And so to a really rather tricky day. Perhaps the start of all the troubles is the fact that BA (no longer my, let alone the world’s, favourite airline) cannot manage flights bought through them but being undertaken by a different airline. As a result I was not able to check in on line.
Anyhow, when I get to Heathrow, it turns out that the flight has been significantly overbooked and there are no seats left in any class! One option (!?) is to come back in a couple of hours to see if some people have not turned up. Wanting to avoid the usual institutional uselessness, I turn this down and get them to start finding an alternative route for me. The best that can be done apparently is a flight via Phoenix (South East of the US as opposed to the North West). On the one hand at least this is moving in the right direction on the other this means a long flight on a US airline – these are apparently very much flights to be avoided; imagine and aged and even more budget version of Easyjet!
Anyhow for some reason this takes a long time to process via the various systems and then I notice that the flight is actually 20 mins earlier than my original flight and in fact time is running out for me to catch it. 'Oops, you’re right' is the response! So I head off to departures to find that my ticket does not work! Another 5 mins passes and then someone remembers that your ticket is automatically invalidated 35 mins before departure. More phone calling and messing about with the system and eventually I am let through having clarified that my bags will not have suffered the same fate and been taken off the flight. Anyway, I run through the airport (no time to put my big mountaineering boots back on after security) and just catch the plane.
All well and good, or so it seemed until I received a message saying that there was a problem with my baggage and that I would need to speak to the ground staff at Phoenix to resolve it. As I should have guessed, my luggage had not made it onto the plane. More disconcerting was that it was not clear whether my luggage had just missed the flight or was actually lost – differing BA systems provided information that that did not really correlate. Obviously no one here can to do anything here to help ensure that my bags are found and forwarded to me before the group leaves for the mountain! Then it is a rather miserable frills free 6 hour flight from Phoenix to Anchorage getting in at 2 am rather than the 21:30 that I had arranged.
Unsurprisingly, having had very little sleep for a while, I wake up early at about 5am local time.
The sun is pouring through the window and I am getting my first chance to see my roommate in some light. To my alarm there is a very definite female nature to the form there. Usually sexes do not share hotel rooms on such trips so my immediate reaction is one of concern that there has been a mix and that the poor lady is about to start screaming when she finds a strange man in her room.
This leads to some consternation as to not only what a chap can do in such circumstances but just as importantly what he should do. Quite luckily, my moral quandary is resolved when she wakes and gets up leaving without screaming. It turns out that this is Smiley, a Chinese girl studying in Kansas, who has chosen her name very suitably.
From there, it is down to the lobby to harass BA staff in the UK to see what progress I can make. At first very little as I am bounced round the various automated systems getting the wonderfully helpful answer "there is no new information, please call back later" despite the fact that nowhere can I find the current position or even the starting position. Anyhow I finally get through to customer services and some excellent chap confirms that in fact my bags have been put on the flight and that he will message the team in Phoenix including the managers there (none of whom get into work until lunchtime!) to make sure that they know my bag is arriving and to be ready to pull out the stops to get it onto the flight to Anchorage.
In amongst this, is catching up on all the things I have not been able to do over the past couple of days - working right up to (or being honest a couple of minutes after) the start of the first meeting of the expedition. This is an introduction to the team and a bit of a quick overview of the next few weeks.
This is followed by a kit check - mine is obviously pretty brief and then a trip into town for some Tex-Mex lunch and last minute shopping. I get the good news phone call from the BA Phoenix office that the bags are on their way and they will do their best to get them onto the flight to Alaska in the evening - the big unknown it seems is US customs who may be kind and speed the bag through or (which is just as likely unfortunately) decide to go through the contents in detail in which case the bags may not make the connecting flight and will have to come on a later one! Since we are flying onto the glacier in the morning this will be somewhat of a problem!
We also select our lunch food. Breakfast and dinner will be in camp with lunch eaten as we walk - a similar format to most expeditions. We head out to the van in the parking lot where there are 5 large plastic storage boxes filled with all sorts of chocolate bars, energy bars, dried meats, dried fruits and nuts. We need to take 17 days worth which ends up filling an 8 litre bag! Given I have not eaten most of my power lunches on prior trips I have decided to go for a selection of fruits and snacks to vary my diet as much as anything else.
This is a US trip (non-Alaskan guide companies are not allowed to operate here) and as such it will be run very differently to British trips. This has its ups and downs with the defining feature being that you generally treated as being incompetent and inexperienced. An upside at times is that the guides cook for you. This is great if you are tired and they usually bring different food to the freeze dried packs I have been having so far. On the other hand catering for yourself makes you feel much more involved in your own expedition and not just like a passenger being led round the mountain. The real downside is that the treatment is carried into general camp activities and also the freedom, or to be more specific, lack of it that is permitted whilst trekking. This will be a real challenge for me; probably more than anything the mountain can throw at me itself!
Having not slept for a while it is time for a bit of a nap in the afternoon before going for a wander round the outskirts of Anchorage in the early evening. It is an interesting place and probably similar to many other US cities. A vast sprawl of a town on a grid system with unfortunately little effort on the charm front. This is a town based on the oil exploration in Alaska and increasingly tourist business. There is a lovely outside bar in the hotel and I have a nice salad on the shore of the lake there as the sunsets and then back to bed as I have to wake early to see if my bags have arrived and then sort myself out for departure at 07:30.
I wake up early again (2am) presumably out of concern for my bags - not that there is anything that I can do about them now - and read until about 05:30 which is when the hotel gets its daily delivery of luggage from the airport! I found this out when I arrived at 2am and was too exhausted to ask any more about it. I head downstairs to ask at reception and unfortunately encountered someone equally confused as to why there might be a daily delivery of luggage from the airport. Just before this gets farcical / Pythonesque I manage to persuade her to have a quick look behind reception just in case there are any large bags there. I am not sure if a shuffle can be sceptical but she certainly put her all into conveying that as she shuffled off to have a look. Lo and behold, and much to her surprise and my relief, there my bags were. I have never felt so pathetically grateful to a receptionist or an airline for such mediocre efforts but they managed to avert a pretty tricky situation for me!
After that it was a hasty sort through my things and a quick shower before heading out to Talkeetna from where we fly onto the glacier. On the way we popped into a supermarket to pick up some sandwiches. In addition to the deli counter for made to order, there was a selection of some that were already made. This included one that had to be almost 3 feet long and the width of a load of bread. As if that was not enough, you also got some fried chicken free if you bought one!
At Talkeetna we organise and weigh our bags and change into our mountain gear before getting into the small planes to fly to the glacier.
The scenery is stunning on the flight in:
The scenery is stunning on the flight in and the landing amazingly smooth. The weather has been fantastic for a while and we have blue skies and sun for our first evening on the glacier. We organise our bags and prepare some of the various ropes and harnesses that we will need for the trip and have an early night ready to head off early in the morning. It tends to get coldish at night here which means the snow/ ice is crisp and hard in the morning which is the best to travel on. As the sun warms it up it can start to turn to slush which is much harder to push through.
After a quick breakfast we pack our sleds and head off for the move to Camp 1 - about 5 miles with minimal vertical ascent.
As we are moving on the glacier there is an ever present crevasse danger and as such we move roped up together and so have to move at the same speed - very slow but the views are great!
We get to camp at ski hill after about 4.5 hours. The expected time is 3-6 hours so not too bad but I would hope to be able to do it in about 2. The real issue here is that this is an uncomfortable pace for me to walk at as it is not fast enough for my heart or lungs to get going which causes a big build up of lactic acid in my muscles - for the chaps reading this, just think how tired you feel after following your darling wife / girlfriend round the shops for a few hours. You haven't done much but feel pretty tired at the end.
On arrival we set up the tents and then take some shade from the very strong afternoon sun. Another early dinner and bed - as the weather warms we are going to be travelling early in the morning pretty much every day.
Up early again (5am although since I am still jet lagged this is still a lie in for me!) and we walk up the glacier to cache some of our gear, food and fuel. This is only about 3 miles but there are some reasonably steep sections.
We get there in about 5 hours compared to the expected range of 3-6 hours, and dig a deep hole for our stuff - there are heavy fines if this is not done properly and you make a mess on the mountain!
We stick out sleds in our backpacks on the way down - it looks a little strange but it is actually much easier to walk like this rather than having the sleds slipping about on the slope and tangling your legs.
On the way back the glorious sunshine we have had since arrival breaks and low cloud and snow arrive. This remains all afternoon and combined with the weather we get something approaching sleet.
We meet a group back at camp who it turns out were the lucky last group to make it onto the glacier as this low cloud has put a stop to flights for the past couple of days and it is not clear when it will lift - some reports say 5 or 6 days - so groups are currently backing up at the Talkeetna airport. Most trips have a few contingency days (usually about 4) so you have to feel sorry for people seeing these being used up before they even start their expedition - and how lucky we are getting out here the day before the weather arose!
The rest of the day is relaxing in the tents before supper. Supper is mountain pizza - cooked in a very interesting way. Bases are heated on a hot plate and then the toppings are placed directly onto the hot plate in reverse order - cheese then salami and then tomato sauce. The base is then put on top of this and the whole lot is flipped a bit like an omelette and served. It tastes pretty good!
The morning starts with a peek outside the tent to see what weather we are going to have to contend with.
and conditions haven't really improved half an hour later...
Although there is low cloud and it is still snowing (about 6 inches had fallen over night) it looks okish for the day. We have a quick breakfast, strike camp as head off at 9am.
In fact there is little wind and the low cloud is keeping the heat in so I end up just walking in a shirt for most of the day, putting a mid layer on to keep the snow out in the breaks.
The difficult part is tying to guess what the weather will be like for the next hour at each stop to make sure you do not get too hot or cold before the next chance to change at the next stop in an hours time.
By the time we get to camp we have walked above much of the low cloud and the sun comes out. The sun has in fact been doing a fair bit during the day and there are a few red faces and noses especially. Time to break out the nose guard - this is basically a small piece of foam that attaches to your sunglasses and covers your nose as the strong sun up here means that it will burn very quickly.
The afternoon is relaxing in the tents. We are now up on the serious part of the mountain and it can get seriously windy up here. To protect ourselves and the tents we camp within snow walls - quite luckily the good weather has really emptied the mountain and so there are plenty of spaces for us to much right in without having to do much building ourselves.
Another group from the same company is 'racing' down as it is first come first served at the airport to get off the glacier and so they jump into our mess tent for a quick supper after we have finished at about 20:30 before carrying on down through the night.
Leisurely start to the day before heading off at 10:30 to retrieve the cache we have deposited a couple of days ago. There is now quite a bit of wind together with the low cloud and snow so it is a pretty miserable walk down and back.
Then lunch and relaxing in the tents in the pm. There is talk of doing some technical training but given the weather and that half the group are experienced mountaineers and the other half have just been on a course run by the company, there is little appetite for it.
After a bit the weather improves slightly - the wind drops and the visibility improves and so we do some crampon and ice axe basics. This is another key difference between UK and US trips - a UK co would not take inexperienced people on such trips and so there is little training on them. US firms will basically take anyone and so have to do basic skills training on the mountains - personally not sure how safe taking totally inexperienced people is even if you are going to treat them as children on the trip itself.
Then dinner and bed.
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