I wake up to the remarkably odd sight and sound of snow sliding off the tent. Antarctica is one of the driest places in the world with about 10 inches of precipitation per year and we seem to have had about 3 of those in one night!
As we aren't moving today there is no movement in the camp for some time and we don't end up having breakfast until about 1pm. There is nothing planned for the day so I decide to make the mess tent a little more comfy (especially for the taller people) by installing a raised bench.
Otherwise, we just hang about until supper at 7pm and then invite the other group (of 5 people) over afterwards - it is always good to break up the monotony of camp life and meeting new people is a great way to do that.
Just before we head to bed, the clouds clear up. This will give us a last blast of warmth but also probably mean a very cold night when all the heat escapes when we hit the shade. Apparently, the heavy winds are meant to arrive tonight but since we are in the valley it is not clear how that will impact us. We will get another weather update tomorrow am which will guide us for the next few days.
The main problem here is that we are surrounded by crevasses and the camp is pretty small so you can't get much exercise. I think I will have to put on my iPod and walk in circles for a while to stop my body seizing up from all the time in bed and sitting in the mess tent.
It was a pretty chilly night and there is little movement in the am as everyone is waiting for the sun to come out from behind the mountain and warm the place up. There hasn't been much wind overnight but it will be interesting to see what conditions are like higher up.
In fact there does not seem to be much happening up on the ridge but the weather forecast is for strong wind today dropping tomorrow and more so the day after. It is a pretty easy decision not to go today and so after a quick breakfast we head for a trek up a close mountain to help with our acclimatisation and to actually do something - this is a bit of a relief as it wasn't really looking forward to just walking around the camp for a couple of hours!
Shortly after we start trekking, the wind picks up and we quickly layer up and get to try out our face protection systems for the first time - ie something which covers the whole face apart from eyewear. I have a tough neoprene mask which works well but it is probably more than is required unless circumstances have got really bad and so I am trying to fashion a rather lighter one out of a buff. However, I really struggle as I naturally breathe out through my nose a lot and I tend to exhale quite a lot of moisture. This releases warm, damp air onto whatever glasses or goggles that I am wearing which then fog and freeze. When I concentrate, I can breathe out through my mouth only but in tricky situations my concentration will shift and I will then be left with fogged glasses just when I need to be able to see clearly. Hopefully with practice I can make exhaling through my mouth alone more natural.
The trek itself is pretty good as we have some excellent views and a variety of terrain - a decent ridge, hard ice, deep snow and crevasse evasion (with varied success in the group) which make for a great day out. We spend the rest of the evening in the mess tent chatting / supper until bed at about 11pm.
The weather forecasts is improving with lighter winds expected tomorrow and so we may head up to High Camp. The weather gets updated at 11am so if that sounds good and what we can see looks right we will make the decision to head up.
I have not slept this much in a long time and unsurprisingly can't get to sleep for quite a long time. Whilst we certainly get treated a lot better than on the Denali trip, it is still frustrating and a bit boring to be treated so much as guests rather than as part of a team. I am also probably developing some bad habits and will need to watch them to ensure that they don't cause problems on Everest!
Luckily the weather is as expected and at 11:45 we decide to head up. This means a quick breakfast, pack and strike camp all by our ETD of 2pm.
Despite the fact we had a good walk yesterday, the lack of activity overall has dented my appetite and I don't eat much for breakfast. This is not advisable and I am a bit concerned that I might struggle later on in the move having run out of energy - but at the same time it should not be that big a day so losing a bit of weight (as well as that I have already lost by eating so little for the past few days) will help for the summit photos! But from now on food becomes your friend (in fact it is crucial) so I will have to eat quite a bit once we get to High Camp.
Today's trek is about 40mins along the valley that we are in then a few hours up the steep slope to the ridge and then about an hour back along the ridge to the camp.
The slope is in fact much steeper than it looks and my pack (for some reason) is very full and heavy which makes it harder going than I had anticipated - still this is good to get both my acclimatisation and metabolism kicked into gear for the next day or so in preparation for our summit bid. It is also really hot which means that yet again, dealing with the heat rather than the cold is the order of the next few hours at least.
The views are superb and I manage to get a couple of photos in the breaks.
Before long we get to the top:
At the top of the slope we hit much colder air as well as wind whistling along the ridge and I get really quite cold (especially my hands) as I am not generating much heat at the speed the group is going at - good lesson for summit day which is likely to be pretty similar.
From the top of the steep slope we have about another hour walk along the ridge continually climbing up to the top of the ridge with a final steep curve back to the high camp plateau. Most others are pretty cold as well by the time we get to camp so it is not the most efficient camp set up ever but soon enough the tents are up and we are out of the cold and the wind - obviously now that we are no longer suffering, the wind loses interest in us and dies away.
After that it is supper and planning for the next couple of days. Tomorrow is meant to be clear and calm and the day after calm but with cloud. However, today's trek has taken its toll on some people and so a rest day would be good for them. The plan is to see the updated weather forecast in the morning and see how people feel after a good night's rest. Let's see what tomorrow brings!
Annoyingly and despite little sleep last night and some good exercise today I can't seem to get to sleep. Unlike on previous trips when I have just not been tired and been fine with little sleep, I feel pretty tired and would like a good night’s sleep in preparation for a potential summit day tomorrow.
As yesterday, I really can't sleep at all and probably only get 3 or 4 hours sleep despite feeling pretty tired all night - can't really explain that one. Still I feel pretty ok in the am and it is a lovely morning - no wind no clouds in the sky - so it is pretty disappointing when the decision is made later on to postpone our summit bid for tomorrow. The weather forecast has improved but there is always a risk in turning down a potential summit bid and especially one with such good weather - let's see what tomorrow brings.
The rest of the day is just relaxing - taking in the surroundings, chatting and eating - to make sure that the group is in the best state for tomorrow's bid.
We are heading off at about 8am tomorrow so it is an early night and I will just have to see if I can get some sleep.
Unfortunately, I did not get to sleep until about 4 am but woke naturally a bit before 7am - and as on previous trips did not feel that bad with such little sleep.
The weather is pretty miserable at first with low cloud and snow but it is not too cold. Things seem to improve a bit over breakfast and then I am pretty much ready to go at 8 am to find that the instruction of 'get ready to go after breakfast' in fact meant we are leaving at 9 am so I head back into the tent to keep warm. There is quite a bit of faffing around in the group so those who are ready on time end up just hanging around in the cold for a while - really not the ideal way to start a summit bid!
The weather deteriorates by the time we leave at 9 and we set off in the cloud and the cold - my concern over yesterday's decision is growing. We are also moving very slowly so it is pretty hard to stay warm or even enthused given that the clouds prevent any view to enjoy. There is a bit of a steep hill that takes us out of camp before we get onto a large flat plain followed by a steepish slope that seems to go on for ever - this is a mix of the speed at which we are travelling and the fact that we can't see any edges given the cloud which finally starts to lift.
Finally we come to the Vinson peak and head left and up to come round the back. There, after about 3 hours, we see the summit through a break in the clouds which encourages everyone as well as heralding the start of a warmer spell and some superb views of the surrounding area.
From there we climb the final steep section of this slope to the start of the summit ridge where there is a bit of a pause whilst people organise themselves for the final push and others sit back and enjoy the view and the newly warming sun.
This is very exposed and windy but there are some enjoyable technical sections and great views. The summit ridge is pretty narrow in places and in a few places there we are right on the edge of huge drops when skirting round some of the rock outcrops along it - it is even windier out here which makes it pretty treacherous going. A slip here wouldn't be fatal in itself as we are all roped together but the cold and the wind means that any injury from such a fall would inevitably lead to significant problems (pretty much certain frostbite) before getting back to camp.
The summit is equally exposed so we don't spend much time there; a few congratulations and then some photos before heading back down. Apparently, from later discussions the temperature would have been about -40 c whilst we were on the summit, much of which was the windchill. That is a bit surprising as I did not need to layer up for that at all - I did buy a new (lightly insulated) soft shell jacket for the trip and whilst I was finding it too warm lower down on the mountain, these are the conditions it is designed for and it seemed to work fantastically well on reflection - so much so that I did not really realise it at the time!
This just shows how much difference dry vs damp air makes as at no point have I felt anywhere near as cold as even the warmest day at the North Pole but there the coldest was about -40 as well.
As the weather has cleared, we can see a lot more of what we have just walked up and it is a much more enjoyable walk down - we are also on the leeward side of the mountain which helps!
The groups split up a bit on the way back to camp but there are further handshakes and backslapping (with a few high fives mixed in) when we re-congregate in camp. In the last part, heat has been a bit of an issue and I have pretty much all my vents undone to keep as cool as possible - not quite what one would expect whilst mountaineering in Antarctica!
It has actually been a relatively easy summit day. There is a slightly technical ridge leading up to the summit but there is little else to make this a difficult day. We ended up doing the round trip in about 8 hours but I would think that it would be doable in 4 to 5 hours. The main issue here is the weather which can be pretty bad, but as long as you have your extra layers this can be dealt with. The views, when you have them, are superb though.
Later on there is a bit of organising and then people congregate to chat and have some hot drinks which lead into supper and bed. I still can't sleep and lie awake thinking and reading until after 3am which is a bit annoying given how tired I am after the past few days.
We have a fairly lazy morning but things speed up from about 10am when we have breakfast and start packing. Things need to move quite quickly then but not all in the group are used to that or in the right condition so some of us end up doing a lot of the work to strike camp - others less so.
After that we head down the steep slope back to the valley below and then via Low Camp (to pick up what we have left there) and then on to base camp. There is some good weather on the way but mainly quite a bit of cloud.
When we get back to BC we find that the recent weather has melted the snow and ice under our tent leaving a variety of bumps and steps - the tents act as heat magnets and traps which is a common problem for any non-temporary camp in Antarctica.
and so have to move it to create a vaguely flat platform to sleep on. Having done that Gus and I have some of the whisky that I have brought out that goes down a treat - especially when drunk with Antarctic ice!!
After that we have our celebratory dinner in the mess tent which runs on for a while!
After the 'fun' of last night a late morning is planned but unfortunately it is pretty cloudy which means it is unlikely that we are going to fly back to UG today. We spend most of the day sitting in the mess tent (chatting, reading etc) until lunch. I go back to the tent in the afternoon to read and unfortunately sleep for a few hours which is bound to cause problems for tonight.
In the evening the other group pops over to chat and pass the time before we all head to bed at about 11pm. As predicted, I really struggle with sleep and lie awake reading, writing my blog and doing sudoku until about 6am.
Despite not getting to sleep until late, I am up at about 08:30 for a bit of a stroll before breakfast. It is pretty cloudy which is not boosting our chances of getting back to UG but conditions improve over the course of the morning. At about 12 there appears to be agreement between here and UG that flights can go ahead to everyone's great delight. I caution that on pretty much all of my trips getting in and out of the expedition is harder than the actual climb itself - it will be interesting to see what happens here!
We pack up everything and then head out to the runway to stamp some lines into the snow and ice to help the pilots with visibility - our footprints provide a contrast against the otherwise white ground which helps pilots see the contours of the 'runway' more clearly. As we are having a quick sandwich lunch, I get the inevitable bad news that I have lost my place on the plane as one of the guides needs to go with the others on the plane as this plane will connect with an early flight back to Punta so they can all get off Antarctica today. My ski trip to the South Pole doesn't start until tomorrow so there is a bit more time for me. There should (if the weather stays ok) be a second flight to UG which I and the other group will be on but that will miss the flight to PA.
So now I am sitting in the mess tent catching up with this waiting on tender hooks to see if the second flight will make it. There is actually a pretty good supper planned (as it was quite likely that we would all still be here) but the tents are much more comfortable at UG and it would be good to have got my travelling over and get some washing done so I am fully ready when the rest of the next group arrives.
The weather continues to improve and at about 16:30 the plane returns to take the rest of us to UG. The plane to PA has already left so the stragglers will stay for another day and the rest of my team for the trip to the pole will be arriving on the next plane here at some point tomorrow.
No one seems to know much, if anything about that trip (itinerary, who is the guide, who else is in the group etc) which is a little surprising but all will come clear in due course.
We have a rather good supper before heading to the tents to do a bit of organising before bed. I have got a lazy day tomorrow to shower, wash my clothes and then separate my mountaineering gear from that which I will need for the pole.
The food at UG seems to be really rather good and although we have eaten really pretty well for a mountaineering expedition, it is going to be nice to be here for a couple of days in what can only be described as probably the most luxurious 'camp' I have ever been in or heard about!
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