Flag of Antarctica
Vinson statistics

Vinson Massif shown on map of Antarctica
(map courtesy of

The Vinson Massif is the tallest mountain on the world’s coldest, driest and southernmost continent. Rising to 16,067’, the peak is part of the Ellsworth range of West Antarctica, situated roughly 600 miles from the South Pole.

Interestingly, while Vinson Massif stands only 30 miles from Antarctica’s coastline (deeply buried under ice thousands of feet thick), it remains hundreds of miles from open water. Discovered less than 50 years ago during an aerial survey of Antarctica, Vinson Massif can be accessed only during the brief Antarctic summer (typically December and January).

Vinson summit
JPC summit--Dec. 20, 2004
The big Ilyushin jet parked on the ‘blue ice’ at Patriot Hills.
Vinson Massif from air
Christmas Eve at Patriot Hills
A cold day in Antarctica!
Summit ridge on sunny day

Travel to the mountain involves two tricky flights requiring considerable logistic support. After arriving in the small city of Punta Arenas in southernmost Chile in early December 2004, our expedition joined two other teams of climbers, a group of university researchers, and a handful of skiers intent on reaching the South Pole. All had contracted transport through the single commercial outfitter that secures the myriad international permits necessary to access the interior of Antarctica.

After four days of round the clock stand-by near the airport, we boarded a jumbo-sized, Russian-built IL-76 jet, leased from the Kazakhstan air force. This long-range, four engine military cargo aircraft possessed ruggedized wheeled landing gear designed for landing on unimproved airstrips, including gravel and ice. Our experienced Russian pilots, we were told, had performed this feat in Siberia.

For the first leg of our journey onto ‘the ice’ (as Antarctica is referred to in local parlance), we flew five hours over the treacherous, iceberg strewn southern ocean, made landfall near the Ronne Passage and waited anxiously for a report of the wind conditions at Patriot Hills. This small camp (merely a seasonal collection of tents) some five hundred miles from the South Pole, adjoins a unique piece of terrain -- a naturally formed blue ice runway, swept smooth by the Katabatic winds originating deeper in the continent. The 150 ton jet landed smoothly but slid awkwardly along the ice for 75 uncomfortable seconds.

Our team next waited several hours in a tent for a conveniently timed satellite pass which confirmed clear conditions at the mountain itself. With plenty of daylight (from September until March, the sun never sets), the decision was to fly immediately. Thirty minutes later, we had transferred the necessary gear to a couple of comparatively tiny, twin-engine, propeller-driven ski equipped Twin Otter aircraft.

The last leg of the journey saw us soaring relatively low towards the Ellsworth range, with Antarctica’s incredible vista spread before us. Upon reaching Vinson Massif, we flew briefly alongside the mountain. The aircraft then circled the glacier twice before making a soft, uphill landing and stopped in a remarkably short distance. Within moments, having off-loaded our gear, the ‘Otter’ departed with plans to return some eight days later.

After our expedition, a friend accurately described the climb itself as a ‘smaller version of Denali’. Our gear totaled 130 pounds per person, which each climber split between a heavy backpack and a heavier sled. The team adopted a somewhat ‘clock-less schedule’ and conducted all activities when ready. At one point my watch indicated “11:00” and I didn’t know if it was am or pm.

We faced very poor weather on summit day (cold and miserable with the wind akin to sandpaper rubbed on your face for 12 hours), but the aircraft schedule back to Chile was such that we would have to go for it or figure out how to remain in Antarctica for another two week cycle.

We summited in thick clouds with no views. My friends congratulated me on my ‘seventh’ summit (if I counted Kosciuszko in Australia), but I was still keen on getting to Carstensz Pyramid. Two days later, facing another uncertain weather window, we radioed for the Twin Otter while even descending to base camp. The first group arrived and boarded still wearing their climbing harnesses. Back at Patriot Hills, we again waited four days to return to Chile, arriving late Christmas Eve.

Reflecting on Antarctica, I was struck by utter emptiness, isolation and quiet of the whole place. Also, I never became quite used to the intense, 24 hours per day of sunlight (its brilliant enhanced by the absence of the ozone layer and reflected from all directions by ice and snow). Luckiest for me, I made a good friend in Henrik Olsen of Denmark, a strong climber who shared a tent for over a week. Upon return home, Henrik provided me his map of Irian Jaya, the key to my next adventure.


View of our tiny base camp from the Twin Otter
My friend Henrik (of Denmark) cuts ice blocks for our camp
Cooking al fresco
Climbing Vinson Massif
© 2006-2008 by James P. Clarke.  All rights reserved.