Antarctic skier evacuated from the ice

An Antarctic skier had to be evacuated from the iceAn 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.

Travelers stranded in Punta Arenas, Chile due to strikes, road blocks

Strikes in Punta Arenas, Chile stranded travelers for daysThousands 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]

New Antarctic base opens for adventure travelers

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]

Visit the South Pole with Abercrombie & Kent

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.

Five things you didn’t know about Chile

Having recently returned from a fantastic trip to Chile, I feel compelled to spread the good news about this long, thin pencil of a country. I’ve already sung the praises of its Torres del Paine National Park– now here are five more reasons to make Chile your next travel destination.

1. The Atacama Desert, the driest spot in the world. There are some spots in this desert where precipitation has literally never been recorded. But despite its stark, lunar landscapes (see photo), northern Chile’s Atacama Desert is actually one of the most-visited tourist destinations in the country.

San Pedro de Atacama, its largest and most popular city, is surrounded by gorgeous mountains, active volcanoes, and a massive salt flat. Also within a short drive are crystal-clear lakes, ancient fortresses, a geyser, and the archaelogical site of Tulor. Many restaurants have only outdoor seating– no need to worry about the rain– and your meals will often be eaten near a campfire– hey, the desert can get chilly at nights.

2. Penguins! Who said penguins only live in Antarctica or at the zoo? These well-dressed birds can be found in southern Chile’s Seno Otway Penguin Colony, where visitors will see them lounging on the beach and commuting to and from their nearby nests. The surrounding view would make it worth the price of admission by itself.

3. Punta Arenas. As traveler (and former Gadling interview) Tyler Cowen notes, “Chile is one of the world’s best countries for lovely small towns.” And Punta Arenas is without a doubt one of the nicest.

Located in the heart of Patagonia, Punta Arenas features hundreds of brightly colored homes and shops (including a North Face), as well as fantastic restaurants and a cool cemetery. (Can cemeteries be cool? If they can, this one is.) And hold on to your hat– literally– if you visit Punta Arenas. This is one of the windiest places on earth, with windspeeds regularly hitting 50 to 75 miles per hour. An experience unlike any other.

4. Easter Island. If you’ve got an extra US$800 laying around for a flight from Santiago to Easter Island, by all means check it out. (And if you’ve got US$800 more, I’d even go with you.) Famous for its moai statutes which were created by the Rapanui, this remote Polynesian island also offers a nice museum and adventure activities like scuba diving, snorkeling, horseback riding, and surfing. (Seriously, take me with you.)

5. Outstanding food and drink. Chile’s seafood is fresh, affordable, and top-notch, including its famous sea bass, abalone, salmon, crab, and lobster. You haven’t been to Patagonia until you’ve tried the lamb, or cordero, which is so good that several friends and I actually chanted COR!-DER!-O! on the way to a lamb fest at one of Punta Arenas’ finest restaurants, Puerto Viejo. Our driver thought we were insane, but that was how we felt.

And if you haven’t jumped on the Chilean wine bandwagon yet, I’m telling you, get on the wagon (or off it, as the case may be.) Chile’s vineyards produce a first-class sauvignon blanc and the Carmenère will make you want to be a better person.

For more on Chile, see my post on Patagonia’s Torres del Paine National Park.