We were in Punta Arenas, Chile with Jay Smith and Conrad Anker, headed down for our first season climbing in Antarctica.
“Why does this packing seem so serious?”
“Well,” said Jay, “it’s not like you want to forget the salt.”
A micro-point to a macro-issue, this lack of forgiveness for even the smallest mistake.
By my second visit I took this a bit far and having read too many Antarctic survival stories, arrived with perhaps a few too many kilos of butter, hoping to keep us all well fueled and warm.
We dragged it to the heights and back again on our new route up Vinson, summiting despite the lead-like keels of butter riding low in our sleds. It was banned from my menu by the time our next climb rolled around, though olive oil did prove a bit sluggish in the cold.
Packing for Antarctica exemplifies how fear of the unknown drives volume. It really doesn’t matter the activity, a new beach requires more swim suits, a new ski mountain another set of skis just in case.
And spending several months in Antarctica necessitates rationalizing mukluks, mittens the size of pillows, and a variety of ski pole baskets because you just never know about the snowfall there. Then your pack is big and your fears are small. Except you can’t move.
Every time we go back up the hill on Vinson the gear slims down. The down booties replaced by thick socks, the extra water bottle left behind as it always just freezes anyway. The climbing gear is thinned to what you really need, the extra slings dangling about and spare carabiners now relegated to the Base Camp duffle. It’s lighter, safer, more efficient.
The gear is replaced by experience and confidence.
The three things I never give up are my Russian titanium ice screw, my Lite pulley and my short but oh so useful ice hammer. Gone are the days when any of it is heavy. Though another truism from Jay Smith still resounds strongly “My pack is filled up with things that weigh nothing.”
The unique things that seem to live in the useful category in Antarctica that rarely have a purpose elsewhere in the world are down trousers, neoprene face masks and an extra tooth brush, because the bristles inevitably freeze-up and fall out at some point.
Anything in a bottle, most specifically sunscreen, is useless. If you want hot coffee in the morning you put a neoprene case around the best thermous you can buy and then sleep with it.
You don’t wash your hair in the tent and then dry it in the alcove, because it will instantly freeze. Though this is a way to flash dry it.
A water bottle, no matter how well insulted will never make it to the top unfrozen if left in your pack. Water bottles in chest pockets will soon go slushy and cold.
Cameras have never lasted a full summit day. The batteries freeze, the lens protectors ice up, the buttons stick. Somewhere around 30 below the physics of cold seem to change and the most common things, from zippers, to laces, to snaps either stick, break or freeze together. And taking your gloves off to fix the problem isn’t normally a good solution.
Like skiing and paragliding, living and climbing in Antarctica is psychologically a very alone challenge. You can be part of a team, you can be roped up, but there is still a sense of it being you and the continent and best not to screw it up. Or forget the salt.