Omega High Antarctic GPS Expedition 2004

Climbing & Measuring Antarctica’s Highest Peaks


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As the name suggests, Vinson Massif is a large bulk of a mountain, with several peaks, rising from a high summit plateau. The highest of these peaks is generally considered to be 4897m – the summit of Vinson, the highest mountain in Antarctica - but there are at least three others that are supposedly around 4800m or higher. The primary objective of the Omega High Antarctic GPS Expedition 2004 is to accurately locate and measure all the high peaks of Vinson Massif. Once this is completed the team will attempt to climb and measure Antarctica’s fourth-highest mountain, Mt. Craddock (4650m) and possibly some of the other high mountains in the area.

This work refining the height-order of Antarctica’s highest mountains is a natural progression from the Foundation’s work on Mt. Shinn in 2002 and an important contribution to Antarctic geography. Collecting GPS data on many of the high peaks of the Vinson Massif will give a topographical depiction of Antarctica’s highest mountain that is much more accurate than that which currently exists.


Expedition Plan

Stage 1 – Vinson – The High Peaks

Several of the Vinson high peaks have been climbed over the years but at least two of the highest remain unclimbed. The Omega team will place high camps on the Vinson summit plateau to access these peaks, in addition to occupying and measuring the main summit of Vinson itself. The main summit has now been climbed over 700 times since the first ascent on 21st December 1966. It is planned that the Omega team will use the normal route to ascend Vinson, but may also use another shorter route from the lower Branscombe Glacier to access some of the more westerly of the high peaks. This option will be considered once on location, after assessing conditions on the mountain and the progress of the team to that point.  

After several of the Vinson high peaks are occupied, the team will return to a lower camp and submit the data to the AUSPOS website for processing, as Omega teams have done on their last two Antarctic GPS projects – Mt. Shinn 2002 and Livingston Island 2003. AUSPOS is a free GPS data processing service run by Geosciences Australia. Omega teams access AUSPOS via the Iridium satellite network, with data uploaded from their laptop containing the data downloaded from the Trimble 5700 GPS receiver. The data is collected by operating the receiver on the highest point of the summit for at least six hours. Once the results of that work are confirmed and the equipment recharged, the team will then return to the upper mountain. For a full description of the data processing routine and technology, see the Shinn 2002 report
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A secondary science objective for the Omega team is to collect data on atmospheric conditions at different locations and elevations in the area. The thin, cold, dry and clean atmosphere of Antarctica is valuable for astronomy and these qualities are magnified at its higher altitudes. By measuring atmospheric conditions at various points the team will be able to ascertain the utility of such locations for future infrared observations to help develop Antarctic astronomy. Such work is already carried out in other high areas of the continent, but not as high as the Omega team will be.


Stage 2 – Mt. Craddock – The Long Traverse

The second stage of the Expedition will be to traverse south across the Vinson summit plateau and ascend Mt. Craddock by the north ridge. Mt. Craddock is currently considered to be the fourth-highest mountain in Antarctica at 4650m. However, in December 2002 an Omega Foundation team (Damien & Rodrigo) measured Mt. Shinn, Antarctica’s third-highest mountain and found it to be 4661m – around 140m lower than previously thought. Therefore there is a good chance that Mt. Craddock is lower than its currently accepted height. If a similar discrepancy exists on Craddock as on Mt. Shinn, then Craddock could in fact be lower than Mt. Gardner, which at 4587m is currently accepted as the fifth highest mountain in Antarctica. 

Traversing to Craddock from Vinson has never been done and will require at least two high camps to be placed to the south, past the summit of Vinson. The 18km traverse from Vinson to the summit of Craddock and back is expected to take several days, all spent climbing above 4000m. Mt. Craddock has only one previous ascent, by the West Spur in December 1992. A few climbers have traversed sections of the summit plateau when finishing climbs on the southern and western sides of Vinson, usually encountering long flat sections of hard windblown ice, accompanied by extremely low temperatures and high winds. 


Stage 3 - Beyond Vinson

In the event that the work on Vinson and Craddock is completed successfully and in good time, the team will then move north to Mt. Gardner, currently considered Antarctica’s fifth-highest mountain at 4587m. The team plan to ascend Gardner via the original 1966 route on the north-west flank of the mountain. Base Camp for this is on the wide, flat expanse of ice above the head of the Nimitz Glacier and will be reached by reversing the old route used for Vinson. This old route, first used in 1966 for Vinson’s first ascent, started out on the flat ice west of the range, then crossed a small col low down on the south-west ridge of Mt. Shinn, putting the climbers into the upper Branscombe Glacier, just west of the current Vinson Camp 2. 

This route was used until 1992, before the current Vinson Base Camp was located in the lower section of the Branscombe Glacier. The slope from the col down onto the flat ice is around 40° and will be descended by the Omega team, possibly lowering sleds down in stages if necessary. There is reportedly old fixed ropes on this slope, left from the early 1990s and Omega has agreed to remove these if possible and fly them off the continent for disposal.


Access & Logistics

The Omega team will be using the services of Antarctic Logistics & Expeditions (ALE) to fly to Antarctica at the beginning of November. ALE is a US-based company that took over operations from Adventure Network International (ANI) in 2003 and will continue to provide logistical support for mountaineering and South Pole expeditions, in addition to other Antarctic tourism. ALE operate an Ilyushin-76 aircraft to fly from Punta Arenas, Chile to a blue-ice runway at their Patriot Hills camp, from which two Twin Otters transport people to further destinations. The Omega team will be the first team at Vinson Base Camp and will be alone on the mountain for the first month.


The Team


Damien Gildea – 35 – Australia


  This will be Damien’s sixth expedition to Antarctica. He led the successful Omega Foundation projects on Mt. Shinn (2002) and Livingston Island (2003) and previously summited Vinson Massif on an Omega expedition in 2001. He is the author of The Antarctic Mountaineering Chronology (1998), the only reference book on mountaineering in Antarctica and is currently working on a second book due out in 2005. Damien is the Antarctic correspondent for several publications including the American Alpine Journal, High Mountain Sports (UK) and Alpinist (US) and his writing and photos have appeared in numerous other publications. He has previously studied at the Scott Polar Research Institute at the University of Cambridge and the Institute for Antarctic and Southern Ocean Studies in Tasmania. In 2000-01 Damien became one of only a handful of people in the world to have guided a client to the South Pole, a two month, 1100km sledging journey, and he is the youngest Australian to have done that trip. Over the years he has also  climbed in China, Bolivia, Pakistan, Alaska, Nepal, New Zealand and the European Alps.


Rodrigo Fica – 37 – Chile  


In 1998 Rodrigo and some friends made the first complete north to south crossing of the Southern Patagonian Icecap, a grueling journey recounted in his upcoming book Bajo la Marca de la Ira. Since then he has been on successful Omega Foundation Antarctic expeditions to Mt. Shinn (2002) and Livingston Island (2003). A computer engineer by training, he now makes his living in the mountains, in addition to writing and photography and often climbs with his wife Patricia Sotos, the first Chilean woman to climb Mt. Everest. Rodrigo recently made the second ascent of the south face of Cerro Castillo in Patagonia and in the last two years has also climbed Mt. McKinley, Mt. Elbrus, Ojos del Salado and attempted Khan Tengri in Kazakhstan. He regularly climbs rock and ice, guides on Aconcagua and has made first ascents in Patagonia and elsewhere in the Andes.


Camilo Rada – 24 – Chile


Camilo studies astronomy at Universidad Catolica in Santiago but is already an experienced and successful mountaineer. On recent expeditions with friends he has made the coveted first winter ascent of San Lorenzo, the second-highest peak in Patagonia and before that, the second winter ascent of San Valentin, the highest mountain in Patagonia – an impressive double ! Camilo has made other expeditions in Patagonia and Tierra del Fuego, including the first ascent of Volcan Melimoyu. This will be his first trip to Antarctica.


© Damien Gildea / The Omega Foundation. This page last updated on 2 November 2004.

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