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Although my trip to Antarctica as the American Alpine Club representative on the 40th Anniversary of American Antarctic Expedition and first ascent of Mt. Vinson (the highest summit on the Antarctic continent) was exciting and a success in many respects, I decided to return to complete my personal ascent to the summit in 2010. Again logistics were coordinated through Antarctic Logistics and Expeditions (ALE). Several changes had taken place in the intervening 4 years, a major one of which was moving the ALE base from Patriot Hills to the Union Glacier, some 50 miles to the north and closer to Vinson. Another was that, on the recommendation of my friend, Damien Gildea, the route up the upper reaches of the Branscomb Glacier’s ice fall has been abandoned in favor of a direct ascent of the arête above Low Camp, due to increasing activity of seracs falling down onto the old route.
I flew to Punta Arenas, Chile, which is located on the Straits of Magellan, with a change of planes in Santiago, having booked directly with LAN-Chile (lesson learned in 2006 – since you will probably have to shift the return flight, book directly with LAN, rather than one of their affiliate airlines – this makes the flight changes easier than having to deal with the affiliates who may not have offices in the town you are in). The first couple of days were spent in picking up some supplies, checking in with ALE’s office in Punta Arenas, getting the required briefing, and waiting for a break in the weather (you fly across the Drake Passage, a particularly stormy stretch of ocean, then along the Antarctic Peninsula, and land on a blue ice runway, which requires that all the weather elements – clouds and wind, must be within an acceptable range. In 2006-7, our return flight to Punta Arenas was delayed for 2 weeks due to winds blowing across the blue ice runway at Patriot Hills, making it impossible to land the Ilyushin 76 on its rubber tires).
Boarding the Ilyushin 76 was via a more normal stairway, unlike the ladder we had to climb in 2006. And the seating was in rows, like a typical airliner, rather than the longitudinal benches we had in 2006. At Union Glacier, we also departed by stairs, rather than via the cargo door that we walked out in 2006. More luxury – we did not have to walk the 1 km to base camp as at Patriot Hills, but were transported in large trucks for the 8 km to ALE Base Camp. The relative locations of the important points are shown in the next image. The flight in was Dec 16, 2010.
After a quick meal, we loaded onto a Twin Otter for transfer to Vinson Base on the lower part of the Branscomb Glacier. As we were loading, we watched the competitors in the 100k foot race, all of whom plus a few others had run in the Antarctic Ice Marathon (an annual marathon) a couple days earlier. The next photo is the lineup at the start line.
The start came not long before we took off. We were able to look down on the runners, who seemed to be progressing quite nicely.
My companions in the Otter turned out to be a family from Canada named Mallory. In my conversations with them, I discovered that they are indeed connected to George Leigh Mallory, who died on Everest in 1924, during the first real summit attempt. They were on a quest to have most or all of the family climb all of the famous Seven Summits. I believe that Vinson was the father’s Seventh Summit (seated second seat behind me, head turned away).
After a comfortable night at Vinson Base, snuggled in my -40°F/C Feathered Friends sleeping bag, my climbing partner, Namgya, and I set out for an acclimatization climb up a small peak near Vinson Base. This was Dec 17.
This is the view from Vinson Base Camp, showing our acclimatization climb.
This is the view from the high point of our acclimatization climb. You can see the highest of the other groups who came up our route. Vinson Base is visible just above the knob and rocks to the right center.
The following morning Dec 18, Namgya and I went to Low Camp, passing Half Camp where the 40th Anniversary expedition had spent a night. This took 5 h7m. Another change since 2006 was that ALE has pre-placed stoves, fuel, tents, and other gear at the camp locations. Thus we were only carrying our personal gear and food up to High Camp. We used sleds, which eases the load considerably up to Low Camp. We did get slowed a bit on the way to Low Camp by a commercial group.
However, from Low Camp to High Camp, climbing the arête with all the gear and our food does require a bit of effort. Commercial guide services generally stop at Low Camp (sometimes with an intermediate camp at Half Camp), then carry a load half-way up the arête, sleep in Low Camp, then carry a small load to High Camp, and a day later retrieve the intermediate gear and food dump. This is for the purposes of acclimatization. Since I acclimatize much more rapidly than most people, we opted for a full carry up to High Camp after the overnight stop at Low Camp.
Dec 19 was the move to High Camp. I slept late to wait until the sun came over the ridge to shine on Low Camp. I left some gear in a duffle and my sled at Low Camp, transferring everything I felt I needed into my Dana Terraplane. Then we headed off for the fixed line. It took 8h 40m – much slower on the upper part. We had to wait on a couple other parties ahead of us to start up the 1200 meters of fixed line and got slowed in a couple places by some commercial parties (and the heavy pack, of course). My Suunto altimeter watch indicated we climbed 4250ft, while the difference in GPS-derived altitude between Low Camp and High Camp was 930 m/3069 ft. It is well-known that the lapse rate of the atmospheric pressure is faster in polar regions than in mid-latitudes or the Equator. I checked the absolute pressure and on returning home converted it to altitude from the Standard Atmosphere Table. I also had carefully measured GPS-derived altitudes from the mapping surveys that Damien had done during his mapping project for Project Omega during the 2005-2007 period. The GPS-derived altitude is 2839 m at Low Camp and 3700 m/12,210 ft High Camp. The absolute pressure (17.52 in Hg) gives an altitude of 14,075 ft, 1865 ft higher, demonstrating the lower density of the air with altitude in the south polar region.
When we got up in the morning (Dec 20), we checked in via radio for the weather outlook. Before leaving Punta Arenas, I had checked the forecast with my son, who is an atmospheric scientist by profession. He had told me that a storm system was making its way around the Antarctic continent, and that I could expect some severe weather. The forecast from ALE indicated that the winds expected were 25 knots and higher for the next few days. So we knew that summit day was a least 2 or 3 days away.
The winds came up as predicted. This photo was taken Dec 20 in the afternoon. During the “night”, the winds were very strong and gusty, continuing through the 21st and 22nd. I borrowed a satphone from a Japanese former Formula 1 driver to call Barbara. There was plenty of time to chat with some of the others at High Camp.
We got an updated forecast on Dec 22nd that indicated that the winds would continue in the 40-50 knot range for another 3 to 5 days. Most of the commercial groups decided to head down to Low Camp, where the forecast was indicating 20-30 knot winds and foggy for the same period. Only a small number of us decided to stick it out. The winds continued through the 23rd, 24th, and 25th, with some letups and clear spells. For the most part, the wind direction was funneling through Gudge Col, where the High Camp was located in 2006-7.
We were having our meals in the Posh Tent that ALE provided. In the image, I was in the front tent and the Posh tent is the pyramid toward the back. But by afternoon on Dec 24, the winds had caused enough damage that it was taken down, despite the tall windwall you can see behind it in the photo. We spent a fair amount of time building and extending windwalls for the sleeping tents. The effort was not made any easier by the continuing high winds and gusts.
It does not snow much in Antarctica, but the snow gets picked up by the high winds, which can easily produce whiteouts. During our “tent week”, at times the visibility got bad enough that it was hard to see the way to the designated pee-hole (which did have a pretty tall windwall itself). The latrine was provided with a seat to make using the WAGBag a bit more comfortable (all human waste and rubbish must be carried out and flown back off the continent).
Christmas Day brought a present – much reduced winds, calm enough to spend a lot of time outside the tents, but not quite enough to head for the summit. We still had some spells of gusts getting up to the 30-40 knot range. But the forecast was optimistic enough to put our summit packs together for the next day.
On Dec 26, we got up, got breakfast and got ready to go. It was sunny and the wind was finally calm, after 6 days of waiting out the storm. The barometric pressure was up as well, and my PulseOx meter was indicating I was at 93% saturation. I decided to keep my load lighter by taking the little Pentax P&S with me, rather than my Nikon DSLR. This was a bit of a mistake, since framing pictures with only the LCD in bright sunlight and highly reflective white snow is almost impossible. I did get a few photos, and Namgya had better luck with his camera. This image shows Namgya as we were approaching the lower slopes of Vinson.Vinson is the left peak. The route goes to the left side around the back and up to the ridgeline.
Since I am a bit slower these days, it took us 8 hours to go the 6 km/3.6 miles and about 1200m/3960 ft elevation gain to the summit at 4892 m/16,143 ft.
Namgya’s picture of me along the ridge crest.
Namgya’s photo of me standing on the summit. The winds were calm and the air surprisingly warm. At this point I had my Patagonia Capilene 3, Marmot StretchSuit, Nanopuff, and Wild Things Wind shirt on top, with my Patagonia Alpine guide pants (so 3 layers plus the Olympus Mons boots with the integral gaiters).
We didn’t stick around long at the summit, since there was still the descent back to camp. It took us a bit over 4 hours to High Camp, for a total of about 13 hours round trip. As we got close to camp, I was astounded by the huge number of tents and people. Apparently the big backlog of commercial parties and others had decided it was time to move back to High Camp for their summit attempts. A large crowd came out to cheer me on (it’s not so much that the Old GreyBearded One had climbed so well, but that he had climbed at all – Peter MacDonald, one of the principals of ALE, later told me that by their records, I was the oldest man to summit Vinson to date, there having been a woman who summitted a year before at age 72). As we got closer, the crowd grew, with lots of cheering and one guy who stuck his videocam in my face, demanding a statement. Not exactly my idea of how to complete a day of climbing, but I tried to be nice to the would-be paparazzo. I dumped my pack at the tent and headed for the revived Posh Tent and some supper. Then I crawled into my sleeping bag for a few hours of deep sleep.
In the morning of Dec 27, I woke, ate breakfast, packed everything, and headed down the mountain with Namgya. The descent was pretty tiresome, and I was a bit sore. Getting down the fixed line was a pain, doing the usual Genevese style rappel for a while. About 400 meters down, I decided that since there were no others on the fixed line, I would wrap the line around a carabiner in a munter hitch and rappel down the last 800 meters. Much faster and more comfortable, though there was the nuisance of moving the carabiner around the pickets every hundred meters or so. We picked up the gear we had left at Low Camp, shifted most stuff into the sleds, and proceeded slowly back to Vinson Base. Then I ate supper and crawled into the waiting tent for a deep sleep.
Next morning, Dec 28, we got the word at breakfast that the Twin Otter would soon arrive to take us back to Union Glacier. As I waited after packing, several members of the Russian 7Summits Club who had gotten back from their summit insisted that I had to have at least a sip of their vodka that they had brought all the way from Russia for summit celebrations.
The load for the Twin Otters included the Formula 1 driver (Ukyo Katayama, who told me he had the reputation of being the “crashingest F1 driver”, though his Wikipedia entry does not mention this), the Mallory family, and some of the Russians. Back at Union Glacier, we moved into the clamshell tents, the same ones we had used during the 2006 40th Anniversary expedition. The clamshells are quite sturdy and plenty warm. Each of them is named after some famous Antarctic explorer. Mine was named “Bajaj”, apparently Col. Jatinder Kumar Bajaj, a member of an Indian Antarctic expedition, as nearly as I can determine.
We had a huge dinner and were told to plan on the Ilyushin arriving the next day. Breakfast the next morning (Dec 29) had lots of fruit (pineapple, watermelon, kiwi, and more), something we had not had during our time on the mountain. The Ilyushin arrived about noon. So we headed out to the blue ice runway in the Ford trucks. I took a number of photos of the Ilyushin coming in.
The flight out was only half full, and was uneventful. Back in Punta Arenas, we were ushered directly to the buses, no Customs, and driven to our hotels (a hostal in my case). After cleaning up, I headed out to get dinner, running into the Mallory family at a local pizza place.
I spent Dec 30 visiting some geocaches and had my host at the hostal, Misael, arrange for a tour to Torres de Paine national park, a place I hope to return to for some interesting climbing (“Paine” is pronounced “pie-ee-nay”). Dec 31, New Years Eve, featured a visit to the LAN office in town to shift my flight back, but ended up having to settle on a January 5th flight. That night, Misael had a fancy dinner for those of us staying at the hostal as a New Years celebration.
Jan 2nd I took the bus up to Puerto Natales for a tour of Paine. At 7:30 the next morning, my tour van showed up, with 3 womenas the rest of the tour group. First stop was at the Milodon Cave. The cave had been discovered with remains of both milodon (giant sloth) and signs of human habitation. This is evidence that humans and some paleofauna had coexisted at least for a while in Patagonia. There is a life-sized statue of a milodon in the cave, as seen in the photo.
Then on into the park. Unfortunately, the typical Patagonian weather prevailed, so that I never got a full, clear view of the torres (towers) or the cuernos (horns), only partial views that continuously changed. Luckily, I am pretty good at visualization, and was able to get a good concept of the torres, plus a few reasonable photos of the cuernos with the fantastic differentiation between the rock types that give the cuernos their distinctive appearance.
After we got back to Puerto Natales after the tour, I got a bite to eat, then caught the bus back to Punta Arenas and the hostal. I spent Jan 4 visiting various sights around Punta Arenas. Jan 5, during breakfast, I got a call from ALE that there was a strike in progress with blockades at the airport and on the road from town to the airport. I walked up to the LAN office , where I crossed the path of the demonstrators headed for the Central Plaza. The folks at LAN (LAN-Chile office across the street in the photo) said to just wait, that all would be resolved by 1 PM.
Not wanting to get involved with a Latin American demonstration, I headed back to the hostal and watched the demonstration live on TV, complete with sound coming from the plaza (only two blocks away). Sure enough, at 12 noon, the commentator broke off and said that it was noon and time for a lunch break. I had time to go to the local sandwich shop for lunch, then back to the hostal for ALE to pick me up and get me to the airport.
The cause of the “revolution” was that the government in Santiago had decided to stop the 80% subsidy for natural gas (yes, that is eighty percent). Since natural gas supplies heating (Patagonia is cold even in summer), cooking, and public transportation (bus and taxi fuel), the penalty of suddenly having the price of energy go up by a factor of 5 understandably was upsetting to the populace. Add to that the fact that the dropping of subsidy would apply only to Patagonia, and not to the rest of Chile.
ALE arrived at 1PM and got me and the other passengers to the airport with no trouble. The flight home was straightforward. A few days after I got home, I got the word that the strike had taken a more serious turn. The airport was again shut down and a series of roadblocks set on the highway to the airport. Fuel trucks could not get jet fuel for the planes. This trapped a large number of tourists in addition to people on the ice at Union Glacier not being able to get out of Antarctica, along with a number of people who were waiting to fly over to the ice being trapped in Punta Arenas, unable to get to Union Glacier, yet not able to cancel and fly home (bus traffic was blocked as well). According to news reports, it took another 18 days to resolve the dispute, with the government backing down by reducing the amount of the subsidy cut.
Looks like I dodged the bullet.