The Rainbow Summits Project
 

Mt. Vinson Expedition – Day 2

The Ilyushin circled a small, bright blue strip several thousand feet below. To the untrained eye, it might blend into the endless white expanse of the Antarctic continent. But that narrow rectangle was more than just a geographic anomaly – it was our runway. Created by ALE (Antarctic Logistic and Expeditions) a couple of years ago at stupendous expense, the runway is a roughly 2km stretch of flat (-ish) ice leveled and scraped clean by massive machines. The plane landed and screamed down this slick surface for a good 30 seconds before the reverse thrusters finally managed to stop us.

We got off the plane and hopped into a specially outfitted truck with massive wheels to complete the journey to Union Glacier Camp, ALE’s flagship operations center on the continent and the nerve center of any and all exploratory or adventure missions in Antarctica today.

Our Ilyushin jet at Union Glacier camp

The camp is huge. In addition to the five prefabricated buildings (excluding the row of enclosed, heated toilets), there is a veritable tent city of accommodations for the hundreds of people at the camp at any given time – staff, guides, scientists, and clients. There are two large mess buildings, a communications building, the main office, and an additional storage building in the central complex.

We were immediately given a comprehensive tour of the facilities and then given a delicious and filling meal. After looking at the weather report, we were given the green light to pack up all of our gear for immediate departure for Vinson Base Camp.

We collected our 14 bags of gear (we were flying on with much of the food and equipment that would remain on the mountain for later expeditions) and loaded them onto a small twin otter jet. At around 5pm, we took off on a smaller ice runway directly adjacent to the camp and made our way towards VBC above the stark, beautiful peaks of the Ellsworth range.

For some reason, I always fall asleep on the plane. Whether it’s the giant Ilyushin, a Boeing 757, or a twin-otter, I can’t help but be lulled to sleep by the hypnotic vibrations of the plane. In any case, I awoke as we made a sharp bank towards an upward sloping glacier with a large peak looming behind it. The plane landed hard on the ice and then bounced back up as we skidded up the glacier. We pulled around and offloaded our gear from the plane while the pilots took out their skis and started skinning up a nearby hill to get some runs in before their flight back.

After setting up our tents and unpacking our gear, we cooked a large meal and went to bed. With the sun high in the sky and shining brightly, it felt like midday when in reality it was already past 10pm. So, with our eye masks on and earplugs in, we settled in to sleep for our first night in Antarctica.

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