Thursday, February 25, 2016

Vinson Massif: Phase 1- Kick Off

Across the past few months, I've had some friends ask to provide overall mechanics of the Vinson Climb and explain in greater detail what I thought could be broken down into four phases: (1) Kick off- the effort to travel to Antarctica from Punta Arenas; (2) Preparation and travel to Vinson Massif Base Camp; (3) The climb itself; and (4) The experience from Vinson Base through return to Punta Arenas.  This post is dedicated to Phase 1- gearing up in Punta Arenas and all the excitement surrounding the experience of getting to Antarctica.
Happy Thanksgiving from Antarctica!

ALE's charters depart from Punta Arenas based on weather window, where for safety reasons the flights will not go if gusts exceed 30 knots or Union Glacier’s bulletproof blue ice runway isn’t relatively free of snow.  One of only three glacier runways globally, wheeled medium lift planes land in the direction of the wind- primarily to limit the issue of crosswinds and in a manner where flights can get in and out. To be clear, this isn’t Denver International where you miss one plane and there’s another one in two hours.. Union Glacier’s transcontinental ‘airport’  is weather dependent and about as rugged as you’ll find this side of Theater. When word comes, you go.. if it doesn’t, you don’t.  It’s basically that simple, and fortunately for us word arrived the day after our orientation.

Antarctica and Union Glacier maps sketched in my journal during hours of down time

A few minutes before 06:00, the gentle bingling of my alarm wrenched me out of one of those coma-like sleeps that leave you waking up in exactly the same position you passed out in.  A few minutes later the established forecasting window would begin for flights to/from the White Continent, and if the call came we might only have 15 minutes of strip alert to get out the door.  I wiped the sleep out of my eyes and quickly had everything bundled into one backpack/one gear bag for Antarctica and one daypack full of civilian clothes to leave in Punta Arenas. Leaving one bag back provided memories of Everest where a duffel full of clothes stayed at Yak & Yeti for a solid two months. Upon return to Kathmandu, I found that losing 30 lbs from climbing and endless bowls of dalbat let me needing parachute cord to keep my jeans on.  Vinson is a much shorter trip, but the parallels were there and the memories made me all the more excited to get going on this particular adventure.

But then the waiting game began. 6 became 7.  7 became 8.  At 08:30, after pacing around my shoebox-sized room listening to Chilean TV and growing bored of testing the theory of water spiraling down the drain (does the Coriolis Effect make water spiral down the drain in the opposite direction in the Southern Hemisphere from the Northern Hemisphere?  Let’s discuss), I hiked up to the top floor of our hotel for late breakfast and met Michael, always in good spirits but looking like he’d been there for quite some time. We chatted for all of 30 minutes over endless cups of coffee, entirely convinced the flight wasn’t going until Ozzie bursts in with a huge grin, saying “hey guys, we have 20 minutes!” Wow, it’s actually happening! Minutes later, we are in the lobby settling up and the ALE busses appear.
With great excitement we board and the collective group drive back out to the airport where we jump off, head through security and then sit tight in a holding area until our plane is ready for boarding. It’s here that I bump into Mostafa, one of my older climbing buddies who is meandering through the terminal, and when I see him I do a double take: “Mostafa!”  He wheels around, does a double take of his own and it’s on- we spend the next 30 minutes in the terminal connecting and catching up on things from the past seven years- family updates, friends in far-off places and recent conquests. He’s heading to Antarctica to do the Messner Traverse- a challenging and exhausting ~5 week ski evolution that tests the limits over 566 miles before wrapping up at the South Pole. He's been delayed in Punta Arenas for a solid week waiting for a weather window- or more passengers to arrive- to get to Antarctica and on his way.  Our group may have tipped the scales in his favor: there are 32 mountaineers, a handful off to see Emperor Penguins and a few Ski the Last Degree folks heading down as well, making it a rich group of interesting and intrepid adventurers off on individual adventures of a lifetime.

The bus slowly rolls past the Illushyn-76 we'll take on the way out, a vestige of the Cold War developed by the then-Soviet Union as a medium sized transport with four jets coupled to oversized gull wings providing high lift on short runways.  It’s as hardy a plane as you’ll find, designed and built in the mantra of most things Soviet- Make it simple, make it durable, make it last. In Iraq we saw dozens of these planes fly through Theater with no issues and even a decade later they still take to the air, successfully delivering payloads in some of the most challenging places on earth. They may be piloted by a bunch of grumbly and stern-faced Russians, but they do the job reliably, consistently and with an iconic design silhouette. Once you see one, you are drawn to the attractive shape and simply can’t take your eyes off it.
We do, however....  this time. Our mission is taking us to another bird, one that was unveiled to us only yesterday. This plane, a Boeing 757, is owned and operated by Icelandair, who know a thing or two about getting into and out of icy and snow-covered runways globally. It is souped up for the task at hand: two specialized Rolls Royce engines, high tread tires and outfitted with a crew that’s specialized to landing in these sorts of climes. Ultimately, this is a proof-of-concept.. no commercial passenger planes have landed in Antarctica- ever. Some have crashed, but until this plane conducted one single proof-of-concept flight a few days earlier, none have ever gone Feet Dry in Antarctica and delivered passengers. Hi, historic moment. Not quite the same as the hardships, level of effort and duration of Cook, Amundsen and Shackleton, but in the evolution of human history and technological progress I’m pretty excited deep down that we (the human race that is) continue to stretch the bounds of Possible. And with that, make places that just a century ago were so inhospitable that now we can land a commercial airliner where previously that was unthinkable.  Not surprisingly, my feelings and opinions are not universally shared, but to each their own and I’m proud that not only is the capability there, but that we live in a world where we can discuss such things openly.

Boarding in Punta Arenas
With nervous excitement we arrive at the 757, parked a distance out on the Punta Arenas grinder and watch as one after another grab packs and board the plane. ALE have provided one last barrier to any baddies hitching a ride with us: we step in an antibacterial "soup" to cleanse the treads of our boots before boarding the plane.  Sure, there are plenty of other places for hobo vermin or bacteria to hitch a ride in our stuff, and at least the company is trying.  I get the whole Life Finds a Way to Survive message, but given how insane the conditions are down there what unexposed bacteria could make it but a minute anyway.  Then again, maybe Europeans thought the same thing before infesting the New World with rats so I get the point and happily go along with the cessation plan.

Step, step. Squishy feet, up the boarding stairway we go. I stroll down the aisle to find a seat and see Mostafa smiling and offering the seat next to him, which a quickly accept. We sit back and continue our catch-up while the Drake Passage, filled with angry slate green seas drifts by far below and we wing South toward remote, barren encased ice. It’s a great, enriching conversation that harkens back to 2008 when first crossing paths with Mostafa at Fire & Ice in Kathmandu. Yet here we are, together on a plane loaded with the smallest group of highly experienced climbers and explorers cruising over the Antarctic Peninsula and embarking on another journey to the territory ahead.
Looking down on the Drake Passage hidden below the clouds
The flight passes quickly and before long a Flight Attendant comes on the intercom, announcing that cabin temperature will drop as low as possible to match the -20 surface temperatures. It's finally time to start donning our gear.  Once the door opens at Union Glacier, we'll be in the thick of it, so we protect ourselves from the elements and dress in Sta-Puft Marshmallow Man fashion. Struggling, twisting and breaking a sweat because the plane temp will only drop to 50 degrees, we don the last of our protective layers while our pilots start the slow approach to Union Glacier and an endless landscape of white.

Within minutes mountains come in to view, if barely. I'm reminded of the scene from Aliens where a dropship full of Colonial Marines descend down to LV-426 and the terraforming colony drifts into view. As cameras snap on both sides of the aisle and fifty sets of eyes stare unblinking at passing terrain, the ground comes up to meet us. The weight of knowing that this is to be our existence for an unknown set of days smacks of reality.  Readying for the challenges, successes and failures ahead, we prepare for the hostilities of weather coupled with drive and teamwork to succeed in the objective that has brought us all here.

Gearing up with 30 minutes flight time to go
The plane slams down and for a moment tilts sideways, bounces several more times and finally glides to a halt. "Great. We came all this way to die in a plane crash" definitely crossed our minds but soon we are all relieved that the landing is over, and the 757 slowly taxis to our disembarkation point. The door opens, cold air blows through the length of the cabin and we shuffle off the plane one at a time into the coldness of what is to be our home over the next several weeks.  It's a surreal if not highly captivating landscape. We find ourselves nestled in a series of bowls that protect us from winds that made landing at the previous ALE runway much more complex, as we come to learn. We mill around for a bit, grab our gear and board specialized 4x4 or 6x6 trucks that take us the ~10km from runway to Union Glacier base camp.

Final socializing before departing Union Glacier runway for base camp
The driving process  'downtown' takes 30 minutes, but this time goes by quickly. Those of us experiencing our first trip here have eyes glued to the windows, looking out at the mountains passing by and stark beauty of this remote place. Tre-c, our driver and who will become one of my closer friends on this trip basically pilots our truck to camp while pointing out a bunch of highlights and landmarks along the way. One of the more entertaining items is the 'tree' located a few miles out from camp, made out of metal and designed to look like a pine tree silhouette. It's completely out of place but is welcoming in all it's quirkiness. 

Upon arrival at camp, we walk the camp boundary receiving an orientation on the do's and don'ts of life at Union Glacier. This is a highly interesting hour- we learn about how solar and jet fuel power just about everything in camp, how the team working here have developed a highly efficient set of protocols to make life not just sustainable, but comfortable even through the harshest of conditions. The camp is built up every Austral Spring, and torn down every Austral Fall. Each ounce of trash, barrel of waste, gallon of fuel is accounted for and our time here highly regulated under ALE's ability to function through the Antarctic Treaty System.  It's a highly fascinating process that we watched during a video shown on our first night at Union Glacier. I tried to find the video on YouTube and came up dry, if I do find it down the road I'll be sure to hang it here in this posting because it shows not only the amount of effort that goes into setting up the camp but also the detail and thought that has been built on 20+ years of experience getting people to/from this place safely and securely.

Update: Here's the Video. Thanks for the link Todd, you rock!

Getting oriented as our gear arrives

Medical and comm shelters with skiway in the distance
Tent City- Clamshells for rent at Hotel Union Glacier

Simple instructions in how to use the commode at Union Glacier
Lecture time in one of the Union Glacier dining tents
Finally, it's time for bed! We had a great meal that left me stuffed to the gills and I'm pretty excited to crawl into the tent Michael and I share to pass straight out.  Looking out across the miles of ice being scoured by Katabatic Winds, I hoof it over to the comm tent to call Maggie- it's Thanksgiving and the families are starting to gather for turkey, stuffing and all sort of great food. Earlier, I had purchased an Iridium pre-pay card that allowed me 30 minutes of calling time and I was thrilled to get through, report on the day's progress and more importantly hear about how things at home were going.  Everyone was in great spirits and after a great conversation, crunch crunch crunch  across super dry snow and make my way back to our tent and the relative comfort of my -60 bag.  In no time, I drift off to the gentle knocking of tent flaps blowing in the breeze, snow batting the tent like grains of sugar and the comforting knowledge that I have the absolute best support network manning the Home Fires several thousand miles away.

Sunday, January 3, 2016

Vinson Massif: Getting There

Success!! Our team topped out 05 December somewhere in the late afternoon (~17:00 local time) and having the support of friends and family back home while climbing at the bottom of the planet made it easy to focus on the task at hand. Maggie was fantastic in posting updates and being an unwavering pillar of strength, each time I had a chance to call back it was awesome to know she was keeping the home fires burning. I couldn't have done it without her.

Overall, our team also couldn’t have asked for a better route and experience- the first of five climbing rotations that ALE(Antarctic Logistics & Expeditions) establishes each Austral season, we were more or less traveling through spring-like weather (or as close as I guess you’d get to that) composed of moderate storms, snow, winds and dips in temperatures that other climb rotations don’t experience.. or, not with the frequency that Rotation 1 gets at least.  As the first rotation, we established boot pack across miles of glacier, built campsite platforms and blazed a trail that future teams will fall in on this season. All during snowstorms, howling winds that left fingers and faces at serious risk of frostbite and low visibility that thanks to an overwhelmingly stark environment easily blended sky with ground. It’s as remote and hostile an environment as I have ever experienced in nature.. subzero temperatures that dipped as low as minus 90 and snow bridges crossing hundred foot wide crevasse. Yet, there is an unbelievably breathless beauty to the place.  Looking out across an endless landscape of the whitest of white you almost get the sense of being a time traveler-  reflecting on the sheer massiveness of glacier thousands of feet deep and million years old doing their slow, methodical march to the ocean.

Vinson Base Camp at 2am
To put it in perspective, when the Romans were busy conquering Europe this area looked exactly the way it looks now. Nothing changes, locked in an icy prison with seasons defined more by varying degrees of cold and sunlight rather than leaves falling or flowers blooming.  Time passes by: days blend to weeks, weeks become months, months drift in to years in this wintery landscape.  Man first visited this continent only ~100 years ago and climbed Vinson during the 1966-67 season, with only an estimated 1,400 summits since that first US expedition.  Over the more recent decades, visiting teams have followed an exacting process of ensuring No Trace.. taking everything out that they bring in, save a few small spots to drop #1 along the route.  You don’t really find climbers here that don’t know what they are doing or violate the Boy Scout motto of leaving the area in better shape than it’s found.  As a result, the mountain is and remains extremely clean.  The entire trip, I think I saw two pieces of trash- not intentionally tossed, but more likely something that fell out of a pocket- starkly different from other mountains around the world. There just really isn’t anything along the ~12 mile trail other than boot marks, a few fixed lines, your occasional Pee Hole and nature. Tons and tons of overwhelming, unbelievably striking and entirely unforgiving nature.

Looking Down To Vinson Base Camp From The Trail
And that’s pretty much the understanding you go into this climb with. All gear you bring has to be necessary while supporting your existence in a place where fingers go numb in a matter of seconds. In preparing for this trip, I pulled a bunch of Himalaya gear out of mothballs.. a -60 sleeping bag, equipment designed for 8000m summits, beefy crampons and a wide variety of durable gear soon filled our living room. At a time when Santa was making his list and checking it twice, mine was being reviewed thoroughly to make sure not to make the naughty list. Given the environment, equipment isn’t a place to skimp or shortcut, but having gear from previous trips at the ready probably saved several hundred-if not thousand- dollars to make sure the climb was both a success and comfortable at the same time.  

Getting There & Our Team

As mentioned in a previous post, the only real option to climbing Vinson is to go with an outfitter(ALE won’t allow self-guided climbs), and coordinate via ALE themselves, who basically established the Antarctic climb experience supporting Dick Bass and Frank Wells in 1985. This is the team that defined commercial travel to/from Antarctica and have the whole process down to a finely tuned machine through years building up knowledge and an incredibly deep bench of staff experience.  
Pre-Antarctica ALE Orientation

Once in Punta Arenas, we joined an orientation session designed to keep us alive in Antarctica and familiarize with ALE processes, which also involved specifics on Union Glacier Camp. This camp functioned more or less as our Forward Operating Base (FOB) once on the continent- complete with a blue ice runway that allows for medium lift transport flights from South America and has thorough medical, cook, comms and logistic support. This worked extremely well for us in providing comforts of home and to maintain sanity through several days at the beginning and end of the trip when to pass time we spent hours playing poker, watching movies and taking in the occasional lecture served up by ALE experts.

It was at this meeting that we learned we would be taking a Boeing 757 flown by Icelandair down to Union Glacier rather than the traditional IL-76 channel flight. Surprise!  This plane is unbelievably cool- outfitted with supercharged Rolls Royce engines to help take off on solid ice, all business class seats and a crew experienced in operating through extreme polar environments. They had made a proof of concept flight earlier; this would be the first 757 landing with passengers on Antarctica- ever.  Pretty cool, but also provided at least a little apprehension among the teams traveling down. As we waited to fly, I bumped into an good climbing buddy of mine- Mostafa Salameh!  He’s already complete with the Seven Summits and on the final leg of completing the Explorer’s Grand Slam- the tallest peaks on every continent and travel to North & South Poles. We catch up- it’s literally been years. Trading stories of family, friends and home, it’s great to see an old friend and familiar face. We sit next to each other on the flight down and talk for the whole flight down, surrounded by a flight full of bold climbers, skiiers, scientists and explorers from around the world. The whiteness of the Great Arctic Thing which floats over polar regions making everything cloudy for miles and miles soon extends from Punta Arenas to Antarctica itself- we don’t even see the peninsula as we slide by.  But after time, the whiteness of the cloudy Thing became an ever brighter and more vivid white as glacier and snow-capped mountains begin to take shape. Our 757 slides slowly toward the ice runway and with touchdown are greeted with a WHAM!!!!!  The plane slams down and lurches at least 10 feet in the air, tilting and drifting for a brief few seconds before bouncebouncebouncebouncing down the runway and finally coming to a stop, taxiing back down to where we are to disembark.  It made for an exciting and interesting welcome to this continent, definitely getting the adrenaline pumping and setting the stage for events to come.

757 Flight From Punta Arenas to Antarctica
Final Approach- Looking out to Union Glacier Camp
Union Glacier's Blue Ice Runway
Catching Up With My Buddy Mostafa
Our team is small, made up of a party of three- Ossy (our guide), Michael and good old moi.  For the climb itself, I chose to climb with Mountain Madness, knowing from previous expeditions that they provide top tier guides, great food, solid team equipment and an overall safe trip.  They also tend to keep teams small in size, which I prefer.. a team with more than 5 tend to need a veteran guide specializing in psychology to accommodate a range of personalities and issues.  In my experience, smaller teams tend to move with greater agility, covering the gaps more effectively than on a large team with multiple moving parts. This is of course my personal taste and nothing more than that, with plenty who disagree.  Over time, each person in this sport learns what sort of climbing they prefer, and like anything in life, once you develop your own formula for success you should stick with it.  For example: I like climbing on teams rather than solo. I have climbed solo many times, but just plain don’t like it.  Instead, I enjoy sharing the overall experience with people and creating unique bonds with teammates. I have also found that I like climbing on teams that have at least one other US person on it- man or woman, who I can then throw out dumb movie quotes with.  Others are great to climb with, but culturally wouldn’t know a Will Ferrell quote from Old School if it Frank the Tank himself asked to bring green hats and go streaking.  Nothing more or less, and probably not the best of reasons to explain what I enjoy in teammates, just a bit of perspective on my decision to go with the team I did, what sort of climbing I enjoy and why I liked the team we had for the trip.  I won’t say that for this climb that we were the fastest or most efficient team on the mountain (we weren’t), but at the end of the day we had a team that supported each other consistently. Further, as a testament to the camaraderie and closeness all five teams on the mountain shared, each team on this rotation looked out for each other, got along great, and supported each other throughout- which was really special and helped us all know we were there for each other in a shared goal.  

Our Team: Michael, Ossy & Me
And so we embarked on our trip- three intrepid climbers setting out for the unknown (at least for us) with eyes wide open looking for a challenge, which we would find, meet and overcome.  Sure, going as the first rotation would require us to deal with the challenges and uncertainty of weather moreso than teams climbing later in the Austral Summer. But we went into it with eyes wide open, an excited sense of innocence and wonder placing one foot in front of the other until we were feet dry, stepping firmly onto Antarctic ice and beginning our journey.

Katabatic Winds Scouring Landscape
Good Pieces of Gear: Tech
The knowledge that you were treading in an area with no life outside a small number of climbers inhabiting the trail and no expectation of hearing the familiar buzzing of civilization- planes, phones, cars.. it’s surreal.  The only contact with the outside world is a satellite phone, and even that is a challenge- only one provider (Iridium) supports Antarctica and the costs are north of $1/minute, so calls are brief and intermittent. The relative infrastructure of Union Glacier allows for the purchase of pre-pay cards at $35/30 minutes of call time, but once on the mountain this restricts down to a more valuable commodity- your phone’s battery life. Only solar chargers give devices power and my electronics gave me fits from the start. iPod? Didn’t hold a charge on the first day and never left Base Camp. GoPro? Died on my way to Low Camp and was left in my cache bag. Two external batteries proved useless as well- and were left behind. The only two things that did work:
-          My Lumia cell, which became my MP3 player, portable game player and camera. I kept it nestled in my chest pocket to not gamble with the temperatures but even when left outside overnight by accident, fired up quickly and held a decent charge throughout, even on the summit in those unbelievable temps. This thing was rugged, too.  At one point at Low Camp, it fell out of my pocket and I didn’t notice it on the snow until stepping on it with full weight. This left two sharp holes in the glass and a fancy network of spiderwebbed glass across the rest of the phone. Even with all this going on, the phone proved to be a workhorse and never faltered. Say what you will about the Windows Operating System, but the phones are almost indestructible.

-          A Goal Zero portable solar panel, which worked unbelievably well.  It’s amazing what sort of technological revolution solar is going through, and this robust portable panel is testament to the strides being made. It even worked charging my phone in the tent.

Good Pieces of Gear: Climbing
As with other areas of the world, there are tried and true pieces of equipment that I relied on throughout this expedition- both for the climb, and to maintain a bit of creature comfort along the way:

-          Feathered Friends -60 Snowy Owl. I’m really the last person in the world to be promoting Feathered Friends, especially after my 8000m climbing suit failed.. at 8000m while on the Hillary Step. That, coupled by their toxic reaction when in their store explaining what happened makes this a tough sell. But when it comes to bags, this one is top shelf. It kept me warm no matter what camp or temperature, it’s a great piece of gear.

-          North Face Summit Series jackets, pants and gloves proved durable, warm and reliable throughout the trip, no matter what layering combination or phase of the climb.

-          Mountain Hardware Trango tents were widely used across climb teams and while I’m not really a fan of the clips used to hold tent poles in place, these tents are bomb proof. One team climbing a day behind ours ended up getting caught in a storm at High Camp for 4 ½ days with 50kt sustained winds and now absolutely swear by the tents durability. One of my friends actually bought the tent he spent all that time in the storm, a testament to how much climbers rely on gear they trust.

-          My USMC ILBE (Improved Load Bearing Equipment) Main Pack Generation 2 is made by Arcteryx and modeled after the Bora 90 is one of the most reliable packs I've come across. It's rugged, durable, versatile and has proven it's worth climbing around the world- from the Himalaya to Pacific Northwest, and now Antarctica.  It's limitation comes from being heavy, but given its carrying capacity and how solid a pack this is, I'll happily deal with it.

My Gear (Most of  It) Spread Out At Vinson Base Camp

Sunday, December 6, 2015

Safe and Sound - Union Glacier

Doug's team managed to catch the last plane from base camp back to Union Glacier today!!! So he is back to Antarctic "civilization." It sounds like they are expecting some weather to move in so flights to Punta Arenas might not happen for a few days but my fingers are crossed for an early return home.

Unfortunately, the other client climber on Doug's team got frostbite on a few of his fingers and on his nose so he's spending the night in the infirmary hut. Doug volunteered to look after him overnight so he's enjoying the warmth before heading back to sleeping in tents tomorrow. Thoughts and wishes to Michael for a speedy recovery!! I wish I could overnight the Russian frostbite cream Doug got when he was climbing Elbrus - that stuff worked like magic. But besides the frostbite everyone is well and back at Union Glacier. :)

Saturday, December 5, 2015

On top of the bottom of the world!!!

Just got a phone call from the SUMMIT of Vinson Massif!!! THEY DID IT! :D I might be the proudest wife in the world right now!! They're at the summit right now (1:15PM PST) taking photos. But it sounded pretty cold so they'll be heading back down to high camp soon!

WOOO HOOOOO! Highest peak in Antarctica? Check.

Friday, December 4, 2015

Tsk Tsk, but really YAY!

I haven't heard from Doug since Monday, hence the tsk tsk in the title (someone's sat phone better be out of batteries :-P ) But have no fear! I've done some internet sleuthing and Mountain Madness (the guide group Doug is climbing with) has posted an update!

Mt Vinson Expedition reports that the team is at high camp and will make summit attempt tomorrow. Wishing them all the best for a successful summit and safe return!

TOMORROW!! That's the YAY part!!! It looks like the weather has kept nice and everyone is healthy and in good shape. Cannot wait to hear news of a successful and safe summit! :)

[photo: Mountain Madness]