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Peter Whittaker and Jake Norton Describe Vinson Summit and Descent
Posted on January 11, 2011

Story and photos by Jake Norton

Did I say Antarctica wasn’t cold? Well, I was just kidding. Antarctica, especially high up with a stiff wind, is really, really, really cold!

Our summit day started reasonably enough, with a bright sun high in the sky and reasonable temperatures for walking. The team moved well out of High Camp along the seemingly endless glacial valley leading toward Vinson’s summit.

About two hours into the journey, Vinson decided to give us a little test. The wind began to pick up, and suddenly we could all feel the frigid cold biting at any exposed skin and dropping our core temperatures degree by degree. Time to layer up. In moments, we all donned our custom Peak XV Antarctica down jackets and pants, shutting the wind and cold out, at least somewhat.

But, it gets tricky in situations like this. The thick down insulates well, and keeps you warm and toasty. But, you still have to move uphill, and that generates heat.

Too much heat, and you start to sweat. Sweat out your baselayers, and you’re going to get cold sooner or later. So, climbing in these situations is an exercise in zipper running, hat pulling, and sleeve pushing; it is a constant battle to maintain that thermal equilibrium, right on the line between too cold and too hot.

With that obstacle added to our climb, we kept moving, everyone doing well and chugging right along. Before long, the route made a sharp right-hand turn, and began climbing steeply toward the summit ridge. And, now, Vinson decided to show us what she could do. The temperature had dropped as we ascended, to about -30 degrees Celsius on the summit ridge, and then the wind really picked up. We estimate about 30 miles per hour fairly consistently…. In other words, enough wind and cold to make it the coldest day I’ve ever experienced on any mountain, anywhere. And, Ed Viesturs, who’s got a handful of cold mountains under his belt, agreed that it was the coldest summit day in his memory. That’s cold.

We were close now, though, and kept pushing onward, trying to check cheeks, noses, ears, etc., for frostnip—which can come on quickly in such conditions. Along with the wind, Vinson’s final curveball was the largely moderate terrain of the lower mountain finally transitioned to a steeper, more exposed ridge for the final push.

It was manageable, and soon we were all celebrating and shivering on top of Antarctica.

I’ve been fortunate enough to travel to some unique places and mountains over the years, but must admit that Antarctica, and Mount Vinson, is one of the most spectacular. To gaze out from the summit at the jagged peaks of the Ellsworth Mountains, which eventually yield and give way to a vast sea of glacier, is simply beyond words.

We spent a few minutes on top, taking pictures, congratulating one another, and of course pulling out the 1966 Alaska Flag for its final foray on the summit of Vinson. Then it was time to go. It’s too easy to linger on such summits, and, in the abusive cold and wind, we needed to get down fast. Everyone moved well downhill, and we’re all now in our tents, enjoying the warmth of a sunny tent and a full belly. Sleep will come quickly tonight, and will be well earned by all.

Tomorrow … well, there’s still work to be done. All our gear needs to somehow make its way from High Camp down the fixed lines and all the way to Vinson Basecamp.

We’ll sleep well, and work hard tomorrow.

And, yes, in case I ever forget, Antarctica is COLD!!

Audio dispatch by Peter Whittaker

Author: - Tuesday, January 11th, 2011
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  1. Randy Martin

    Wow, that sounds brutally cold. In dealing with the challenge of maintaining temperature equilibrium do you ever alter your pace to warm up or cool down so you don’t have to continually modify layers?


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