ALE: Antarctic Destinations

The "clam" tent area at Union Glacier, with Mount Rossman in the background. Photo: Christopher Michel/ALE

Most of us know that beyond Antarctica’s 40-odd scattered research stations, the continent is pristine wilderness. But what varieties of experience can the adventurous traveler enjoy?

The continent’s primary logistics provider — Antarctic Logistics & Expeditions (ALE) — has steadily built a portfolio of tourist and adventure options over the past 30 years, from total luxury to wind-chilling hardship. Herewith, ALE’s core experiences:

“The Hub” – Union Glacier

“You can can call Union Glacier a hub,” says Aviaaja Schluter, ALE Guest Services Manager. I think it’s like the heart of the company. It’s where everyone comes through.”

Open between November and January, this private camp is located at 79°S on the large Union Glacier in the southern Ellsworth Mountains. Here, all ALE’s guests, from guided sledders to downhill skiers to sightseers — take their first steps on the continent. The camp also acts as a logistics centre for private expeditions and National Antarctic Programs.

To service the 500-plus clients who pass through each year, ALE has created the biggest camp on the continent, with more than 100 tents. Guests usually share a large “clam” tent with other visitors or friends. They enjoy veritable luxury, with a carpeted floor, metal-framed beds, towels, pillows and sleeping bags. No heating is required, thanks to the 24-hour sunlight that keeps the interior toasty.

A guest stands next to the Union Glacier city sign point. Photo: Christopher Michel/ALE

Chefs use the kind of stoves that you would find in a professional kitchen. There is no dehydrated food in sight. “We have amazing chefs baking their hearts out,” Schluter says. Large Ilyushin aircraft regularly bring in fresh food and drink from Punta Arenas in Chile, and guests are often surprised at the variety and quality on offer.

Here as elsewhere, food is at the heart of bringing people together. During meals, hundreds of visitors from around the world descend on the huge communal dining tent to break bread, share tales and eat good food. “You meet quite a lot of interesting people with interesting backgrounds,” says Schluter. Best of all, she adds, “no one is eating with a phone next to them.”

Chow time inside the Union Glacier dining tent. Photo: Christopher Michel/ALE

Some guests stop here only a day or two, if they’ve come to visit the South Pole (1,138km away) or climb Mount Vinson (150km away). Others might stay longer to savour life in Antarctica. Although Antarctica is the windiest place on earth, this particular camp usually experiences only light winds. Surrounded by stunning mountains, it’s an ideal location to kick back and soak up the vistas.

Outside camp, clients can hike or scramble on nearby peaks, hunt for fossils, rocks and meteorites, run or ski on groomed tracks, camp on the polar plateau, build snowmen, drive in “big ass” snow machines and photograph to their heart’s content.

Snow sculptures at Union Glacier. Photo: Sue Flood/ALE

During bad weather, visitors can settle in for talks and lectures, watch DVDs, browse the internet, read from the library or socialize with other guests. On one occasion, ALE staff even arranged for a visiting comedian to do a stand-up gig.

But every pre-season, before Union can become ALE’s control hub, an eager start-up crew catch an October Twin Otter flight over the Drake Passage to Rothera, the British Antarctic Survey base on the Antarctic Peninsula. From there, the crew make their way south to the natural blue-ice runway at Union Glacier.

After unpacking the winter cache of heavy machinery and larger items, including a wooden latrine building, the crew groom the runway. Finally in November, flights of staff and guests from Punta Arenas make the 3,000km, 4.5-hour flight to Union Glacier in an Ilyushin-76. These flights are “the only contact we have with the rest of the world,” says Schluter.

At the end of the season, ALE staff pack up most of the camp, and Union returns to wilderness. Although some heavy machinery and items remain overwinter, ALE strives to limit their presence. “We don’t want any permanent construction on site, to make as minimal an impact as possible,” Schluter explains.

Volleyball game at Union Glacier. Photo: Russ Hepburn/ALE


“Exquisite” – Three Glaciers Retreat
Just 30km north of Union Glacier — at the base of Mount Sporli in the Ellsworth Mountains — lies a gem in the ALE crown. From Union, clients take a short, “mind boggling” snowmobile journey to what ALE partner and mountain operations head Nick Lewis calls an “upscale retreat.”

Mount Sporli soars behind the sleeping suites at Three Glaciers Retreat. Photo: Russ Hepburn/ALE

Three Glaciers is, by all accounts, “exquisite.” It would be fair to say that facilities are like those at Union Glacier, but on steroids. Clients enjoy large, heated tents with electricity, wooden beds, mattress, fitted sheets, a duvet, king and queen pillows, throws, mirrors, furniture, and blindfold windows — a must for a good sleep in 24-hour sunlight.

Interior view of a king guest sleeping suite at Three Glaciers Retreat. Photo: Christopher Michel/ALE

At the heart of the retreat, there is a dining room and lounge where chefs cook with fresh ingredients and clients kick back in leather lounge chairs. Past guests have likened the quality of the food to Michelin star level.

Partly because of the topography and the local weather, Three Glaciers experiences very reliable conditions, making it the ideal location to relax in or to hit the mountains, if so inclined.

“We’d long had this idea of developing a camp that was a bit more secluded,” says Lewis. “From a climbing and skiing point of view, there’s amazing potential…We’ve taken clients out on custom programs to make first ascents or descents.”

Guests pour champagne at Three Glaciers. Photo: Christopher Michel/ALE


“The Penguin Colony” – Gould Bay Camp

This is where things get really interesting. Pitched on multi-year sea ice some 680km from Union, Gould Bay is just a stone’s throw from the Ronne Ice Shelf. ALE describes it as “one of the most remote camps in the world and the only Antarctic tourist camp on sea ice.”

Gould Bay is a little simpler than Union and Three Glaciers. Although chefs and toilet buildings are provided, clients sleep in unheated expedition tents. But the trade-off is proximity to the sights, sounds and smells of a huge Emperor penguin colony.

The Gould Bay Emperor penguin colony. Photo: David Rootes/ALE

“You hike out everyday for a couple of kilometers with a guide, to spend time with the penguin colony,” says Schluter. Even far-ranging cruise ships don’t typically pass near Emperor colonies.

There is also an abundance of other wildlife. You can spot petrels and seals and “fall asleep to a chorus of trumpeting calls and wake to find curious penguins outside your tent,” say ALE.

Peak Antarctica – Mount Vinson
At 4,892m, Vinson is the highest mountain in Antarctica. Located in the Sentinel Range of the Ellsworth Mountains, in the interior of the continent, it provides a “viewpoint for the magnificence of Antarctica,” says Nick Lewis.

Although most visitors here come to bag one of the Seven Summits, others seek an introduction to Antarctic climbing, or to forge new routes, ski on Vinson’s lower slopes, or as a means to access nearby peaks such as Mount Shinn (4,661m).

Mount Vinson, Mount Shinn and Branscomb Glacier from above Boyce Ridge. Photo: Russ Hepburn/ALE

This season, there are nearly 200 climbers on Vinson, and ALE will directly guide a quarter of those. They also manage the mountain for all other clients and their guides. ALE fixes all ropes on the mountain and looks after the camps and other facilities.

Nick Lewis has assembled a diverse team of more than 30 ALE guides. This includes IFMGA carnet holders, Sherpas, 8,000’er climbers, ski and mechanized travel specialists and a guide who has completed the Seven Summits a whopping eight times. “It’s arguably one of the most experienced guide teams in the world,” says Lewis.

Two climbers enjoy sunshine and views over the Branscomb Glacier. Photo: Mark Postle/ALE

From Union, climbers hop on a Twin Otter for the 45-minute, 150km flight to Vinson Base Camp. This is a destination in itself for those who are happy just to be around camp and take in the Sentinel Range. Base Camp is pitched at just over 2,000m and again features chefs, fresh food and large tents.

The climb itself usually takes 6 to 10 days, with most climbers following the standard route up the Branscomb Shoulder. The route begins with a nine-kilometre trek across a rising glacier to Low Camp at 2,750m. Lewis likens the route from here to High Camp to the queen stage in the Tour de France. The 4.5km route climbs 1,000m up the Branscomb Ridge at 40 to 50 degrees.

Although High Camp is at 3,750m, clients still eat freshly cooked meals flown in from Punta and stashed on the mountain. “At High Camp, we’ve had salmon en croute, panna cotta, tiramisu, filet mignon,” says Lewis.

Climbers approach the summit of Vinson. Photo: Dylan Taylor/ALE

From High Camp, climbers make a beeline to the summit, a 1,200m ascent up a gradually rising valley followed by the summit pyramid.

“High up on Vinson, you feel as if you’re almost in space, ” says Lewis. “You’re on this promontory, looking down on the vastness of Antarctica.”

Lewis describes Vinson as the “cleanest” of the Seven Summits. All solid waste, human or otherwise, is collected and flown out. ALE even has designated pee sites, which are GPS logged and regularly monitored to minimize human impact.

“You don’t have to be a hardcore climber to climb it, just have a good basic skill set and be strong and fit,” says Lewis. “Denali is the hardest [of the Seven Summits], but the coldest is Vinson, so we want to see clients with general mountaineering experience — ice axe and crampons, rope work and campcraft.” If they are lacking in some areas, ALE can bring clients up to the required standard.

A lifetime dream – South Pole Camp

Ninety degrees south, the meeting of all lines of longitude, is far and away the most recognizable of ALE’s destinations. “A lot of people come just to stand at the South Pole,” says ALE Guest Manager Aviaaja Schluter.

For those not inclined to haul a sled from Hercules Inlet, the Ronne Ice Shelf or even the last degree, ALE offers alternatives. Schluter explains that “we have people who fly in and have a night [at the Pole], and people who fly in and out on the same day.” For most overnighters or day trippers, it’s the opportunity to fulfill a lifelong ambition.

A happy guest at the Ceremonial South Pole. Photo: John Beatty

Guests fly into the Pole on a Basler or Twin Otter from Union Glacier. Once on the ground, they make themselves at home at ALE’s South Pole Camp, around one kilometre from the Pole. The camp hosts the usual ALE luxuries of large tents, toilets, charging stations and skilled chefs.

But most come simply for the chance to stand next to the Ceremonial South Pole, that famous mirrored globe set atop a barber’s pole. To make the experience complete, clients receive a certificate of achievement and a celebratory slap-up meal.

Guests and staff raise a champagne toast. Photo: John Beatty

Polar buffs can embrace the mix of history and science on a tour of the Amundsen-Scott Station and wonder what it must have been like for those pioneers over a century years ago. Even for the seasoned adventure traveler, it is an experience to savour.

About the Author

Ash Routen

Ash Routen

Ash is a postdoctoral scientist, globally published outdoor writer and arctic traveller. Ash's next expedition is a 700km trek along the coast of Baffin Island in 2020.

Read more at www.ashrouten.com

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