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



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