Have you ever wondered how travelers to Antarctica get to and from the continent? I’m not talking about the thousands of tourists that go aboard a cruise ship each year. I’m referring to the explorers who ski to the South Pole or the research scientists who spend weeks studying the impact of climate change on the frozen continent. Most of them charter a flight aboard a plane operated by a company called Antarctic Logistics & Expeditions, who shuttle their clients from Punta Arenas, Chile, to a permanent base at Union Glacier. As you can imagine, those who make the trip tend to bring along quite a bit of gear, so a large plane is needed for the flight. ALE uses Russian Ilyushin IL76 aircraft, which are landed on a runway made out of ice. The video below is an example of such a landing and gives you an idea just how large these aircraft are.
An Antarctic skier on an expedition to the South Pole became seriously ill last weekend, prompting an emergency evacuation from the ice. The story underscores some of the potential dangers with adventure travel and the issues that can arise when visiting a remote destination.
Kathy Braegger traveled to Antarctica to join a group of four other adventurers who are making their way from the Ronne Ice Shelf to the South Pole on foot. The journey was expected to cover more than 550 miles of ice and snow and take upwards of six weeks to complete, but just a few days in, Braegger took ill, requiring an emergency airlift off the continent.
Normally if we get sick on a trip, it is fairly easy to find basic medical assistance or, if it is a particularly serious issue, a hospital. That obviously isn’t an option when you’re in the Antarctic, which is one of the most remote places on the planet. Fortunately, a company called Antarctic Logistics & Expeditions handles much of the traffic coming and going from the frozen continent and have dealt with similar situations in the past. The ALE team sprang into action, sending a plane to land on the ice, pick up Baregger, and successfully airlift her back to Punta Arenas, Chile. The last report said she was receiving plenty of care and already on the road to recovery.
From the team’s report on the the incident is unclear exactly what caused Braegger to get sick, but considering where she was traveling at the time, it could have been any number of things. For instance, most people don’t realize that Antarctica has the highest average elevation of any continent on Earth, which means altitude sickness can be a real problem. Factor in the lower atmospheric pressure and thinner air that is present at the Poles, and any physical activity can be become very demanding there. Of course, the incredibly cold temperatures, howling winds, and frequent blizzards don’t help to facilitate easy travel there either or staying healthy either.
Undaunted by the fact that one of their teammates needed an emergency exit from the ice, the rest of Kathy’s team, which is being led by Polar explorer Richard Weber, have continued on with their journey to the South Pole.
Thousands of travelers were left stranded in Punta Arenas, Chile over the past few days due to protests, general strikes, and road blocks throughout the region. Unrest exploded in the area late last week when the Chilean government announced plans to raise the price of fuel by 17%, which caused riots in the street and closed off traffic both in and out of the city. Strikes and protests were also underway in the nearby town of Puerto Natales. Both cities are located in the far south of the Patagonia region of the country.
Punta Arenas is a port city with a population of about 155,000 and is a major launching point for tourists cruising the Southern Ocean off the coast of Antarctica each year. During the high season, which is currently in full swing, thousands of foreign visitors pass through the city as they come and go from their various cruise ships. Those arriving back to port over the weekend were greeted with violence in the streets, protestors carrying signs, and a virtual stand still to all travel.
Reports from the city indicate that many shops and cafes have been closed for the past few days, and food is in short supply. The airport has been closed as well and road blocks have made it difficult for travelers to leave by ground vehicle to other destinations. Some made plans to go by bus to Argentina to seek passage back to their home countries.
There has been some encouraging news however, as protesters have agreed to allow the passage of some vehicles on the roads and there are indications that the airport would begin to open for limited traffic as well. As a result, travelers were expected to slowly start to filter out yesterday and today, finally getting the opportunity to begin their journey home.
This story is another good reminder that anything can, and will, happen when we travel in foreign countries. Some of the visitors to Punta Arenas have been stuck there for as much as four or five days and while most have places to stay, food has certainly been in short supply. Hopefully normal air travel will resume today and they can finally begin to head home, but it sounds like it has been quite an ordeal for foreigners, who have been caught in the crossfire between the government and the local population in Chile.
[Photo credit: South Atlantic News Agency]
Antarctic Logistics and Expeditions (ALE) has opened a new base of operations in Antarctica that will serve as a launching point for mountaineers looking to climb nearby peaks, explorers skiing to the South Pole, and other adventurous travelers looking to experience the frozen continent. The outpost is located at Union Glacier and replaces a similar base, known as Patriot Hills, that had been in use for more than twenty years.
The new base has been in development for more than four years and includes a runway built out of blue ice. That runway allows ALE to fly Russian built Ilyushin jets from Punta Arenas, Chile to Antarctica, delivering explorers and adventure travelers to the ice. The Union Glacier base has a heated passenger terminal for visitors to stay in while they wait for the two specially designed 4×4 vans to shuttle them to the actual camp, which sits at the foot of Mt. Rossman, roughly five miles away from the airstrip.
The camp itself offers accommodations for 80 guests and includes a complimentary meal service. The base has been built from the ground up to be environmentally friendly and more efficient than the old camp at Patriot Hills, while delivering a more comfortable space for Antarctic travelers. Nearby, there are a series of groomed trails that have been clearly marked to indicate safe and dangerous areas along the glacier, allowing visitors to hike and ski through the remote and scenic area.
If all goes as planned, and weather permitting, ALE will fly its first guests to Union Glacier today. Amongst those first visitors will be adventurers skiing to the South Pole and climbers headed to Mt. Vinson, the tallest mountain on the continent. But clearly the base opens new opportunities for adventure travelers to visit Antarctica as well, offering them a host of new experiences, albeit at a price.
[Photo credit: Laurens via WikiMedia]
In January of 1909, the famous British explorer Ernest Shackleton made an attempt to become the first man to reach the South Pole. He, and his three companions struggled mightily against the elements, but eventually were turned back just 97 miles short of their goal. That expedition established a new record for the furthest distance traveled south, and upon his safe return home to England, Shackleton was knighted for his efforts.
Those explorers reached 88º23′S, which just so happens to be roughly the same spot that Abercrombie & Kent’s Conquering the Final Degree expedition begins. On that trip, adventure travelers won’t walk in the footsteps of Shackleton, they’ll actually finish what he started. They’ll travel on skis to the Geographic South Pole, pulling 120-pound sleds, carrying all of their gear and supplies behind them while they go, crossing through the last great wilderness on the planet –the frozen continent of Antarctica.
The 18 day journey begins and ends in Punta Arenas, Chile, one of the southernmost cities in the world. From there, the team will catch a flight across the Southern Ocean to Patriot Hills, a campsite located on the Antarctic continent itself. When a suitable weather window opens, they’ll move on, via ski plane, to the Thiel Mountains, a remote and rugged chain of peaks that few people ever see. The journey really gets underway once they reach 89ºS, and the group transitions to their skis for the final leg of the trip. The following 7-8 days will be spent completing the “final degree” before arriving at the very bottom of the world, the South Pole, itself.
For adventure travelers, this may be the ultimate adventure travel experience. A true once in a life time opportunity. While the adventure travel market continues to explode, with new destinations and activities being offered all the time, a last degree journey to the South Pole is as authentic of an adventure experience as you’ll ever get.