Day 1: Arrivals in Punta Arenas
Team members should meet at our hotel in Punta Arenas, Chile’s southernmost seaport. From the dockside, it is possible sometimes to see icebreakers, preparing for or having just returned from the Antarctic Ocean. We stay at the very pleasant Isla de Rey Jorge Hotel, which is the best hotel for our expeditions, not least of all because the staff is friendly and helpful. It has a good restaurant where we can try some of the fine Chilean cuisine, especially seafood, and wine. Alternatively, there are many restaurants in town that provide the opportunity to taste the catch of the day.
Day 2: Gear Check
In the morning, the Expedition Leader checks your equipment to ensure nothing is forgotten and that you are properly equipped. There will then be time to visit the sights of Punta Arenas and or take a visit to see the Penguins. We can then enjoy the evening visiting one of many restaurants in town that offer excellent local dishes.
Day 3: Final briefing
Today we attend a morning briefing, covering all aspects of the flight to Union Glacier, Antarctica and the onward flight to Vinson Base Camp. This is also an opportunity to meet our pilots and the other climbers and adventurers, who may be visiting the South Pole, or even making solo journeys across the Antarctic continent! Our equipment is collected at mid-day for loading onto the aircraft. From the evening onwards, we are on standby for our flight to Union Glacier.
Day 4: Depart for Union Glacier
If weather conditions in both Punta Arenas and at Union Glacier Blue Ice Runway permit, we fly by a Russian jet-powered Ilyushin-76 over Tierra del Fuego and out across Drake’s Passage, towards the frozen lands of Antarctica. This is a four-hour flight and there will be an opportunity to visit the flight deck for some incredible views. On arrival at Union Glacier we erect our tents and enjoy a good meal in the mess tent. Alternatively, if the Twin Otters are ready to fly and conditions for landing are good at base camp, we may head off within a few hours for the mountain we have travelled all this way to see and to climb.
Day 5: Flight to Vinson Base Camp
If we have not flown the previous day, we will hopefully fly by Twin Otter aircraft to base camp. This is situated on the Branscomb Glacier, to the south of the Ellsworth Mountains. During the flight we should have excellent views of Vinson and the other spectacular peaks, which make up this remote mountain range. After unloading our aircraft, we receive our base camp briefing, set up camp and prepare loads for our first foray onto the mountain tomorrow.
Day 6: Move to Camp 1
If the weather permits, we set off up the glacier, pulling sledges and carrying rucksacks for camp 1. This will probably be pitched about 5 hours up the glacier. Although the glacier is not steep, this is a tough day as hard ‘sastrugi’ (wind scoured flutings of snow) can make the going awkward and pulling the sledges difficult. Although crevasse danger is minimal, the team needs to be roped together as a precaution. As we progress up the glacier, the scenery changes all the time. However, the summit of Vinson, while being visible from base camp, cannot be seen for most of the climb. After arriving at camp 2,700m/9,100ft we spend the next few hours establishing our camp and building snow walls to protect us from the wind. The snow is so cold that it is easily sawn into perfect blocks and handles like polystyrene. A smaller wall is also made for the kitchen area, where the leader prepares the meal. A toilet area is made so that any contamination is kept within a well-defined area. All waste is removed from the mountain and out of Antarctica. When all the camp is established we then settle down to eating a well-deserved dinner prepared by the leader.
Day 7: Rest Day at Camp 1
As the sun doesn’t arrive at camp until 11.00am we get a well-deserved ‘lie in’ after our strenuous day yesterday. We will spend the day organising our equipment and sorting the food in preparation for moving up the mountain. The logistical organisation of the team’s equipment is very important on Vinson as at any time the weather can deteriorate making progress from a camp impossible. If time and energy permit we can take a trip to look around the corner to the headwall, which gives access to high camp. We can also visit a small pass where we can enjoy extensive views of the Antarctica plateau. On return to camp 1 a daily radio call to base camp is made to report the team’s location and well being. These daily radio calls are essential and part of daily life on Vinson to ensure the group’s safety.
Day 8: Load Carry to High Camp
If there is no wind and the weather is settled we set off to take our first visit to high camp 3,945m/12300ft (Note that ‘camp 2′ at 3,080m/10,100ft is typically only used by teams as an emergency food cache). Carrying heavy loads we continue up the Branscomb Glacier to the headwall. From here a climb of 750m/ 2,300 ft up the moderately steep wall (40 degrees in angle) through spectacular scenery leads to a serac barrier. Our high camp is situated on a broad col between Vinson and Shinn.
On arrival at high camp (6hrs) we will stash our equipment in a snow pit marked by a flag before returning to camp 1. Today is an essential part of our acclimatization program and although Vinson is moderate in altitude the effects will be felt. Once back at camp 1 the team will have a chance to rest before resuming daily camp life radioing in to Vinson Base and preparing an evening meal.
Day 9: Move to High Camp
If the weather permits, we will strike camp leaving some food and equipment behind and move on up to high camp. After yesterday’s visit to high camp, the effects of altitude are much reduced and the team should be well prepared for the day ahead. The journey to our stash at high camp takes around 5 hours. On arrival it is important that we spend time preparing our camp to make it as secure as possible, so that we can sleep well, even if adverse weather keeps us here for several days whilst attempting the summit.
Day 10: Summit Day Mt. Vinson
After a good night’s sleep, we make the summit attempt. Roping-up once again, we climb an easy ice slope above the camp to reach a long glaciated valley leading to the mountain, which stands at its far end. As we progress, we place marker wands, to ensure we can find our way back down if the weather deteriorates (we also carry GPS). The route contours up the left side of the valley to the base of the triangular summit pyramid. From here there are two possibilities. We can either climb a short but steep snow slope to the right to reach the West Ridge and the summit or, longer but easier, we can continue up the glacier to the left of the summit pyramid and climb the ridge to the summit from the east. Our preferred option is to go right to climb the steep slope and the West Ridge to the top followed by a traverse of the summit and a descent following the easier angled ridge to the east. This has proved to be an excellent combination, providing a challenging ascent with a straightforward and fast descent. The summit itself is a broad sloping ledge, topped by a cornice with makes for excellent photographs! We hope to have fantastic views across the Ellsworth Mountains and, to the south, across the endless Antarctic plateau towards the South Pole. The ascent from high camp takes between 6- 9 hours, with a further 3 hours for the descent.
Days 11 – 12: Contingency Days
Spare summit days. Although it only takes one day to reach the summit and return to camp, we have three days available in case of bad weather or if we have been delayed by bad weather days on our journey to high camp.
Day 13: Spare day or ascent of Mt. Shinn
A spare day to safeguard against unforeseen eventualities that might delay the summit attempt or the return to base camp. Past teams have opted to ascend Mount Shinn (4,660m) from High Camp. This is a 12-hour climb up moderate snow slopes except for the top 200-250m where the climbing is about Alpine PD+ up snow filled gullies with ample protection from rock spikes.
Day 14: Return to Base Camp
If we have not already returned to base camp we need to be back at base camp by today, at the latest, ready for our return flight to Union Glacier. On the return we pick up all our equipment and sledges at Camp 1, making sure we have left nothing behind on the mountain. If we complete the climb in good time and the weather is good, we may be flown to Union Glacier today.
Day 15: Fly to Union Glacier
Toady we fly back to Union Glacier to meet other groups who have returned from the South Pole. There is usually a good party in the dining tent when all the teams are reunited. Conversation continues late into the night, refreshed by plenty of food, drink and the ever-present sun.
Day 16: Fly to Punta Arenas
We will know 6 hours in advance that the aircraft is on its way to take us home. However, so as not a tempt fate and just in case the landing has to be waved off at the last minute, we keep our tents up until one hour before touch down. Then in a mad flurry of activity, we pack up our camp and prepare our equipment ready for loading onto the aircraft. The landing on the ice is a most impressive sight. Around 2 hours later, we take off on our way back to the ‘flesh-pots’ of Punta Arenas. Here we are taken back to our hotel for a very welcome bath! In the evening, it is usual to enjoy a celebration dinner in one of Punta Arenas’ excellent restaurants.
Day 17: Departures from Punta Arenas Airport
After a good night’s sleep and an enjoyable breakfast, we are collected and taken to the airport for our flights home.
This itinerary is illustrative only as the unpredictability of the Antarctic weather and its effect on flying conditions and progress on the mountain will lead to changes. Individual acclimatization will also dictate the rate of progress towards the summit.
The duration of each expedition is based on the flight dates between Punta Arenas, Chile and Antarctica. However, each trip could be longer due to delays brought about by the unpredictability of the Antarctic weather. For example, the flight between Chile and Antarctica may be delayed in either or both directions due to high winds on the Union Glacier Blue Ice Runway. Similarly, once on Vinson, the climb or the flight out of base camp may be delayed due to storms. For these reasons, you should not make any firm arrangements or plans for at least 3 weeks following the scheduled return of the expedition.