We landed at Patriot Hills Base at 4:30 am. Mike Sharp appeared and showed us where to camp, then directed us to the dining tent for breakfast. Fran was busy cooking scrambled eggs and toast for everyone. This was the first fresh food we had eaten in the last two months.
Back at Patriot Hills, we are sorting our gear in a "Guide Hut."
Back outside again, Fran invited us to use one of the guide's huts for sorting our gear. This hut is a large, portable shelter, 15 feet wide by 60 feet long, with a plywood floor and insulated fabric walls designed to enhance solar heating. It has a propane stove and oven, and a kerosene snow melter for making water. It also has 4 large tables and many chairs. We worked here all day, sorting gear for my next two trips (hopefully), and for Jenny's return.
The Guide Hut.
Mike had invited us to use the shower stall inside a small tent-shelter, with water heated by a kerosene snow melter, and poured into the solar shower bags. Most people would balk at the basic nature of this facility, but to us it was heaven-sent.
I didn't want to leave Antarctica yet, and climbing a mountain appealed to me greatly. Yet I was not prepared, mainly as I did not have climbing boots and gear.
On the radio, I had Jenny relay my desire to Mike Sharp, and there happened to be a fellow there in the radio room with Mike, Sam Silverstein, who had just finished his climbing trip, (info) and who offered to loan me his climbing boots (size 13), crampons and harness.
Sam had been on the first ascent of Mt. Vinson, forty years ago, but had purchased these boots recently. From P.H. he returned to the States, and left a note for me saying that he would loan me the boots and gear, but that they were also for sale.
So today I had a chance to try out the boots, and they fit perfectly. I liked them so much that I decided to buy them.
Mike loaned me an ice axe from his inventory, so now I am all set.
While organizing our gear in the guide's shelter, a woman came to visit. By her conversation, Annie Aggens obviously knew of us, as it seems had just about everyone else we have met down here. She was about to guide a Last Degree trip, and said she had been to the North Pole five times. Jenny and I had a most pleasant conversation with her, but imagine our mutual surprise when we discovered that she had done several long canoeing trips in the Barrenlands. Birds of a feather!
She said everybody is impressed when you tell them you have done a trip to the North Pole. But nobody is impressed by long canoeing trips in the Barrenlands. When in fact these two types of trips are almost equally demanding. We agreed and knew the problem well. We talked of the Barrenlands and its magnificent rivers for nearly two hours.
Annie and a client out for a practice run. They will soon begin a last-degree trip.
On the following day, Annie and a client will board a twin otter for a flight to the last-degree. They will start at 89°: and ski 69 miles to the Pole. (The client was subsequently frostbitten on the face.)
Enjoying a delicious dinner in the dining tent with about 30 other people. These tents have plywood floors, insulated walls, and kerosene heaters. They are semi-portable and very comfortable.
At far left: Mike Sharp, part owner of ANI and PH site director; Annie's client in green; Annie in pink/purple; and Martin Rhodes, camp medic.
After dinner Jenny and I retired to our tent at long last. With this 24-hour daylight, it's easy to miss some sleep, especially when there is so much going on. We had been awake for 48 hours since leaving the South Pole. We then slept for 18 hours. The night was very windy but we were snug in our cozy little tent.
Patriot Hills: Day-2 (2007-01-11)
The Patriot Hills
The Camoplast tracked utility vehicle, used around the base, but also for transporting aircraft fuel to the Thiels depot.
These guys have just returned from a trip to Thiels in the Camoplast. The guy in the dark sweater is Ronny Finsaas, a Norwegian who drives the Camoplast and is also a gourmet chef. He is also one of the best kiteskiers in Norway and has skied back from the Pole twice. (The next year he would kite ski from the pole in only five days!)
Martin, the ANI camp doctor, checked us both out and could not find any serious problems. We did experience a few cold-related injuries but they were entirely superficial. Some of the other staff here at Patriot Hills, were surprised that we have returned from our sledging trip to the pole in such good shape. Unlike some of the others, we have no frostbite, and although we have lost maybe 20 pounds each, some others lost over twice that. We walk around camp like a couple of fit tourists. I think that is due to our moderate, well-regulated pace, which kept us free of stress injuries.
The wind is blowing strongly here, and also in Punta Arenas, Chile. So Jenny is waiting for the right conditions for the Ilyushin to fly out.
Meanwhile, my preparations for the Vinson climb are underway. My group will consist of four people. Patty works for ANI and is presently waiting for us at Vinson Base Camp. The other two climbers are waiting in Punta Arenas for their flight to Antarctica. When the Ilyushin brings the climbers, Jenny will grab the same flight back to Punta Arenas. Then the three of us climbers will fly to Vinson BC on a Twin Otter. I would not have chosen to climb with a guide, but that's in the regulations for this mountain, and it really doesn't bother me to have to comply.
Jenny and I spent the day sorting gear, and fine-tuning my equipment. I adjusted my boots so the inner and outer fit just right and are easy to put on. And I adjusted my crampons to fit the boots properly. Then with ice axe in hand, I spent two hours climbing every little molehill around camp. After that, I went for a long walk, still in crampons, out across the sastrugi.
Climbing every little molehill around camp, testing boots and crampons.
Patriot Hills: Day 4 (2007-01-13)
A storm is moving in, and would subsequently pin everyone down for the next eight days.
The tent looks cold, but has become our home away from home and is actually quite comfortable. Even though the sun is not shining, the inside of the tent is much warmer than outside, due to solar heating.
Shoveling snow away from the entrance to our tent.
We are still at P.H. awaiting the Ilyushin to bring the climbers in and take Jenny and others out. Meanwhile the weather is stormy, with cloudy skies, minimal visibly, strong wind, blowing spindrift, and some snow. And with a forecast of more of the same.
Tim, one of the climbing guides, from Alaska
Tim, a Mt. Vinson guide, spent the morning with us in the guide's tent, making sure my gear was suitable, and filling me in on the plan and protocol of the climb. The mountain is 16,050 feet high, and from where we fly into Base Camp, we have a 10,000 foot climb - although most of that is gradually sloped. It should be lots of fun and I am eager to get started.
In the "Guide's tent."
In the Guide's Tent, the kerosene heater and snow melter.
Life at the Patriot Hills base is comfortable, as long as you are not standing out in the wind. We sleep in our tent, and take long naps there too, and spend our days mostly in the guide's tent-shelter, sorting food and gear.
We have four piles of food and gear:
- For Jenny's fight back to Punta Arenas.
- For my Vinson climb.
- For my next fun trip, which I hope will happen if time and the management allow, and which should be quite short, only 4 or 5 days.
- And for my time at PH, waiting for my Ilyushin fight back to Punta, at the end of this month.
The employees here at PH number 20 or 25, and they are all quite friendly. Of special note is the camp doctor, Martin, who has gone out of his way to make sure we are healthy. He pays attention to every minor detail, and has given us ointments for this and that, which have really helped. Due to the cold, the body's ability to cope is reduced, so dermatitis, fungal outbreaks, etc. are pretty much the norm. Also he gave us a small tube of hemorrhoid medication and I was surprised when he said how much of that he has to bring with him every year. It's a very common problem down here, he said. Martin has been on numerous high-altitude or extreme cold expeditions and has decades of experience in these extreme temperatures.
To feed such a large staff plus guests, the company has three cooks/chefs, who prepare wholesome meals on rotating shifts. These meals have helped me restock my body's energy reserves, which I will need during my upcoming climb.
Unfortunately, Jenny and I were advised that we were no longer invited to the dinner meals. We never were invited to breakfast or lunch, except the morning we arrived back from the Pole. Meals and lodging cost extra, we learned this afternoon, so we have returned to our leftover expedition food. No problem. And anyway, as soon as there's the slightest break in the weather, Jenny will be off to Punta Arenas in the Ilyushin 76, and I will be off to Vinson Base Camp in a Twin Otter.
Meanwhile, all activities are on hold while this storm blows through. It's been six days, now, of high winds with sub freezing temperatures and blowing snow. And the foul weather shows no sign of relenting. Last night the wind was up to 45 knots, and today the drifts behind the tent/shelters are up to 4.5 feet. The light is flat, so a person has to be very careful when walking around, because some of the drifts are steep sided, and essentially invisible.
We are getting plenty of rest. During our ski to the Pole, "rest" was the number one thing we longed for the most. So we are content to let this storm blow itself out. But the season is beginning to wane. I am still scheduled to climb Vinson, but after that I may not have time for my Next Fun Trip, short though it would be. The 27th of January is looming on the horizon. That is when the staff pulls out. It's the onset of Antarctic winter.
At the beginning of this storm I covered the skirt of our tent with solid blocs of hard-frozen snow/ice. The storm covered them up and froze them to the under-layer, so that I could not have moved the tent if I wanted to. So on the third day I shoveled the snow away, and one by one, dug out the blocks and hacked them into small pieces before replacing them on the snow skirt. then I could move or take down the tent if needed.
Also, the storm has been blowing spindrift against the door of the guide's tent/shelter, with high drifts. When we can no longer open the door, we have to go out and dig the snow away.
Video: Eight Day Blizzard
From a cartoon book in the PH library.
Another cute cartoon.
Patriot Hills: Day 8 (2007-01-17)
The wind finally quit blowing and the snow finally stopped flying. We spent the morning in the guide's tent. My job was wash my clothes. It was about time; I had been wearing most of them for two months straight. Of the three shirts and three pants, one set was practically fossilized. I washed them many times, but I doubt that it did much good. I would throw them away, but I need to wear them for another two weeks.
Luis, an aircraft mechanic from Chile, comes around to deliver stove fuel.
A drift behind the guide's tent.
The Camoplast removing the drifts from around camp.
The sun came out briefly so I thought a little bit of fun might be in order. I grabbed my crampons and ice axe, strapped on my skis, and headed for the hills.
Patriot Hills is a beautiful mountain range that sits behind camp. I skied a mile to the ice then switched to crampons for another mile, to the base of the mountain.
This one mile of ice is caused by the powerful katabatic winds coming off the mountains. It sweeps everything clean and turns the surface into blue ice.
Halfway across the ice I crossed a huge bowl, where all I could see was this blue ice. It was very beautiful, but also very otherworldly.
I started up on mixed snow and frozen gravel. This gravel is made of small rocks averaging about one inch. It was the first "earth" that I had touched in the last two months.
In a few hundred feet I began diagonalling across a steep snowfield. I had to stay left because further right the snow turned to ice on a steep incline. The ice encroached on my route so I moved left onto more gravel, this time quite steep. Fortunately my crampons were making the footing secure, so I proceeded slowly another 100 feet to a shelf.
The wind was blowing about 35 and the clouds were starting to spill over the mountains and blocking the sun, so about a third of the way up the mountain I turned around and headed back down, following my tracks.
Jenny greets me on my way back to Camp.
At the edge of the ice I traded my crampons for my skis, and skied back to camp. Total trip time was three hours.
It was an incredible afternoon, especially since the mountains were so beautiful. I enjoyed this climbing introduction in Antarctica very much.
The superficial frostbite of my finger tips is healing nicely.
Patriot Hills: Day 9 (2007-01-18)
The sun is out at PH, and although the wind is blowing between 5 and 12, the temperature is moderate and our tent is covered with little drops of water. This is spindrift melted by the sun. I don't know what the official temperature is now, but yesterday it reached a high of -1C; but of course this is a fairly low elevation.
We've been here eight days, and we have become friends with all the staff.
Mike Sharp is the director of operations and part owner. He has decades of experience in Antarctica and elsewhere. The ballgame down here is extremely complex and Mike has the whole thing riding on his shoulders. He is an extremely hard worker, and very personable too. He shows up at our guide tent several times a day to keep us informed and to have a bit of a chat. Despite the enormous cost of being here, we wouldn't be here without Mike, and neither would anyone else.
Fran keeps the camp running smoothly and she shows up at our guide's tent at least twice a day with any news. This is her 11th season here at Patriot Hills; she is doing a fabulous job and we and everybody else think the world of her.
I have already mentioned Martin, who has to be the world's best expedition doctor. He continues to monitor our health, and to supply ointments when we run out.
There is not enough room to mention all the staff, but I would like to mention a few others. Mike, Fran and Martin are from the U.K. Scotty, you can guess where he is from, is one of the chief mechanics and there is no describing how tough he is, especially in the cold.
Ronny is a Norwegian who drives the Camoplast and is also gourmet chef. He is also one of the best kiteskiers in Norway and has skied back from the Pole twice.
All these people have been very nice to us, and so has everyone else. But special mention goes out to Luis, an aircraft mechanic from Chile; Malin, another cook from Norway; Wally, the pilot from Canada; and Tim, one of the climbing guides, from Alaska.
In short, a very eclectic and interesting group.
The landing strip at Vinson Base Camp is still socked in, but the Ilyushin has taken off from Punta Arenas and should be here in a few hours. The conditions here are very marginal, but the returning group, including Jenny, had their detailed briefing of boarding and flight procedures.
Patriot Hills: Day 10 (2007-01-19)
Last night the weather turned into a ground blizzard with high winds and blowing spindrift so thick you could hardly see the ground at times. It was as much wind as we have seen on the trip. Nevertheless, the Ilyushin arrived in the area, and, to everyone's utter amazement, landed.
Jenny and I felt like we were on an expedition just walking into the tempest one mile to reach the big jet. Once there, we stood in the lee of a snow cat, while the staff finished loading. Once the airplane was filled to capacity with returning cargo, the ten or fifteen passengers began to climb aboard. With one last hug, Jenny wished me well, climbed aboard, and the door closed behind her.
While the Ilyushin is being loaded, Jenny waits in the lee of a snow cat.
I sat in the front seat of the snow cat, and when the plane started its engines, they pelted the snow cat with even more snow, and dozens of small rocks that had been blown off the mountain. But when the plane moved far away, the snow and rocks kept coming at us, such was the tremendous force of the wind.
The big jet took to the air, and left our storm behind. It had also left about 17 passengers behind, people who had been waiting in Punta 10 days or so for their fight to Antarctica, climbers mostly.