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On Dec 9th, 2010, team members of the USAF 7 Summits Challenge reached the summit of Antarctica's highest peak, Mt. Vinson. They were lucky to fly onto the Antarctic continent as scheduled, riding a Russian IL-76 cargo aircraft from Punta Arenas, Chile to the new blue-ice runway of Union Glacier. Upon stepping off the airplane, it was clear to the climbers this continent was as close to visiting another planet as they would get. Only three colors ruled the visible images: blue (ice and sky), white (snow), and a blackish/brown (rocks, depths of crevasses, shadows). After one night in a semi-permanent tent near the runway, the team flew onto Vinson Base Camp (~7,500ft) via a Twin Otter aircraft. The flight out was one of the most beautiful and inspiring- a serious claim for pilots that have flown throughout the world.
Upon landing on the Branscombe Glacier, the climb truly began. Camp was established and preparations for the movement up the mountain began. The following morning, the first 'carry' (transporting supplies to a cache higher on the mountain) was accomplished to Camp 1, aka Low Camp. Traveling up and down the Branscombe Glacier there were several open and very deep glaciers, but excellent weather made the carry go smoothly. Luckily temperatures throughout the climb were not as cold as they could have been. Between Union Glacier and Vinson Base Camp, temps were roughly in the 10F to 20F range. However, the 24hr sun baked everyone on the mountain, requiring dozens of sunscreen applications and the covering of as much skin as possible. While sunburn became an issue, it was a far better problem to face than frostbite!
The following day, the camp at Vinson Base was taken apart and the team moved to Low Camp, where they had established the beginnings of a camp earlier. Little did they know they would spend the next week there due to bad weather. This camp is just below 10,000ft, at the base of a steep icefall and face that leads directly to High Camp. Blocks of snow and ice were cut from around camp to build a protective wall around the tents. The following day, the team ascended the steep face using fixed ropes to reach High Camp at ~12,500ft. Views from the steep face were arguably the best of the trip.
A cache of gear was left at High Camp, with the plans to return in 36hrs on the way to the summit. However, a low-pressure system moved over the entire Ellsworth Mountain Range, bringing low visibility and high winds. Weather at Low Camp wasn't bad at first, but the two teams pinned at High Camp experienced winds in excess of 50mph and low temperatures. At Low Camp, ambient temperatures averaged around 10F, with temps dipping below -0F on occasion. Of course, any small wind made the wind-chill significant. After several days of waiting, a return to Vinson Base Camp was necessary to replenish food and fuel supplies from a cache left below. Upon return, the resupply team found Low Camp immersed in a powerful storm blowing snow at 30mph and reducing visibility to 20ft. Over the next 18hrs, climbers on the mountain reinforced snow walls and hunkered down in tents. Two tents in our climbing team's group had poles break, but they were repaired the following morning. As hoped, the strong windstorm disrupted the stagnant weather system and soon after the weather began to improve.
Two days later, after six days of poor weather, the team moved to High Camp. The window for reaching the summit was closing on the team due to diminishing supplies and return flights to Union Glacier and then Chile. However, the weather was perfect for a summit attempt, so on the 9th of Dec, the team struck out from High Camp for the summit of Antarctica. Temps were -8F leaving High Camp and there was only light wind on the ascent. Approx 1000ft short of the summit, the team decided to turn off the main approach route in favor of a more challenging variation to the summit. It took them up part of the Vinson headwall to a rocky ridgeline, offering amazing views of Low Camp, the Branscombe Glacier leading to Base, and all the rugged peaks in the area. Finally, after roughly 8hrs of work, the team reached the 16,077ft summit at the bottom of the world. Temps were approx -15F with very little wind- perfect for summit high fives, photos, and of course pushups. Capt Rob Marshall highlighted his Air Force physical fitness by setting a record for pushups on the summit of Antarctica: 70 pushups in 52 seconds.
After 40 minutes of celebration on the summit, the team made a quick return to Camp 2, slept, then packed up and high-tailed it in one long day to Vinson Base. Poor weather was quickly rolling in and the opportunity for the Twin Otter to land on the glacier was soon to be gone. Carrying loaded backpacks and later dragging laden sleds, the team descended the steep face via ropes, dug out gear at Low Camp, and then wound back through the crevasse fields just in time to catch the last opening for the Twin Otter. The next three days were spent awaiting better weather at the semi-permanent Union Glacier camp. Finally, the weather broke and the IL-76 landed on the long blue-ice sheet, ready to return the climbers to civilization.
We'd like to thank the companies that supported the USAF 7 Summits Challenge: Antarctica by donating to military charities on behalf of this climb. Click on the links to learn more about them.
Additionally, a special thanks to the anonymous active duty Air Force donor for his/her impressive push-up challenge pledge. This individual pledged over $2000 to the Special Ops Warrior Foundation in memory of SrA Danny Sanchez, a USAF Combat Controller who was killed in Afghanistan in Sep 2010. We dedicate the high-altitude pushups in his memory. Click on his link to learn more about this American patriot and take time to laugh at his funny photos.