ALE: Working at the Bottom of the World

Operating in one of the least hospitable places on earth, members of Antarctica Logistics & Expeditions (ALE) have been helping send explorers, athletes and tourists into the great white nothing since the late 1980s. Nearly 40 years later, they are gearing up for another season, and Antarctica is more popular than ever.

South Pole skiers pull their sleds across the featureless polar plateau. Photo: Rob Smith/ALE

ALE’s predecessor, Adventure Network International (ANI), was born out of necessity in 1985. Canadian mountaineer Pat Morrow had set his sights on completing Messner’s seven summits. Of Messner’s list, Morrow had already completed Everest, Aconcagua, Denali, Kilimanjaro and Mount Elbrus. Only Indonesia’s Carstensz Pyramid and Antarctica’s Mount Vinson remained. This list diverges from Richard Bass’s list, which substitutes the highest peak in Australia, Mount Kosciuszko, for Indonesia’s more technical Carstensz Pyramid.

Morrow’s reason for choosing the Messner list? “Being a climber first and a collector second, I felt strongly that the Carstensz Pyramid…was a true mountaineer’s objective.” But before the Carstensz Pyramid, Mount Vinson was proving quite the logistical hurdle.

Morrow and fellow Canadian climber Martyn Williams teamed with a seasoned Antarctic pilot, Giles Kershaw. Kershaw had been part of a team that first spotted a naturally occurring blue-ice runway on the continent. Later, this important geographic feature would serve as the basis for ALE’s Union Glacier camp.

This discovery and Kershaw’s expertise allowed Morrow and a team of seven to fly into Antarctica’s interior, then strike out for Mount Vinson. Having ticked off the summit in November 1985, they recognized that the complex logistics could be replicated to assist future expeditions. Thus, ANI was born.

Pat Morrow on the summit of Mount Vinson in 1985. Photo: Pat Morrow

Giles Kershaw died in a plane crash in Antarctica in 1990, while Morrow continued his adventure career and Williams continued to guide in Antarctica. ANI only managed to break even during their seven-year tenure. Among other things, they struggled against the U.S.’s National Science Foundation, which at the time was trying to discourage private adventure on the continent.

Though Antarctica Logistics & Expeditions wasn’t incorporated till 2003, all their current partners, plus several guides and field staff, were previously involved in ANI. Managing Partner David Rootes explains that maintaining continuity has been one of their principles. The wide-ranging expertise of the staff also allow them to offer a vast suite of services: air transport, ground transport, medical facilities, accommodation, catering and weather forecasting.

Staff members come from a multitude of disciplines. Guides have extensive experience in mountaineering, overland vehicle travel, bush aviation, and remote project management. Some are polar record holders themselves. Others have backgrounds in chemistry, biology, meteorology and physics. There are engineers, mechanics, IT experts and a team of chefs.

In total, ALE employs up to 120 staff during the height of summer and caters to 400 to 500 clients each year. In the southern winter, the team drops to a much smaller core group based in Salt Lake City, Utah and Punta Arenas, Chile, plus a handful of remote staff scattered around the globe.

Chef Antony D, prepares rack of lamb in the Union Glacier kitchen. Photo: Wilson Cheung/ALE

The diverse nature of the clients increase the difficulty. At one end of the spectrum, there are solo expeditioners such as Colin O’Brady and Louis Rudd. These adventurers fly in with ALE to Union Glacier camp, but other than meteorological forecasting and potential emergency evacuation, they are largely self-sufficient.

The primary attractions for adventurers are, of course, the South Pole and Mount Vinson. Both goals feature their own staging camps and can be completed with varying levels of logistical support from ALE. Temporary field outposts can be set up across the continent, allowing for bespoke projects. Adventurers can bring their own guides, set off solo or hire support directly through ALE.

A map showing the various ALE camps (yellow markers). Photo: ALE

For all technical activities, ALE requires clients to detail previous expedition experience and complete a skills questionnaire before bookings are confirmed. “We look for an array of things: relevant experience — previous expeditions, mountains climbed or polar training courses,” says David Rootes. “We also look at their physical condition and any other activities that complement what they want to do in Antarctica. Guests can hire their own guide, request skills training at Union Glacier Camp or both to enhance their expedition.”

A guest takes off his down jacket at the end of a snack break. Photo: Carl Alvey/ALE

South Pole expeditions typically take about 58 days. Depending on weather, climbing Mount Vinson requires 12 days or more. Typically, ALE finds that clients don’t bite off more than they can chew. Rootes likens it to a moonwalk, with the difficulties of the location forcing everyone “whether they are a first-time visitor or a seasoned explorer [to become] completely involved in the everyday tasks of just living in such a remote place.”

At the other end of the client spectrum, adventurous tourists can stay at the luxury Three Glaciers camp. Situated in the foothills of the Heritage Range, this camp serves fine food and wine, and approximates a top-class hotel experience. Guests can take out snow bikes, go skiing and even skydive.

Skydivers exit a Twin Otter over Union Glacier. Photo: Adam Ungar/ALE

Their Gould Bay camp draws a different crowd. Built on frozen sea-ice in the southern Weddell Sea, it provides a base for those visiting the nearby 8,000-strong colony of emperor penguins.

Emperor penguin colony, under the midnight sun. Photo: David Rootes/ALE

Aside from ensuring clients arrive and depart safely, a key component of ALE’s work involves creating policies that uphold the environmental standards of the Antarctic Treaty. The treaty came into force in 1998, but much of the law is open to interpretation, forcing a great deal of self-regulation. ALE has tracked its carbon output for almost two decades and works to reduce its emissions every year. Field camps run mostly on solar power.

All human and operational waste needs to be removed too. To date, it seems to be working. Compared with other tourist peaks, Mount Vinson remains a very clean summit (though its status as the most remote, last discovered, last climbed and last-named of the Seven Summits probably helps).

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

The 2019-2020 summer season is just days away. Last season saw drama aplenty, thanks to Rudd’s and O’Brady’s “race” across the continent and the unusually poor snow conditions that forced several unscheduled food drops and aborted expeditions. This season, Jenny Davis and Wendy Searle are going for new South Pole speed records and Geoff Wilson aims to complete the longest ever unsupported polar journey, a 5,600km snowkite expedition around the continent. Others, in the best Antarctic tradition (see Amundsen, Roald), want to keep their ambitious plans under wraps from everyone but ALE, the all-seeing logistics eye on the Southern Continent.