Photo by  Christian Stangl

The uniqueness of Mount Vinson is surely what attracts so many people to it. It is utterly isolated, with an unbroken view of white wilderness greeting climbers who reach its summit.

Name: Mount Vinson.
Height: 4892m (16,050ft)
Location: Southern part of the Sentinel range in the Ellsworth Mountains, West Antarctica. 
First Climbed: 18th December 1966 by ten Americans led by Nicholas Clinch.
Climb Time: 9 to 12 hours from High Camp, 5 to 9 days from Base Camp.
Best Time to Climb: December - February

Introduction to Vinson Massif.

The Vinson Massif is one of the least spoiled mountainous areas on Earth as so few people have ever had the opportunity, or finances, to climb it. And yet, if you can get there, it is not a very technical climb to take on.

Mount Vinson is the coldest, most isolated and most southerly of the Seven Summits. It was the last to be discovered and the last to be climbed. It is in a part of Antarctica connected to the main landmass by a sea of ice. The region is fascinating to geologists as it gives clues to how the Antarctic continent was first formed millions of years ago.

Except for mountaineers in the summer months, there is no wildlife on Mount Vinson and no indigenous population in Antarctica. There are only two seasons: summer, where the sun doesn’t set, and winter, when it doesn’t rise. 

An incredibly hostile world, Mount Vinson defines part of the attraction of mountaineering: to go where few have trodden before. Unlike many mountains around the world, this desire can be truly satisfied on the slopes of Mount Vinson.

History of Mount Vinson.

The history of this mountain is strongly tied to the USA, and their enthusiastic exploration of the continent during the 20th Century. 

The Ellsworth Mountains (the range Mount Vinson is part of) were discovered in November 1935. Lincoln Ellsworth, an American explorer, found them during an early Antarctic expedition. He was making the first flight across the continent, flying from Dundee Island to the Ross Ice Shelf across West Antarctica. The lateness of this discovery points to the technological advancements that had to be made in order to discover these remotest of mountains. 

A US Navy reconnaissance flight in December 1957 discovered Mount Vinson. It would be a nine-year wait until it was successfully climbed (see below). 

Mount Vinson was only formerly named in 2006 after the US politician Carl Vinson of Georgia. He was a champion of Antarctic exploration and served in Congress for almost 30 years. During this time, the USA was the major Antarctic explorer, setting up numerous scientific stations and naming huge tracks of land after Americans and American landmarks. Previously, Mount Vinson was simply an unnamed summit of the Vinson Massif, (a group of summits in which it sits).

Unlike the other six of the Seven Summits, there is no indigenous population living near Mount Vinson. Indeed, there isn’t on the whole of the continent, such are the extremes of weather and the isolation of the continent. The population numbers around 2500 in summer and less than 1000 in winter – all are members of scientific surveys. 

Mount Vinson has shrunk significantly since its discovery – or rather our view of it has! Its height has been measured more and more accurately over the years, leading to readjustments from 5140m (16,964ft) in 1959 to its current height of 4892m (16,050ft).

 

Geography of Mount Vinson.

Vinson Massif, the massif in which the Mount Vinson summit sits, is enormous. It stretches 21km (13miles) long and 13km (8miles) wide. Within the massif are eight separate peaks, including the two next highest peaks, Mount Tyree (4852m/ 15,919ft) and Mount Shinn (4661m/ 15,292ft).

As with Everest and Aconcagua, Mount Vinson’s prominence is the same as its height. This is referred to as having an ‘ultra-prominence’. At 4897m (16,066ft) it is the eighth most prominent mountain on Earth. 

Standing 1200km (746miles) from the South Pole in the East/ Lesser Antarctica, it is also the most isolated of the Seven Summits. 

The Ellsworth Mountains stretch some 360km (224miles) and consist of two sub-ranges: Sentinel in the north and Heritage in the south. The Minnesota glacier separates them. Mount Vinson stands at the southern end of the Sentinel range. 

The Ellsworth range contains eight of the ten highest mountains in Antarctica. After Mount Vinson, the next highest mountains on Antarctica are:

  • Mount Tyree – 4852m (15,919ft)
  • Mount Shinn – 4661m (15,292ft)
  • Mount Gardner – 4587m (15,049ft)

The Ellsworth Mountains lie almost perpendicular to the longer Transantarctic Mountains, the range that divides West from East Antarctica. Were the ice to disappear, the Ellsworth Mountains would be an archipelago, as they are not attached directly to the main body of the continent. 

It’s believed both West and East Antarctica were once part of the ancient supercontinent Gondwanaland. To simplify the geological explanation, when Gondwanaland that started to break up 180 million years ago, the section that is now West Antarctica broke off from modern day Africa, drifted south and eventually came to rest near the larger East Antarctic landmass around 35 million years ago.

It might be most surprising to learn that this enormous icy continent is also one of the driest on Earth. The interior receives less than an inch of snowfall per year, leading to its nickname, ‘the world’s coldest desert’. However, the low atmospheric pressure over Antarctica draws cold air over the landmass, giving rise to strong winds that feature in many accounts of adventures on Mount Vinson.

Few ranges beyond Antarctica can compete with Mount Vinson’s glaciers. Most of the regions are enormous ice sheets with a largely static nature. Smaller areas of specific ice flows are referred to as glaciers, though they are not moving anywhere fast! The action of melting and refreezing occurs at the very edges only. 

The ice in Antarctica began forming 14 million years ago. As so little gets to melt, the ice has slowly accumulated over the enormous area it now covers. This is despite a distinct lack of fresh snowfall.

This mass of ice leads to one of Antarctica’s other records: it is higher than any other continent. Its average elevation is 1860m (6100ft), more than double the average of North America and higher than the whole of the British Isles! It also runs deep, with ice sheets up to 4700m (15,420ft) thick (at Wilkes Basin). 

This thickness of the ice sheet, particularly in the East Antarctic, leads to high elevations created mainly from ice. This is best demonstrated in West Antarctica where the ice sheet creates the ‘land’. The majority of the bedrock in this part of the continent is below sea level.

However, there are two types of area that are glacier-free land year-round on Antarctica. They cover less than 0.5% of the continent. The first are the unique and designated special scientific areas known as ‘dry valleys’. The largest ice-free areas in Antarctica, these are extraordinary high altitude rocky valleys. The other areas are ‘Nunataks’, islands in the sea of ice. These are less mysterious: simple mountain peaks that protrude through the ice.

Mount Vinson looks over the Ronne Ice Shelf. This shelf, which dips into the Weddell Sea, covers an area greater than the whole of Great Britain. These scale comparisons make you realise just how enormous the continent is, and how isolated an experience this adventure would be.

The melting of the glaciers on Mount Vinson, and the ice sheets of Antarctica more generally, that pose a huge threat not just to the mountain, but coastal areas around the world. 

The hole in the ozone layer was first discovered over Antarctica, and the catastrophic effects of global warming are partly locked in the mass of ice held here. Should the ice sheets of Antarctica melt entirely, sea levels would rise by more than 60m, causing a humanitarian crisis few would wish to fathom.

First ascent of Mount Vinson.

It was an American-led expedition who first reached the summit of Mount Vinson on 18th December 1966. Led by lawyer Nicholas Clinch, the team of ten mountaineers and scientists created what is now known as the Normal Route. It was very well supported by the USA and was grandly named the American Antarctic Mountaineering Expedition.

The whole group reached the summit in small groups over the course of three days. They then went on to climb the next three highest mountains, as listed in the section above, and several others too. The climbing of Mount Tyree, even by its simplest route, is reportedly still the most difficult challenge to undertake in the region.

The second group to the summit didn’t arrive there until 22nd December 1979, a full 13 years later. The ascent was supposedly unauthorised by the survey leader Campbell Craddock, though this may be more of a political truth. 

The three men consisted of two West Germans (Werner Biggish and Peter von Gizycki) and a Soviet climber (Victor Samsonov). These were countries that, at the time, the United States would have been unlikely to celebrate with graciously.

The group were in the region resurveying the heights of the mountains within the Sentinel range. The ski pole (with a makeshift red flag flying off it) the three men left at the summit of Mount Vinson allowed the United States Geological Survey (USGS) to get a better lock on the true summit. 

The height was then officially downgraded from 1959’s estimate at 5140m (16,964ft) to the height of 4897m (16,066ft). This remained the official height until 2004. So unauthorised or not, the USGS was no doubt thankful for the new accuracy their climb allowed!

Climbing guide of Mount Vinson.

The coldest of the Seven Summits, Mount Vinson is best climbed during the Antarctic summer. Between December and February the sun shines non-stop. But this is no t-shirt weather; temperatures only rise to an average of -20ºC!

While Mount Vinson is no walk up, it is also not the most technical nor has any substantial risk of altitude sickness. The principle challenge is probably the financial investment required, followed by comparable cold weather expertise and training. A typical climb costs in excess of USD$40,000 due to the remoteness of the summit and the equipment required to avoid frostbite and exposure. 

While each challenge is taken in the order the climber chooses, in a logical progression through the Seven Summits, Mount Vinson comes fifth or sixth. It is followed only by Everest and Carstenz Pyramid (Morrow’s Seven Summits) or Everest alone (Bass’ Seven Summits).

In total, there have only ever been around 1000 successful ascents of Mount Vinson. Over half of those successful challenges have come through the private company Adventure Network International (see their link below). They led their first successful adventure there in 1985 and have been doing so ever since.

Those who do make it to the top are likely to have followed the Normal Route. An estimate of five to nine days is given for climbing Mount Vinson. This is largely dependent on how long you have to wait for favourable weather.

The Normal Route heads up the Branscomb glacier and is comparable to the West Buttress Route on Mount Denali. It is climbed as part of a group by all but the most experienced. Throughout the climb, a group will travel roped up as added safety measure over deep crevasses in the ice.

There are three camps to pass through en route:

  • Base Camp at 2100m (6890ft), accessed by plane from the ALE Base Camp (see below),
  • Low Camp at 2800m (9186ft), at the northern end of the West Face of Mount Vinson,
  • High Camp at 3775m (12,385ft), at the top of the West Face of Mount Vinson.

From Base Camp, a day of gentle inclined walking allows equipment to be carried on sleds to Low Camp. This hike up the Branscomb glacier is 9km (5.6miles) long takes around five hours. 

The next part is a more difficult challenge, with fixed ropes on slopes of 45º in places and more exposure to the cold and wind. This section heads along the northern end of the Branscomb Ridge from Low Camp. You then head up the summit glacier to High Camp, an adventure of six to eight hours. 

The summit is reached the following day with a return to High Camp lasting around 11 hours and covering 14km (8.7miles). Heading up the Vinson summit valley, there follows a steep ice slope that needs to be climbed before emerging to the rocky, summit ridge and the summit itself. The return follows the same route back to Base Camp.

As mentioned, the time the trip takes is largely dependent on the weather. With good fitness and good weather, the whole trip can be done within four or five days. But be ready to wait up to two weeks in each location, as flights in and out can be very inconsistent. 

On the positive, this extra time can allow you to explore other routes up the mountain, or allow you to climb nearby peaks. In fact, alternate technical routes have come about this way, such the Purple Haze Couloir in 2006.

The uniqueness of this mountain is reflected in the experiences of those who have successfully climbed Mount Vinson. Here are some of the comments previous climbers have made:

• “The wind is cold and strong, but with it hopefully comes a perfectly clear sky with a pure blue colour you’ll struggle to find anywhere else.”

• “Stepping on the Antarctic ice was like walking on the moon.”

• “Here, at the top of Antarctica, the true scale and majesty of the continent are overwhelmingly apparent.”

Getting to Mount Vinson.

It’ll come as no surprise to read that getting to Mount Vinson is not so easy! Thankfully it is possible these days through a company called Antarctic Logistics and Expeditions (ALE). You may choose to go with an adventure company to the summit, but all use this company to get to and across the continent.

Be aware that there is an amount of red tape to get through before you fly. The company you’re going with will inform you of what is specifically required. However, ensure you allow plenty of time to complete these documents and submit them well in advance. 

You may also need to undergo a medical, given the extreme environment and difficulty of rescue once on the mountain. 

ALE operate from the south of Chile from Punta Arenas, accessible via domestic connections from Santiago. It takes just under five hours to fly to the ALE camp on Union glacier. While you’ll be just about as far from civilisation as it’s possible to go, this camp is surprisingly well-equipped with great food, medical and preparation facilities.

You then fly on a smaller plane to Base Camp (2100m/ 6890ft) on the lower Branscomb glacier to begin your ascent.

As for who to go with, this is a list of the most reputable and experienced Mount Vinson adventure companies: