Antarctica 2010: Still Waiting In Punta Arenas

800px Bransfield Strait

It was another long, and trying, weekend for the polar explorers waiting for their chance to hit the Antarctic ice. The weather has conspired against them once again, leaving everyone still stranded, and waiting patiently, in Punta Arenas, Chile.

The weather as been rather fickle so far in Antarctica this season, and for the most part, no one has been able to make the jump from Punta Arenas to ALE’s new Union Glacier base to begin their expeditions. Last week, high winds and heavy snow prevented any inbound flights, but as the weekend drew near, everyone was hopeful that they could finally get underway, as the winds had changed and the snow had moved out of the area, allowing the crew already at the base to clear off the runway. Turns out the weather took a turn for the worse yesterday however, as the snow moved back into the area once again. If that wasn’t enough, weather reports this morning indicate that there could be heavy fog at Union Glacier, which is keeping ALE’s big Ilyushin cargo jets grounded. At least for now.

Things may be looking up for later in the day however, as Chris Foot is reporting that he has received the call from ALE to stay on standby for a flight out tonight. They told Chris that there will be no flights out of Punta today, but this evening could be a possibility. Foot is still planning on making the 1390+ mile journey to the South Pole and back again to the coast, solo and unassisted no less, but admits that his time frame is starting to get constrained. Last week he wrote that if he reached the ice by Saturday he would still feel confident. Today is Monday, and he’s still waiting to go. Lets hope for the best.

Willem ter Horst is telling a very similar story of “hurry up and wait” as he also patiently sits by the phone hoping for the news that he can head to Antarctica as well. His guide, Hannah McKeand, has been keeping him informed of the progress, and the news hasn’t been good. It seems that ALE’s crew at Union Glacier has been working very hard to keep the runway from closing due to blowing snow, but it is all they can do to not lose ground to the storms. They haven’t been able to make progress at all at opening up a longer sections of the airstrip, which means there currently isn’t enough room for the big planes to land. They’re also hoping for a flight out tonight, but don’t sound all that confident that it will happen. Willem is part of a guided team skiing to the South Pole.

The Transantarctic Team is also waiting. Their latest blog posts give hints of their frustration, as they’ve been on four hour stand by since the 14th of November, and the first flights to the continent are now two weeks past due. Andrew Moon writes that the first flight out to Union Glacier will take 53 people, most of whom will be ALE support staff delivering supplies for the season ahead. He notes that his team was originally scheduled to go on the third flight, but have now been bumped up to flight number two. They have a lot of gear to deliver as well, as the expedition will cross the entire continent in vehicles, taking scientific readings and samples as they go.

Looks like for now, the whole adventure community in Punta Arenas is on holding, waiting for the weather to break and for ALE to start shuttling them to the continent. It must be incredibly frustrating to have everything ready to go, only to stand on the precipice for days on end. It is going to take some time to work through the backlog of expeditions to deliver as well, as it’ll be 24 hours between flights to Union Glacier most likely. That means that when a weather window does finally open, it had better be a good, long one.

Patience. It’s a virtue I’m told.

Kraig Becker