Mount Vinson

Height: 4897m

Location: Antarctica

Mount Vinson is the highest point on the Antarctica continent and towers at 4892m (16050ft) above the surrounding glaciated polar terrain.


Ascent date: 25 December 2011

I reached the summit of Mount Vinson on Christmas Day 2011 in lethally cold conditions to make me one of only a handful of mountaineers, and potentially the first British person (who is not a paid mountain guide), to have climbed the highest mountain in both the Arctic and the Antarctic. I had previously scaled Greenland’s highest mountain of Gunnbjørn Fjeld (3694m, 12119ft) on 5th June 2004 whilst in the Watkins Mountain Range during a climbing expedition which also saw me make the first ascent of two previously unclimbed mountains.

Climbing Mount Vinson in Antarctica was a significant challenge. Very few people are fortunate enough to visit this pristine continent and even fewer would consider braving the extreme polar conditions that can be thrown at them to briefly visit the top of the highest mountain on the Antarctica continent.

The ascent of Mount Vinson was, for me, as much about the journey and the people I met on the way as it was about the summit. I joined a small international team of mountaineers: Chris Mothersdale (English), Senan Foley (Irish) and Ryan Laughna (American). The ascent of the mountain was a team effort and we all successfully reached the summit due to good co-operation and teamwork.

In order to get in position to tackle the highest point in Antarctica it was necessary to first fly down to Punta Arenas at the southern tip of Chile in South America and then wait for a weather window in Antarctica when it may be possible to land a plane on its glaciated terrain. A chartered Kazakhstan Ilyushion 76 cargo plane was used to fly for four and a half hours down to Antarctica and land without aeronautical instruments (i.e. visual only landing) on an area of blue ice. The Ilyushion 76 aircraft is able to operate from short and unprepared airstrips and was designed to be capable of coping with the worst weather conditions likely to be experienced in Siberia and the Soviet Union’s Arctic regions, hence it’s suitability to get down to Antarctica. The costs of chartering such aircraft are astronomical and thankfully the expedition team were able to share the cargo plane flight with some other expedition teams also wishing to head to Antarctica to either climb Mount Vinson or ski to the south pole.

Upon arrival in Antarctica we were greeted with fairly typical Antarctica summer conditions of minus 20 degrees Celsius and 25 knot winds which meant that it was extremely cold. We had landed at an area known locally as Union Glacier and then pitched their tents. Union Glacier is a temporary summer base on the Antarctic continent which is used to facilitate Antarctica expeditions and scientific research projects. Once weather conditions improved sufficiently this then allowed us to then take a further chartered 45 minute plane flight in a twin otter aircraft to land on the snow covered glacier at the foot of Mount Vinson and then begin our attempt on the mountain.

Upon reaching the lower slopes of Mount Vinson we undertook an acclimatisation ascent of a nearby peak (approximately 2800m high) before considering moving up the mountain. It was important for us to acclimatise properly so as to minimise the potential for developing fatal conditions such as high altitude pulmonary oedema (HAPE) or high altitude cerebral oedema (HACE) and minimise the potential discomfort from altitude sickness. The acclimatisation ascent also served as a good opportunity to prioritise the placement of equipment in rucksacks for rapid deployment in the ever-changing Antarctic environment. Throughout the expedition there was a very significant risk of developing frostbite of extremities (e.g. fingers, toes, nose, ears, etc.) if we were not careful.

Following some initial acclimatisation, we then had to man-haul supplies of food, fuel and equipment up the mountain. For the initial move from Vinson Base Camp to a camp 10 km (6.25 miles) along the glacier, with a vertical height gain of about 900m (3000ft), it was possible to use sledges to allow the weight to be shared between rucksacks on our backs and sledges pulled behind us. Between the four team members approximately 210 kg (460 lb) of food, fuel and equipment had to be taken to the mountain and used at various points. In order to travel between camps on the glacier, due to it being highly crevassed terrain, it was necessary for us to be continually roped together so that if one person fell into a crevasse it was hoped that the others would then be able to extract him alive.

I was the only expedition team member with previous polar experience of man-hauling sledges. This experience was utilised to ensure that the team were roped up appropriately such that if someone fell into a crevasse then their sledge containing supplies and equipment didn’t then follow them into the crevasse and hit them. Due to good vigilant glacier travel we managed to select suitably strong snow bridges over the crevasses and no one had the unnerving experience of falling into a dark, cold, deep chasm in the ice.

Once the supplies had been moved up the glacier, we then had to ascend up a headwall of snow and ice to reach our high camp. It was not possible to drag sledges of supplies and equipment up these steep slopes so we made two trips up the headwall to porter all of the necessary supplies and equipment up to high camp from where our summit bid was launched. High camp is located at an altitude of 3773m (12378ft) and afforded beautiful views down the Branscomb glacier to Vinson base camp and towards Mount Shin, which is the third highest mountain in Antarctica.

Having spent a significant effort to get ourselves into position at high camp, we had a rest day on Christmas Eve so that we would be stronger for a summit bid on Christmas Day. On Christmas Eve, 15-year-old Jordon Romero from America became the youngest person ever to complete the Seven Summits by ascending Mount Vinson. We congratulated Jordon on his success when he got back down to high camp.

Christmas Day 2011, the temperature was about minus 20 degrees Celsius at high camp and there was a light breeze blowing on our tents, but the decision was made to leave high camp at 8am and make a push for a summit attempt. We gradually ascended up the snowy and icy mountain using our ice axes, crampons and polar clothing. As we progressed up to a mountain pass to the east of Mount Vinson the wind speeds into our faces increased significantly and the temperatures plummeted. Further layers of clothing and protection were put on and we battled our way up the mountain. A minor top to the east of Mount Vinson was reached then we had to carefully pick our way along a narrow knife edge snow and rock ridge towards the summit. We were still roped together for this ridge but just one slip at the wrong time could have resulted in a fall potentially not being held and the team plummeting down sheer mountain faces.

After six and a half hours of effort we safely reached the summit of Mount Vinson. The wind speed had dropped to about 30 knots and the temperature was below minus 25 degrees Celsius on the summit when we arrived, which meant that the resultant wind chill was of the order of minus 55 to minus 60 degrees Celsius. Our cameras had to be taken out from under multiple layers of clothing and the outer pairs of gloves removed so that a summit photo could be taken. Taking photos in these conditions is very risky as the extreme cold can lead to the development of frostbite within minutes.

I was extremely satisfied when I reached the summit, however I knew that only half the mountain had been done. We still had to get off of the mountain safely.

All of us got cold hands, to the point that some team members’ hands went numb from taking a couple of summit photographs.

Having briefly visited the top of the highest point in Antarctica it was essential that we moved quickly downhill to rewarm ourselves and restore warm blood flow back to our extremities.

Thankfully none of us suffered from frostbite but it nearly happened. We made it back down to high camp in less than two and a half hours, making us one of the fastest successful expeditions on the mountain as most teams take about twelve hours for their summit day from high camp.

Summiting the highest point in Antarctica on Christmas Day is not everyone’s idea of Christmas but it did guarantee that me and the rest of the team had a white Christmas. Christmas dinner consisted of freeze-dried food and a hot drink.

Whilst many people back home in Scotland were tucking in to their Christmas turkey left-overs on Boxing Day, we man-hauled all of the remaining supplies and equipment back down the mountain, all of the way back out to Vinson base camp in a single push. All solid wastes (including faeces) were carried back down the mountain to leave the mountain in a pristine condition.

Upon arrival back at Vinson base camp, the waiting game recommenced to gradually begin travel in chartered flights back to Punta Arenas and then onwards to home. My attentions have now turned towards trying to complete my Seven Summits challenge and the ascent of Mount Vinson was a further foundation stone in my cold weather mountaineering experience to hopefully give a future successful ascent of Everest. The Mount Vinson expedition allowed me to test out new solar power recharging systems for camera batteries in extreme cold conditions and tested the suitability of other essential equipment.

The Christmas 2011 Mount Vinson expedition was successful, without incident, and has made me one of only a handful of people (potentially the first British person who isn’t a paid guide) to have ever ascended the highest point in both the Arctic and the Antarctic.

Media and online coverage

Interview with Myrddyn Phillips – YouTube

News coverage – BBC

Media coverage – The Northern Time

New coverage – John O’Groat Journal

The Society for Radiological Protection March 2012 newsletter (see page 3)

The Society for Radiological Protection website

Scottish Hills website

Adventure Peaks expedition

Union Glacier entertainment – YouTube

Ascent photos – Facebook

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