Weekend Warm-Up: Mountain of Ice

In January 2001, Jon Krakauer, Conrad Anker and six others set out to summit the unclimbed east face of the Vinson Massif in Antarctica. Starting in Punta Arenas, they fly to Patriot Hills in Antarctica. The blue ice they land on is so slippery that you can’t apply the brakes when you touch down. There’s lots of space to skid to a halt, though.

Jon Krakauer and Conrad Anker return to Patriot Hills. Photo: pbs.org


It soon becomes clear that the risks confronting these modern explorers remain the same as those faced by Amundsen and Scott back in 1911. Their route covers 70km of glacier skiing and climbing to the summit of Vinson Massif and includes a perilous 1,000m wall. Other than climbing, they want to take a GPS reading on summit to determine height and to measure snow accumulation, to discover if that region is getting more or less than before.

Antarctica winds. Photo: pbs.org


All have studied the journals of Scott and Amundsen, and while Anker et al are equipped with modern gear, Antarctica’s wildness and remoteness trumps improvements in knowledge and technology. Even the Twin Otter pilots — the most experienced bush pilots in the world — are nervous: No one had landed on the east side of the Ellsworth Mountains before. The surface is unpredictable, and the maps are inaccurate. The only ones available came from a series of U.S. Navy flights some 40 years earlier.

Eventually, they land where no one has been before and they are on their own for the next 17 days. Carrying about 70kg each on their sleds, they ski up toward their destination.

On the Upper Dater Glacier. Photo: pbs.org


After week of manhauling, they spot the hardest part of their route, that 1,000m headwall. The issue is that the cameraman and producer are relatively inexperienced. Should the team take a steeper, technical route or a gentler one that everyone can access but which is exposed to the danger of serac fall? A heated debate breaks out about whether the film crew should be involved at all.

Mountain of Ice gives a window into the highs and lows of an expedition and the timeless allure of Antarctica.

Rebecca McPhee is a freelance writer for ExplorersWeb.

Rebecca has been writing about open water sports, adventure travel, and marine science for three years. Prior to that, Rebecca worked as an Editorial Assistant at Taylor and Francis, and a Wildlife Officer for ORCA.

Based in the UK Rebecca is a science teacher and volunteers for a number of marine charities. She enjoys open water swimming, hiking, diving, and traveling.

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1 year ago

Minor point – in fact several teams had landed on the eastern side of the Ellsworth Mountains, including Conrad himself in 1997, when he climbed Mt Tyree from the Patton Glacier with Alex Lowe. A French team had similarly climbed Tyree from the same place a month earlier, and in 1995 guides Ralf Dujmovits and Rob Hall led a trip to smaller peaks nearby. The British Antarctic Survey (BAS) has also worked extensively on this side of the range.