An all-female team sets out in search of new routes and peaks in one of the most inhospitable places on earth
By CHRISTINE AMOUR-LEVAR
Goaded by a mighty tailwind the massive Ilyushin IL-76 TD aircraft hurtles southwards at a velocity approaching 495 mph (800 km/h). The Drake Passage below sparkles to a far horizon as we make our way westward from Punta Arenas in Chile, to the Antarctic Peninsula and finally to Union Glacier, a private base operated by Antarctic Logistics & Expeditions (ALE), located in the Heritage Range, below the Ellsworth Mountains.
After about four and a half hours in the air, we prepare to land on the Blue Ice Runway, a rare and naturally occurring ice strip as hard as concrete that is solid enough to support the weight of this monstrous Soviet military aircraft. This kind of ice is so dense—so devoid of air bubbles—that it absorbs long-wavelength light, which is why it appears mesmerizingly blue. It’s -15 degrees Celsius as we get off the plane and take our first steps on Antarctica.
The vast ocean of white unfolding before my eyes is simply magnificent. I look up to see the sun ablaze in the blue polar sky while the fierce wind makes me literally moonwalk on the frozen runway as I try to move from the plane to the four-wheel drive waiting to take us to the main camp.
“January is the heart of summer in Antarctica,” we’re told by one of the ALE staff, “It’s the best time to visit, because the weather is the least hostile.” Indeed, man has never permanently inhabited this remote landmass. Accessible only during its warmest months, from November to March, it has no metropolis or village to speak of, no habitat except perhaps the odd expedition shed or research station. It’s all just massive, desolate, glacial emptiness and bone-chilling temperatures that can range anywhere from -10°C to -80°C during the colder months.
Our all-female team arrives at Union Glacier Camp and, after a quick tour of the facilities, we get assigned to the dual occupancy “clam” tents. Most of us are based in equatorial Singapore, and it has taken us close to 48 hours to get here. No wonder settling in feels good, and the tents are surprisingly comfortable to live in. They are double-walled and designed to withstand polar conditions with a high-tech nylon covering and durable aluminium frame. The large “doors” and a tall interior allow us to stand upright and move around easily as we sort out our gear.