the top of the continent towards the South Pole, may well remind you just why you started this adventure of the 7 summits in the first place.
In a sentence, Vinson is potentially colder, you’ll have little access to the outside world, you will carry a bigger pack and you will climb as a rope team with real mountaineering skills needed. And with some pre-planning, you will insist you are part of a group that wants to climb at a pace that is comfortable for you.
Hopefully, it will also be the most memorable of your 7 summits.
A long ways from home in any direction you go.