This is a brief note to say that I ascended Mount Sidley on 14th January. I will eventually get around to writing more fully about the trip.
It is now less than a week before I leave for Mount Sidley. In previous blogs I have provided a link to a video about life at Union Glacier (the hub of Antarctic Logistics and Expedition’s operations in Antarctica) and covered the sort of kit I will need for my adventure to Mount Sidley.
In this blog I will outline the itinerary for the trip and give a flavour of what (I think) that I can expect.
Stage 1 is getting to the southerly tip of Chile, to Punta Arenas a city of around 125,000 people and the largest city in the world south of the 46th parallel south. This involves a flight to Madrid where I pick up a LATAM flight to Santiago. The flight is a monster 14 hour hop to the capital of Chile. I follow it soon after with a 2½ hour flight to Punta Arenas. I arrive on 6th January. Punta Arenas is three hours behind UK time.
Here I am met by a representative of ALE and taken to my hotel where, I hope, to meet the other members of my party (other than the ALE guide who will already have flown to Antarctica).
Punta Arenas has a cool, dry and windy climate. Summer temperatures average 14C. Summer is also the windiest season. According to Wikipedia, ropes are put up in the city to help pedestrians cope with downdrafts created by the buildings there!
Once in Punta Arenas I spend two full days there. The two principal events over those two days are:
There will be limited time to explore Punta Arenas. But I understand there is not much to do in the place anyway – a couple of museums and a penguin colony.
Stage 2 is the flight to Union Glacier which is scheduled for 9th January. However, flights do not happen unless the weather forecast shows perfect conditions for the whole of the return trip (the plane returns to Punta Arenas the same day). The flight time each way is around 4½ hours and the plane must spend around two hours on the ice unloading and loading. I will pack all the gear I need for the trip in a single duffel. The weight allowance is 25kg. There is a charge of $66USD for each kilogram over the allowance. That said I will be wearing cold weather gear on the plane, including those double boots and the expedition down jacket mentioned in a previous blog. This is for the simple reason that I will need to be prepared for the environment I will step out into.
So whilst the flight is scheduled for 9th January, it is known for flights to be delayed for up to a week until weather conditions are right.
The duffel is sent to the airport the day before departure. This is to enable ALE to weigh the bags and to pre-load the aircraft so as to be able to depart as soon as the weather is suitable. If the flight is delayed, I might be stuck at the hotel for some days without the duffel and its contents.
Surplus items (e.g. travel clothing to/from Chile) are left at the hotel for the return.
The route of the flight crosses the Drake Passage, follows the west side of the Antarctic Peninsula and then the spine of the Ellsworth Mountains. The plane lands on a naturally occurring blue-ice runway at Union Glacier.
The Ilyushin jet that takes us on to Antarctica was originally designed to carry loads and land in areas where there are no runways – e.g. on the Russian steppe. So seats for around 40 passengers are installed and the plane will be carrying anything from food to vehicles. There are limited windows so a camera is fixed to the nose of the plane and images put up on a screen at the front of the passenger section. So I am not anticipating the most comfortable of rides!
I have read that emerging from the plane can be quite a shocking experience, having come from 14oC (58oF) and emerging at perhaps minus 17oC (0oF). That is why we wear our cold weather gear on the plane.
The ice runway is located around 8 kilometres (5 miles) from the camp at Union Glacier. We will be taken in tracked vehicles from the plane to the tents and our bags follow.
This is the camp set up by ALE for the three month Antarctic season. It is located at 79o46’S 82o52’W. It is the hub of activities for which ALE provide support. These include visiting the South Pole (whether by ski or air), climbing Vinson Massif (the highest peak on Antarctica), climbing in the Ellsworth Mountains, providing logistical support for scientific teams, providing support for a nearby Chilean scientific base or any other activity that you care to dream up. Recently for example a group wanted to do freefall parachuting over Union Glacier, so this was organised.
The camp is capable of accommodating up to 70 adventure seekers in dual occupancy clam tents. Clam tents are double walled sleeping tents measuring 5m x 2.4m and high enough to stand up in. They are provided with a wooden floor which insulates against the snow/ice beneath. There is even a wash basin in each of them.
The temperature within the tent will be around 15oC (60oF) because it is naturally heated by the 24 hour daylight. Outside the temperature will range between 0oC (32oF) and minus 17oC (1.4oF).
The focus of the camp is the dining tent. Guests are slightly spoiled here because all the food is freshly cooked. Meals are served at set times so there will be an opportunity then to meet like-minded people from all around the world.
If the thought of going up to three weeks without a shower is too much to bear, there is limited opportunity to take a shower at the camp though water is rationed as you might expect. So wet wipes will be the order of the day.
When I said that everything that goes into or is produced in Antarctica must be removed, I meant everything. This includes human waste. If you do not want to know the detail, please skip to the next paragraph. Urine is kept separate from solid waste – so each cubicle at the camp has two toilets in it to ensure separation. If you are in your clam tent with a storm raging outside, then it is customary to use a pee bottle which can later be emptied, at least for urine. Now, of course, on the mountain things will be slightly different as there will be no pre-installed toilets. Here one urinates into a pee bottle (which is then emptied into a barrel). One poos into your own large bag. That is not as bad as it sounds because (a) it will freeze within a few minutes and (b) the freezing gets rid of smells. Once on the mountain, dehydration will also limit the amount of urine. Bet you are glad to know all of that!
I will spend the first couple of days at the camp. This provides an opportunity to spend some time climbing small peaks nearby to acclimatise to Antarctic conditions and to ensure that all equipment is working as it should. There are also other activities such as skiing, use of fat tyre bikes, walking (!) and the like.
In addition to the clothing that I have previously written about, I will have a worrying amount of electronic equipment. I say “worrying” because such equipment is prone to failure in extremely cold conditions. A lot of my effort will therefore be going into managing the impact of the cold so I am able to return with a fantastic record of the trip. So this equipment will include:
Finally there are the expected medical facilities. ALE employ around 30 people for the season to look after guests.
One facility that does not exist is access to the internet – though a satellite phone can be available.
In addition to the Ilyushin, ALE have three other ski planes stationed at Union Glacier. These are two De Havilland DHC-6 Twin Otters and one Basier BT-67. We will need two of these to get to Mount Sidley.
Mount Sidley is about 550 miles from the Camp. So on day 4 (12th January), if the weather conditions permit, we will depart. The travel time is around 5 hours. This apparently long time is because one of the planes carries spare fuel for a dump part way. So we will land part way whilst the fuel is unloaded and the planes refuelled. At that point, one returns to the camp and we continue to the mountain.
Upon landing, we have to set up a base camp. The aircraft and its pilots stay with us. Base camp will comprise five sleeping tents plus a mess tent. We will have to build walls from the snow to protect the tents plus suitable toilet facilities. The pilots will cover the plane’s engine to protect it from the elements.
Here we will be at around 2,000m (6,700ft) elevation. This compares to Union Glacier’s elevation of around 750m (2,100ft). Altitude will start to be a factor at 2,000m because the atmosphere over Antarctica is thinner and therefore the air pressure is likely to be the equivalent of around 3,000m (9,800ft) between the Tropics.
Weather here will be harsher than at Union Glacier. Typical temperatures will be minus 15oC (5oF) to minus 40oC (minus 40oF). Temperatures in the tents will never be above freezing.
This is the part I know least about – at least in terms of detail. We will have 6 or 7 days to make the climb. From base camp to the summit is around 2,225m (7,300ft). One or possibly two, depending on the route, intermediate camps will be set up. There is the potential to explore new routes on the mountain. The guides will determine the route depending on their assessment of the group’s skill and experience. Something not attempted before is a complete circumnavigation of the mountain’s crater.
We will have to carry all our gear (including group equipment) and food with us up to the intermediate camp(s). This will probably weigh in the region of 35k to 45k for each team member. The carry is made slightly easier by hauling most of this on sleds. So we will probably ski up to the first intermediate camp dragging sleds behind us. The gradients are not severe on the lower slopes so hauling the gear in this way is feasible. This will take 6 or 7 hours.
Depending on the weather forecast and how people are feeling we will either stay there with a view to making a summit attempt the following day, or descend back down to base camp. If we make an immediate descent, we do not set up tents there but cache them with the remainder of the gear and food. Caching ensures that if a storm blows in the tents are not ripped to shreds and/or blown tens of miles across the Antarctic plateau. Once tents are set up on our first or second trip to the intermediate camp(s), we may protect them again with snow walls depending on the forecast.
As for food on the mountain, I am anticipating that we will be living off meals that are reconstituted by pouring boiling water over them. These are not great (though they do provide calorific intake) and do sometimes play havoc with the digestive system. I will also be taking snacks with me and am still pondering what might be the most suitable and palatable snacks to take. Suggestions welcome!
So the shortest time to climb the mountain is three days. But of course it is all weather dependent. If we are able to make a quick ascent, then there is the prospect of climbing a nearby (15 miles away) volcano called Mount Waesche. I believe that this volcano has only ever had one previous ascent (where snow mobiles were used).
Once our time is up we fly back to Union Glacier stopping off to refuel at the fuel dump and collecting and removing the empty drums. From then on we will be on alert for a return to Chile at any time. Again, of course, this is weather dependent. So I could have anything from one day to a week before I fly out. If on schedule I would be leaving Antarctica on 22nd January.
Finally I acknowledge the photos in this blog are made available by ALE from their website.
The Antarctic climate is generally cold, dry and windy. The temperature will remain below freezing at all times. Respite will be had inside the communal and sleeping tents at Union Glacier where sun and body heat will warm the air up to 10C (50F). Outside temperatures at Union Glacier will range between -4C and -12C (25F to 10F). Windchill will make it feel colder. Unsurprisingly there is a required gear list issued by ALE for those who want to climb Mount Sidley.
This blog is about that gear. It focuses on the technical gear rather than leisure clothing. The greatest risk is that of frostbite. When the temperature is just below freezing and there is no wind, conditions can be quite benign with all that sunlight bouncing around. Sunburn and snow blindness then become the risks to guard against.
Antarctica is the windiest continent. A high pressure system tends to sit over the continent during the summer and this pushes katabatic winds off the Antarctic plateau towards the surrounding oceans. The build up of high density cold air over the ice sheet and the elevation of the ice sheet brings into play enormous gravitational energy. Where these winds are concentrated into restricted areas in the coastal valleys, the winds blow well over hurricane force. This not something, I hope, I will experience. However, the winds at Union Glacier are at least strong enough to scour away the snow so as to enable use of the ice runway there.
Katabatic winds tend to be dry. In other words they desiccate anything they come into contact with, including human skin. So normally I will be trying to ensure that my skin is covered at all times. In stormy conditions, the temperature can drop to as low as -40C (-40F). I have experienced -30C (-22F) in Finland. So this will be a similar experience.
I am grateful to Adventure Peaks for the advice provided in assembling my kit. They have also been my agent in organising the overall trip.
My boots are Millet Everest boots. These are the sort that are used on Everest and other 8,000m peaks. They are an insulated double boot with inbuilt gaiters. The inner boot is removable and can be worn by itself, e.g. around camp. As this is the only expedition that I am ever likely to need such boots, I have been able to hire them rather than buy them. They retail at around £560 a pair, though by shopping around a cheaper price can be found. With them I will wear Grivel 12 point crampons. These are steel crampons which I have had for a number of years.
On my feet I will wear both thin liner socks (Bridgedale – not shown in the photos) and heavyweight socks (Bridgedale Summit or Smartwool). Three pairs of liners and of heavyweights are needed in case they get wet from sweat and freeze.
I will have four pairs of underpants. Two are merino wool and two are of lighter material. No cotton is permitted as cotton more easily absorbs moisture, will not wick moisture away from the body and is difficult to dry in the expected conditions.
Much of my gear is by Rab. For the legs, this is no exception. All items are made by them. Well, their gear is amongst the best. Perhaps they should be sponsoring me!
Here we have two base layers with a thin polyester based thermal and a heavyweight Powerstretch base. Both can be worn together, as I did for my Elbrus ascent.
Over these I have a Rab Vapor-Rise guide pant. This is a lightly insulated and stretchy softshell. Unless it is very windy or cold I am hoping the Vapor-Rise this will be my top layer in most cases. I have bought the Vapor-Rise for the trip but it will be suitable for Scottish winter conditions.
For really cold or windy conditions, or when immobile in my tent in a storm, I then have a Rab Photon pant to go over the lot. This is of Pertex microlight construction with Primaloft insulation. It is similar to one of my upper body layers (see below). The Photon pant promises to be very warm. It has full length ankle to waist zips so can be put on or taken off without needing to remove crampons.
I am also considering taking a hardshell pant (not pictured) which I happen to have for further protection from wind.
Here I have a short sleeve mesh base made by Brynje (bottom left), a thin long sleeved base (bottom right) and two thicker tops with half zips to assist with regulation of my temperature. When the wind is not blowing, it is surprising how little you have to wear when climbing.
The Brynje base was kindly provided free by Nordic Life whilst I was on my Norway trip last year. It is surprisingly effective with the warm air trapped by the holes in the mesh. With less material it also tends to be less smelly when worn day after day.
One, two or three of these could be worn at any one time depending on conditions. The likelihood is that just two will be worn at the same time.
On top of these, there are next the following layers. First a Rab (yes Rab) Powerstretch hoodie for warmth (bottom right above). This has thumb loops to provide protection around the wrists.
Second there is a Rab Pertex/Primaloft insulation layer. This is like the Photon pant described earlier. It is very warm and is my best bit of kit. It is very versatile and has been to the summit of each of the six continental volcanoes I have climbed so far.
Finally there is an old Mountain Equipment Goretex cagoule. This is on its last legs, but will be fine for further protection from the wind and snow.
The final upper body layer is a Rab Expedition down jacket. The only colour in my size was red, so I do not think that there is any danger of me not being spotted when we are on the mountain!
This jacket is designed specifically for high altitude and polar regions. It has loads of pockets, including two inner ones where a thermos flask and food can be stored and not freeze. One of these inner pockets can be seen in the photo above.
Not just one hat but two beanies (one thicker than the other), a wide brimmed hat (for those balmy sunny days), a baseball type cap (with detachable neck cover), a buff, a balaclava and a face mask. With the dry atmosphere it can be important to cover the nose and mouth so that you breathe warm, damp air – the cold, dry air can desiccate the airways and cause irritation. In windy weather I will likely be wearing balaclava, beanie, face mask and buff!
After the face, the hands are at most risk of frostbite. At the bottom of the picture, there are two pairs of thin and thicker liner gloves. The blue thicker ones are Rab Powerstretch gloves. These gloves are worn under the others shown in the picture. I am required to have two pairs of each (in case of loss) so I am hoping that Santa will be providing the second set of each.
On the mid-left are some Marmot guide gloves which are suitable for benign conditions. To their right are some Marmot insulated gloves. I used these on Elbrus summit day, but they are not suitable for the worst conditions that Antarctica can throw at you.
The ones at the top are Outdoor Research Alti-Mitts. The mitts are waterproof, insulated and have removable liners (the red inner shown in the photo). They also have pockets to insert hand warmers. They are very warm and would be suitable for 8,000m peaks.
All of the gloves, other than the liners have wrist loops to prevent them from blowing away in the wind should they be taken off.
The sleeping bag is a Rab Expedition 1400. This is rated to -40C. I will also have a silk liner. This sleeping bag retails at £699 (though you can find it cheaper). Again I have been able to hire one. As for mats I will have a foam one and a Vango Aero blow up one.
One luxury I have invested in are Rab down slippers to keep my feet warm when in the tent.
I will also have earplugs and an eye mask to deal with the 24 hour daylight I will experience.
As might be expected, I will have ice axe, walking poles, harness, karabiners, helmet and various ropes and slings. Glacier travel is involved and we will be roped up to mitigate against slides and falls into crevasses.
70 litre Osprey pack, various dry bags, two sets of goggles and two sets of sun glasses with category 3 or 4 lenses, water bottles and insulation for them, 1 litre and 500ml thermos flasks (little one to go in the down jacket), insulated mug, GPS, medical kit, knife, spoon and bowl (latter not pictured) and an Adventure Peaks 100 litre duffel.
Well here is a picture.
I will have to weigh it all at some point! It will have to be carried, whether on my person or in bags or on a sled.
This short blog refers to a video which shows some of the preparations undertaken for the season at Union Glacier. The video was produced for Antarctic Logistics and Expeditions (ALE). ALE will provide the logistics for my trip to Antarctica in January to climb Mount Sidley. The video shows the conditions likely to be faced at Union Glacier. If it is too long for you to watch all the way through, it is worth going to the end to see the Ilyushin plane landing. Union Glacier is the initial stopping off point or hub for expeditions run through ALE. I will only spend a couple of days here (weather permitting) either side of the Sidley climb. The bulk of my time in Antarctica will be spent on the mountain in even more primitive conditions.
In my next blog I will cover some of the kit I am taking with me.