Mount Vinson: The Tallest Mountain in Antarctica

Partial map of Antarctica

meshaphoto/Getty Images

Mount Vinson is the highest mountain on the continent of Antarctica and the sixth highest of the Seven Summits, the highest mountains on the seven continents. It is an ultra-prominence peak with 16,050 feet (4,892 meters) of prominence (the same as its elevation), making it the eighth most prominent mountain in the world.

  • Elevation and Prominence: 16,050 feet (4,892 meters)
  • Location: Sentinel Range, Ellsworth Mountains, Antarctica.
  • Coordinates: 78°31′31.74″ S / 85°37′1.73″ W
  • First Ascent: Barry Corbet, John Evans, Bill Long, and Pete Schoening, part of a 10-person American expedition, on December 17, 1966.

Peak of Superlatives

Mount Vinson is a peak of superlatives. Vinson was the last discovered, last named, and the last climbed of the Seven Summits. It's also the most remote, most expensive, and coldest of the Seven Summits to climb.

Rises in Vinson Massif

Mount Vinson, in the Vinson Massif, is the highest mountain in the Sentinel Range, part of the Ellsworth Mountains near the Ronne Ice Shelf south of the Antarctic Peninsula. Mount Vinson rises over 750 miles (1,200 kilometers) from the South Pole. The Ellsworth Mountains, composed of two sub-ranges -- the Sentinel Range in the north and the Heritage Range in the south -- contains not only Antarctica's highest point but also the next five highest summits on the continent. The Vinson Massif in the Heritage Range has eight separate peaks, including neighboring Mount Shinn and Mount Tyree.

Mount Vinson Climate and Weather

Mount Vinson is the coldest of the Seven Summits. The Vinson Massif has a polar climate with low snowfall but high winds and severely low temperatures. The area generally has stable weather conditions that are ruled by high pressure over the polar ice cap. Atmospheric pressure, however, is lower at the Poles than elsewhere on earth so air can be pulled over Antarctica, resulting in cold air rapidly descending over the continent, then fanning out as high winds. Temperatures in the Antarctic summer, from November until February, average about -20 F (-30 C). Wind coupled with cold air temperatures results in brutally low wind-chill temperatures, forming the greatest threat to climbers.

Mount Vinson's Name

Mount Vinson is named for Georgia Congressman Carl Vinson, the former Chairman of the House Armed Services Committee. Vinson, in Congress from 1935 to 1961, supported government funding for American exploration of Antarctica.

Area First Described in 1935

The Vinson Massif was first noted during the first transcontinental flight across Antarctica in November 1935 by Hubert Hollick-Kenyon and Lincoln Ellsworth in the single-engine airplane Polar Star. The pair left Dundee Island at the tip of the Antarctic Peninsula, south of South America, and flew for 22 days until they ran out of fuel near the Bay of Whales. They then hiked the last 15 miles to the coast. During the flight, Ellsworth noted a "solitary little range," which he named the Sentinel Range. Thick clouds, however, obscured the higher summits including Mount Vinson.

Discovery of Mount Vinson in 1957

Mount Vinson was not actually discovered until a reconnaissance flight by U.S. Navy pilots from Byrd Station in December 1957. Between 1958 and 1961, several ground and aerial surveys mapped the Ellsworth Mountains and determined the heights of all the major peaks, including Mount Vinson, which was originally surveyed at 16,864 feet high (5,140 meters) in 1959.

First Ascent of Mount Vinson in 1966

Mount Vinson was the last of the Seven Summits to be climbed due to its remoteness and late discovery. The American Antarctic Mountaineering Expedition, the first expedition with only climbing objectives to visit Antarctica, stayed in the Vinson area for 40 days in December 1966 and January 1967 during the Antarctic summer. The scientific and climbing expedition, sponsored by the American Alpine Club and the National Geographic Society, was led by Nicholas Clinch and included many prominent American mountaineers including Barry Corbet, John Evans, Eiichi Fukushima, Charles Hollister, William Long, Brian Marts, Pete Schoening, Samuel Silverstein, and Richard Wahlstrom.

All 10 Expedition Climbers Reach the Summit

In early December, a U.S. Navy C-130 Hercules airplane equipped with skis for landing gear deposited the American climbers on the Nimitz Glacier about 20 miles from Mount Vinson. All ten climbers reached the summit of Vinson. The group established three camps on the mountain, following today's usual Normal Route, and then on December 18, 1966, Barry Corbet, John Evans, Bill Long, and Pete Schoening reached the summit. Four more climbers submitted on December 19, and the other three on December 20.

The Expedition Also Climbed 5 Other Peaks

The expedition also climbed five other peaks in the range, including the four highest. Mount Tyree, at 15,919 feet (4,852 meters), is the second highest peak in Antarctica and is only 147 feet lower than Mount Vinson. Tyree, climbed by Barry Corbet and John Evans, was a much harder alpine prize and has still, as of 2012, been climbed by only five groups and ten climbers. The group also climbed 15,747-foot (4,801-meters) Mount Shinn and 15,370-foot (4,686) Mount Gardner. Tyree's second ascent, in January 1989, was an audacious solo by American climber Mugs Stump, who blitzed the West Face round trip in a mere 12 hours.

Later Vinson Ascents

The fourth ascent of Mount Vinson was in 1979 during a scientific expedition to survey the Ellsworth Mountains. German climbers P. Buggisch and W. von Gyzycki and V. Samsonov, a Soviet surveyor, made an unauthorized ascent of the mountain. The next two ascents were in 1983, including one by Dick Bass on November 30, who became the first person to climb the Seven Summits.

How to Climb Mount Vinson

Mount Vinson is not a difficult peak to climb, being more a snow trudge than a technical climb, but the combination of its remoteness, high winds, and extremely low temperatures make Vinson a tough climb. Factor in the cost of traveling to the area and an ascent of Mount Vinson is almost financially impossible for most climbers. Most climbers spend over $30,000 to climb it.

Access by ANI's Aircraft from South America

The only way to access Vinson is by booking passage on Adventure Network International's (ANI) wheeled Hercules aircraft, which makes a six-hour flight from Punta Arenas in southern Chile to the blue-ice runway at Patriot Hills. Landings on the icy runway are a scary highlight for Vinson climbers since brakes cannot be used to stop the plane. Climbers transfer here and continue on a ski-equipped Twin Otter airplane for one hour to Vinson Base Camp. ANI also guides most climbers on the mountain since they have strict criteria for taking independent groups to the mountain to avoid costly and dangerous rescues.

Climbing the Normal Route

Most climbers ascend the Normal Route up the Branscomb Glacier, a route similar to the West Buttress of Denali, the highest mountain in North America. It takes anywhere from two days to two weeks, with an average of about ten days, to climb Mount Vinson, depending, of course, on conditions and the climbers' experience and skills. Ascents are made during the Antarctic summer, usually in December and January, when the sun shines 24 hours a day and temperatures climb to a balmy -20 F.