Sunday, January 16, 2011

Up the hill

Well, the team is here, and so is there luggage - what more can you ask for? We just had a great welcome dinner in the warm Mendoza evening and are headed out tomorrow morning. There's potentially a bit of SAT phone trouble, with a half-charged battery and no compatible charger here, but we'll make it work. Follow Team 8 at Back soon!

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Punta Arenas

Punta Arenas is the southernmost city on the South American continent, and the place where flights to and from this part of Antarctica are based. (Ushuaia is further south, but on an island, not part of the greater landmass.) Climbers going to Mt Vinson, the highest mountain in Antarctica, fly to and from the ice with the only private company that operates here, Antarctic Logistics and Expeditions or ALE. They have been in business for 24 years and make something as incredibly complicated as operating a base in Antarctica as seamless as showing up at the tip of Chile.

In between my Aconcagua trips, I went down to meet the incoming Vinson climbers for Alpine Ascents and get them ready to fly onto the ice. The two guides who will actually be with them on the mountain stay down to guide two trips because the flight costs about $15,000 round trip, so I act as their proxy guide until they fly. This means I get to see a new part of the world and learn a little more about the whole Antarctic scene while getting to know some new interesting people.

Summer in southern Chile is not quite as balmy as Mendoza. The high most days was around 55, sometimes less, with a warm sun but a cold wind. It's a sea town, but on the east coast of land, along the Strait of Magellan, which is an inland shortcut to avoid storm-lashed Cape Horn. Cruise ships and fishing boats and colorful roofs decorate this grey place where many of the buildings date from 100 years ago and there is an awareness of its distance from the rest of the world. We roamed around town several times daily looking for meals, and spent some time just checking out this place where we would be waiting until it was time to fly.

Various members of the group spent time in the scenic areas of the city, including the expansive local cemetery. We spent an afternoon in this peaceful place filled with memorials big and small to the dead of the last 100 years. Dr Suess-inspired trees were set among some really ornate crypts and monuments and other simpler plots. A beautiful setting, one clearly well-attended by loved ones.

Our other fascinating destination was a full-size replica of Magellan's ship Victoria which originally passed through in 1520 and is being built from the original plans. A local penguin-tour and kayak-rental operator is losing business due to increased competition, and decided to take this opportunity to give shape to his passion. He and a business partner built the frame of local wood, and 6 local carpenters who normally build fishing boats finished the rest of the work. He invited us on board to poke around as we pleased, and we got to see it as one rarely does, without barricades or limitations. It's a small ship, called a nao, that requires 18-40 people to sail. He plans to make his money back from tourists for a few years, and then sailing it in some capacity for fun and profit.

But all is not idyllic in southern Chile. Interestingly, a national government decision to reduce the subsidy on natural gas has caused enough concern in this cold land to spark a series of strikes, the latest of which is an indefinite strike closing down roads into and out of the city, including to the airport. Faced with the possibility of not being able to leave town, I decided to get out while I could in order to make sure I was back for my next Aconcagua trip. Back in Mendoza, I hear from the Vinson climbers that normal delays due to weather are being exacerbated by lack of mobility due to the strike. ALE has its hands full, to be sure! Hope they can get out soon - Punta Arenas is nice and all, but I wouldn't want to spend too much time there...

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Half-time show

Well, at the beginning of this blog, my hair was 1/4" long. Today... (drumroll please) ... I actually put it back in a ponytail. Yes, it's very exciting. It's more of a dish-washing brush than a ponytail at this point, but it is functional. 10 years since the last time - lots of ground in the intervening years. Now, once again, I'll be buying and losing elastic bands with (most of) the rest of the female population. Oh, boy!

Saturday, January 1, 2011

Team 3

... this year on Aconcagua was a great team. Ten people from across the country and globe, tossed together in that mixing bowl we call an expedition team - they were all fun and generous and strong, and on top of that we had fantastic weather almost the whole trip. Unheard of on this mountain!

Things (not big things, just things) are afoot on the mountain. The climbing fees increased from $550 to $800 in the high season, and the park is trying to become a "real" park. New ranger huts being choppered in where previously there was only a stone lean-to, base camp physicians who actually know high altitude medicine (Sebastian was fantastic, docs in previous years less so) - you won't be able to recognize the place in a few years! But there will never (in human time, not geologic time) be another highest peak in South America, so people will continue to come.

When we arrived in Plaza Argentina base camp at 13,800', they had just experienced winds of 100mph which seem to
have generated a freak twister that tore Grajales' facilities apart and nearly nabbed one of Alpine's guides. They had rapidly called in new facilities and supplies (the propane oven was delivered by helicopter while we were there) and our experience was back to normal, pizzas and all. It was still a little windy at base camp, but the rest of the trip was great - just a day or two of moderate winds, otherwise generally quite calm and nice. Sweet!

Christmas day fell on our rest day at 19,200' Polish Camp. We made a little tree out of our ice axes and crampons and decorated it with battery-powered lights and a headlamp. A team of three Canadians who had been next to us much of the trip came by and regaled us with well-rehearsed songs of kazoo, harmonica, and recorder. What a nice touch! It is amazing what communities form in places where people are enduring common hardship. Voluntary, in this case, but true nonetheless.

We moved up to our final camp and had a beautiful summit day, with 6 of 10 of our climbers standing on top. We retreated to camp, then the following day to Plaza de Mulas base camp, and finally enjoyed a little more oxygen. After more wonderful base camp pizza, and a group sleepover in the dining tent (to avoid pitching our own tents) we hiked out in the worst weather of the whole trip, snow and rain for 13 miles to the trailhead. We even saw a small mudslide (rocks the size of pianos!)! But everyone arrived safe and sound back to civilization, and after several showers and remembering how to sit in chairs, we are enjoying the finer points of Mendoza.

Now for a little down time, sorting out budgets and trip reports and laundry and email. I'll be heading down to Punta Arenas to meet the Vinson climbers in a few days, but for now it's nice just to be wearing cotton...