Exploring Antarctica, the Lonely Continent
There are few places that capture the imagination quite like Antarctica. Frozen, uninhabited, and shrouded in darkness for much of the year, it can seem more like something out of a fantasy novel than a real location. For many of the world’s adventurers, this is one of earth’s last great frontiers.
In 2016, after years of saving for the cost of a plane ticket, I boarded the Ilyushin Il-76, a Russian cargo plane capable of landing on the Antarctic ice—a handy feature when there are no paved runways. This plane is often used in military operations, and photos of it landing in Antarctica have been used as “proof” that the earth is flat, with the Antarctic edge being patrolled by world militaries. I can sincerely vouch that this plane is actually full of researchers, hikers, and South Pole tourists, some of the friendliest (and least threatening) people on earth. I also searched for this mythical "edge of the earth" and I can confirm, the earth is round.
Arriving in Antarctica takes your breath away. Literally—it’s freezing. After deplaning, and promptly face-planting on our slick ice “runway,” I took a quiet moment to soak up the scenery. A massive glacier was beneath our feet. All around us were mountain peaks, icy and barren. The lone structure was a lean-to where travelers could grab a cup of cocoa while waiting for the ride to Union Glacier, the hub for Antarctic Adventure. All around me, people were staring at the untouched beauty. For just a moment, cameras and phones were forgotten as we collectively soaked it in.
Union Glacier is its own little city, consisting of a massive mess tent, a doctor’s quarters, snowmobile and airplane maintenance areas, and hundreds of small, private tents for guests. Though far from luxurious, we were served home cooked meals and allowed hot showers every three days or so. The heated mess tent was where you could find hundreds of travelers from all over the globe. Climbing Mt. Vinson, Antarctica’s highest point, had attracted dozens of climbers (including myself) to this remote spot. But for less grueling fun, a flight was available to tourists who wanted to see the South Pole. (For the low, low price of $50k.) Still, others preferred more solitary pursuits. A woman from the United Kingdom, Emma Tamsin Kelty, had skied to and from the South Pole, an amazing feat of endurance. The cold was so bitter on her journey that it burned off patches of her flesh, a war wound that just made me like her all the more. Sadly, she passed soon after, attempting to be the first woman to paddle the entire Amazon River. I count myself lucky to have crossed paths with someone so courageous and pioneering.
Our initial visit in Union Glacier was brief. Careful not to waste the clear skies and beautiful weather, we quickly boarded a small aircraft to the base of Mt. Vinson, and without further ado, started climbing.
Vinson has three camps; Base Camp, Low Camp, and High Camp. The trek from Base Camp to Low Camp takes one day and is a fairly straightforward hike. Our packs held about fifty pounds of gear, and sleds were hooked to our harnesses with an additional twenty pounds. Our team consisted of four climbers and a guide, three of whom were on the smaller side. For us, carrying seventy pounds of gear up a mountain was enough of a challenge without rugged terrain. The most exciting stretch of the trail was a short section marked by two bright red flags. We were encouraged to move as quickly as possible through the area. Once across, we asked why.
“You just walked over a huge crevasse,” our guide told us, a mischievous grin spreading across his face. “It would take too long to reroute the trail, so we just keep using this one until someone eventually falls in.”
In Antarctica, the only thing you can leave behind is urine. All other waste (yes, including poop) gets carried with you for the entire trip. So the pack weights stay pretty consistent as you climb. As we ascended to High Camp, the steepest portion of the climb, we decided to take an extra day and haul all of our gear in two trips. The entire day is spent walking up a two-mile incline, then back down. Sounds easy, right? But with forty pounds on your back, heavy crampons (spikes) on your feet, and a near-vertical incline that never seems to end, it can be mentally taxing. At this point, one of our teammates decided to bow out. We flagged down a passing ranger, and she led our fatigued teammate back to Base Camp. His dream for the summit was over.
Once situated at High Camp, all you can do is wait for a window to run for the summit. In December and January, it’s eternal daylight in Antarctica. As soon as the weather clears, regardless of time, teams set out for the peak, hoping to reach it before wind or snow forces them to turn back. A team of Russians sauntered past, homemade cigarettes burning in the cool air. A group of cosplaying Japanese climbers, colorful wigs donned, chased after them. Bringing up the rear was a group of women making a painfully slow ascent. Back at Union Glacier, I had the chance to talk to them about their journey, and they admitted their packs had been full of wine bottles for a celebration at the top. They did eventually make it, but were far too tired to actually drink any wine.
The final climb for the summit starts slow, with long, expansive glacier fields. These fields lead up to the final ridgeline, a narrow stretch of land littered with boulders and rock outcroppings. Even roped to my teammates, one look at the perilous drops on either side was enough to twist my stomach into knots. And then, like an oasis before us, there it was: the summit. Dotted with climbers experiencing the full range of emotions. Some were laughing and smiling, others were in tears. The Russians stoically smoked their cigarettes and gave each other nods of approval. It was one of the happiest moments of my climbing career, standing in such an otherworldly place, surrounded by people who understood the magic of the moment.
We descended in one day, running the entire length of the mountain in an effort to achieve the speed record (by International Mountain Guide standards). Our guide claims we nabbed it, but it’s possible he was just being kind. We caught a plane back to Union Glacier, where a massive, drunken celebration was given in all the summiters’ honor.
In one last, desperate attempt to hold onto the magic of this place, I decided to rent out one of the camp’s snow bikes. These fat-wheeled creations are capable of cruising over small drifts, provided the user is fit (and stubborn) enough. A stretch of road leads away from camp, and I took the bike about seven miles down the road, until all signs of civilization had been wiped from the horizon. The plane, the mess tent, the climbers…all gone. A sea of white stretched out before me. Peaks and glaciers and snowfields, all untouched by man. I wish I could give words to what I was feeling, but “joy” doesn’t quite hit the mark. Suffice it to say, I smiled like an idiot the entire ride. It is my fondest memory of the entire journey, alone in this strange, unforgiving land.
I’m grateful that I was lucky enough to visit such a unique, awe-inspiring place, and saddened by the news that it may not remain so for much longer. News of melting ice, retreating glaciers, and even new plant life on the coasts is alarming, and spells disaster—not only for Antarctica, but for all the world ecosystems it affects. Here's hoping we can find a way to preserve it before it's too late.