Mountaineering :: Trekking :: Ski touring


This was my 9th Antarctic season and my 7th working for Adventure Network International (ANI). I had an interesting and varied season doing a variety of tasks at different locations in Antarctica. Each year the ANI operation grows in size and complexity and there are new challenges opportunities for the field guide staff. The number of programmes available for clients is increasing and these are led all by members of the guide team. Taking mountaineers to climb Mt Vinson remains an important part of the operation. Throughout the season about half of the guide team will be working in the Mt Vinson area. The other half will be leading ski trips on the polar plateau, leading climbing and skiing programmes in the Ellsworth Mountains, or leading shorter day trips close to Union Glacier. In my ten weeks 'on the ice' I had the good fortune to be posted to all of these locations helping the ANI customers enjoy and appreciate the wonders of Antarctica.

Mount Vinson start up: 18th November - 23rd November
I was part of a five-person team that opened the ANI operation on Mt Vinson this season. We prepared the runway for ski aircraft, erected tents for staff and customers and built the main 'office' structure. I remained at VBC to complete this work while the other members of the team opened the facilities at low camp and high camp including preparing the fixed ropes on the steep part of the route between the two camps.

Mount Vinson Base Camp: 24th November - 4th December
The first Vinson climbers of the season arrived at VBC on 24th November. There were four teams climbing the mountain and I spent the time at VBC coordinating communications and logistics. As is often the case in late November conditions on the mountain were quite cold. The weather was far from ideal and the forecasts predicted a period of very high winds on the upper reaches of the peak. The climbers spent several days waiting at low camp before all made successful ascents of the peak.

South Pole Last Degree: 5th December - 16th December
I have led four previous ski trips to the South Pole and for this (my fifth) I had a group of four men: two Austrians, one German, and one Englishman. We spent a few days at Union Glacier Camp preparing supplies of food, fuel and camping equipment. We also had a short ski outing close to camp to check that everyone was comfortable with their skis and boots. The flight to 89° South was on the DC3 Basler, the largest of ANI's ski aircraft. The journey was faster and more comfortable than my previous trips to the South Pole, when we have flown in the smaller Twin Otters, and we reached the drop of point in 3½ hrs.

The journey from 89° South to the South Pole (90° South) spans one degree of latitude. This equates to 60 nautical miles, or 111.2 km. The air temperature at Union Glacier had been pleasantly warm, but on the polar plateau conditions were noticeably colder. With an altitude of almost 3000m and a constant breeze the temperatures stayed around -20°C / -25°C during the trip. We completed the journey in eight days skiing between 4 and 8 hours each day, covering distances of 6 - 12 nautical miles (11-22 km).

On the penultimate day we camped just a few miles short of our destination. This enabled us to ski a short distance the following day to reach the South Pole. The team took lots of pictures at the ceremonial South Pole (established in commemoration of the 1961 Antarctic Treaty) and the Geographic South Pole (whose position on the ice surface moves by approx 10m annually). Later in the day we were given a guided tour of the USAP's Amundsen-Scott South Pole Research Station, before flying back to Union Glacier the same evening.

Mount Vinson Base Camp: 17th December - 27th December
I returned to Mt Vinson to work as Base Camp Manager for the later part of December. Weather conditions on the mountain were quite cloudy for the first part of this period and none of the climbing groups made early summits. Once the weather cleared the four teams of climbers made safe and successful ascents of Mt Vinson. While the climbers were on the mountain there was plenty of work needing done in Base Camp and I was kept busy looking after the services and facilities. I managed to get out of camp a few times and enjoyed a couple of short ski trips on the 600m slopes to the West of VBC.

Union Glacier: 28th December - 11th January
Union Glacier Camp is the gateway for all ANI's operations in Antarctica. During the three-month 'season' at the height of the Antarctic summer approx two flights a week fly in from southern Chile bringing supplies and passengers. Some guests spend only a few hours at Union Glacier before flying onto other locations in Antarctica to take part in adventurous (skiing, climbing etc) or scientific activities. Others will spend up to a week based at Union Glacier Camp and taking part in activities in the surrounding area. During the season there is always a small team of field guides based at Union Glacier to organise these activities. In a busy and varied two-week period I assisted several client groups in the area around Union Glacier Camp. My jobs included: driving a photographer around the area on a skidoo, taking clients on walking/climbing/ski trips, hunting for meteorites with a metal detector, transporting scientists in wheeled and tracked vehicles etc.

Mount Sidley: 12th January - 20th January
My final project of the season was to lead an ANI expedition to climb Mt Sidley (4285m). This remote peak in the Executive Committee Range is the highest volcano in Antarctica and had only been climbed twice before (1990 and 2011). Several people are looking for alternatives to the conventional '7 summits' and one such list is the '7 volcanic summits'. All four of the climbers (three Russians and one Canadian) on this trip to Mt Sidley were aiming to climb the highest volcano on each of the 7 continents.

We flew the 1000km from Union Glacier to Mt Sidley and landed at the entrance to the horseshoe shaped caldera, halfway up the mountain. This enabled us to site base camp at a height of 2850m with good views of the steep crater walls above, and the extensive ice sheet below. The aircraft remained on the ground for the duration of the climb and the aircrew established a comfortable Base Camp facility for us. Mindful of the need to acclimatise to the altitude we ran a slow paced ascent over a four-day period. On the first day we explored the route onto the Eastern edge of the crater rim. The climb was quite straightforward and we found a good sheltered campsite at a height of 3450m. It was very cloudy next day with light snowfall but we were able to move up to the campsite and pitch the tents. The weather did not appear good next morning when we set out for the summit. After a few hours we reached the edge of the summit plateau and the clouds began to clear. We picked a route between dramatic rime ice 'mushrooms' and reached the highest point of the mountain at 15.00hrs. By this time the sky was clear and there were good views in all directions to the other extinct volcanos in the range. From the summit we were able to see the aircraft waiting for us at Base Camp far below.

The descent to the tents at 3450m took three hours and we spent a comfortable night before descending to base camp in the morning. We flew back to Union Glacier the same day thus completing the expedition to climb Mt Sidley in a five day round trip from Union Glacier.

Union Glacier: 21st January - 25th January
Once the last customers had left Union Glacier there were a few days for the ANI staff to close down camp at the end of the season. A camp catering for 60 staff and 60 clients is a sizable operation and it takes a lot of effort to pack everything away for winter storage.

David Hamilton 6/3/2013

David Hamilton
High Adventure
67 Castle Road
CV10 0SG


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