Union Glacier, Antarctica, is home to the Fram dining hall and the first port of call for guests in Antarctica coming to climb Mount Vinson, visit the Emperor Penguins or set off for the South Pole.
In the white framed weather-port, which turns out meals far beyond expectations for such a far flung outpost, South Pole explorers tuck into filet steak next to Vinson climbers sampling seafood pasta – followed by the occasional chocolate mousse. It is an environment, sans wifi and digital connectivity, that encourages that rare event, real conversation.
Sitting at long shared tables it is as easy to be immersed in others adventures as to share your own experiences, as the katabatic winds rustle the tent and the windows blare with endless sunshine.
As this is the first stop in Antarctica, the sense of arriving off the lumbering Russian Ilyushin jet, trundling over the ice in the snow machine and being dropped into the warmed tent for a meal opens one up to talk to anybody. It is a five star restaurant with the convivial atmosphere of your local diner.
There is a tradition of adventurous hero’s and heroism in Antarctica, from bumping into Rob Hall and Gary Ball guiding clients in their early days with their guiding company Hall & Ball, now Adventure Consultants. Rob swore by his bunny boots and stomped everywhere around Patriot Hills in them, the precursor to the current Union Glacier camp.
A few years later I’d get the final communications from Rob, a post card sent from Everest Base Camp before he set out for his last fateful climb to the summit, as documented in Jon Krakauer’s book, Into Thin Air and then dramatized in the more recent movie Everest.
Conrad Anker, a frequent visitor to the continent, first arrived with Jay Smith to guide clients on a new route on Vinson, and then make the first ascent of nearby Mount Craddock. I’d piggy-backed along on their expedition with my photographer Joe Blackburn, finishing up my Seven Summits Solo project with two solos of Vinson, including the Rolex Ridge.
Conrad returns to Antarctica often, as full of life as ever, with just enough time to share a beer with us in Union Glacier before he set off for Vinson and Tyree. Conrad is ever a climbers, climber, with new plans, new friends, trailing teams and enthusiasts for the heights along in his energetic wake.
With the deeper snow we have been experiencing, I had Conrad recount the first avalanche any of us experienced there, one he was caught in while out reconnoitering a route on the still unclimbed and immense face on Mt. Craddock. Swept away below Jay he went for a wild ride down the side of a ridge – back when we thought getting avalanched in Antarctica was highly improbable. Conrad snuck a few extra beers in his pocket and headed off for the far side of Tyree with Jimmy, Hillaree and Jim.
Rob Swan first set foot in Antarctica way back in 1984, before going on to also ski to the North Pole, becoming the first person to reach both the top and the bottom of the globe.
He was back to complete the final steps to the pole, but with a warm up in Union Glacier before setting out for the ice. He was as eager as any of us to share personal stories on how we define ourselves and our goals, rather prescient in the times we all now find ourselves in.
There are also those who arrive with adventurous but shorter term goals, like David Beckham who flew in for an impromptu football match as part of his 7-continent tour highlighting the transformational effect football can have on people’s lives.
Two teams were quickly rallied at Union Glacier, the pitch laid out, and local ALE staff, including Patricio Gonzalez, our Chilean chef, refereed. Not unexpectedly, Beckham’s team quickly moved the score along to 3 to 0. But the opposing team, captained by head chef Antony Dubber and perhaps more familiar with ice technique, mounted a comeback and the match ended in a 3-3 tie.
This was filmed for a longer BBC documentary – but the real action with David’s commentary on the joys of playing on the rather slippery ice of a glacier are recounted in a short video here.
As much as the stories coming from Antarctica and journeys to the south pole are headlined with tales of races and conflict, much of the feeling on the ice is of adventurers working together.
The shared experience of being in Antarctica, of struggling against something that is much more an internal challenge than one of external strife, predominates. Colin and Lou were seen laughing and talking together before they both headed back north after their solo crossings of the continent, more than happy to share their adventures and compare notes than the press felt necessary to comment on.
When three woman headed for the south pole, including Jenny Davis, Mollie Hughes and Wendy Searle, they were happy to not only take in the three meals a day at Union Glacier, but also were encouraged to join the morning coffee and cakes session at 11 a.m. as well as afternoon tea later in the day. With a score of biscuits, cakes and scones on offer, it was a good way to keep the weight on before the inevitable massive slimming that would happen as they skied day-after-day to the South Pole.
Their ski journeys were pitched as a race everywhere from the Financial Times to The Guardian. On the ice the women were as likely to be cracking jokes together, as getting tips from current record holder Johanna Davidsson and the legendary Hannah McKeand, who more than a few people have visited in Norway for her polar training courses.
Antarctica also draws in a more scientific and scholarly crowd, from Doctor Chris Imray completing his Seven Summits, to Kirstie Jones-Williams, leader of a citizen science team measuring micro-plastics. Conversations with Dr. Imray and our mutual interest in frostbite led to an article on our findings and a recommendations to keep those vital finger and toes a bit warmer in the cold.
Kirstie Jones-Williams and her team of 5 citizen scientists, gathered snow from a host of locations, extending from the relatively populous Union Glacier, to the remote luxury retreat at Three Glaciers, to the very bottom of the earth at the South Pole. With her team coming from around the world, from Dubai to Norway to the U.S. their conversations spanned the globe as they worked into the late hours in their home grown science lab at Union Glacier.
As much as you may be in a conversation lasting into the late hours with one of your heroes, or somebody who fast becomes a hero, there are also the guests who quietly come in, we guide over the hills and across the ice, and just as quietly slip away again. Their names anyone would recognize, but they want to simply experience Antarctica for themselves. We share meals with them, ski and climb alongside them, experiencing Antarctica and the ice, and they disappear again.
The Three Glaciers setting, certainly one of the most pristine and beautiful in the world, creates nothing less than an experience of pure magic.
Inside Three Glaciers, a good reason to never want to leave Antarctica. Yes, about as indiscrète as you imagine, two of my books on the table.
The world of the mountains being a small one, it isn’t uncommon to meet the guides and climbers in Antarctica who then show up on the other mountains of the world, from the Seven Summits to the North Pole, where we can commiserate together and plot a return to the ice.