From Base Camp to High Camp
After dinner at Union Glacier, there was talk about the possibility to have us flown to base camp that evening, there was even a person from ALE walking around with a flight scheduled. But the weather did not co-operate, and we spent the night at Union Glacier.
However the next morning though, On November 27, after breakfast, we boarded one of the twin otter planes, which are planes operated by Ken Borek Air, a Calgary based airline, on service for the season for ALE in Antarctica. I was on the first flight. Lakpa and Sebastian also flew with us to base camp, as we were the first group of the season.
ALE ultra-qualified guides are assigned a rotation schedule of working as guides and rangers. Rangers are ALE guides available to assist other climbers with their expeditions in case of an emergency.
Our flight to base camp was about 20 minutes, and all we can see out the frosted windows is snow-covered peaks. Of course, we are in Antarctica.
Once we land, we are greeted by a smiling, happy head guide name Tre-C (pronounced Tracy). She knew our names, greeted us all like old friends and then proceeded to give us the most important tour – how to pee in Antarctica.
Number “2” is flown out of Antarctica, back to Chile, but ‘pee’ remains in Antarctica and as per the Antarctic Treaty, its Environmental Protocol has set guidelines to deal with Waste Disposal and Management, which essentially directs that “ as far as practicable so as to minimize impacts on the Antarctic environment and to minimize interference with the natural values of Antarctica”, read more about it (https://www.ats.aq/e/ep_waste.htm).
Our sleeping quarters here at base camp are huge dome shape tents, that could accommodated at least 4 people inside each, and which I was able to stand in. Yes, I am a short person. But even my friend Emmanuel when he refuted at my comment, that he could “not relate” to standing up inside the tent – just assuming I could because I was short, had to say to me: “ I stand corrected, I CAN relate”. This only after I politely had asked him to stand in the middle of the tent himself, and he obliged cynically. ☺
Our group tent, which was also ALE’s basecamp office and the kitchen was heated, had chairs and tables for all of us to hang out at, with hot water at our disposal for tea, coffee, hot chocolate, etc. Breakfast, lunch, and dinner were served here, along with an array of soft drinks, beer, red and white wine, as well as champagne for celebrations and sangria for treats.
This was just for ALE’s clients.
At base camp, there were other groups from different companies. They set-up their own tents, including their own kitchen and dining tents, etc. I realize there is an argument to be made for those that call themselves “purists” that this is the best way to experience the mountains and its true mountaineering. That the comforts and attention to detail and may I venture to say, the touch of luxury (in the mountaineering realm) that ALE provides in Vinson is not true mountaineering, then I argue to disagree.
In Everest no one complains for using the services of Sherpas, and in Killimanjaro the use of porters. Well, in Vinson, I am of the opinion, one should climb directly with ALE.Why can’t one enjoy climbing the tallest mountain in Antarctica in more comfort? I see no reason.
We still carried our own personal equipment to the other two camps. We still climbed up the same fixed rope from low to high camp. We still ‘trekked’ the same distance from high camp to the Summit. But we enjoyed a little more comfort. I know some of the other mountaineering companies and they are wonderful of course, but I am just saying, ALE has the right idea. I want to climb the 7 Summits, but I do not see any reason why I can’t enjoy it as much as possible. After all is ‘mountaineering’ not just the act of climbing mountains?
The next day, on November 28th, 2018, our three assigned guides, Lakpa, Seba and Tre-C divided our team of nine, into three rope teams, randomly selected. Each rope team has three climbers and one guide. At all times when outside the camps areas, we are roped in together, because of the existence of crevasses.
Myself, Emmanuel and Christian are in Seba’s rope team.
On Lakpa’s team is David, Matt, and Nicolas, and Tre-C has Jenny, her husband Matt and Steve. This last one became the British connection rope team!
We practiced putting our crampons on. And we go for a small acclimatization hike, training, to get used to being roped in, the team’s pace, the weather and of course ensuring our crampons are working well in our boots and also our clothing layering system is working for us.
The next day, the weather reports are not favorable for the next few days, and our guides explain to us, that we will continue to acclimatize in base camp.
However, to keep us ‘prepared’ we get a lesson on how to rig and attach the sleds to our backpacks. We will use the sleds to take supplies to low camp. In each rope team, only three sleds will be used, meaning the last person on the rope team will not have a sled.
November 30th, 2018, we are still hanging out at base camp, but we get our food planned for when we start to move to the low and high camps. We get to select breakfasts, dinners, and snacks from the ALE supply store. These are all meals that can be made by only adding hot water. We also have a going to the ‘bathroom’ lecture for low and high camps.
Here we will be using the disposal toilet method, which we will use with the help of a empty bucket for our seating comfort. The ‘portable’ toilets are personal of course and we will need to carry them with us, until our return to base camp, so they can be ‘packaged’ with the other entire bathroom ‘matters’.
We also do ‘arts and crafts’ and build the VINSON sign from snow. The sign is created once every season. Our lead guide Tre-C and I spearhead the undertaking of this task. Some of my teammates also got some exercise filling the hole of the previous seasons’ ‘freezer’ tent. Every year when ALE staff opens the camp, the location of the tent needs to move back a few feet. The old hole then needs to be filled again with snow, and because we were the first group of the season, and weather kept us just lazing around and enjoying great food, we needed to burn some calories!
December 1st, 2018, the weather became promising and our guides make the decision for us to move to low camp. We pack our gear into our backpacks, and some supplies get on the sleds. The suggested ratio was 70/30, on backpacks to sleds.
The hiking time from base camp to low camp was about 5-6 hours. We took a break about every 60 to 90 minutes. Breaks are used to catch our breath, eat a couple of snacks, drink some water and pee.
Once we got to low camp, the area is more rudimentary. We have to set-up our own tents, which ALE maintains stored on-site, but due to high winds, they cannot be left up when not in use, like in base camp.
The kitchen tent is also more basic. It is not artificially heated, but with 2 separated seating areas, with benches carved out of snow and a middle section for the cooking area, the double wall clam tent is pretty nice!
From here we can see the ridge of where the ropes start and go as high as 1200m (close to 4000 feet) that we will have to climb to move to low camp. We can also see Vinson Summit peak and we can see the wind blowing the snow, at the top of the ropes and on the Summit. We need to wait for a break in the weather to move to high camp.
Two other groups are also here, having moved from base camp to low camp with us.
The next day, we do a small hike to the start of the fixed ropes and we practice ascending the rope until about the third switch and then practice our descending.
December 2nd, 2018, weather is still bad up at high camp, however, because we are also a little restless of not doing much, except eating great food and sleeping, some of us go on a hike to nearby peaks.
Steve and Seba go on their own. Tre-C and Lakpa take five of us for a view of the pyramid. Three of our colleagues had decided that they prefer to stay back at camp and “chill”.
It was a 2 to 3-hour return hike but what can I say, the view was amazing. The Pyramid was the actual location of the old base camp. At the top of the small peak that we climbed to, we took a break, ate a snack and took pictures. Tre-C had some dress-up articles in her backpack, which give us the opportunity to take funny pics! Purple was Emmanuel’s color!
December 3rd, 2018; winds still prevailed up top. We rest, read, sleep.
December 4th, 2018; and our guides rally our team up to move up to high camp, as they are confident with a predicted 2 day window break in the weather.
We only pack our sleeping bags, water bottles, food, snacks, medication, and our clothing layers necessary into our backpacks. Our sleds also stay behind. We take down our tents. We leave any supplies and any equipment that we do not need up in high camp inside our duffle bags, and ALE stores them by the kitchen tent.
Another advantage of climbing with ALE in Vinson, is that the group does not have to carry up group gear, like fuel, tents, and even sleeping pads. ALE has all that at each camp. Each season ALE’s guides and rangers, in anticipation of the climbing season, for each team, restock supplies. Other companies must do “carries” and “cache” supplies. All climber teams with these other companies do this by taking supplies to a camp one-day and returning to the previous camp. They then move up to the next camp the following day.
The climb up to high camp includes a climb of about 1,200 meters, with an approximately 45 degree angle on the side of a mountain, aided by fixed ropes. We had to use our ascenders’ and cows’ tails to move on the fixed ropes and for safety. We took breaks, some just beside rocks but still roped in together.
I found the climb ok, with the exemption of the last transfer point. I had looked up and had seen Seba, our guide, positioning his feet, with each step on a very narrow part of the terrain. My fear of heights rose immediately with my heart rate threatening to deafen me, but I tried to concentrate in following his footsteps, completely aware I would have to climb down. I forced those thoughts out of my mind and concentrated in continuing the ascent. I would deal with descending another day.
When we reached high camp, both Wes and Nate, two of ALE’s rangers that had gone up ahead of us, to “open” camp”, had our tents set-up and ready for us to go inside and rest, after we removed our crampons of course and made sure that our other ‘sharpies’ were a safe distance from our tents.
We were the Vinson 1 team, and therefore the first set of climbers of the season, so the pee hole was still being done, as was the placement of the ‘toilet’ bucket.
We were able to admire the surroundings and the view from this height. Dinner was served inside our tents, after our guides’ boiled water for our drinking pleasure and our dehydrated food preparation. I enjoyed my oatmeal. Emmanuel complained about his Spicy Pad Thai and repeated a few times to me how he hated dehydrated meals; this after he had lectured me previously that I needed to eat more than just oatmeal. But my oatmeal looked pretty good now!
Personally I don’t like dehydrated food! It upsets my stomach. I have tried it and tasted various commercially available brands. I don’t like any of them. And I was not going to risk an upset stomach in a continent made of white snow! Even energy bars cause me issues. That is why I had only chosen oatmeal for breakfast and dinners and for snacks I stuck with my Suzie’s Good Fats Peanut Butter Chocolate Snack Bars.
Other teams shortly arrived after us and got busy setting up their own camp. Although, one of the teams had just come up to drop a cache and then they went back down to low camp. They would not be attempting the summit with us, and I personally found this to be a mistake since the weather was predicted to change shortly.
After ‘dinner’, Tre-C discussed with us our plan for the next day and suggested we go to sleep as the next day we were hoping it to be our Summit day, as we only had a two day of predicted good weather, so we would not be spending the following day acclimatizing and resting in high camp, as sometimes happens. I was honestly rested enough I must admit. Aside from 7 blisters total on both my feet, I was fine and looking forward to moving.
The next morning, we would have an early start – before 10:00 am. So, as usual, I pulled my hat around my ears and over my eyes to ‘shut the blinds’ form the Sun and I went to sleep. The next day was the Summit day.
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