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Arriving in Antarctica

Climbing Mount Vinson and going to Antarctica was nerve wracking. I felt there was a lot riding on the success of the expedition, and not just monetarily – the degree of coldness added a whole new level of potential challenges as well as danger.

Climbing Mt Vinson is the most expensive of the 7 Summits, after Everest. The remoteness of Antarctica and the time constraint on being able to access the mountain plays a huge role in the cost. There is a short season to climb Vinson, from late November to mid-January.

We were one of the first groups of the 2018-2019 season. I had researched this very well, and then preceded to convince my friend Emmanuel of my choice and we chose ALE (Antarctic Logistics Expeditions) as our expedition guiding company. Actually, ALE is the only operator with flights to access Vinson. The company has operated continuously in Antarctica since 1987. They were the 1st land-based tour operator using wheeled aircraft on blue-ice runways. They have safely executed hundreds of roundtrip intercontinental flights from Chile to the interior of Antarctica and have supported virtually every private expedition that has skied, flown or driven across Antarctica.

The extra few hundred dollars in cost was worth it in my opinion, and I think you will agree with me, as you follow my journey.

As I sat in Punta Arenas inside the restaurant of the hotel Rey Don Philippe, looking out into the street, it’s sunny, but the wind is blowing. Seems it is always windy here and cold, and this is their summer.

ALE was supposed to come and pick up our duffels in a couple of hours. I felt ok and confident and ready. At this point I had not decided if I wanted to pack my running shoes. I was actually wearing them this morning, since I had started feeling a little of out of place wearing my Valentino blue boots. I had been wearing my boots for the last 4 or 5 days, going out to eat and while site seeing. I still don’t understand the logic behind wearing hiking shoes and activity specific clothing when not doing the activity! Oh well. I decided to give in that morning, since technically our expedition was about to start.

My throat was hurting a little this particular morning. Maybe Steve’s cold finally had caught up to me. I am hoping I am ok in Antarctica because it’s not good being sick while attempting to climb a freezing cold mountain! I have been taking lots of Vitamin C, actually downing it, and decided to take some more.

After our luggage is picked up at 11:00am, we have a group lunch at 12:30pm, where we meet some of the other people that will be climbing with us. I quickly realize that the group is comprised of some incredible people.

Following this, we have an information session at the ALE office at 4:00pm, where we also pick up our boarding passes for the next days’ scheduled flight to Antarctica.  

Robert Anderson, our local ALE representative, gives everyone an overall presentation of what to expect in Antarctica. Those present are those of us climbing Vinson, those guests going to visit the Emperor Penguins, those skiing the last degree, those going on solo expeditions to the South Pole, and even a Dutch couple that would be driving a solar-powered 3D-printed vehicle, made of plastic waste across Antarctica. I am not joking, check out their website: https://www.clean2antarctica.nl/en . This was not your everyday information session attendees!

Robert Madds Anderson is an author, speaker, creative director and mountaineer who has climbed the 7 Summits solo. But above all, I found him to be a man that exemplifies humility. And it awed me. I knew from meeting him, that this trip would be a great learning experience for me and very special.

During the ALE briefing I also met Lakpa Rita Sherpa, who was going to be one of our guides. Lakpa was the first Sherpa to climb the 7 Summits, and of course he has climbed Everest 17 times. Yes, I said 17. I was a little starstruck I have to admit.

The next morning, November 26th, right on schedule, we go to the airport and board the Ilyushin. The Ilyushin Il-76 is a Russian, multi-purpose four-engine plane first planned as a commercial freighter in 1967.  It was designed to deliver heavy machinery to remote, poorly served areas. Military versions of the Il-76 have been widely used in Europe, Asia and Africa.

ALE leases one of these planes for the season. The Ilyushin takes enough fuel for a return trip from Punta Arenas, Chile to Union Glacier, Antarctica. The plane comes with its own Russian crew. It has been modified inside with some seats and since there are no windows, a large screen TV has been installed in front of the plane, so we can watch the plane being guided onto the runway, take off and land. The TV receives the feed from a camera outside the front of the plane and helps us with orientation.

ALE also has its own flight attendant on every flight, to give us earplugs, a beverage or two and a couple of snacks. All of this felt a little surreal to say the least.

When we arrive at Union Glacier, the plane lands on a blue ice runway and even though the IIyushin does not have any trouble stopping, the passengers slip and slide on the ice. It was no surprise that our arrival was met with wind and it’s cold! Very cold.! But nothing can dampen our excitement of arriving. We stop to pose for many pictures in front of the plane before we board the trucks that will take us to Union Glacier, and camp.

The ride from the runway to the camp is about 25 minutes, even though the distance is only about 5-6 km. When we reach Union Glacier, we are given a tour of the camp, the facilities, the do’s and don’t’s And did I mention it was cold?! However the views and the air are so clear and clean, that I have to keep blinking to adjust – both my eyes and my heart! This place is spectacular. The expanse – the brilliant whites and fresh blues are like nothing I’ve ever seen before. I needed to keep reminding myself not to take my sunglasses off!

We are assigned a tent, which is a double walled clam shaped tent with carpet on the floor and cots. This is very much my style of ‘camping’. Our bags are delivered by ski doo! Wow! I feel spoiled!

Afterwards, we are invited to the heated communal dinning tent. Here ALE serves not your average cafeteria food. There are vegan and gluten free choices, fresh baked goods and meals made fresh – breakfast, lunch and dinner. They even serve mid-morning and afternoon snacks – freshly baked! Hot water, tea and coffee is always available and during meals white and red wine. This is a giant improvement from other experiences. I am impressed and relieved.

The Union Glacier camp itself and facilities, which get set-up for business in November and taken down for protection of the weather at the end of January, every year, was our first clue that climbing Mt Vinson was not going to be your average Summit attempt.

Ema Dantas

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