|Union Glacier- about to board the small |
plane for Vinson BC
(note: unedited, bear with my grammar :)
We were told that we’d be riding a giant Russian cargo aircraft – Ilyushin! Russians always make very big things from guns to tanks, to missiles – and Ilyushin is just one of them. The Ilyushin has hi-tech wheel system designed to land in a semi-flat-but-not-smooth rugged terrain in Siberia to transport military supplies and personnel. And nowadays, this same reliable, combat-proven monster is being used in Antarctica to transport supplies, scientist, climbers and rich tourists!
The fact that we were riding ‘something different’ excited all of us. Who has ever ridden a big cargo plane which lands on a blue iced glacier? Not something very common, ey!!
Big ships are used if one is traveling around the Antarctic Peninsula, or visiting the various islands below South America – where one could observe thousands of wildlife from King penguins, to seals, and big whales.
If one is bent in observing the ‘Whale Wars’ first hand, or the fight for whales between Sea Shepherd and the Japanese whaling fleet – your only option is to ride either the Jap’s (as a whaler) or SeaShepherd’s ship (as the anti-whaler) taking off from Australia - the ‘other side’ of the Southern ocean.
A visit to the Ice’s interior however requires flying.
We soon assembled our gears with excitement, not for the climb – but more for the ride. We did our inevitable last-minute shopping, last minute NICE DINNER, last minute BEER and last minute phone call to our loved ones. If any…
We rode the monster ‘spacecraft’ - giggling like little boys and girls, taking pictures and videos just like first-time travelers. I wore clothes good for Punta Arenas weather, and readied my down suit for our landing and disembarkation. It could be a good -20 to -30C drop of temperature and I needed to be super prepared. I recall cartoon characters suddenly dropping into a very cold place and instantly froze into brittle ice. Now put Mr. Terminator in the scene saying - “Asta la vista… boom!” and the frozen ice-like character exploded! Haha! I’ve been watching too many movies and cartoons!
The flight was not so bad, the haul was refitted with cushioned seats and foldable bench at the back – so we were actually ‘properly seated’ during our almost 5-hour flight. It was like being in a flying box due to the absence of proper windows, and the restroom is very small that only 5-footer person can comfortably fit. And this plane is designed by big Russians?
Soon the pilot announced that we’d be landing soon. MORE EXCITEMENT! We donned our suits or thick jackets and eagerly waited for landing and exit.
The actual landing on ice was one of the smoothest landings I’ve ever experienced – paved runway included! Truly these hardcore pilots are experts in their chosen field. Or maybe the weather around Union Glacier was just remarkably nice and calm.
We soon disembarked again like little boys and girls queuing for Santa to get gifts, we lined up excitedly to exit the door. I slowly walk down the stairs and finally and deliberately set foot on Antarctica! CHECKED!
Funny that we felt like we just reached a summit, or maybe the moon! Majority of us were first-timers and we were just living that moment… including Mark-our-guide who was doing his first guide-ship work in Vinson. Now imagine how Neil Armstrong felt when he actually set foot on the moon!
While the ‘airport boys’ were shooing us away from the dangerously slippery glacier as we were not ‘cramponed’, we endlessly posed for pictures, did videos, smiled a lot, greeted other folks – like some out-of-the-blue Christmas party. I saw one guy actually kneeled down and kissed the ice-floor. Probably a returnee? Who failed to summit Vinson? I never found out. I’ve been meaning to do that but thought that it’s best to reserve that for my next Antarctica trip. And I was worried that my lips would actually stick on ice if I kiss it!
We rode giant hauler-trucks fitted with ice-tires, and we saw some 4x4 with chain-wheels typical of armored carriers or tanks. It was another 5miles+ to the Union Glacier camp proper – where our smaller aircraft for Vinson was stationed.
Lunch was already served when we arrived. A sumptuous lamb curry with rice! Yumm!
Then I suddenly recall that we paid some 35,000US$ to get this kind of service! :) and the expensive fee was starting to pay off.
In Antarctica – there’s one primary commercial operator called ALE. Antarctica Logistics and Expeditions!
They operate the cargo planes and run the Union Glacier camp including medical, food services and sanitary operations. They employed some 100 personnel yearly of which includes cooks, drivers, camp helpers, doctors, pilots, drivers and even lecturers and tour guides.
Union Glacier is a small town of its own, and with good toilets and good food around – one can just pass his or her time easily reading books, watching DVDs, listening to history lectures or just spending time walking around camp and taking pictures! An austral summer with 24-hour sunlight with temperatures from -15C to +5C is not so bad, even 20C or so inside the warmed tents.
Vinson Basecamp and Low Camp 10,000ft
The ALE basecamp manager arranged the Vinson flight schedule for all the teams. Unlike other mountains, Vinson is climbed by batch of climbers based on Ilyushin plane arrival - which is not very often. I think we were like 6 or 7 independent teams. These teams plus tourists and scientists probably totaled some 40+ and enough for one flight. My team was one of the bigger group and so one small aircraft was assigned to us, set to leave the same night. Vinson basecamp – or rather landing camp, was just an hour away.
Not waiting long, we soon heard the announcement that our team would be flying out soon. We hauled our stuff and boarded the small twin-engine aircraft, relieved that we were not left behind in Union, and thrilled that we were finally starting our Vinson climb trip proper.
We arrived late at night although sunlight was still up and bright! We finally met our 2nd guide - Jacob. A battle-veteran-looking but smooth-faced guy. He just finished his first trip successfully, and about to start his second with us.
We ate light food, fixed our tents, and said our “Beunos Noches!” then crumpled inside our tents.
We didn’t wait for the sun to rise up before we woke up, as the sun is always up during the summer. Sleeping in no-night brightness forces one to rely on a chronograph or watch to count sleep-time. We decided we had enough lay-down and started the day with good breakfast.
Well, not so good as its expedition time and we were on instant-food mode. Instant coffee, instant oatmeal, cereals and other boring instant stuff.
Jacob did most of the strategizing and move schedules as he knows the place more than Mark. Somehow, I could feel that he was in a hurry. If we are fast, and the weather cooperates – we could be done in just a week’s time!
We soon did a single carry to low-camp. There was a half-camp a couple of hours away from basecamp where we rested. It was also our last stop for pee. In Antarctica – one is not allowed to just pee anywhere. We use pee bottles en route, and use designated pee-holes in the campsites to dispose off our yellow juice. “Number-2” also called “Major” by Pinoy climbers, or Pupu-time, is trickier. We have to use what they call a Wag Bag, a disposable waste bag that we brought in, and then brought out later. No waste is allowed to stay in the continent to avoid any unwanted contamination or micro-organism growth, to preserve the superbly pristine environment of Antarctica!
After our quick stop at half-camp, it was already clear who were strong and who were struggling. The 2 Americans were somehow competing with each other, powering up their way to the camp. One was 53 years old and the other 47, but both were in their top performance shape. Omar, having been to Himalayan climbs, tried to take it easy and slow – just like WE ALL should be doing it, but was mercilessly pulled by his rope team. Rick, one of the Americans – took his time and admitted that he was not on the right performance state. I was probably second to Rick in the team’s weakling rank.
From not doing so much activity, to a quick weighted walk in Baguio, to another week of travel and wait – and suddenly I was doing a tough haul of some 90lbs of gears and supplies above 7000ft!
I could feel my muscle aching, my cardio-vascular pumping, and my morale molecules evaporating!
I was happy Mark was leading my rope team, he was a nice guy who understands the word ‘pacing’ and patience.
After around 6 or so hours, we hit camp. The low-camp is just beneath the steep headwall leading to the high-camp. From the high-camp, the next point is the summit.
The low camp in Vinson is situated near the base of a steep slope, so there’s a few hours in a day that the sun is covered from the steep-slope side. And we agonized on the sudden drop of temperature when the sun hid itself behind this mountain. A drop of -20C can sometimes be felt!
While on the tent, I discovered that I really did get tired, and while changing clothes I shivered for a while, then suddenly have this over-urge to VOMIT! I knew that I wouldn’t make it to the toilet area or have enough time to grab a wag bag – so I just pulled out my pee bottle and puke on its small mouth opening trying not to smell my own wewee. I failed. The heavy odor of iced urine combined with acidic vomit is not for anyone with a weak stomach. I have other issues in mind so the baddest of the odor was forcibly tolerated and quickly brushed aside. I was more worried about the high camp, and the summit. Too bad Levi was not around to capture the moment on video. But that was to my relief.
This tired-and-cold induced vomiting was not something really new as I experienced this from time to time, but it did tell me that Vinson was not going to be an easy mountain to climb.
Dinner came and we ate a lot. I didn’t like the typical western food except for the Asian noodles that were served in one of our supper. And it was a treat to have meat like sausage, patties or bacon in some of our meals! Poor Levi – as he doesn’t eat mammals as part of his dietary constraints.
We took a well-deserved rest day and squandered time by reading books, walking around camp and taking videos and pictures. I normally just walk around and take videos or pictures, and I did curved an alien-looking snowman, or slowly munch Pinoy delicacies that I bought from home. We oftentimes mingled and talk about life.
Our rest day also happened to be a holiday - New Year and it just passed by like any ordinary day… One of the few sacrifices that climbers do to climb mountains - skip holidays and family festivities! The Russian team was having a lot more fun. Russians always find a reason to party and drink vodka – and New Year is something that they will not surely miss. They have several bottles if not boxes of liquor as part of their supplies. :)
I also read my only book when I was really bored. A recall the title -“As far as my feet will carry me!” An interesting story of a WWII German prisoner in Russian Siberia who escaped a slave-prison camp and returned home after 3 years! Quite amazing! His will power and consequential strength and stamina were a hundred-fold more than any modern, well-fed, well-geared, hard-core athletic mountaineers! After reading the book - I realized that I didn’t have ANY valid reason to say “Hard” or “Difficult”.
Also, in one of my mingling walk-about, I was surprised to meet - a Sherpa!
For some reason, and maybe after my last 5 trips in Nepal, I’ve come to ‘feel close’ and very comfortable with these people. The Sherpa dude and I have common Sherpa friends and I was surprised he later remembered me during my Everest climb – and mentioned that we were actually neighbors in Everest basecamp - and that I was wearing a yellow downsuit during my summit! Good memory! Haha!
Next day, we geared up for the headwall climb to do a ‘carry’ – we’d bring some stuff and deposit them in the high camp, then go down the same day.
Before the climb, Jacob made a long good speech and quick alpine climbing lecture, as if we were on some training.
I recall his joke that goes like – “There are only 3 sports in the world, bull-fighting, car-racing and mountaineering. All other so-called sports are but Games!”
Hahaha! We all laughed then I argued about car racing! So that one was tentatively demoted as well.
(to be continued...)