Mt Vinson: Check. But what an adventure...
Hi Friends and family.
I am now back from Antarctica though not without many resets and unexpected delays. It was all in all an exceptional experience on the human, social, mental and psychological level more than physical level actually.
It all started well...
Flights landed mostly on time. Luggage surprisingly made it all the way through 4 flights. The wild taxi ride from Punta Arenas airport to hotel and the morning views of the Straight of Magellan from our hotel breakfast table put us in the adventure mood right away...
Due to COVID restriction in Chile, we had to test in Santiago before boarding our flight to Punta Arenas and now we were stranded in Punta Arenas for 5 days quarantining while testing daily. That is to insure none of us would carry any disease to the 6th continent.
This gave us plenty of time to visit the city multiple monuments and statues, walk along the boardwalk with vistas of the Straight of Magellan and wrecked ships, enjoy ceviche and other Chilean local dishes. at the many local restaurants.
And then it was time to go. We were all anxious to get moving but also a little bit anxious to get on a Boeing 757 that was going to fly to Antarctica and land on blue ice. One thing that surprised me is the amount of care and check that ALE (Antarctica Logistic and Expedition) take to insure no diseases or bacteria makes it onto the continent. Besides the repeated daily Covid testing, we even got our shoes cleaned before stepping onto the plane.
And like that, we had stepped onto the most remote place on Earth, for what would turn out to be not the expected 10, but full 20 days of cold and brutal weather. But first, we got a glimpse of the luxury and comfort that Union Glacier base provides. It only lasted the time of a lunch as we were swiftly flown onto Vinson Base camp a couple of hours later. That was also the first time I realized that we would be on this expedition alongside Nims' own expedition. Nims is the Nepalese Gurkha who has climbed the fourteen 8000m peaks in 7 months in 2019 and that turned up into a recent Netflix blockbuster.
So we setup camp at base camp, where we would only spend a couple of days before moving up to low camp. All was going fine thus far. Weather was cooperating very well and we were moving efficiently.
But things were about to change in some major ways...
Once we reached Low camp, the weather changed. First we received the forecast that in the next two days we would get some wind (25mph-35mph) and snow falls (which is rare in Antarctica since it is actually a desert). There is no climbing in Antarctica when the wind is blowing. So we spent the day building walls around our tents. But then the next day the news got worse. The storm was still coming, yet had not arrived, but would be stronger (35-45mph) when it got here. So we doubled our effort and built double walls around the tents. The next day worsening forecast even got the guides visibly worried. Storm was still on its way but this time with gale force wind between 45-55mph. There was no escaping this as it would engulf the entire mountain including base camp. So we built a 3rd layer wall, bigger, higher and hopefully stronger. We literally built castle style fortresses around our tents. And they held. Thank god.
This whole episode lasted 7 days. 7 days spent in the main dining tent or our own individual tent chatting, reading, listening to podcast and hoping the weather stays gentle with us. We all thought the expedition was over as we had run out of spare weather days and our flight was due to leave Antarctica 4 days later. But finally after 7 long days, we got a break in the weather and the news that the next 3 days would be very clement. The guides decided it was out chance to run for the summit and rush back to meet the small ski planes that would take us back to Union Glacier and the 757 flight out of Antarctica...
So we swiftly got ready to go through the fixed lines on our move to high camp and then push for the summit the next day.
Summit day was pretty calm. It's mostly a long slog through the Vinson valley to the base of a ridge made of a mix of rock and snow. Then we walked alongside the ridge to the summit. The summit is beautiful with expansive views of other peaks all around us and then beyond this the ice cap as far as the eyes can see. The wind did pick up at summit and the -40c (or -40f, it's the same at that temperature) felt more between-50 and-60 at this point. So we quickly got off the summit and rushed back to high camp in a single push. No break. Getting back to high camp felt good. We sensed we had accomplished our goal and had a rewarding though long summit day.
The next day was a race. A race to get down first to base camp from high camp. The reason being first mattered is because the teams load the ski planes on order of arrival at base camp. So if you get there first, you get on the plane first. And if only one plane can land and take off due to weather, you really want to be on that plane... Especially after spending so much time already on the mountain in stormy conditions. So we rushed out of camp, down the fixed lines and passed low camp onto Vinson base camp. Over 11 miles and 6000ft of elevation loss in less than 5 hours.
And we got there early. Not first, but early enough to claim being on the first two planes... Except that the planes weren't there. We waited, popped up two bottle of champagne and waited some more... Until the weather closed and it was clear the planes were not coming today. So our heart sank at the idea we wouldn't sleep at Union Glacier tonight and instead needed to build camp and be ready to sleep in the mountain one more night.
But then the next day we woke up and weather was bad. The planes were not flying again today.. That scenario repeated for 4 very long days as we all saw our hope of flying out of Antarctica and back to our homes in time for Xmas vanish away. So we kept busy visiting other expedition camps and chatting about the weather (literally) and what we would do (and eat) once we would be home. We built a Xmas tree in snow blocks, another Vinson sign and even a robot snowman. Others skied around camp to keep busy.
After 4 days, the weather finally lifted up and the planes came. I have never broken a camp that fast. Tents were packed away in less than 10 minutes. Backpacks were packed in no time. We were ready. So ready to head home... or so we thought.
Finally were were back at Union Glacier with the understanding that the 757 was coming that night to pick us up. So we didn't settle down. We grabbed diner and waited again for a plane... that didn't come. Weather closed again for the next 4 very long days. The ALE team at Union Glacier did an awesome job keeping us busy with lecture on the Geology or Discovery of Antarctica, movie nights, first Antarctica triathlon and other quiz night. All in all Union Glacier stay is quite comfortable with heated dinner tent, heated showers, bathroom with seats in a wind protected enclosed and warm private room. If it wasn't for the fact we had all missed Xmas with our family and unsure whether we'd make it in time for new years eve, it would actually have been quite an enjoyable stay.
After 4 long days, the weather finally opened long enough for the Icelandair Boeing 757 captain to decide to fly from Chile's Punta Arenas 4 1/2 hours away. That brought a term to a memorable exceptional expedition at the top (summit) of the bottom of the world. I met some great folks from so many various horizons and backgrounds. I battled the constant aggression of the coldest temperatures and harshest weather I have experienced in my life. But I also saw some of the biggest, most amazing vistas of extreme beauty. The memories of this extraordinary month of December will stay with me for the rest of my life. And finally seeing a 757 land its wheels softly less than a 100 ft away from me on blue ice is a unique experience I will cherish for a while...
I hope you have enjoyed reading the tale of this adventure as much as I have enjoyed living through it. Besides the many reset and delays, it was an intense experience that I am glad to have had a chance to live through.
I want to thank and recognize my wife and daughters for their strength and patience in waiting for me, holding the fort at home and relaying updates on my situation to the many of you who enquired about my radio silence all these weeks.
I also want to thank our guides, Ben, Lakpa Rita and Jonathon who took such great care of us before, during and after the climb. They cooked some great food for us in insanely cold temperatures that go beyond any USDA approved temp ranges. They made the wisest and best decisions along the ways that protected us from being in the wrong place at the wrong time on the mountain resulting in frostbite that happened to other teams. They kept us safe all along despite unusual weather conditions this year.
And I am thankful for a great team, Caroline, Rob, Phil and Peter that made these long days in the tent pass by quicker and made it somewhat enjoyable.
Oh and yes, this was my 4th summit of the 7 summit. I have now summited the toughest one (Denali), the most luxurious one (Kilimanjaro), the highest one (Everest) and now the coldest one (Vinson). 3 more to go. Onto the next one...