Mt. Vinson, Antarctica

My 4th of the Seven Summits

Antarctica is an indescribably beautiful and pristine place. The ice continent — the highest, coldest, windiest and driest of them all — is 98% covered in ice with an average thickness of 1 mile while it is 10,000’ thick at the South Pole. In fact, the ice-sheet is so massive that if it all melted, the mountains here, due to continental rebound (i.e. the ice is so heavy that it actually pushes the continent down into the earth’s crust), would be taller than the Himalayas.

Before arriving Antarctica, we had to make the most of our time in Punta Arenas, Chile, awaiting stable enough weather for us to land on the ice. We saw the sites, checked email, visited penguins, and kept a keen eye on the weather. Finally, we received the call and flew across the Southern Ocean on a retrofitted Iluyshin (the Russian equivalent of a C-150 military transport plane). It’s not a glamorous flight, by any means, but the initial view of the continental ice shelf emerging from the blue horizon of the Southern Ocean is a memorable sight.

Just setting foot on the continent was a surreal experience and true privilege. The stark beauty is overwhelming, and you can immediately feel the weight of its remoteness. Once there, we were quickly transported from Patriot Hills (a seasonal bivouac set-up by the main outfitter, AME, each Austral summer) to the base of Mt. Vinson (16,067’) in the Ellsworth Range via Havilland Beaver sled planes. We made quick progress up the peak in fairly mild temperatures considering where we were. It wasn’t until we reached high camp, at the top of a steep headwall, where a storm blew through, pinning us down for a couple of days, and plummeting temperatures to -50F. The weather soon stabilized again and we summited in mild conditions. I didn’t even wear my down jacket on summit day, a unique experience for that part of the world.

As much as I love these trips for providing the excuse to visit incredible, beautiful, remote places, it is also a great pleasure to meet some truly interesting people along the way. This trip was no exception. My now good buddy, Craig Hanneman, played defensive line for both the Patriots and Steelers in the late 60s and early 70s alongside legends LC Greenwood and Mean Joe Greene. He is an absolute animal on the hill too… all legs and lungs. Once a gifted athlete, always a gifted athlete, I suppose.

Well, that’s just the beginning, as Craig and one of his climbing partners, Mark Morford, who I also met on this expedition, were on Denali when I was there in June 2004. It is indeed a small world, as sadly I knew of them well in advance of meeting them in person due to a tragic incident that occurred during their descent from the summit of Denali. Upon traversing around Windy Corner on the West Buttress (just below ABC), a place my team had crossed on our expedition’s descent not even a week before them, a large rock-fall crashed down the face and instantly killed a member of their expedition and severely injured Mark, who was evacuated via helicopter to Anchorage. He not only survived but also, after a tough recovery, continues to climb today. Amazing. And finally there was Johan, the charismatic Swedish explorer, who on this expedition completed his quest to climb the Seven Summits. Needless to say, it was an absolute pleasure to summit alongside these great people. To stand with them where only roughly 1,200 people had stood in the history of mankind was a special experience, and I was proud to share it with them.

Upon our return to our Vinson base camp, we had a few beers that had been buried there in the snow to keep them cold until we could celebrate our success and safe return. Well, it certainly worked. As we indulged greedily, Craig chose to drink his with only liner gloves on and proceeded to get frostbite on the tips of his right thumb and index finger. Always wear thick gloves while drinking beer in Antarctica, kids!

Once back in the Patriot Hills camp awaiting our flight back to civilization, we managed to “borrow” some boxed wine that we discovered there, which subsequently led to some off-key sing-a-longs of John Denver and other artists that certainly would have been insulted by our renditions, but we sure had fun.