VINSON VI: Departing the Ice
A Cold Descent to Base Camp
After summiting Vinson on Tuesday we descended and stayed at High Camp overnight. That night was probably the coldest I had been the entire trip. Even wrapped up in my -40degC sleeping bag I was shivering nonstop. For some reason, I just couldn’t warm up. At some point during the night, frustrated at not being able to sleep, I put my expedition down parka on over top of my other clothing and slept in that inside my sleeping bag. I was still a touch cold but manageable.
Yesterday we descended from High Camp to Base Camp. At High Camp it was a beautiful morning but there were moderate winds and thick low cloud in the valley below. Setting out in full sun was quite pleasant but got cold as we descended into the cloud and lost the sun. Apart from being on the cool side, the descent was uneventful and we were back in Base Camp in about 5hrs.
Message from Vinson Base Camp: https://youtu.be/96bDVj0KCSw
At Base Camp we were hoping to get the small Twin Otter ski plane straight back to Union Glacier that evening. Union Glacier Camp is much more comfortable than Vinson Base Camp. Not only is it considerably warmer being lower down, but it also has a large mess tent with excellent chefs and best of all, a shower. Unfortunately, the flights in and out of Vinson Base Camp operate strictly on Visual Flight Rules (VFR) only, compared to most commercial flights which navigate off instruments, hence with low cloud and whiteout conditions the flights were grounded. We had to go through the rigmarole of setting up camp once more.
The weather report that evening indicated clouds clearing in the morning then becoming overcast again in the afternoon. That temporarily lifted out spirits with the hope of getting out in the morning, until we were told the plane could only take half our group. There was another group in front of us and they had priority with us just filling remaining seats. With everyone wanting a hot shower and solid meal, the only fair way was to draw names. We wrote our names on pieces of paper and put them in the hat. My name was drawn third meaning I would get a seat, while others were left disappointed at the prospect of spending another day in Base Camp. It all amounted to nothing however as they decided to run a second flight and we all got out.
A Rapid Departure
This morning, with the weather forecast holding true, the clouds cleared just long enough for our flight back to Union Glacier. Touching down in Union Glacier it felt positively tropical. It was still about -8degC, but compared to the temperatures we’d endured up on Vinson, it was beautiful and warm. With our flight back to Punta Arenas not scheduled until 20th January, we were expecting to have to stay in Union Glacier a couple of days. However, there was another flight running today which they were able to get us on. After a brief wait in Union Glacier Camp, we were driven straight down to the end of the ice runway to the awaiting Ilyushin 76, which had just landed and was turning straight round. I’m in awe every time I see that plane, so impressive and imposing. Four and a half hours later we were back in Punta Arenas. A quick bus ride back to the hotel, shower, then straight out for dinner.
It has been a whirlwind couple of days. Two days ago I was standing on the summit of Antarctica’s highest mountain. Now only 2 days later I am sitting in a small restaurant in Punta Arenas eating steak and drinking wine. It’s all a little surreal. But no time to dwell on that, I have already rescheduled my flight to Mendoza bringing it forward to 09:30 tomorrow morning. Time to switch focus to Climb No.2, Aconcagua.
Vinson Wrap Up
Vinson has been an absolutely incredible experience. Climbing aside, just seeing Antarctica has been a lifelong dream of mine. It was incredible just to step foot on the White Continent. I feel so privileged just to have had this opportunity.
But of course, I went there to climb Vinson and couldn’t be happier with how it went. I joined a guided commercial expedition as it was really the only way to do it. Rules and regulations are quite stringent and unless you have the resources and funding to organize a private trip, joining a commercial expedition is really the only practical way.
I signed up knowing no one and was very fortunate that we had a great group of guys and everyone got on really well. But what really made the trip was having two amazing guides, Vern and Ben. They had a wealth of experience and ran a very slick operation.
Over the past few years, I have undertaken a number of climbing trips and expeditions, gradually building my skills and experience in the mountains. Over that time I have been fortunate to climb with and learn from some incredible mountain guides. For the remaining 7 Summits, I will now be climbing independently with a friend which I am really excited about. I’m looking forward to putting into practice the skills I’ve learned, to being more autonomous on the hill, to climbing at my pace and to really testing myself. Having only been climbing for a couple of years though, I do recognise my limitations. I know enough to get myself into trouble, but possibly not enough to get myself out of trouble. The friend I am climbing with is incredibly experienced and incredibly strong in the mountains so hopefully, he’ll stop me from doing anything too stupid.
Getting back to Vinson and my time in Antarctica, what I found most remarkable down there was the people you meet. Ordinary people with extraordinary stories. The girl driving trucks around Union Glacier Camp holds the female record for the fastest time to ski to the South Pole. The chef cooking up a storm at Union Glacier Camp recorded the greatest distance traveled in 24hrs across the Antarctic ice by kite (500 miles). The mother and daughter I sat next to on the flight on the way down are the only mother and daughter pair to have completed the 7 Summits together. And my guide on Vinson holds the record for the most times anyone has completed the 7 Summits, a remarkable 10 times. I’ll be happy to do it just once, although hopefully once in pretty quick time.
It is the people I’ve met and the stories they tell that I’ll remember long after this trip is over.