Thursday, November 26, 2015

Happy Thanksgiving - Touchdown Union Glacier

Hi all! Maggie here, taking over comms for Doug who has officially gone dark as of this morning. So while we were enjoying our delicious turkey dinners, Doug was making his way down to Antarctica.

The group got a thumbs up on the weather to fly so they headed to the airport. Doug hopped a 757 (a proof of concept pilot program that I guess they usually fly around Iceland). He actually ran into an Everest buddy of his and ended up sitting next to him on the flight.

The plane landed safe and sound on Union Glacier. (I've included a picture of what I assume Camp Union Glacier looked like... Doug will have to validate the accuracy of the photo when he gets home.) In terms of how frigid it is, apparently it's "not that bad" until the wind blows and then it's "really freaking chilly." It sounds like there are a number of climbers there from the Everest climbing community and someone brought a football, so I'm not worried about him getting bored or not having any fun.They may be hunkered down at the Union Glacier camp for a few days since the wind has picked up but I'm sure they'll make the most of it. I'll keep everyone posted on when they make their move towards Vinson.

Ok, time for me to sleep off this turkey! Happy Thanksgiving, everyone!

Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Gear! Gear! Gear! Said the Sergeant

Today started off with a bang- Michael, Ossie and I grabbed breakfast in the hotel and connected on the plan for the day.  First up was to do a gear check to ensure nothing critical was missing, filter through the nice-to-have's and do a weight/value consideration on if it goes or not.  At about 10:30, ALE (Antarctic Logistics & Expeditions) - the only show in town who are authorized to fly non-military/government air onto the continent- did a quick weight check and then whisked away our team supplies and personal gear duffels. We won't see them until on Union Glacier, although we did separate pack key items like down jackets, boots and several warming layers. These go into your backpack that is hand carried at all times. which isn't that bad a plan should you need to put additional layers on in short order once on Antarctica.
With bags enroute, the rest of the day was then spent orienting ourselves with lovely Punta Arenas- walking the streets, checking out statues of Magellan, great pizza joints and generally exploring while tying together a series of last details before going dark on the world. Ossie spent a good deal of time covering the specifics of 'leave no trace' that ALE and pretty much every responsible party are held to by international treaties. Everything (and I mean everything) that we bring to the continent gets hauled out.  Gear, trash, waste... everything.  You do have to hand it to the sentinels of this policy- their decree is to keep Antarctica from becoming what portions of Everest are. Through a rigorous screening policy, guides are vetted over a period of time before ALE will agree to let them guide. Guides then in turn keep their team in check.  It all works this way.  The snow stays white, the granite rocks stay black, a landscape devoid of any living thing save transient visitors stays pure.
At 17:00, we were invited to an orientation at ALE, which covered the details of our travel plan.  It's all dependent upon the weather, which has proven to be fairly squirrely. Weather stations on Union Glacier are reporting back to Punta Arenas where meterologists and pilots go heads-down to decide if the flight across the Southern Ocean is a go or no-go. This happens on a daily basis.. so if tomorrow at 06:00 the readings aren't favorable to land a multiple engine airplane on a pure ice runway, we delay a day.
We also learned all about life at Union Glacier- it's a mini-city from what we were told, complete with zones that host different camp visitors.  One area is for 'permanent' staff, one area is for 'guests'- those people traveling between stations, and one area is for Vinson climbers. It's apparently chock full of food- you can gain weight at Union Glacier from an unending supply of free food. There are also social tents, a place to get your gear situated and a follow-on runway for the single engine skiplanes that will ultimately take us from Union Glacier to Base Camp at Patriot Hills. This should be quite an experience after a ~4 hr flight down to our future and hopefully temporary waypoint enroute to the Sentinel Range.

After a quick chat amongst the ~35 odd other travelers who will be flying once the green light is given, we grabbed our boarding pass for the flight and headed out to grab a last dinner.  Final packing underway, gear all set to go this is hopefully our last night in Punta Arenas for a while.

Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Touchdown- Punta Arenas

“But I reckon I got to light out for the territory ahead of the rest, because Aunt Sally she’s going to adopt me and sivilize me, and I can’t stand it. I been there before."
-  Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1885)

It only took two days, but we finally made it- the team is in place having all arrived in Punta Arenas. Definitely chilly here- and surprisingly dark given we are almost at the southern terminus of South America.  Isn't it supposed to be light even close to midnight? Maybe I'm not calibrating our true latitude correctly and aren't as far south as we thought. 

Couple notes on an otherwise un-noteworthy trip down:

- Flying into Santiago is incredible, threading through the snow capped Andes and then foothills surrounding the city. Both sides of the plane had cameras out and even while at the airport the surrounding landscape provides Santiago with a spectacular setting.

- English is a pretty rare commodity, so far I can count the number of people speaking Eigo on one hand and have had to rely on awesome and dazzling High School Spanish to get by.  Fortunately, people here are pretty relaxed and accommodating of my efforts struggling to get rust out of the Spanish gears in stitching together sentences.

- Apparently Chile and Spain aren't besties, or I just misread an experience at Customs with one of my bags spread all over a table. An agent flagged one of my bags and bypassed about 15 bags of candy, nuts and freeze dried food to hone in on two vacuum sealed packets of Prosciutto. The agent confiscated the meat and when I asked about it was told that it wasn't the meat- it was because it was from Spain. I didn't argue, just re-packed and went on my way.

On the taxi ride from the airport to hotel, it was amazing to look up into a vividly bright sky with whole constellations not visible in the northern hemisphere twinkling away, the Southern Cross sitting high in the sky. At one point, I pulled out my phone and opened my compass app.. heading due south, my compass had us on a northerly heading as it dialed in on the magnetic South Pole, not that far away. We zinged along in taxis toward our hotel (Best Western Hotel Finis Terrae- or, End of Earth) at the not-so-exorbitant rate of $12 fixed price.. this nation isn't all that expensive from what we have seen sofar.

Arriving, Michael and I met the third in our party- Ossie and planned for tomorrow.  Plenty going on in preparation and planning to be had, so tonight is sleep for the weary travelers. And as tomorrow comes along, we prepare to light out. Like Huck Finn's unbreakable spirit incapable of simply settling down as a boring old townsfolk do. We yearn to seek adventure, see the unknown and experience all that life has to offer.


Monday, November 23, 2015

Antarctica- Enroute At Last

Finally on the way! 

I can't believe that the day has arrived and wow did it come quickly. The last few weeks involved one major deliverable after another, and given the compressed timelines, travel here and there for Marines, family commitments and work requirements it's been a manic, hectic month.  Fortunately Maggie was pretty consistent in making sure that required gym time and packing were built into the schedule.. if not, I doubt that things would have fallen into place as easily as they did. 

Forecast: South Pole- Amundsen Scott

The gear list itself is about half that of Everest, although some key components are most definitely required. The other day I went to try and figure out what the forecast was for Union Glacier, Patriot Hills or Vinson.. and quickly learned that the closest forecast that's being reported is the South Pole itself, from Amundsen-Scott Station. It's warmed a bit since last time I looked, a balmy -20 on the day we'll likely land on the glacier but as is expected with polar climes at the extremes of the planet -20 will actually feel much, much colder. It is promising to see that the skies are expected to be clear.. one of the largest challenges of this climb is taking advantage of weather windows when available, and the first big step in effectively sneaking up to the top of Vinson is crossing the Southern Ocean.. specifically the Bellingshausen Sea, tracing the peninsula and touching down on the frozen runway of Union Glacier.  Without a weather window, I'd be parked in Punta Arenas until the clouds part.

And so, the gear list needs to reflect those cold, cold temperatures.  I pulled items like my -60 sleeping bag that's seen time in Alaska and the Himalaya out of mothballs, Scarpa Invernos w/ Intuition liners and Alti-Mitts are all now packed happily away in compression bags and ready to rumble. Other items, such as comfort foods and Nalgene bottles have insulating layers to keep them from flash-freezing.  There are some stark differences in gear, however. No need for critical avalanche gear like beacons or poles, from what I understand the ancient land of Antarctica receives so little snow, and is so cold that the ice encasing the Sentinel Range effectively stays where it lies. Likewise helmet.. rock isn't really moving so there isn't much objective hazard to rockfall, especially due to any melting (not happening given those temps).  I did pack a bunch of extra goggles and sunglasses.. with the Ozone Layer basically gone over the South Pole and all that reflective light bouncing off white, white snow the last thing I want to deal with is a lost pair of glasses.  Backups in these, and other categories come with experience, but are highly sought after on the once-in-a-million time when you need 'em.

And so, this morning the family threesome of Maggie, Mochi and I headed out to the airport with close to 200 lbs of gear spread amongst four backpacks and gear bags. While Maggie and Mochi headed to DC for Thanksgiving turkey, I'm off in different direction and the expedition is ON. First to Houston, then Santiago, and the southern terminus of South America- Punta Arenas. From there, gear check and departure over the water toward the bottom of the planet.