VINSON I: Welcome to Antarctica

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The Flight South

Last night for some reason in the hotel I barely slept. Probably a combination of still adjusting to the new time zone plus anticipation for the day ahead (and my roommate snoring). Lying in bed awake at 06:00 I decided it was pointless trying to get any more sleep so got up and went to the hotel gym.

We were meant to be flying to Antarctica this morning but based on last night’s weather forecast at the pre-departure briefing I was expecting (or hoping) the flight would get bumped to the afternoon. 07:30 still in the gym I got a message saying the winds had dropped and the flight was going ahead on schedule. Pick up in 30min. Why is it whenever you want a flight to be on time they are always delayed, but when you want a slight delay they are on time?

I rushed back to my room, jumped in the shower, got dressed, stuffed my gear in my bag and headed straight downstairs. The flight rules state you have to board the plane wearing the same gear as what you’ll need when stepping off on to the ice in Antarctica. Checking out of the hotel wearing thermals, thick insulated pants, big high altitude climbing boots and puffy down jacket in hand attracted surprisingly very few looks. They’d seen it all before.

The flight departed from the normal domestic terminal in Punta Arenas with all other domestic flights. We already had our boarding passes so didn’t have to check in but still had to go through airport security. Naturally I set off the metal detector.

“Please take your boots off and go back through sir”, I was instructed.

“Are you serious, do you know how hard these boots are to get on and off”, I protested.

Nothing infuriates me more than those clowns at airport check-ins who delay the entire queue as they repeatedly set off the metal detector each time removing items from their pockets and articles of clothing one by one. You know you have to pass through security so be prepared and dress accordingly. This time I was that clown holding up the queue.

Once through security we had a brief wait and were then ushered onto the tarmac and out to the awaiting Ilyusian 76, an imposing looking Russian plane. Onboard it contained one large cargo hold, the front half fitted with about 10 rows of seats, 3 wide each side, and the back half pre-packed with pallets of expedition gear and supplies. It was a full flight with people from various expeditions and workers heading down to the Union Glacier Camp.

The 4.5hr flight to Union Glacier was pretty uneventful and even the landing on the ice runway was quite smooth, although did take a long time to come to a stop with no brakes, initially ripping down the glacier at flying speed until coming to a gradual stop.

The White Continent

Stepping straight off on to the ice into such a remote and remarkable place was humbling. I had read many stories of polar expeditions on this vast white continent but never believed I’d actually have the opportunity to see it first-hand.

The freezing temperatures and strong winds bought me back to reality pretty quickly. We boarded straight onto waiting vehicles, big 4WD trucks risen up and sitting high on large mud (or should that be ice tyres), requiring a step ladder to get into. When I was a kid Santa gave me a remote control car, a blue monster truck. Ever since then I’ve always wanted a large 4WD truck kitted out with the works; body lift, oversized mud tyres, snorkel, spot lights, everything. Completely unpractical for driving city streets I know, but look pretty cool. One of these vehicles would fit the bill perfectly, if only I could take one home. I digress.

We got driven about 8km back down the glacier to Union Glacier camp. It’s a pretty well-equipped camp with all the basics and even a volley ball court. Although it was the communal fat tyre bikes that caught my eye. I’ll have to take one of those for a spin when I get a chance.

We were given a quick tour of camp and told all the do’s and don’ts then we were straight on to our next flight, a small Twin Otter ski plane, seating capacity about 10 people that was to fly us to Vinson Base Camp.

 

Vinson Base Camp

The flight to Vinson Base Camp took about 45min and had spectacular views of the Ellsworth Mountain Range and Antarctica beyond. White as far as the eye could see.

Vinson Base Camp is very basic. There are about 4 teams here, each with a small mess tent and few two-man sleeping tents, pitched on the Branscomb Glacier.

Chatting with our guides, the plan is to stay here tomorrow and then head up to Low Camp the day after. Time to settle in and adjust to the subzero temperatures.

 

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