Nine years was far too long to be away from expedition style mountaineering and I was getting very itchy feet. Disappointingly I had missed out on the summit of Everest back in 2005 by a mere 1000′, bouncing back three years later with success on Carstensz Pyramid (Puncak Jaya) in Indonesian Papua, bringing me to November 2017. I had dreamt of the day that Mt Vinson in Antarctica would be a possibility and this day had finally come.
The significant break in my quest to stand atop the highest point on each of the seven continents was due to a mixture of injuries, funding, and myself and Andrea’s worldwide travel commitments. With a spare month in our busy schedule it was at last time to add continent number six to the list.
First I had to get to Vinson which was going to be no mean feat, certainly the biggest contributing factor in the pricing for this expedition. With a very remote location in the Sentinel Range of the Ellsworth Mountains, and more than 750 miles from the South Pole, the only company that provides services to reach and operate in Antarctica’s extreme interior is Antarctic Logistics & Expeditions (ALE). Having a monopoly can only mean one thing! As the expedition progressed the price tag upwards of $40,000 would eventually become almost, kind of, maybe even, justified!
For now all I had to be concerned with was the decision as to which mountain guide company would carry my amateur butt up to the Antarctica highpoint, leaving whoever it might be with the task of working out the logistics with ALE.
Scanning through the big players of the mountain guiding world, reputable companies such as Rainier Mountaineering Inc (RMI), Alpine Ascents International (AAI), Adventure Consultants, and International Mountain Guides (IMG), the latter being the outfit I used on Everest; provided me numerous options. Alternatively I could utilize ALE’s own guiding services – this could make sense due to all the guiding companies having to use their logistics to get to the land of ice. On this occasion IMG won out, a repeat customer discount on their already slightly lower price, and having one of the worlds top mountain guides, Mike Hamill, made for an easy decision. RMI and their super guide, Dave Hahn, was a strong contender.
Having now committed to IMG and Phil Ershler’s Antarctica climbing program my email inbox was about to get bombarded with a whole slew of forms, disclaimers, medical and insurance requirements; all the crap that I typically have no time for! With reply deadlines in place I had no choice but to make a doctors appointment – hopefully for a clean bill of health, find emergency evacuation insurance, and ensure I had all the necessary equipment. Much of my gear untouched since Everest I assumed it would still be in the same good condition as when it was boxed away in an AC cooled storage unit.
As expected my doctor had no hesitation in signing the Physician’s Certificate and prescribing the requested antibiotics, I had no problem with the form labeled Acknowledgement and Express Assumption of Risk and Contract, Waiver, Release and Indemnification, and Andrea was excited about scribbling her name in the Participant’s Spouse box to sign my life away. With documents signed, sealed and mailed I now felt well into the excitement stage leading up to a big trip. I decided to scrimp on insurance, the hefty price tag of obtaining cancellation and evacuation insurance for such an expensive trip too much to consider, instead opting to use World Nomads Explorer Plan which conveniently covers the required $500,000 of Emergency Evacuation, a few other odds and sods, and Trip Cancellation…. Up To Trip Cost*. Why is there always an asterisk? Reading down the policy I read that: * Trip Cost up to a maximum of $10,000, more than a seventy five percent shortfall if something was to go wrong! It’s a good job I’m a risk taker.
The November 22nd departure date was already looming close, and with a spare bedroom at Andrea’s parents house littered with climbing and cold weather gear I thought it about time to make sure all such gear was worthy of hauling down to South America and on to Antarctica. Going back a few weeks, Andrea and I were in the Salt Lake City area which made buying anything I didn’t already own effortless. It was surprising how much of what was on the IMG recommended gear list I didn’t have. This was easily remedied with my therapeutic love of sliding a Visa credit card through an REI checkout – one of our quests is to visit every REI store in the United States! Campsaver.com, just to the north of Salt Lake City was another great outdoor store where I managed to get hold of very reasonably priced gear, particularly Outdoor Research equipment.
I had pretty much checked every box on the required gear list, bar a few items I would have to buy in Punta Arenas, Chile. Being ready with five weeks to go made me smile! My -40°C/F sleeping bag was as new, the heavy duty down jacket was still as lofty as it had ever been, the new gear; well that was all new, the crampons looked fine but were probably in need of a little touch up on the spikes, and my huge looking Millet OneSport Everest boots fitted like a glove. What more did I need to do? I had overlooked one important thing, and that was to make sure the crampons were adjusted properly and would securely fit onto the super stiff double plastic boots. Exactly a month prior to departure I made the decision to sit down, put on the boots that fitted like a glove, and attach the crampons – the process went something like this…
Clipped the front of the crampon over the boots front welt with ease, the rear requiring the crampon mechanism to be adjusted slightly. With this done the rear crampon bail was inserted into the rear boot welt and the crampons securing clip pushed in towards the boot to lock everything in place – I didn’t want to see what happened next! As the rear clip is pushed in towards the boot it is not meant to make the front of the crampon effortlessly slice into the join where sole meets body, separating such sole from approximately forty percent of the boot. This was not good, and what was worse was that the exact same thing happened on the other boot.
This was a trip where footwear is the most important piece of gear and I had just discovered a disaster of epic proportions! Going into survival mode I at first decided that surely my now destroyed $1000 boots could be repaired, a hope that was soon quashed leaving me to turn to online outdoor retailers for a suitable replacement. The preferred options within the mountaineering community were either La Sportiva’s Olympus Mons Evo or the new Millet Everest Summit GTX, both looking like they were going to be as rare as rocking horse shit! After struggling with sizing on the La Sportiva’s my desperation hit a lucky streak, a more indepth Google search coming up with Everestgear.com – a quick phone call and not only did I discover they stocked the Millet boot in every possible size but instead of being located in some Rocky Mountain outdoorsy mecca they were just up the street in Granville, Ohio. With Andrea’s never ending support and financial backing I walked out of the store a few days later a very happy man!
As well as being fully kitted out for Vinson I was now good to go should Everest arise in 2019…
My outbound flight was scheduled to leave Miami on the evening of November 22nd, still a couple of weeks away, and as long as nothing unforeseen happened between now and then the gamble I took with cheap travel cancellation insurance was justified – speaking to others on the trip I discovered that some took the recommendation of IMG and dropped around $2000. Ouch!
… and finally I had two packed duffels full of gear. With almost two weeks of US highpoint bagging throughout the east coast states before arriving at friends in South Florida these duffels were treated like gold; if it meant fully unloading Going Broke, our trusty SUV, each evening then so be it. This was no easy chore with two bikes, a mobile gym and other travel luggage, on top of the Vinson gear!
Opting to fly with LATAM via Santiago and on to Punta Arenas in Chilean Patagonia was the logical route out of Miami – having only one stopover also gave me much needed piece of mind that both duffels would make it to the final destination. For a couple hundred Dollar saving I could have added another stopover in Lima but felt this far too risky!
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November 22nd – December 15th 2017