Mt. Vinson 2010 Summit
Antarctica
16,067 feet 4897 meters
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 are:
  • Educate the public, especially youth, on the early warning signs and how to prepare
  • Increase awareness that Alzheimer's Disease has no cure
  • Raise research money for Alzheimer's non-profits
He has completed two major projects:
Donate to Alzheimer's • NO CURE, always Fatal
• No easy, inexpensive method of early detection
• 3rd 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

7 Summits Climb for Alzheimers

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.
Donate for Alzheimers

click to enlargePristine 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.

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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 of excitement.

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.

The Preliminaries

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.

click to enlargeWe 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.

click to enlargeALE 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.

click to enlargeAs 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.

 

Union Glacier

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!

click to enlargeThe 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 of sleep.

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.

click to enlargeThe 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.

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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!

click to enlargeThe 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'.

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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

click to enlargePhil 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 word again.

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 the route.

click to enlargeIt 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.

The Wait

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.

Summit

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.

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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.

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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.

click to enlargeI 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.

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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 word.

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.

Climb On!
Alan
Memories are Everything®

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