Monday, January 28, 2013

Union Glacier Camp and Mt Rossman

Cody and I now had several days back at the Union Glacier Camp before the Ilyushin flight arrived to take us back to Punta Arenas. We didn't spend any time in the Union Glacier Camp on the way in, so now we had an opportunity to learn about what goes on at the main ALE operations center in Antarctica. While we were there, the Union Glacier Camp supported three different types of activities. One was the Vinson climb that Cody and I just completed, another was flights to the South Pole, and people skiing different distances to the South Pole.

The logistics of running the camp looked complicated given that the ALE staff had to to feed, house, and transport clients participating in all these activities. This made the Union Glacier Camp seem like a remote location work camp. Everyone was fed in a large heated mess tent.

Mess Tent at Union Glacier Camp ( C. Smith photo)

For accommodations, Cody and I were assigned to a “clamshell” tent

Cody in front of the Clamshell tent with Mt Rossman in the background.

The clamshell tent was comfortable with two beds and a wash basin.

Cody Relaxing in Clamshell tent

Behind the camp was Mt Rossman, a peak with multiple summits lined up along a single ridge. Traversing the mountain along this ridge looked like a great outing. Together with Dave Hamilton (one of the ALE guides I had met years ago in Pakistan) and his client, Cody and I set out.

The approach to our climb started with a ride on a snow cat towards the start of the ridge. It dropped us off when crevasse danger on the glacier became too great for the machine to go any further.

Snow Cat used to clear the ice runway also took us to Mt Rossman

The following pictures describe our traverse of Mt Rossman. Although this was the lowest of the three peaks we climbed, it presented most interesting mountaineering challenges.

Cody and the beginning of our traverse of Mt Rossman

Cody on Ridge.  Union Glacier Camp below in center of picture

At the first summit

Main summit in the background

Pacific Ocean is not far to the west

Summit of Mt Rossman

After completing our climb, we were picked up by the snow cat at the other end of Mt Rossman and brought back to the Union Glacier Camp

Snow Cat pickup

A few days later we were flown back to Punta Arenas.

Back in Punta Arenas

Sunday, January 27, 2013

Mt Shinn

 After Cody and I reached the top of Vinson four days after leaving Punta Arenas, we still had ten more days before our scheduled flight on the Ilyushin 76 back to Chile.  We were interested in climbing some other peaks in the area with the time we had.  But most of the other climbers were on a quest to climb each of the highest mountains on the seven continents. So after climbing Vinson (the highest in Antarctica), they were not interested in making other ascents. But a small group of us wanted to use our time to climb some other peaks in the area. Mt Shinn, the third highest mountain in Antarctica, was easily accessed from High Camp so we made that our next objective..

Mt Shinn from High Camp

To access Mt Shinn from High Camp, we needed to drop down to the col (pass) between Mts Shinn and Vinson. Less than a decade ago, the normal route on Vinson climbed up to this same col. But ice falling from  seracs onto the slopes below made for hazardous travel. So the route was moved to the slope that led to the ridge just below the new High Camp.

Crossing the Col towards Mt Shinn

It was windier and therefore colder on Mt Shinn when compared to our summit day on Mt Vinson. My camera was completely frozen, but Cody's worked on the summit.

Cody and me on the summit of Mt Shinn (C. Smith photo)

On the descent, clouds moved up from below and engulfed us in a fog. We couldn't see where we were going and had to use GPS coordinates to find our way back to High Camp.

Given all the potential weather delays, we now needed to get back to Vinson Base to make sure that we had enough time to be flown back to Union Glacier.  It took one day to make this descent from High Camp to Vinson Base.  From there the Twin Otter flew us back to Union Glacier.

Saturday, January 26, 2013

Vinson Summit Day

From High Camp the route climbs a gentle snow slope up into a basin below the summit of Mt Vinson.

Summit of Mt Vinson . High Camp on flat spot on ridge in right of photo (photo by C. Smith)

The climbing was easy snow walking, but extremely cold in places where there was any wind. With temperatures below -20 I had to have full coverage of any exposed skin to prevent frostbite. I found it difficult to keep my face covered without water vapor from my breath seeping up into my goggles and fogging them up.

Cody Smith on his way to the top.  Mt Shinn in the immediate background

The other issue I had was my camera kept freezing up. I put it in an inside pocket to keep it warm. But I could only get of one or two shots each time it took it out before it would freeze again. Replacing the battery with one that I had placed in my glove allowed me to take additional photos. But my fingers became dangerously cold whenever I had to take my gloves off to replace the battery.

Cody and Seth on the summit ridge

From the summit ridge we were rewarded with spectacular views of the entire Ellsworth Range to the south.

Cody and me on the summit of Mt Vinson

View looking south from the summit

Vinson Base Camp to High Camp

ALE owns a subsidiary Adventure Network International (ANI) whose staff runs Vinson Base and patrols the mountain above there. ANI also employs guides for their own clients on the mountain.

Vinson Base Camp

ANI ensures that ALE customers from other guided groups and their own clients adhere to environmental practices in compliance with their operating permit. This mostly consists of removing all trash and poop from the mountain. Walls built with snow blocks enclose separate toilet areas for feces and urine. The feces toilet has a five gallon bucket equipped with a seat over which a plastic bag is attached to capture the waste, which then fits into a second bag to be packed out. This is easy as it freezes readily in the -20 to -30 degree C temperatures. All urine must be disposed of in a hole in the snow in that toilet area. Urinating in the snow along the climbing path is not allowed except in a few specified locations. You have to use a pee bottle when away from a specified pee spot.

The Toilet

Cody and I chose to ski rather than walk up the glacier up to Low Camp. This would make it a lot quicker to come down. We had to ski roped together to protect each other in case of a crevasse fall.

Skiing to Low Camp

At Low Camp there was a large cooking tent already set up for us to use. We spent the night there in tents cached for ANI clients before heading up to High Camp.

Seth carrying bag of snow to melt in Low Camp Cook Tent (photo by C. Smith)

The climb from Low Camp to High Camp ascends a 35 degree snow slope that has been equipped with about 2000 feet of fixed rope.

Slope to ridge crest and High Camp in center of photo 

On most climbs there would not be a fixed line on such a relatively low angled slope. But given the wide variation in climbing skill amongst those on Mt Vinson, the rope provides added safety on the steepest part of the route.

Climbing  up to High Camp

Cody and I got to the high camp a day ahead of most of the other climbers and it was nice to have the place to ourselves for at least a day.

High Camp

From High Camp there were beautiful views of Low Camp and the Eastern Antarctic Ice Shelf. Looking down from the Ellsworth Mountains was a vast landscape with ice stretching to the horizon in every direction.

View towards East Antarctic Ice Shelf

Saturday, January 12, 2013

Getting to Mount Vinson Basecamp

I'm back from Antarctica where Cody Smith and I climbed Mt Vinson, Mt Shinn, and Mt Rossman.  I'm currently travelling to El Chalten were my partner J Mills is already there and anxious for my arrival because the weather is good.  So I will try to post stories of the Antarctica trip as I get a chance.

Antarctica is probably the most logistically complicated and therefore the world's most expensive place to go visit. Getting to the Ellsworth Mountains (where Mt Vinson is located) is accomplished by hiring Antarctic Logistics and Expeditions (ALE) to fly you there from Punta Arenas at the very southern tip of Chile. The ALE flight onto the continent is via a Russian Ilyushin 76. It was probably a good thing that my friend in Seattle who does accident investigations told me in an email after I got back that he worked on the world's worst mid-air accident that involved a collision of an Il-76 and a 747 near Delhi. The problem in that incident was that the radio operator on the Il-76 is seated on a different level of the flight deck and, on the accident flight, the captain who was flying the aircraft couldn't speak English and didn't understand the air traffic controller's altitude calls. The radio operator, who did speak English, failed to pass on the communications. The result was that the inbound Il-76 and the outbound 747 were flying at the same altitude. Fortunately for us there is not a lot of traffic between Punta Arenas and Antarctica. Our Il 76 was operated by Almaty Air from Kazakhstan, and the accident flight was operated by Kazakh Air. So perhaps a relative of Borat was still in control.

Payload Master Watching Us and the Cargo in the Cargo Bay
After a four hour flight, the IL 76 landed on an ice runway on the Union Glacier.  Each season ALE flies in a maintenance crew on a Twin Otter on skies that gets the snow grooming equipment up and running at Union Glacier base camp and plows any loose snow off the ice runway so that the Il 76 can land.

IL 76 After Landing on the Union Glacier
The ice runway is several miles from the Union Glacier Base Camp so we are loaded onto vehicles that can drive on the glacier along a path that is clear of crevasses.

Souped Up Ford Van for Driving on the Glacier
As soon as we arrived at the Union Glacier Camp, we were told the weather was good enough to fly directly to Vinson Base Camp.  At Union Base Camp there is a smaller airstrip where ALE has two twin Otters and a DC-3 - all on skis.  These planes are used for transporting clients within the continent.  We would fly in a Twin Otter to Vinson Base Camp.

Loading into the Twin Otter
After a 40 minute flight we landed at Vinson Base Camp..

Mt Vinson from the Twin Otter
Landing at Vinson Base Camp reminded me of landing on the SE fork on the Kahiltna Glacier on Denali.  After bouncing and sliding along the uneven runway we slid to a stop.  On our first day out of Punta Arenas we were ready to start our climb.

Twin Otter Landing at Vinson Base Camp