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.