Antarctica 2015: Climbers Pinned Down on Vinson, Worsley Enters the Sastrugi Field

1280px Mount Vinson from NW at Vinson Plateau by Christian Stangl (flickr)

We have more news from Antarctica today, where the season is progressing rapidly already, even though the teams still have a very long way to go before they reach the Pole. The weather continues to be the top story, although at this time of the year the explorers just need to make the most of it, and take what they can get. Still, there are some interesting things to report as these intrepid adventurers press on with their expeditions.

We’ll start today with news from Mt. Vinson, the tallest peak on the continent at 4892 meters (16,049 ft). December and early January are popular climbing seasons the mountain, with a number of teams arriving as climbers go in search of the Seven Summits. Earlier in the week we had our first successful summits of the season, with at least 18 people topping out. But one squad has been stranded at High Camp on Vinson over the past few days due to extremely high winds.

The Madison Mountaineering team reached the summit on Monday, and after a brief celebration at the top, the five members of the squad descended back their campsite. But the winds picked up as they moved down, so they decided to stay put rather than risk a tricky descent in poor weather. The winds haven’t abated for the past four days however, so they have been stuck in place, waiting for conditions to improve. Reportedly the wind speeds were in excess of 50 knots (57 mph/92 km/h), which is simply too dangerous to try to move in. There is good news on the horizon though, as the winds are expected to die down later today, giving the team a chance to descend at long last.

Other than these stranded climbers, Vinson is apparently empty at the moment. The latest dispatch from the Madison Mountaineering team indicates that they have been the only ones on the hill over the past few days. It’s likely that the high winds are also keeping other climbers from arriving at Base Camp, although that will soon change too I’m sure.

Elsewhere, Henry Worsley is closing in on the 85th degree and is expected to cross that point later today. It won’t be easy going however, as he reports that he has now entered a large sastrugi field, which making progress very difficult. Sastrugi are hard ridges of snow and ice that form on the surface in Antarctica. Some are small enough to ski over, but they require a bit of extra effort and can be tough on the body. Others grow so large that they have to be skied around. They are a common obstacle for anyone skiing to the South Pole, but they are annoying and frustrating as well, slowing progress and taking a mental and physical toll on the body.

Italian kite-skier Michele Pontrandolfo is still waiting for the winds he so desperately needs to appear. He has gone days without seeing much of a breeze at all, which has forced him to lug his two sleds behind him, instead of pulling them along with his kite. His original intention was to ski to both the Geographic South Pole and the Pole of Inaccessibility, while making a traverse of the Antarctic continent. He still has time to complete that journey, but he will need to make up some serious distance if and when the wind does finally appear.

The team of Carl Alvy, Khai Nguyen, and Emma Kelty has seen the whiteout conditions pass and the sun return. They have had strong winds in their face for much of the journey though, which is making progress slow at this point. They report better surface conditions however, and after just five days on the ice, they’re still finding their rhythm. Still, everyone seems in good spirits and morale is high as they head south to the Pole.

American solo-skier Doug Tumminello continues to struggle in whiteout conditions, but is forging ahead nicely. He’s hoping for conditions to improve today as well. Scottish skier Luke Robertson is in a similar boat, although he did report the sun putting in a brief appearance yesterday.

That’s all for now. More news as it is warranted.

Kraig Becker