Final Trip Report – Vinson Massif, Antarctica 2012 – Part 1

After a few weeks back in the comfort of my own house, I think it’s about time to put up a trip report of some description.  I’ve been spoiled with the ability to take a warm shower every day and not go to sleep on a sheet of ice which happens to be several thousand feet thick.  With that, here’s my summary of the trip.

Getting to Antarctica is relatively straightforward, that is of course if you build in several days for delay at many points along the journey (that’s right, days).  Regardless of where you start, everyone ultimately converges in Punta Arenas which is the southern most city in Chile.  Once we were all in Punta Arenas, the team (Mitch, Steve, Greg, Nick, Vanessa, Fiona, Scott, Sebastian and myself) all had a chance to meet for the first time.   The cool thing about having extra time in Punta Arenas is that most of us got a chance to go on excursions to check out the Magellan penguins nearby.

One of the many things that Chile is famous for, and something I appreciated the most were the Pisco Sours.  In particular, Scott discovered the Pisco Hot varietal which had cayenne pepper in addition to the Pisco & egg white mix.   They were t-rubble as they were way too easy to drink.   Never mind that, we were preparing for a few weeks in sub-zero weather.

One of the requirements of going to Antarctica is that you attend a logistics briefing run by ALE whom operates the commercial operations for climbing Vinson, skiing to the South Pole or flying to see the Emperor penguins.  In that session they briefly cover what you’ll expect on the day you fly in the Ilyushin-76 Russian cargo jet and spend a fair bit of time reminding you how isolated you’ll be and to be extremely diligent about caring for yourself and your group.  Doc Martin, the resident medic, spent 10-15 minutes covering cold-related injuries and stressing the extreme temperatures which are to be expected on Antarctica and what can happen in virtually no time at all.

After sufficiently being scared about the prospect of serious frostbite, we were free to enjoy our last day on concrete with reasonably priced beers & empanadas (although they tasted like hot-pockets, not the good kind).

Finally, on Monday the 17th of December, we got the call that it was the day to fly to Antarctica!  Since we were all packed and had handed our gear off the day before, it was pretty straightforward getting out of town.  We booked it to the airport, and boarded the cargo jet for our 4.5hr flight further south.

Once en route we were treated with the deafening roar of those four engines blasting and virtually no insulation in the plane to dampen the sound at all.  The upside is that we did get meal service which included a $30 can of coke, Chilean pringles and a sandwich which left much to desire.

Fortunately, the flight was uneventful, and we made it to the Union Glacier runway which had been put in place only a few years prior.   Previously, the ALE compound had been near Patriot Hills, which given the location was subject to a lot more variable weather patterns which increased the likelihood of delays.  Now, at Union Glacier, the flights are able to land much more consistently but an incredible sight to see none the less.
ALE runs a pretty impressive operation down there, which include things like modified Econoline vans that shuttle you from the runway to their base of operations a mile or two away.  They also have a bunch of heated tents with a full staff ranging from cooks to medics to pilots and everything in between.  
 Lucky for us, the day we landed the weather was great, which meant we could take advantage of that and fly straight to Vinson basse camp, which was about another 40 minute flight on a twin otter plane (which flys down by way of Canada every season).  We had enough time to fill up on a warm lunch and then throw our bags aboard the plane.
The flight into Vinson Base Camp is pretty incredible with seemingly never-ending views of snow & ice. The glaciers turn into popcorn at times and on various peaks they are just slowly rolling down.   It took about 40 minutes to get into camp, but it seemed to go by pretty quickly, considering what you got to check out on the way in.
Life at VBC was super mellow, and a great way to ease into the trip.   We had a huge Mountain Hardwear Dome Tent to eat in, and spacious Hilleberg tents which are specifically built for the extreme conditions of the Antarctic & Arctic expeditions.  VBC life was great with three cooked meals a day which included everything from French Toast to hamburgers, pancakes & just about everything in between.   Given we were on an “expedition,” there was no reason to start counting calories.  In fact, you generally try to overcompensate on this front given that you start to burn more calories than you can consume due to the altitude, cold temperatures & exertion throughout the day.  You didn’t have to tell me twice.  Also, at VBC we had a “loo with a view” which gave you the chance to stare at hundreds of miles worth of glacier covered terrain whilst you had your morning constitution.

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