Getting to a remote place like the base camp of Vinson, the highest mountain in Antarctica is a huge logistical endeavour involving super specialised aircraft. But my journey south will start familiarly enough; car trip to Toulouse airport, check in 60 kg of equipment and hop onto a city hopper flight to Madrid. Wait there for a couple of hours then board the long haul flight to Santiago de Chile. Once there, grab a quick beer and a burger at my favourite burger joint and then continue further south on another commercial flight to Punta Arena, Patagonia. Step into the fresh Patagonian air, meet my colleagues, attend workshops about working as a guide in Antarctica and then, weather permitting, jump on another flight to the icy continent.
Simple so far, right? Well, hang in there as things are just about to heat up! The clue as to how vastly different traveling around the world on commercial airlines is compared to travelling from Chile to Antarctica lies in the phrase “weather permitting”. Antarctica is in every possible sense the world’s most extreme continent, and only specialised flying machines can operate there.
Introducing the Ilyushin-76td: This monster is unlike anything else flying through the sky. Originally built to fly heavy machinery to remote areas of the USSR, it has been totally adapted to work in Antarctica. What strikes people most when first seeing this thing is how BIG it is, a whole school bus can easily fit inside it plus have room to spare for 60 passengers and all their equipment! Another thing is how its entire nose is made from glass. Imagine doing the Titanic scene when landing in this baby! And that’s another incredible thing, the landing! There are no tarmac landing strips on Antarctica. These machines can land on ice! Whoa! Imagine this thing ice skating!
The flight from Patagonia to Union glacier takes 5 hours. Union glacier is the first port of call for most folk adventuring in Antarctica. Be it skiing to the South Pole, seeing penguins, performing scientific research expeditions or in my case guiding Mount Vinson, it all starts here.
My next flight is on a more familiar beast. Ever flown to Lukla in Nepal to go to EBC or climb a mountain in the Khumbu valley? Then you’ll have met the Twin Otter. This machine is a true back of beyond workhorse that has been adapted to work in Antarctica by replacing its wheels with skis and having a long range fuel tank fitted. It is quite a basic machine but that is important as this makes it reliable and flying it easy. You don’t want any unexplained technical glitches out here! The unique thing about this beast is that it can land and take off from very small spaces! Remember that airstrip in Lukla?
The flight to Vinson Basecamp takes another 3 hours. By now I will be deep into the Antarctic wilderness. I really hope to see you there! Not only is Antarctica an immensely spectacular place to see and climb but even getting there is super exciting!