Alan Arnette is an
Alzheimer's advocate for individuals, their families and anyone impacted
by this disease through his professional
speaking, climbing and website.His objectives for the Memories are Everything® climbs
Educate the public, especially youth, on the early warning
signs and how to prepare
Increase awareness that Alzheimer's Disease has no cure
CURE, always Fatal
• No easy, inexpensive method of early detection
• 6th leading cause of death in the US
• New case every 68 seconds, 4 seconds worldwide
• Impacts more than 5+m in US, 25m+ worldwide
• Devastating financial burden on families
• Depression higher for caregivers
• Issues are increasing rapidly as population ages
The Alzheimer's Immunotherapy Program of Janssen
Alzheimer Immunotherapy and Pfizer Inc. funded my climbs for
the 7 Summits campaign and ongoing efforts between November 2010
and November 2012. All money I raised then and now from donations
goes directly to the organizations I have selected. During the
campaign, content posted here was my own but subject to certain
limitations in conjunction with the support of the AIP.
and perfect - Antarctica. I am not sure how else to describe my experience
climbing her highest peak - Mt. Vinson. Being the first of my 7 Summits
Climb for Alzheimer's where I am raising awareness and $1M for research,
it was critical to have a good start. And it was.
Click on any picture to enlarge.
I left the US just before Thanksgiving 2010 to meet up with Phil Ershler,
co-owner of International Mountain Guides, and the rest of our team.
The uneventful 30 hour journey followed the South American coast line
with a few plane changes along the way. As we landed in one of the
most remote cities in the world, Punta Arenas, Chile, there was a sense
I met two of my team at the airport and shared a taxi to the hotel
where I met the rest - excellent first impressions all around created
a sense of confidence that this was going to be a good trip.
First on the agenda was a briefing with Antarctica Logistics and Expeditions,
ALE. The room held about 50 people with various objectives - visit
the South Pole, ski the last degree, visit an Emperor Penguin colony
or climb mountains. Our common bond was love of adventure and a sense
of appreciation for being able to visit the "Last Place on
Earth". The two hour briefing covered many details but honed
in on our personal responsibilities to protect Antarctica.
left the meeting was a heightened sense of awareness but also anticipation
of when the big Russian jet would actually depart. And that may be
the common theme to all polar adventures. You see, it takes a specialized
aircraft, unique flying skills, uncanny weather forecasting capability
and agreeable weather just to start the journey. Thus we were told
to be prepared to leave our hotel on a two hour notice fully dressed
in our -40F clothing.
Every expedition is full of rumors; usually of a death on the mountain,
an unexpected summit push or some petty politics. But we had none of
that. One topic dominated our conversation from start to finish - wheels
up time. Today, tomorrow? Oh, just heard the winds are too high or
a front is moving in. What if we can't get out for another week - and
on and on. The keyword being patience. Polar travel is a case study
in that human trait we all seek and few achieve.
However, everything came into alignment and we got the word that the
Russian jet would depart Punta at 5:00PM November 27th.
Flying to Antarctica
That Russian jet - what a piece of machinery. Specifically it is a
IIyushin IL-76. Designed by the Soviet's in 1967, it was built to service
the remote areas of the old USSR. Today it is used around the world
for heavy lifting. With four huge engines, a back loading ramp that
trucks can drive onto and sparse interior furnishings; it carries everything
from machinery to other planes to water for firefighting - and sometimes
Antarctic mountain climbers.
leases the IL, as it is nicked named, from November through January
to service their Base Camp named Union Glacier. They, and previous
companies, have flown various specialized aircraft to Antarctica since
1983 using the prior base of Patriot Hills. But weather delays sent
them in search of a more stable area thus the new Union Glacier site.
In reality, all these locations are simply a GPS coordinate on the
ice. The key feature being a long strip of natural solid blue ice,
void of any cracks, holes or crevasses that enables the big IL to land
and take-off reliably.
So it was that we left Punta approximately on time for the 4:05 flight
to Union. The flight was an exercise in organized chaos as 50 adventurers,
dressed in full down, boarded the jet and took our seats three abreast
violating one another's personal space with clunky boots and puffy
down jackets. But given the inside of the IL was marginally heated
no one complained. And we were going to Antarctica!
The in-flight service consisted of receiving a cotton wad to plug
our ears due to the lack of insulation inside the IL from the engine
noise. Once in flight, we were served a piece of cheese between two
slices of white bread along with a cookie. I felt like I was in a scene
from The Hunt for Red October as the Russian crew looked on.
midnight approached the sparse crew prepared us for landing with a
quick walk through checking seat belts, yes there were seat belts!
The only windows were attached to the emergency exit doors so I had
no sense of how close we were to the ground until I craned my neck
to see the tip of a high mountain - snow covered. My heart jumped.
A solid thud marked our arrival along with the even louder noise of
all four engines in reverse thruster mode - no brakes on the ice. We
coasted to a stop on the 3 mile runway.
As soon as the doors opened we knew we had arrived. Walking like penguins,
we waddled our way to the door, down the metal stairs and onto the
ice. My first step on the Antarctic continent. A moment, a memory,
forever stored. The air was crisp. The sky was a turquoise blue. The
sun hovered just above the surrounding mountain peaks of the Heritage
Range of the Ellsworth Mountains. It was midnight.
Met by the Union Glacier Base Camp team, we rode in a wooden sled
loaded with food bags, portable walls, mattresses and backpacks pulled
by a snow-cat on treads. It was a chilly introduction as we made the
5 miles to Union Glacier BC proper. Since this was the first full season
after moving from Patriot Hills, the staff was still establishing Camp
but we were ushered into a long narrow WeatherPort structure complete
with solid floor; table, chairs but no heat. A buffet of lasagna and
bread was offered and received. Of course the big question now became
when will the Twin Otter fly us to Vinson Base Camp. Yes, we were focused!
Union Glacier Camp is another amazing accomplishment. There are several
WeatherPorts serving as dining tents plus two dedicated small restrooms.
There is a small community of clamshell tents lined up in long rows
to accommodate ALE guests plus the staff. In addition, there are tents
or small buildings used as control rooms for directing the IL and Otters;
housing pilots and maintenance crew. All in all, ALE has about 25 people
living at Union plus serving about 100 people in and out every week.
All 600 miles from the South Pole.
With a good weather forecast, we planned on flying to Vinson Base
Camp within 18 hours. Nomenclature like day or night or morning or
afternoon became meaningless in this land of 24 hour sunlight. We laid
out our sleeping bags on a WeatherPort floor and grabbed a few hours
Vinson Base Camp and Above
Moving with purpose; pilots, crew and climbers all loaded our Twin
Otter plane for the 35 minute flight to Vinson BC. At the risk of making
everything sound astounding, the flight over the Ellsworth Range was
- well - astounding. Our team of ten flew on two separate flights to
accommodate the weight of passengers and gear. I grabbed a window seat
and never saw anything else. The mountains peaked through the snow
and ice like ducks bobbing on a smooth lake surface. I looked as far
as I could focus and saw nothing but white. The only contrast was the
black granite, shale and sandstone of exposed rock - some high pointy
bumps but most only specs.
The Twin Otter, a workhorse across the world for short take-offs and
landings required in remote areas, came to a bumpy skid on the Branscomb
Glacier a few hundred feet from the tents already at Vinson Base Camp.
We quickly unloaded our gear and began to set up our own tents thus
making the break from the ALE services. Mt. Vinson's summit peaked
above the lower mountains to our South.
standard operating procedure for winter Camping in glaciated environments
is to Camp on a stable area (duh!) avoiding crevasses. Snow walls are
required to protect the thin nylon tents from gale force winds. And
most teams dig a dining hole for the dining tent. More on this.
We used a pyramid shaped piece of canvas supported by a single center
pole draped over the hole. Inside, the snow is dug away to create a
snow bench on three sides with a working surface along the fourth.
There, stoves are placed. Snow is melted for all our hot and cold water
plus this is where all the meals are prepared. In addition to serving
as our kitchen it is also where we eat, meet and plan regardless of
what is happening with the weather. It is the community center, our
conference room - the boardroom. It was affectionately called the Posh.
Another word on Camp protocol - hygiene. There was one central spot
surrounded by snow walls for a bucket used for solid waste. Each climber
was issued so called Wag bags to use. We were expected, no required,
to use the large plastic bag for solid waste and a community single
hole in the ice for liquid waste - no exceptions. The "facility" at
Vinson BC had one of the best views I have ever seen!
weather was critical to our plans so each evening at 9:30 PM, we tuned
the handheld VHF radio to a frequency shared by all the Vinson expeditions.
A representative of ALE would relay the two day weather forecast supplied
by their meteorologists based at Union Glacier. I was amazed at how
accurate it was day after day. Hearing a good forecast, we made immediate
plans to make a carry to the so called Low Camp; about 1800' above
our current Camp at 7,300'.
The big picture was that we would use three Camps for our Vinson assault:
Base Camp (7,300'), Low Camp (9,100') and High Camp (13,200'). All
for the summit at 16,067'. Each Camp would be identical with tents,
toilet areas, snow walls and the dining Posh. We split the loads of
personal gear (sleeping bags, extra clothes, climbing gear and personal
food) along with the group gear (tents, stoves, pots, fuel and food)
between our backpacks and plastic sleds. Traveling in roped teams of
three or four climbers, we would steadily move higher to get in position
for a summit attempt from the High Camp.
The carry to Low Camp was straightforward. After a decent night's
sleep we roped up, split gear and moved steadily along the glacier.
Several crevasses reminded us that this was dangerous territory and
any injury would be serious given the unreliable nature of flights
and weather. The carry took about 6 hours at a reasonable pace given
the loads. We located a spot a little distance from another two teams
already at Low Camp, piled the gear into several large duffle bags
and returned to Base Camp for a well earned dinner.
The following day was basically a repeat but involved breaking our
Base Camp and hauling everything the 5 miles to Low Camp. Again, we
built the snow walls, the Posh pit and settled in assuming a rest and
acclimatization day on Wednesday December 1st. But listening to the
9:30 forecast, we learned that our excellent weather would last only
one more day before a low pressure system would move in bringing a
halt to most climbing activity.
Patience Words from an Expert
Ershler. You know how you feel when you meet someone who simply has
an aura of competence and confidence for their profession? Phil epitomizes
that feeling. A legend in climbing, he pioneered routes on Everest,
K2, Denali and many more mountains. He started as a guide in his twenties
and never looked back. Today he runs the South American and European
program for International Mountain Guides. But there is much more to
this individual as I learned reading the book Together on Top of
the World co-authored with his wife, Susan. Highly recommended.
OK, not awestruck but inspired, I listened carefully to Phil as he
evaluated our position. His opinion was based on over 20 years of coming
to Antarctica and 15+ summits of Mt. Vinson. "Team, given the
weather forecast, let's do a carry to High Camp tomorrow instead of
a rest day. then we can hunker down here at Low Camp until this front
passes. If it takes a day, great. If it takes a week, we will be in
great shape staying off the high ridge at High Camp and out of the
extreme winds. All you need to do is to be patient." Hmm, that
Thus the plan was in place.
We made the carry to High Camp the next day; the first real "climbing" of
the trip. While we could see the upper ridge that hid High Camp, we
could only see a small section of the 30 to 45 degree slope that lead
there. It took about 45 minutes to reach the base of the slope and
the start of the fixed ropes. As is now common on popular climbs, one
team establishes a route using climbing ropes secured to the snow via
anchors or pickets. Each team uses these safety lines thus creating
took about 7 hours to reach High Camp. For the first time, some of
us felt the altitude. A bit on the high-altitude in Antarctica. The
reason people feel the "altitude" is the lack of oxygen available
for each breath. As you go higher, due to a lower air pressure, the
oxygen molecules are spread out requiring more breaths to fuel our
cardiovascular system. At both poles and for mountains like Vinson
or Denali, the effective altitude is higher than the true altitude.
For Vinson it is about 2,000' higher thus at 13,000' your body feels
like it is 15,000' - starting to get serious.
We reached the High Camp and left our duffle's with fuel, food and
small amount of gear. Some of our team brought full down suits and
left them at High Camp. The views were astounding - yes that word again.
For as far as you can see, nothing but snow interspersed with mountain
tops. We were fortunate with superb weather and took full advantage.
Returning to Low Camp, we settled in for what turned out to be six
days of waiting.
With the high ridge to our North, the sun did not hit Camp until 11:30
AM each day. So our schedule was established: breakfast at noon, work
in the afternoon, dinner at 10, sleep after midnight. The highlight
each day was the weather forecast and new teams arriving from Vinson
Base Camp. But we were comfortable and confident especially as we listened
to the two teams that moved to High Camp speak of being stuck in their
tents due to 30 mph winds and temps well below zero.
Our daily work consisted of building snow walls, moving snow walls
or repairing snow walls. We did a practice session on a nearby snow
slope for crampon techniques and how to use a running belly. Our second
guide, Aaron, held a crevasse rescue seminar one afternoon. One day,
as food was running a but low, a sortie was sent to Base Camp to restock
some critical items like bacon, bread and coca!
But the time went by as we often stood outside staring at the plumes
of spindrift high on the ridge. The winds entertained us with snow
devils but also with an ominous roar as it cut through the rocky high
ridge line. We knew we had made the right decision to stay low and
wait this out. Patience.
The evening of December 7th brought a new forecast - two days of good
weather followed by another stretch of high winds. Our window had emerged.
Energized with this news, our team buzzed with playful jabs and jokes
as we prepared our gear. Time had come to do what we came here to do.
We left Low Camp to tackle the steep snow slope but this time it felt
faster, easier and more fun. Our collective effort was rewarded by
magnificent views and a sense of accomplishment and purpose. We arrived
at High Camp and set up our tents, dug the Posh hole and set a start
time for the next morning.
Clear skies and no winds ushered in the following day as we left High
Camp around 9:00 AM. With a solid forecast for the next 36 hours, Phil
felt no pressure to rush the team and established a steady pace towards
the summit using the rest step to set the pace. Our three rope teams
snaked higher through the Vinson summit glacier taking in the views
of Mt's. Shin, Gardner, Tyree and Epperly. The occasional crevasse
reminded us of the ever-present dangers and need to stay alert given
all the distractions.
Approaching Vinson, Phil called for a rest stop. He wanted us to go
off the normal route and climb to the summit using the right-hand variation.
This involved a steeper climb to attain a rock ridge to the summit.
Everyone was feeling great so off we went with Phil setting an anchor
using pickets and ice axes that held our climbing rope as we gained
altitude. Each climber clipped their harness onto the rope via a carabineer
to protect a fall.
Again, we made steady progress to the next ridge where we meandered
around jutting rock formations and large boulders marking the highest
ridge in Antarctica. As I looked out across the horizon, I had to keep
reminding myself that the white I was seeing was not clouds but snow
and ice. It was simply breathtaking.
I was following Phil as he came to a high step at a snow wall. "I
am touching the summit plateau. Don't fall here!" And with that
he took a big step, assumed the stance of a sea captain looking over
his crew and monitored each of us as we duplicated his moves.
I stepped on the summit area and immediately saw a small snow prow
jutting into the air - a tiny spot symbolizing the highest point on
the Antarctic continent. With no control or editing, I let out a whoop
of delight. I snapped a few pictures of the team as they continued
higher and took out my satellite phone to call my wife.
"We made it!" I squealed into the phone. She squealed back
in support and delight. We shared the moment 8000 miles apart. Another
moment forever etched in my memory.
We spent an hour on the summit - forever in mountaineering time. But
the skies were clear and there was no wind. Temps were near -20F but
I felt like I was on a beach. I made the audio dispatch to my website
announcing our summit. Also to take note that while achieving this
summit was today's goal; finding a cure for Alzheimer's was the purpose.
I thanked those who had pledged to donate a penny for very foot I had
climbed or $91 for this first of my 7 Summits over the next year.
After all the calls and pictures, I allowed myself to stand quietly.
I slowly turned in place for a full circle. Each direction revealed
a different landscape, new peaks but all superimposed on a bed of white
set against a sky of blue. I closed my eyes and set the view.
thought of my purpose. I thought of my own family. My Mom. My good
fortune to be here and to do what I can to make a difference. This
was no ordinary summit.
"OK break it up. Let's get out of here" called out Phil
as he completed 50 push-ups along with Rob. Rob and his fellow Air
Force officer Graydon were climbing for the Warrior Foundation to raise
funds for scholarships for the children of U.S. Air Force Special Ops
personal who have lost their lives in service of our country.
Obeying like sled dogs, we re-formed our rope teams and made our way
lower via the normal route. The return to High Camp was about 3 hours
making for a 11:20 minute round trip. Knowing the weather would turn
we made plans to return all the way to Vinson Base Camp the next day.
Heaving packs flirting with 70lbs, no sleds now, we navigated the fixed
ropes to Low Camp, transferred some of the load to the sleds and arrived
at base Camp in late afternoon.
Hurry up and ...
Not a moment to spare, the Twin Otter's low hum announced it's arrival
to ferry us back to Union Glacier only 45 minutes after we arrived.
If only commercial airlines were so punctual! The ride back was - you
guessed it - astounding. Back in relative civilization, we set up our
tents and got comfortable knowing the IL was scheduled to arrive later
that night - or not. The rumor mill was alive and well on flight delays.
Over the next three days we met other climbers and skiers and we all
relived our Antarctica experiences listening with one ear for an update
on the IL's flight plan. Each update was couched as tentative with
a rare absolute position given on if the big jet would depart or not.
Another update in 6 hours. And so it went. But it was OK. We ate and
relaxed in the WeatherPorts reflecting on where we were; trying to
savor every moment. Yet wanting to get on our way to be back home.
Monday afternoon, the word came that the 70 mph winds at Punta had
let up and the high winds here at Union were forecasted to quiet. "Wheels
up at 4:00PM." came the word. Another exercise in hurry up and
wait, we took down Camp, reloaded gear into packs and duffle's, dressed
in full down for the return flight and waited.
As the sun made the turn towards the South in it's never ending circle
around the South Pole, we spotted the IL making it's approach to the
blue ice runway. As big as the jet was, it was a tiny dot in the sky
against Antarctica. A lesson in humility for all who watched.
We piled into modified vans and snow cats for the 5 mile ride to the
runway arriving as the winds, predicted to calm, picked up with a vengeance.
Ground blizzards blew thin layers of free snow across rock hard ice.
I stood firm on the ice and let the wind push me along like I was on
skates. A smile came across my face.
Again, I stood quiet letting the wind whip around me. Human figures
became blurred objects in the squalls. Even the big jet sitting large
and imposing on the hard ice looked vulnerable against Antarctica's
winds. We had climbed her highest peak but she was having the last
Runners for the Antarctic Marathon had arrived on the plane. We inspected
one another - we had climbed the highest; they were running a marathon.
Perhaps looks of curiosity on why we did what we did but also a quiet
glance of mutual respect.
I know why I did what I did. I know the result. The future will reveal
the impact on finding a cure. And that is what this is all about.