American Alpine Jounrna and Accidents in North American Climbing

Antarctica, Sentinel Range, Vinson Massif, Vinson, New height (4,892m), First Ascents of Sub-Peaks, Many New Peak Names

  • Climbs And Expeditions
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  • Publication Year: 2005

Vinson, new height (4,892m), first ascents of sub-peaks, many new peak names. As the name implies, Vinson Massif is a large bulk of mountain with numerous summits. Though the main summit, first climbed in December 1966, has now had over 950 ascents, all but one of the other high summits, arranged around a high plateau, were unclimbed until this season. The Omega High Antarctic GPS Expedition aimed to climb and measure as many of these peaks as possible, to ascertain the height-order of these summit peaks and to resolve other topographical issues with a view to producing a new and more accurate map of the Massif in 2006. Damien Gildea of Australia and Rodrigo Fica of Chile, who both climbed and measured nearby Mt. Shinn in December 2001, returned with young Chilean climber Camilo Rada for this year’s work. Camilo would also record weather data to ascertain the suitability of high Antarctic mountains for future infrared telescope sites.

The Omega team flew to the mountain on November 16 after a two-week weather delay at Patriot Hills. Alone on the mountain, they ferried 50 days of food and fuel to Camp 2 over the next week, established Camp 3 on November 25 and made the season’s first summit of Vinson on the 28th. The three set a tent a few meters below the summit and spent seven hours there without sleeping bags, waiting for the GPS to run in its position atop the highest piece of solid rock. Operating data collectors for recording temperature and relative humidity, they later discovered temperatures reached -46°C that night. The GPS data was processed via satellite phone, laptop and the AUSPOS website to give a new height of 4,892m—5m lower than the previous official USGS height, but within the margin of error associated with that older figure.

On November 30 the trio climbed and measured Peak Kershaw, the obvious peak to the left of Vinson seen by all those doing the normal route to the highest peak. A first ascent of this peak was claimed by Britons Sundheep Dhillon and Andre Hedger on December 15, 1992 but it may well have been climbed in December 1989 by Canadian Rob Mitchell, who mistook it for the highest point, only learning his mistake later (see Climbing No. 128 Oct/Nov 1991 p. 120). Dhillon and Hedger coined the name “Kershaw” in memory of Giles Kershaw, one of the founders of Adventure Network International (ANI), who opened up the area to private expeditions in the late 1980s. Giles was killed in a gyrocopter accident on the Antarctic Peninsula in 1991. Gildea, Fica, and Rada ran the GPS on the highest point—an ice crest, just below which was a green ski pole stuck in the ice, presumably left by the Brits. The height was later found to be 4,865m—only 27m lower than the main summit of Vinson. The Omega team considered this a testament to the skill of the USGS personnel who made the original map of the area, correctly pinpointing the true summit of Vinson amongst so many close contenders and in a field where “official” altitudes are often incorrect by much more than 27m.

Requiring very good weather for their work on the high plateau, the Omega team waited at Camp 3 until December 8 when they traveled up the normal Vinson route until just before the final pyramid, then continued straight south through a narrow but easy col that leads out on to the high plateau south of Vinson’s main summit. Crossing the plateau they made camp in the evening and immediately attempted the high peak to the southwest. This peak is visible from Vinson BC and has been eyed by dozens of wishful climbers over the years. It was attempted by a Spanish team in January 1995 who climbed the nearby Pico Principe de Asturias. The Spanish thought this big peak to be 4,860m, named it Monte Espana, and attempted it via a route similar to that used for Asturias, but failed some distance from the summit. The Omega team ascended the narrow south ridge of the peak, getting good views of the terrain to the southwest of Vinson, and sum- mited just before midnight. Gildea suggested changing the name to International Peak in honor of all the nationalities that had passed underneath the mountain in the last 15 years and because the Spanish had not actually climbed it when they named it. They left the GPS running for around 10 hours until it was retrieved by Fica the next morning.

Immediately after that Rada and Gildea set off for a nearby sharp peak they named Sphinx Peak, due to its appearance from the north. Fica later joined them and belayed Gildea to a soft, crumbling, and wildly exposed summit, too small to stand on, where he placed the GPS. Fica and Rada returned to retrieve the unit later that night. Continuing straight away, they joined Gildea en route to another nearby sub-peak which they named Pyramid South due its appearance and location on the plateau. This was an easy ascent up a steep snow-ice slope to a very useful flat rock summit, where they placed the GPS just after midnight, having now reached the top of three previously unclimbed peaks in 24 hours.

After a long sleep Gildea retrieved the receiver alone, then joined up with Rada and Fica to move camp across the plateau closer to their next objectives. First the team climbed Pyramid East by both the west and south faces on snow and rock, then after retrieving the GPS from that summit, Gildea and Rada climbed Long Top on December 11 via its broad south face. Long Top is the peak often seen in the background of the summit photos of Vinson summiteers. It is a large peak with a long summit ridge, the highest point a crenellated rocky spine at the southern end. Here Rada and Gildea experienced extreme wind gusts over 120km/h while setting up the GPS. Fica soloed the peak later that night, in similar conditions, to retrieve the unit. The data showed that Long Top had been the highest unclimbed peak in Antarctica (though not an independent mountain). Immediately after Fica returned to the tent, they all packed up and plodded back across the plateau in increasing winds through the narrow col and back down the normal Vinson route to reach Camp 3 at 2:30am on December 12.

Waiting through variable weather, the Omega team did not go high again until December 26, when they left camp and made very fast time to the col before passing through it, collecting a cache from the previous trip, crossing the plateau again, but this time descending down and around to the south of Long Top to a flat area at the southeastern extremity of the high plateau. Immediately Rada and Gildea set off and summited an outcrop they named The Turrets—three rocky points on the extreme south eastern edge of the plateau overlooking the Dater Glacier. On the existing USGS maps this feature appears to be a snow peak possibly as high as the rocky sub-peak to its north. However, when on location it is obvious that this is not so—The Turrets are barely a peak at all, whereas the rocky sub-peak to the north is quite impressive. Correcting these types of discrepancies or misrepresentations on the current map was one of the main aims of the Omega expedition and was carried out in the name of improving and contributing to the greater body of Antarctic geographical knowledge. The drop-off to the east from The Turrets is quite steep and would provide some of Vinson’s hardest climbing if ascended directly from the Dater Glacier.

Fica soon retrieved the GPS and he and Rada immediately set off and summited the bigger rocky peak to the north, which we had named East Peak. Climbed via an easy ridge connecting it to the back of Long Top, East Peak is quite steep on other sides and is in fact the terminus of the long and impressive east ridge of Vinson—the last major feature in the Massif that remains unclimbed. Gildea later retrieved the unit alone and upon returning to camp all three set off in deteriorating weather to return via the col to Camp 3 late on December 28th.

Over the next few days Fica and Rada climbed two minor points north of Vinson main summit. Manana Point (climbed and named by Dhillon and Hedger in 1992) is on the ridge running parallel to the normal route above Camp 3 on the left. Branscomb Point is the highest point of the Branscomb Ridge, which is the top of the main west face and runs parallel to the normal route, but on the climber’s right as s/he ascends the upper cwm.

With all the major sub-peaks climbed and measured, Gildea set off on January 1 to summit Vinson and collect a second set of data. The work on the summit was conducted in extreme winds and Gildea was forced to descend via the less windy western side of the summit pyramid, going down a broad bowl and traversing around the western side past Branscomb Point to rejoin the normal route, on the way seeing Miguel Angel Vidal’s tracks from his ascent of the west face the previous day. On this occasion the GPS ran for over 10hrs and reconfirmed the earlier figure of 4,892m. Fica retrieved the unit on January 2nd and later that day all three of the Omega team walked across the Vinson-Shinn col from Camp 3 to the eastern extremity of the col, where they ascended a very small peak that gives fantastic views north down the eastern side of the range. Having run the GPS for an hour they returned to Camp 3 in the early hours of January 3. That evening they packed up Camp 3—where they had stayed for over one month—and descended to Camp 2. After erecting the tent at Camp 2 the trio set off and made the third ascent of Pico Jaca, a rocky peak west of the main massif, on a ridge running parallel to the upper Branscomb. This peak is seen by all who descend from Camp 3 on Vinson but was only climbed first in 1995 by the Spanish team (mentioned previously) then for the second time by Miguel Angel Vidal around Christmas this season. The peak has a very sharp summit and gives wonderful views north down the western side of the range, past Epperly, Tyree, and Gardner.

Returning from Pico Jaca, after running the GPS for an hour, the Omega team slept briefly then awoke to pack the entire expedition load, including over 25kg of human waste, onto their sleds, eventually pulling into Vinson BC late in the evening of January 5, from where they flew out the next day.

Heights of the Vinson Massif:

Main Summit: 4,892m

Kershaw Peak: 4,865m

Long Top: 4,841m

Unnamed Peak: 4,822m

International Peak: 4,790m

East Peak: 4743m

Sphinx Peak: 4,729m

Pyramid East: 4,677m

Pyramid South: 4,634m

The Turrets: 4,551m

Note: These names are unofficial and were assigned merely to aid in the efficient running of the expedition and relevant communication. There is currently no intention for them to be officially submitted for consideration by any Antarctic Place Names Committee.

For more information see:

Damien Gildea, Australia, AAC

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