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