Continuing the theme of the start and beginning of each trip being harder than the mountain itself, BA / Iberia / LAN compete to see who can be the most unhelpful over the course of my journey from London to Punta Arenas via Madrid and then Santiago.
BA yet again excel by being unable to cope if part of your route is with another airline and so whilst they graciously give me a boarding pass for the flight to Madrid they can not help with either of the next two legs. I have about 2 hours turnaround time at each but it looks as though it is going to be tight. We get to Madrid at half ten and querying how I will get my boarding card there I am told that there will be someone waiting for us as we disembark to provides transfer passengers with their cards.
Unsurprisingly, no one is there to meet us and as it is late the desk (once we finally locate it) is closed as everyone has gone home. I head to the departure gate but first there is confusion as to which gate the plane is flying from and then there is no one there to help. Luckily, I am flying business so, as a last resort, I head to the lounge to see what they can do and am met by smiling faces and a helpful attitude and we soon get our boarding passes.
As this is being printed, I am chatting to the lady about the trip and she seems very surprised that I am going to Antarctica with no luggage. I assume that this is a problem with my Spanish so I tell her about my two large bags full of mountaineering clothes and equipment. She now seems confused and switches to English to confirm that there is no luggage associated with my ticket - which is really rather concerning as I don't think that the outdoor stores in PA have all the technical equipment I need. I show her my luggage tags from the London flight and she checks the system again but can find no record of them. This is really worrying but she calls someone who claims that the bags have arrived and been transferred to the Santiago flight and do not understand why the system isn't showing them. Don't worry she says, it will probably be ok. Easier said than done but there is little else I can do at this point so find a seat and have a large whisky to calm my nerves.
The next part of the fun comes on arrival at Santiago as I have to clear immigration, pick up my bags and check in again as I am now on a domestic flight. I have repeatedly queried the time allowance for this and told it will be fine and so no special fast track service is provided or needed. Firstly, we arrive at about 9am when the majority of trans-Atlantic flights arrive so there is a huge queue in immigration. Despite that delay, there is still quite a wait in the luggage hall for the baggage and I am on tender hooks as to whether my bags have made it - naturally they are pretty much the last bags off the flight!
Then I have a wonderful time clearing customs as the chap behind me has ticked on his Customs Declaration that he is bringing plants or fruits into the country. For some reason they decide that this is my form and I am brought back to the counters having nearly got out. They don't accept that it is not my form and want to see what I have in my bags. Then they are annoyed that I have wasted their time when it turns out that I don't have any fruit or plants in my bags. By now a good 1h 15mins of my 2 hours have passed and I am getting rather concerned about the check in so I peg it to the departure hall which thankfully isn't too far away but obviously is absolutely full. I find a lane for the handicapped and families which is empty and ask what i should do since I am now running very late. The chap shrugs his shoulders and says he can't talk to me unless I have children or am in a wheelchair. Again I assume that my Spanish is at fault and so switch to English and again he repeats that he can't talk to me unless I have children or am in a wheelchair. I finally convince him to talk to me briefly and (remaining remarkably polite!) and he then agrees that I can go into another special lane (it is not clear what this is for) which is massively shorter than the main queue. Within 30 seconds of joining that queue an airline official comes through calling for people for the Punta Arenas flight and I am lead back to the wheelchair and family line where the same chap seems to have forgotten our conversation of a minute ago and is now very happy to help me and then adds that I need to hurry through the airport to the gate as I shouldn't hold the plane up!
I get to the gate as they are boarding but there is a long queue so I take a seat next to the desk to wait. The queue gradually subsides and I head to desk when there are a few people left talking to the lady checking the tickets and so I wait my turn. This goes on for a bit so I go to the other side and speak to someone else at the desk to go through. They say sorry and that the flight has now closed! It turns out that the others are airline employees trying to get a standby seat and there weren't any and it is my fault for not interrupting the conversation to go through. I press this and they say sorry, there is nothing that they can do as the last bus has left for the plane - this does seem to be a problem but I think I can see a plane through the glass walls and moving 5 yards to the side of the deal it is quite clear that the gangway does in fact go straight to the plane. Having been caught lying, one of the ladies agrees very reluctantly to see what she can do and so calls the plane and then says rather crossly that I should hurry up as they have been waiting for me. I walk the 20mtrs or so to the plane to be greeted nicely by the air hostess- obviously, there is then a further 20 minute wait while they complete paperwork etc. Thankfully, that brings the dramas to an end and I don't really have time to worry about my bags at PA as the whole lot come quickly and mine are some of the first.
Overall, a pretty stressful journey but I and all my bags have made it. I get to the hotel at about 8 pm and not having met anyone else from the trip as yet have an early night to catch up on some sleep.
The main event today is the gear check at 3pm so I go for a potter round town in the morning. There really isn't much to see in PA and it is very windy and rainy being just off the Southern Ocean so not long later head back to hotel to finalise some work and get some more blog entries published.
The gear check is uneventful apart from a bit of concern as to whether my 6 pairs of gloves and 6 pairs of trousers would be enough! I then head to the checks on the two Daves (from Canada) who are also in the hotel to say hello before we head out for another wander round town and plan to meet for a couple of drinks and dinner later on.
We try to go to the Shackleton Bar which is where he spent a lot of time planning his Antarctic trips but for some reason it is closing early at the moment and we leave without even being able to get a drink.
Today we have a briefing about Antarctica, expedition logistics and the plans for the next few days. There are 9 people on the Vinson Climb going with ANI and couple of other groups using ANI logistics for their climb and a few others going out for trips - skiing near Union Glacier and some flying directly to the pole.
After that we head back to the hotels to pack our bags for the pole - they will be picked up today and loaded into the plane in the evening so we can move as quickly as possible in the morning. Weight is a bit of an issue - I had 36kg on the flight over here but am only allowed 25kg for Antarctica. A few emails and calls reveals that there is a different limit for those doing both the Mount Vinson climb and ski to the Pole but that is only 30kg so it could still be a bit of a problem. In the end it turns out that the policy isn't enforced too strictly as long as you are sensible about what you are taking which is a bit of a relief.
Having met some more of the team at the briefing (the last two are already on Antarctica for some training) we head for a group dinner before final packing and preparation for our 5am pickup in the morning.
Things move pretty smoothly given the number of people and the early start. We take a bus to the airport and then leave our hand luggage on the bus whilst we go through security - they are bizarrely strict (belts off, shoes off etc) given that they are not even looking at our bags! Nor do we go through passport control which is a little surprising.
A number of other groups soon join us doing a variety of trips on Antarctica. Then after about 45mins we head through the gate and down to our buses which are now waiting for us this side of the airport and drive out to the plane. This is a big Ilushin cargo plane that carries everything on and off Antarctica and it is pretty full with all of us and a lot of cargo. There is a big tv at the front which has a live stream from a forward facing camera.
We fly to Ushuaia (in Argentina) first as the Punta Arenas airport is using the busy summer period to carry out some works on the runway which means that we can't take off with a full fuel load so go there to refuel en route. This adds about 2.5 hours to the flight making it about 7 hours overall but soon enough we are touching down in Antarctica.
Despite all the dire warnings, the sun is shining which offsets the cold and the wind so I have a little walk whilst everyone else piles into the waiting vehicles to take us to Union Glacier (UG) which is the main camp here.
UG is pretty impressive and we get taken on a tour before being told to have a quick lunch as we may be flying out to Vinson base camp soon.
The food is remarkably good out here which is a very pleasant surprise - I can't say that I was really looking forward to a month on rehydrated food! There I meet Gus who has been here for about a week on a training course and is very complimentary about the set up which is very encouraging.
Annoyingly, I am sitting next to the wing on the plane so I can't take any photos really but there are some great views on the 45 minute flight before we land at Vinson base camp.
Even here the infrastructure is pretty good with a permanent and quite large mess tent. From there we get a great view of the mountain and the summit which is pretty rare from base camp.
We also meet a team who have just come down on day 13 of their trip - they have been very unlucky with a lot of bad weather and were meant to fly out when our Ilushin headed back to PA and so will be very late getting home. The weather forecast for the next few days is pretty good but we are going to be taking things slowly - let's just hope we don't waste all the good weather at base camp and end up climbing in the cold and wind.
We spend the rest of the day organising ourselves and chatting in the mess tent. There is 24 hour sunlight here so we aren't governed by night and day as such, but rather by the trajectory of the sun (or rotation of the Earth to be more precise!). The sun is pretty low here and the temperature drops significantly when it goes behind one of the nearby mountains - which makes it a good time to be in your sleeping bag! The concept of time becomes rather strained as you approach the poles and so to keep things simple the whole setup remains on Chilean time - this makes it generally shady in the morning here so we will usually be getting up late to allow time for the sun to warm things up again.
It turns out that this is really quite a luxurious trip - well at least in terms of the logisitics. There are tents in place at the various camp sites already, much of the food is pre-prepared at UG and then just needs re-heating on the mountain and much of the fuel we will need is already stashed at the various camps.
There are two implications from this - firstly that apart from the weather this is going to be a very easy trip and secondly it is probable that there will be very little for us to do on the expedition. Whilst some people like this, you don't really learn much on such trips and nor do you get so much out of them as it can feel much more like a tour than an expedition. This feels a lot like Denali and a number of the guides are Denali guides which is a bit of a worry as I don't really like that style. We will have to see how it goes...
After breakfast we organise our gear and get our various systems in place for pulling sleds and climbing the mountain. In fact, there are only three camps on the mountain - base, low and high. Since we won't be caching any gear that means we will only have four walking days so it could be a pretty short trip if the weather stays good but we also have plenty of contingency in case of bad weather. From a look at the local map of the route, none of the days are tough or long either. This expedition is pretty much driven by the weather and your ability to deal with it. So far, we have had blue skies and strong sun so dealing with heat whilst walking and avoiding sun burn seem like the key skills for the next few days - unfortunately I get too hot too quickly and usually burn so this will be good practice!
After lunch we go for a short walk on a nearby mountain - to stretch our legs, help acclimatise and get used to the walking conditions here. The scenery is stunning as usual but it is really hot as we are protected from the wind and I am soon down to one layer on top and bottom and my top is unzipped most of the way to my waist causing the guide to worry about me getting a sunburnt chest! This isn't helped when I take it off completely at one of the stops to try and cool down!
We are walking at a decent pace but it soon turns out that this is to gauge our fitness and unfortunately we will be going slower on the mountain. We come out into the wind at the top (2,800 mtrs approx) and layer up rapidly before heading back to VBC. It's been a pretty good first trek here and certainly the guides are so far leaving us to our own devices quite a bit which is a good sign.
We are heading off to Low Camp tomorrow but not until after lunch so we have a very relaxed afternoon as we can pack in the morning. Amusingly, we decide to play the 'mine' game - if you are heard saying the word 'mine' you have to do 10 press ups regardless of where you are. In extreme circumstances you have 5 minutes in which to complete the press ups. It is good fun and helps a new group bond quite quickly.
Unusually for an expedition, but as usual for here, we have a rather lazy morning packing our gear for the mountain. We are taking sleds only as far as Low Camp which seems a little strange but in fact you tend to spend time there waiting for good weather so it is nice to have more of your gear there which you then leave behind when you head up the mountain and only have your backpack.
The trek is pretty gentle but it is pretty hot although given the slower speed I am wearing two layers this time but again zipped a long way down. There are some great views as we start to gain some altitude and can see more of the terrain around us.
Whilst most of the day is spent dealing with the blazing sun, we get a reminder of how quick the weather can change here when in a matter of minutes low clouds fill the valley for a while and then clear up again in a few minutes.
We make camp in just under 5 hours at about 7pm and spend the next hour setting things up - clearing space, erecting tents etc. The rest of the evening is in the mess tent chatting, dinner etc.
We go to bed and sleep late as we are not getting up until about 11am tomorrow as that is when the sun comes out from round the mountain.
Pretty slow morning with a late breakfast before a bit of rope training and then heading off for an acclimatisation walk at about 14:30.
We head up a nearby hill that takes us to the route that people used to use for climbing Vinson.
It is quite a bit windier today so we are wearing a lot more protection (generally a buff or light face mask) to shield us from the wind as well as the continuingly powerful sun. The shoulder into the next valley is particularly windy so we don't stay long and after about 10 mins we head back down.
When we get back we have a late lunch at about 5pm.Despite being a bit hungry, we don't eat that quickly and only finish at about half six and then have (a light) supper at about 8pm followed by chatting and press ups until bed at about 11pm having enjoyed some dramatic views as the cloud keeps coming in.
The bad weather seems to be arriving now as the wind picks up late in the evening which makes the short trips outside pretty chilly! There is quite a bit of cloud cover coming in but this should mean a more consistent night. Ie cold but not too bad all the way through as the clouds should trap in the heat that usually vanishes when the sun goes behind the mountain.
The forecast is for a few more days of high wind so it is very unlikely that we will be going anywhere for a few days. Whilst it is pretty annoying to be stuck in the same place for some time, we have plenty of contingency days so there is no time pressure as yet.
Accounts and photos of completing the Explorers Grand Slam - 2 Poles and 7 Summits. By Sebastian Merriman. Aconcagua, Ama Dablam, Carstenz Pyramid, Denali, McKinley, Elbrus, Everest, Kosciusko, Kilimanjaro, North Pole, Arctic, South Pole, Antarctic, Antarctica, Vinson, vertigo, climbing, mountaineering, skiing to the pole, skiing to the poles, seb2poles7summits, seb27, Seb Merriman, seb2poles, mountains, poles