The Climb Begins
As the team of mostly strangers gathered over a Chilean dinner on a Saturday evening in Punta Arenas, far from our homes, we made mostly small talk as we pondered over our climb ahead. We had never met and only the family of three (obviously) knew each other. We would be heading to the last continent together where we would spend two weeks literally and figuratively roped-up together.
We all had our hopes and dreams, fears and doubts as we ordered appetizers and local wine. We talked about climbs we had done, expeditions completed or not, and the funny and tragic stories that always accompany mountaineers during their journeys. We were diverse in nationality, age and gender, but not in spirit of adventure. There was very healthy sense of humor and self-deprecation combined with self-confidence and strength. We knew however, that the real test would come just days from now when we traded our street clothes for climbing attire and heavy boots.
As we left the restaurant for the short walk back to our hotel, our thoughts turned to logistics (when would the big plane come to take us to Union Glacier), gear comparisons (what kind of parka and sleeping bag did you bring) and to plans (even then it was ‘what are you doing next?’).
The next day we got word that the Ilyushin-76 would not be coming until the following day. So the team mostly messed around to get their gear ready and concentrated on saving energy for the miles of climbing onward and the thousands of feet upward to come.
By Sunday morning we were all raring to go. We got the call and hustled our big North Face duffel bags down to the lobby and waited for the vans to take us to the airport and board the plane. As we stood in front of the dreams hotel, we watched as everything was weighed, tagged and logged in from the massive boxes of food to our equipment that the team and guides had accumulated and transported to Punta Arenas.
A few of us wandered off to a nearby SuperMercado in search of last-minute beef jerkey (not to be found), Pringles and chocolate to supplement the personal food items we had brought from our home countries.
We knew Christmas was a week away, but it just did not really feel like it. We were like race horses penned up being the gate, our feet itching to start moving, upward and onward. But our patience would be one of our biggest virtues.
When we arrived at the airport, we were escorted to a special holding area and could see the Russian cargo plane sitting on the tarmac getting fueled up and ready to go. The air was heavy with anticipation and we all really wanted to be off and planting ourselves on Antarctica. We had to be prepared with our heaviest parkas and warmest boots since we would be stepping off the plane onto blue ice and miles of frozen snow beneath us. Finally the call came and we were taken to the plane.
The enormity struck us as it seemed like an old comic book space-plane with the ways the wings were shaped and the cockpit exposed at the bottom. We settled into our seats and watched as our bags and equipment were stashed just yards behind us and we looked around the plane and the antiquated and exposed wiring, Russian warning signs and miniature windows.
48 seats on the plane and all of them filled with climbers and other exhibitionists whom we got a chance to meet. Like Erik Larsen who was attempting to ride his balloon-tire bike across the continent and the South African woman who had already trekked and skied over 800 miles on Antarctica.
Suddenly the planes four engines started revving and the crew passed out earplugs to dampen the nose. We fastened our seat-belts and prepared for the ride. The plane slowly, but surely started to move, and then faster until it achieved escape velocity. The noise was deafening and there was not much conversation in the plane as people were left with their own thoughts as it made the 4 ½ hour flight to Union Glacier.
As in any other flight, some listened to music, some slept, some watched videos. But it had the feeling of no other flight since the destination was the coldest, highest, driest desert that most of us had never been to.
As the plane engines started to throttle down and the jet slowly descended we tried to look out the portholes to get a glimpse of where we would land. As the plane touched down and skidded along the mile plus long runway, we knew that we had finally (or almost) arrived at our destination.
We stepped out of the plane onto the most slippery ice one could imagine. In our Everest Millets and no crampons, we tried to not injure ourselves before we took any steps up. We wandered off as a group to a small hut where we had some tea or coffee and looked in awe as they took our stuff off the plane onto custom made trucks and tractors. We all knew cold and we were visiting again with cold and knowing we would be well acquainted before the next two weeks would be over.
We were taken in a custom six-wheel drive van over a well marked path that had been checked with GPR (Ground Penetrating Radar) and saw our first sight of the vastness that is Antarctica. We arrived at the Union Glacier compound and found a hot meal waiting for us and the hope of hopping on a Twin Otter ski-plane for the final hour long flight to Vinson Base Camp.
Luck was on our side as the plane was prepared, our gear was double-checked and we were eventually whisked away to walk over to the waiting plane. We of course did not know that we would spend three days at Union Glacier after the climb waiting for a flight out and getting to know life on the glacier very well.
As the plane taxied and turned and lurched, we knew we were really on our way. As we took pictures and videos of the flight over, we could hardly believe that we would be walking these slopes and glaciers and carrying and pulling our hopes and dreams along with us. As a team.
When the makeshift runway at Vinson Base Camp (elevation 7,000’) came into view, we all peered from the windows and looked with amazement as the plane made a near perfect landing on its skis and finally came to a smooth stop just a few hundred yards from what would be our base of operations.
We quickly loaded our gear on waiting sleds and pulled them down to the camp-site and got ready to get ready. We were given instructions and help on how to set up our polar tents and we proceeded to the nesting and settling down phase. Steven and I raised our tent and got busy with propelling our stuff inside and inflating mattress pads, placing ThermaRests and getting the sleeping bags ready under a sunny sky.
We were given instructions on the toilet usage, the cook-tent, and where not to go for fear of crevasse danger in areas that were unmarked. We huddled into the communal tent afterward where the guides had prepared a delicious meal and hot drinks while we all got to know each other better. Starting the next day, we would have some additional training, get our climbing equipment prepared and begin the human non-jet powered journey up the mountain to what we hoped for would be both successful and uneventful. As we settled into our tents that night and got reacquainted with our thoughts, we could see the vastness surrounding us and felt the smallness that comes from being in a place where no living things – no birds, bushes, trees or animals were present for a thousand miles.
We felt safe for the moment, together as a team with two trusted leaders who had done this before, and knowing that we had the courage and confidence to carry our loads onward and upward.