The Throne of Antarctica

Named for United States congressman Carl Vinson (a major proponent in setting up the United States Antarctic Program) and located at 54º 50' S, 68º 10' W¹, the Vinson Massif is a mountain in Antarctica. At 4,899 meters (16,076 feet) from base to summit, it is Antarctica's highest peak, which makes it an attractive destination for mountaineers who thrive in extreme environments (of which Antarctica is entirely composed). Unfortunately for them, Vinson is also one of the most remote areas on the entire continent, which, itself, is the most remote land on the planet. Among all the mountains and mountain ranges on the continent, Vinson is one of the "newest," having been first sighted and identified as a mountain in 1957, due to its extreme remoteness and the hostility of the climates and dense mists occurring around it. Unlike a number of other mountains in Antarctica, Vinson is not, and has never been a volcano; underneath the snow, it's all solid rock without any hint of magma. Despite its relative newness to climbers, the first team to reach the summit, lead by Nicholas B. Clinch, successfully summited Vinson on December 18, 1966. A previous adventurer, Woodrow Wilson Sayre, attempted to acquire permission to attempt an assault on Vinson in 1963, but was denied by the United States Antarctic Program (who governs the area in and around the Ellsworth Mountains) due to his reputation for getting into jams during mountaineering expeditions, and a rescue operation at that time was though to be highly problematic if not flat-out impossible. Sayre also had a reputation for botching high-altitude climbs and the USAP didn't want to take on the responsibility for his death, or the death of his summit team, should something go wrong.

Vinson is one of the so-called Seven Summits, which make up the highest peaks on each of the earth's seven continents, and although it is the smallest of those summits (Mount Elbrus in Russia, the next smallest, is nearly 800 meters taller than Vinson), to date, 81 people have successfully summited all seven of them, from all walks of life, culture, and gender.

As a side note, since there is only minimal, small low-flying aircraft traffic coming anywhere near Vinson, there have been no recorded crashes in the vicinity, though there have been a couple of runway overruns, but no aircraft-related fatalities².

Getting there

There are only two ways of accessing the Ellsworth range of which Vinson is a part, assuming you are already on the continent. Otherwise, read this. If you're already on the continent, then, well, you probably know what you're doing without having to read this.

The easiest (which is still probably mind-bogglingly difficult) trek is a 160 km flight from Patriot Hills Station, which is located very near (about 960 km) to the South Pole in the Ellsworth Land territory in western Antarctica, named for the Ellsworth Mountains that make up most of the area. Upon arrival (via a C-130 Hercules military transport plane, operating by either the USAF, the government of Chile, or by private operators, coming from Punta Arenas, Chile), trekkers are transferred to a ski-equipped Twin Otter plane, which, loaded fully with mountaineering gear and mountaineers with legendary endurance are shuttled about 160 km to Vinson Base Camp, at the mountain's base. As base camp is very near to the South Pole, it is predictably very, very cold there, averaging around -57ºC (-70ºF) during peak climbing season in December through February. Expeditions to Vinson typically last about two weeks, because the human body can't take much more than that long a time in such extreme cold. The cold is so extreme that metal items take on entirely different, odd properties there, so much so that metal cavity fillings can spontaneously change shape and fall out of teeth after a while outdoors. The C-130 lands on a runway of solid ice, making the journey to Patriot Hills all the more dangerous due to the high likelihood of the plane overrunning the runway upon landing and the frequently overcast or misty conditions which make go-around landing attempts difficult at the best of times.

The other way of getting to Vinson base camp is to take the C-130 from Chile, and then hike the 160 km from Patriot Hills, dragging a sled of supplies behind you. Generally only the really crazy types go for this approach, and it has only been done on perhaps half a dozen occasions since Vinson was first scaled in 1966, though a duo of Nepali Sherpas made it to Vinson's summit via hike and sled, setting up small base camps along the ascent route, thus minimizing the load each climber had to carry the further up the mountain they went.

Assault tactics

Since Vinson's maximum altitude is not as extreme as other legendary mountains such as Mount Everest in Nepal/Tibet (8,850 meters, approximately twice as tall as Vinson) or Dapsang (K2) in Pakistan/China (8,611 meters), the necessity for altitude acclimitisation is minimal, though the climb itself should be handled with caution as the possibility for falling into an unseen crevasse is high.

Upon arrival at base camp, the team (no one has ever, and likely will never solo Vinson, though the aforementioned Sherpa duo made it to the summit in 1999) unloads the plane, sorts through the equipment, and begins preparation for the assault on the summit. Once everything is in order, the team ascends to Camp I at 2,773 meters, where they stop for a day or two to rest and acclimate to the altitude, while enjoying the completely unobstructed views of neighbouring Mount Shinn and Mount Gardner. From there, the trail to Camp II at 3,078 meters is blazed, where more resting, preparation, and altitude adjustment is made before pushing on to Camp III, located at a demanding 3,749 meters. Final preparations are made, and then the final assault on the summit at 4,899 meters (1,250 meters from Camp III) is made. Due to the thinness of the air, most climbers spend only an hour or so at the summit, taking pictures and planting flags of their native countries, before making their descent push, which is normally accomplished in reverse order from the ascent, as there is only one viable route up and down the mountain via the north face. As far as I have been able to tell, no other routes have been attempted, most likely due to the increased risk of additional travel around Vinson's base to the opposite sides of the mountain.

Vinson is roughly half-covered in snow year-round, and half exposed rock mountain face. The gradient is not too steep, according to experienced climbers, and standard mountaineering equipment (ice axes, rope³, crampons, altimeters, very thick windproof clothing, glacier shades, portable food, tents, and supplemental oxygen tanks and masks) are the norm for an assault on the summit of Mount Vinson. I've asked iceowl, our resident Antarctica enthusiast, about the rigours of Vinson, and though he said he'd never attempted climbing it, he also said that most seasoned climbers regard Vinson as a relatively easy venture, and most attempt it just to say that they've climbed one of the most remote mountains in the world, and lived to tell the tale. I myself have never even set foot on Antarctic soil (or should that be ice?), but my fascination with such adventures has lead me to write about the noble, yet unforgiving and beautiful Vinson.

In 2001, a new route to the summit was established on Vinson's eastern face. In 2005, a Twin Otter single-engine airplane successfully landed on one of the higher glaciers on that same eastern face.


1. These are the newest lat./long. coordinates determined by GPS in 2000.

2. Sadly, the same cannot be said for Mount Erebus, where an Air New Zealand McDonnell Douglas DC-10, a circular "there and back again" (without landing) sight-seeing flight originating in Wellington, crashed on the lower slopes after veering off-course and attempting to circle the mountain in zero-visibility in 1979. The crash was also attributed to incorrect flight instruction from McMurdo ATC and ANZ's flight plan, which didn't account for whiteout conditions. There were 257 fatalities (all passengers and crew, no survivors) on that crash, which left a blackened, DC-10-shaped gash in the snow on Erebus' face, which is still visible at times during the summer.

3. I wasn't able to determine whether there are any fixed ropes or ladders in place on Vinson (or if any are necessary), like there are on some areas of Everest. Alpine style (leaving nothing behind) is the only accepted method for climbing Vinson, due to the strict environmental regulations in place.

Sources (a vague map of the continent which was nonetheless helpful) (crash photos from the Erebus disaster)

Also, iceowl, who had this to say on the subject: "The Antarctic mountains are apparently quite doable (so I hear from the mountaineers down there), it's just a matter of getting to them. The Vinson Massif is the largest in Antarctica. All the mountaineers go and do it at one time or another in their deployment, so they can say they've got that one ticked off the master list of mountains-to-be-climbed."

A final note

I am not a mountaineer by any stretch of the imagination! You should coordinate any treks to Vinson or anywhere else in remote Antarctica with an experienced guide, group of guides, and at least a few porters. That said, don't take my word here as granite! You may pay for it with your life. This writeup is for purely casual informational purposes only!

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