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We battled our way in plummeting temperatures

By Bob Kerr

Bob Kerr during his Christmas Day ascent of Mount Vinson in Antarctica.
Bob Kerr during his Christmas Day ascent of Mount Vinson in Antarctica.

MOUNT Vinson is the highest point on the Antarctica continent and towers at 4892m (16,050 feet) above the surrounding glaciated polar terrain. It is one of the seven summits – the highest points on each of the seven continental plates.

Climbing Mount Vinson 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.

The ascent 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 for the attempt – Chris Mothersdale, Senan Foley and Ryan Laughna. The ascent was a team effort and all successfully reached the summit due to good co-operation.

In order to tackle the climb it was necessary to first fly to Punta Arenas at the southern tip of Chile in South America and wait for a weather window when it would be possible to land a plane on Antarctica’s glaciated terrain.

A chartered Kazakhstan Ilyushin 76 cargo plane was used to fly for four-and-a-half hours and land without aeronautical instruments on an area of blue ice. The Ilyushin 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. The cost of chartering such aircraft is astronomical and thankfully we were able to share the flight with some other expedition teams.

Mount Vinson as viewed from base camp along the Branscomb glacier.
Mount Vinson as viewed from base camp along the Branscomb glacier.

On arrival we were greeted with fairly typical Antarctic summer conditions of minus 20 degrees Celsius and 25-knot winds which meant it was extremely cold. We landed at an area known locally as Union Glacier – a temporary summer base which is used to facilitate expeditions and scientific research projects.

Once weather conditions improved sufficiently this allowed us to take a further 45-minute plane journey in a Twin Otter aircraft to land on the snow-covered glacier at the foot of Mount Vinson and begin our attempt on the mountain.

When we reached 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 or high-altitude cerebral oedema, and 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 environment. Throughout the expedition there was a very significant risk of developing frostbite if we weren’t careful.

We then had to haul supplies of food, fuel and equipment up the mountain. For the initial move from Vinson base camp to a camp 10km along the glacier, with a vertical height gain of about 900m (3000 feet), it was possible to use sledges to allow the weight to be shared between them and the rucksacks on our backs.

Between us, around 210kg (460lb) 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 if one of us fell into a crevasse the others would be able to extract him alive.

However, due to 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 deep chasm in the ice.

Load carrying up the head wall towards high camp on Mount Vinson.
Load carrying up the head wall towards high camp on Mount Vinson.

Once the supplies had been moved up the glacier, we had to ascend a head wall 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 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 (12,378 feet) and afforded beautiful views down the Branscomb glacier to Vinson base camp and towards Mount Shin which is the third highest mountain in Antarctica.

We then had a rest day on Christmas Eve so we would be stronger for our 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. The expedition team congratulated him on his success when he got back to high camp.

ON Christmas Day the temperature was about minus 20C at high camp and there was a light breeze blowing on our tents, but the decision was made to leave at 8am and make a push for a summit attempt.

We gradually ascended the snowy and icy mountain using ice axes, crampons and polar clothing. As we progressed to a mountain pass to the east of Mount Vinson the wind speeds into our faces increased significantly and the temperature plummeted. We put more layers of clothing and protection on and 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 snow and rock ridge towards the summit.

We were still roped together for this but just one slip at the wrong time could have resulted in a fall potentially not being held and us plummeting down sheer mountain faces. After six-and-a-half hours we safely reached the summit. The wind speed had dropped to about 30 knots and the temperature was below minus 25C which meant the resultant wind chill was in the order of minus 55C to minus 60C.

Our cameras had to be taken out from under multiple layers of clothing and our outer pairs of gloves removed so a summit photo could be taken. Taking photos in these conditions is very risky as the extreme cold can lead to frostbite within minutes.

I was extremely satisfied when we reached the summit, however, I knew we still had to get off the mountain safely.

While taking a couple of summit photographs all of us got cold hands, to the point that some of our hands went numb. Having briefly visited the top of the highest point in Antarctica it was essential we moved quickly downhill to get warm and restore warm blood flow back to our extremities.

Thankfully, none of us suffered from frostbite but it nearly happened. We made it back to high camp in less than two-and-a-half hours, making it one of the fastest successful expeditions on the mountain, as most teams take about 12 hours for their summit day from high camp.

Climbing the highest point in Antarctica on Christmas Day is not everyone’s idea of festive fun but it did guarantee we had a white Christmas. Christmas dinner consisted of freeze-dried food and a hot drink.

While many people back home in Scotland were tucking into their Christmas turkey leftovers on Boxing Day, we man hauled all of the remaining supplies and equipment to Vinson base camp in a single push. When we arrived at base camp, the waiting game recommenced to begin travel back to Punta Arenas and then onwards to home.

For me the success on Mount Vinson means I have ascended six of the seven summits and am now making plans to complete this challenge with an attempt to climb Mount Everest in the future.

I am potentially the first British person to climb the highest peak in both the Arctic and the Antarctic. I previously scaled Greenland’s highest mountain of Gunnbjørn Fjeld (3694m, 12119 feet) on June 5, 2004, while in the Watkins mountain range during a climbing expedition which also saw me make the first ascent of two previously unclimbed mountains.

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