Antarctica’s highest mountain is Mt Vinson in the Sentinel Range of the Ellsworth Mountains, at the base of the Antarctica Peninsula. The Sentinel Range stretches for more than 130km (80 miles), drawn up like pieces on a chess board against the edge of the greatest sweep of ice in the world – a vast, barren plain, bigger than North America. The elegant symmetrical pyramids of striated metamorphic rock, laced with icy runnels, grow in stature towards the heart of the range, culminating at the centre in the complex high-glacial massif of Vinson. Its summit is 1 190 km (700 miles) from the South Pole and, from the top, there are breathtaking views to the neighbouring peaks of Mt Shinn and Mt Gardner. The most recent remeasurement of the range puts Mount Vinson at 4 897m (16,067ft), 52m (170ft) higher than nearby Mount Tyree.
Ridges, faces and peaks
Rising from the Nimitz Galcier, the Vinson massif presents black, fluted ridges and huge faces of up to 3 000m (9,850ft) in height. It has a vast summit plateau of wind-scoured ice and snow, from which Vinson and the massif's lesser summits rise. The standard approach is from the West Side, where the Branscomb Glacier offers the most direct route to the summit. This glacier descends steeply from the Vinson-Shinn Col into a high basin before swinging in a southerly direction towards base camp, 5km (3 miles) away.
Often the climbers move forward tied together, with an extremely strong climbing rope. They remain a few metres apart, for greater safety in case one of them tumbles into a crevasse or falls over a sharp ridge. The rope is attached to the harness with a carabiner, a strong metal ring highly resistant to shocks. They also wear metal crampons, giving them excellent traction on glaciers and when climbing icy vertical walls. An axe is another vital tool, used as an anchor, a walking stick, for cutting steps in the ice and for catching oneself if one slips. All the climbing gear, clothing, tents, sleeping bags, food, stove, fuel, camera, video camera, walkie-talkie, satellite telephone, compass, GPS, anemometer, etc., along with the binoculars, maps, first-aid kit, notebook and what have you has to fit in the backpack. They have to be self-sufficient: the isolation and the route chosen make this the only option. The climbers have to deal with huge glaciers, steep slopes, the cold, altitude and solitude.
Tens of kilos of gear make for quite a technological challenge. Each piece of equipment, each bit of food, each article of clothing is carefully weighed and measured to see how much space it takes. Everything must be as light as possible, since the climbers have to ascend thousands of metres, in icy cold and stormy conditions.
The Daily Routine
Bernard and Nathalie climb for several hours every day. Each of them consumes a tremendous amount of energy. The food they pack along has to meet many requirements: it has to provide enough calories, with adequate proportions of carbohydrates, lipids and proteins in view of the energy they are expending, combined with lightness and ease of preparation. Efficiency is definitely the key. On the other hand, appetites decrease considerably at high altitudes, and the food must be designed to reduce the lipid content.
Often it is too cold to stop and eat. Dry fruit and mixed nuts served as meals while climbing. They have to take short breaks, nonetheless, to drink, check their bearings and rest. In the morning and evening they make hot meals on small fuel-burning stoves. All the water needed for cooking comes from melted snow. Menus are varied, made from freeze-dried or dehydrated ingredients for lightnesss.
The tent takes only five minutes to put up. It becomes their shelter, living room, bedroom and the place where plans for the next adventure are hatched. It begins to feel normal to wash with snow! Walking and climbing are part of the daily routine, along with observing and listening, to better understand this strange environment. Every day, they record a journal entry on audio- and videotape and in photos, to bring back images of their surreal surroundings with them.