Category Archives: Antarctica

Travel News from South Am-AIR-ica

Antarctic Airways trip offerings + new merged carrier.

AntarcticAirways-logoI learned a lot at last week’s media luncheon focusing on travels in Chile — nothing more interesting than Antarctic Airways. I didn’t know anything about this airline, even though it’s been around in one fashion of another for 35 years. Still, now that I do know, I find it exciting. From a base in Punta Arenas on the tip of the South American continent it flies to King George Island on the tip of the Antarctic Peninsula.

The flight takes roughly two hours, which makes it possible to take a day trip with five hours on the White Continent, as well as an overnight trip or 6-day trip that includes the King George Island  overnight. What it excludes, happily for most people, is a two-day crossing of the wickedly rough Drake Passage. King George Island is far enough south so that visitors see lots of penguins, icebergs, seals and seabirds, as well as visits to Villa Estrellas, a year-round civilian settlement. Overnights are at a comfortable “ice camp” on Collins Glacier.

LATAM-logoWhen I checked my E-mail after lunch, I found a message announcing the merger of LAN and TAM into LATAM Airways, a combination that creates South America’s largest air route system. It flies to and within Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Colombia,  Ecuador and Peru. US gateways are Los Angeles, Miami, Orlando, New York and Washington, DC. Once again, I wish Denver were on the list.

Sweet Amenities at Brown Palace

BrownPalace-logoIs there anyone who hasn’t liberated a little in-room hotel amenity bottles of shampoo or body lotion from the hotel bathroom? I certainly have — mostly a little bar of fine soap or a bottle of body lotion that I haven’t used up. If I were staying at Denver’s Brown Palace Hotel and Spa, some of the new Rooftop Honey Amenity Line of facial and bath soap, bath gel, shampoo, conditioner and hand and body lotion would be coming home with me. The products are made with real honey – in fact, with honey produced on the rooftop of the hotel. It’s thought to be the only hotel amenity line in the country to be made with a hotel’s own honey.

Back in 2010, The Brown Palace began to nurture a colony of bees on the rooftop, intending to use the honey at the hotel’s signature Afternoon Tea. The hotel even began producing a specialty craft beer served in the Ship’s Tavern. Now come the beauty and skin products since honey is known to moisturize, work as an anti-aging agent and fight bacteria. The sweet smelling, paraben-free Bee Royalty Honey Amenity Line is created with natural essences and honey harvested from the hotel’s rooftop beehives, and is also used in The Brown Palace Spa.

Guests who fall in love with the line can purchase more exclusively at the hotel’s spa. FoMoInfo: 303-312-8940.

Remembering the White Continent

The Amundsen centennial brings back Antarctic memories

I recently wrote a post adding my modest homage to the extraordinary accomplishment of Norwegian Roald Amundsen to the South Pole a century ago. He could hardly have imagined that within a human lifetime, tourists too would be visiting Antarctica. Travel to “the white continent” started with the first Linblad voyage some 45 years ago.  In recent years, these visitors have totaled roughly 10,000 annually. The Destination Antarctica website is devoted to distilling information about travel and tour operators who offer trips there. While Amundsen and other early explorers were not there to photograph the penguins, albatrosses, skuas, petrels, seals, sea lions or whales near the coast, that’s what most visitors want to do.

Chinstrap penguin family. Photo from Free Info Society.

Most trips are cruises departing from Ushuaia, Argentina, or occasionally Punta Arenas, Chile, crossing the super-rough Drake Passage and visiting the Antarctic Peninsula on short trips to view wildlife, learn about early exploration and go camera-crazy. Antarctica is not a bargain destination by any measure — with costs starting at high from in the four figures and rising from there. The voyage, meals, strictly controlled landings via inflatable Zodiacs and naturalist-guides who share their knowledge of penguins and other birds, seals, whales and the occasional low-growing, tenacious plants that cling to the a few pockets of shoreline.

Trips like Antarctica are usually out of the financial question for my husband and me, but in 1998, my husband and I went there for less than $4,000 each — including air fare to Buenos Aires from New York or Miami, Buenos Aires-Ushuaia air, one night in B.A. before and one night after the trip, and a few extras. It was a bargain even then. We found it through REI Adventures, and the trip was on a red-hulled ship called the “Disko” that had been built to cruise Greenland’s coast.

The modest 'Disko' tied up in Ushuaia with a much larger and much, much fancier cruise ship at her stern.

A now defunct company called World Cruises operated the “Disko” to Antarctica at that time. The company’s concept was budget trips on ships that were not the newest or luxurious — ships that were replaced by a newer generation of ship. Sadly, as fuel prices rose, the model of using older, smaller and less efficient was no longer viable. World Cruises folded, and in 2007, the “Disko” herself hit the rocks near the island of Qeqertarsuaq off the coast of Greenland. No lives were lost, but the “Disko” faded into a tiny footnote in maritime history.

The “Disko” was built in 1992 and launched under the name “Saqqit Ittuk” to travel in Arctic waters and when she was “reconcepted” in 2004 as an expedition ship, she was also renamed. While the  double-hulled ship was built to sail through ice floes, she wasn’t designed for the Drake Passage, said to be the world’s roughest sea. Of the 90 or so passengers, I was fortunately one of the few not to get seasick. The ship’s doctor was busy on both crossings, administering anti-nausea medication to dozens of passengers.

When we reached smoother Antarctic waters, even those who had been the sickest and most miserable forgot their discomfort amid the grandeur of the glaciers, mountains, icebergs, low-hanging clouds and animals. Every landing was different and extraordinary. Like many ships, Petermann Island (65 degrees, 7 minutes south and 64 degrees, 8 minutes west) was as far south as we sailed. The Antarctic Circle is at 67 degrees south.

Nature has painted the Antarctic landscpe in dramatic black, white and nuanced shades of gray. A patch of blue sky or the occasional small bit of green grass is a welcome surprise.

Antarctica is famously the highest, driest, most remote and least explored continent on the planet. There is no equating the accomplishments of Antarctic explorers or even of today’s private expeditions — trans-Antarctic crossings on skis, mountaineering,  women’s trips, solo trips, etc. And there is no equating a cruise — whether on an icebreaker or a (relatively) luxurious ship — with step-by-step experiences. But I’m beyond grateful to have had the opportunity to be there.

Amundsen South Pole Centennial Today

Norwegian explorer reached the South Pole 100 years ago today

Some “great races” undertaken today are reality-show “adventures” contrived for television. The competitors are accompanied by television crews recording the happenings. When Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen reached the South Pole exactly a century ago, he won “the great race”– a real race — a month ahead of  British adventurer Robert Falcon Scot. Back in the dayt, both expeditions were  self-supporting and self-sustaining — totally off the grid, to use a modern term. Amundsen, a meticulous organizer, had already experienced an Antarctic winter with Belgian Adrien de Gerlachei’s Belgica expedition to locate the southern magnetic pole, and had been the first to transit the Northwest Passage. He was as ready as anyone could be.

In August 1910, Amundsen sailed to the coast of Antarctica where he eventually established a base camp to testing equipment and set up supply caches along the planned routes. On October 19 (or 20), 2011, Amundsen and four companions left their camp and headed south, putting into practice what he had learned from Eskimo/Inuit peoples on his Northwest Passage expedition. The Norwegians used lightweight dogsleds and skis to cross the ice and snow. Though it counters our sensibilities today, when dogs were no longer needed, the team ate their meet. When they reached the South Pole, they camped for three days and made scientific observations and measurements. And then they tuned back toward the north.

Roald Amundsen at the South Pole 100 years ago today.

Meanwhile, Scott, a dreamier Englishman inclined to muddle through, had also set et up caches and finally departed on November 1. He traveled with dogs and also, bizarrely, with ponies and what are described as “motorized sledges” — a forerunner of today’s snowmobiles, perhaps. When the ponies and motorized sledges had expired, the men had pulled the heavy loads in challending weather.What a downer it must have been when, on January 16, 2012, they saw the Amundsen party’s tracks in the snow. The following day when they reached the South Pole, they spotted a tent and a Norwegian flag. Inside, Amundsen had left a note for Scott that ended with the words: “With kind regards I wish you a safe return.” There was no safe return for Scott and his party. All perished on the way back.

The world — and especially Norway — is honoring Andersen’s achievement. Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg of Norway at the geographic South Pole. His trip to honor Roald Amundsen’s expedition a century ago was considerably easier than the original — and for a time at least, the weather seems to be better as well.

Norway's prime minister Jens Stoltenberg at the South Pole to honor the centennial of Amundsen's great achievement. Mr. Stoltenberg and his party traveled to the "bottom of the Earth" in considerably more comfort than the early 20th-century expedition -- and they enjoyed better weather as well.





Glaciers Up Close and Personal

Article about Argentina’s Perito Moreno Glacier stirs up my own memories of a hike down Switerland’s Great Aletsch Glacier (left).

A Touch of the Arctic in Argentina, ” a front-page feature about an Argentine glacier in today’s Denver Post (originally published in Newsday), set off a torrent of memories. The headline writer’s cavalier use of the word “Arctic” to describe the Magellanic region of Patagonia, a whole lot closer to the Antarctic than the Arctic zone, notwithstanding, I was taken by writer Ann Givens’ tale of being stranded (air traffic control issues with domestic flights) in inland town of El Calafate. It is located near Lago Argentino, an enormous lake at the Argentine-Chilean border fed by Andean snow and ice, and Givens and her husband made the most of the situation by visiting Perito Moreno Glacier.

Givens wrote, “There are glaciers all over the world, of course, ranging from Africa to New Zealand. But there are a few things that make the Moreno glacier unique, as we learned from our English-speaking tour guide. The first is its accessibility: You can get to it by car, without hiking for miles through ice and snow or traveling for days on an ice-breaking boat. Second, the Moreno Glacier is dynamic, meaning that it is constantly forming at one end, while it is breaking off into the water at the other at the same rate.”

Regarding her first point, Perito Moreno is far from unique. Numerous compelling glaciers are easy to reach. Just think about Juneau, Alaska’s drive-to Mendenhall Glacier and fly-to Juneau Icefield, the Columbia Icefield right off the route between Banff and Jasper, and numerous Alpine glaciers that you can reach by cable car from a resort town in the valley below are among those that come to mind. Ice breaking boat? Some but not even most Antarctic trips are by icebreaker, but otherwise, visitors can get close to numerous tidewater glaciers there and elsewhere on everything from a cruise ship to a Zodiac. Mountain glaciers like Perito Moreno are reached in other and often easy ways.

Regarding her second point, at the present time, Perito Moreno not unique either, but it is definitely unusual. It is one of only three Patagonian glaciers that is not retreating, which also makes it a worthy pilgrimage site. In any event, Grimes’ description of their two-hour guided hike on the glacier captured her thrill.

“We were each outfitted with crampons, cleats for climbing on ice and
snow,” she wrote. “From the inside, the glacier’s terrain is beautiful: icy
hills and valleys, separated by deep crevasses and tiny streams of bright blue
water formed by newly melted ice. The walking wasn’t easy, and our guides were
there to help us over some frighteningly deep canyons, and down some steep
grades. People who had been smart enough to bring water bottles filled them up
in the glacial streams, and the rest of us sucked on small chunks of
million-year-old ice, a surprisingly delicious treat, which we were assured was
perfectly safe.

“After a couple of hours, we came over a peak and saw our guides ahead of
us, standing around a table that had been set up on the ice. On the table was a
glass of scotch for each of us, each with a chunk of glacier ice in it, and a
bowl full of chocolate truffles. Standing on a glacier near the southern tip of
Argentina, it seemed to me a delicious indulgence. My husband and I beamed at
each other and clinked our glasses.”

It might seem like quibbling on my part to note that one doesn’t hike “inside” a glacier, but rather “on” a glacier. Only in Alpine resorts where man-made caves are carved into the heads of large glaciers does one actually enter inside one. A glacial maze, if indeed the group was led through one, might feel like being inside the ice. But maybe that’s just envious me writing, because I too would like to see this rare glacier that is not shrinking even when those around it are.

Chilling drinks with glacial ice is a popular feature following a tourist experience to or near various glaciers, it seems especially in South America. I enjoyed a pisco sour on a sightseeing boat called the “Lady Grey II” that motors to the foot of the Grey Glacier in Chile’s Torres del Paine National Park, close as the condor flies to the Perito Moreno Glacier. It is also an easy-access glacier. You can drive to the Hosteria Grey and board a boat to the foot of the glacier that feeds the lake.

Switzerland’s Great Aletsch Glacier: One Great Hike

Of the several glacier experiences I’ve had — Antarctica, South America, Alaska, the Alps and even on the top of Mt Kilimanjaro in Africa — the most epic glacier by far was a hike down Switzerland’s Great Aletsch Glacier 2004. We rode the train from Kleine Scheidegg through the Eiger to a saddle called the Jungfraujoch, with its mammoth structure holding the train station, numerous restaurants, viewing platforms, a humongous gift shop and an observatory.

From there, we walked through a short tunnel and stepped onto the glacier. With veteran guide Bernhard Stuckey, we roped up and hiked more than 10 miles (of the the glacier’s approximate 14 1/2-mile length) with an overnight at the Konkordia Hut perched high on a cliff above the shrinking glacier. The “hut” is not an Appalachian Mountain Club-style lean-to but a substantial stone structure built to house, shelter and feed hikers, touring skiers and climbers. You can see it poking out above the sloping rock shoulder of the cliff in the bottom photo, which was taken from the surface of the glacier.

We climbed up a series of ladders and zigzagging metal steps bolted into the rock from the glacier to but. The view from the terrace next to the hut was beyond breathtaking. Below was the vast Great Aletsch Glacier, a UNESCO Natural World Heritage Site. We looked right down at the Konkordia Platz, an amazing confluence of the glacier we hiked down and side glaciers that meet right there. It is surrealistic to gaze at his scene of rock-rimmed, ice-filled valleys where human evidences seem very far away — even though we had left the Jungfraujoch just a few hours earlier and though the hutkeepers were just inside, preparing hot meals and pouring wine and beer for hungry, thirsty trekkers.

While the glacier surface at the beginning of our route was covered soft snow that became mushy in the afternoon snow and did not require crampons, as we approached the hut (two bottom images) the snow began to give over to crust. The second day, we were on ice, and we did need crampons. When we left the hut, we descended to the crenelated surface of the glacier, put on our crampons and kept on hiking. The farther down we went, the rougher the glacier surface and the more crevasses we encountered. We left the glacier and climbed up big rocky surface, unbuckled our crampons and followed a long trail through alpine meadows to the village of Bettmeralp.

Whenever I read about hiking on glaciers, standing on glaciers, looking at glaciers or making a drink with glacial ice, I want to be there too. So thanks, Ann Givens, for sharing your experience and resurrecting memories of some of my own.

"Explorer" Goes Down

Yesterday’s two-part post on the expedition ship “Explorer’s” unfortunate encounter with an iceberg, or submerged ice, had an inevitable ending. Twenty or so hours after the ship hit the ice, she sank. I intentionally wrote “unfortunate” rather than “tragic,” because no one died and no one has been reported as having suffered more than hypothermia, which would have been tragic indeed. A number of reports of the incident are available online, but the piece written by Moira Welch and Emily Mathieu of the Toronto Star carries a special poignancy because the ship as owned by Toronto-based G.A.P. Adventures. They wrote, “The first cruise ship built to ply the waters off Antarctica became the first ever to sink there.” R.I.P. “Explorer.”

At last report, many (or perhaps most) of the passengers were airlifted from a Chilean air base to Punta Arenas, Chile, on Saturday and the rest, who seem to have spent a night at an Uruguayan base, were expect to follow on Sunday.

Details were posted on the G.A.P. Adventures website: “Explorer Update (24 November 18:40 EST) All passengers and crew, including the captain of M/S Explorer, are completely safe and in good spirits.The first flight from King George Island has now landed in Punta Arenas, Chile. 75 passengers and 2 staff/crew members were onboard the flight. 11 passengers and 66 staff and crew remain on King George Island and, weather permitting, will be flown to Punta Arenas tomorrow. All passengers are safe and in good spirits. One passenger has reported a sore foot and has been taken to the hospital as a precautionary measure. Representatives from the consular offices of Australia, Britain, Canada and the United States are on the ground in Punta Arenas working with G.A.P Adventures staff to assist passengers. Flights home from Punta Arenas are being coordinated.”

"Explorer" Hits Iceberg en Route to Antarctica

When I posted the entry below a couple of hours ago, I wrote that I wouldn’t keep monitoring all the reports — but of course, I did. The New York Times web page includes an image of the red-hulled “Explorer” lying practially on her side in amid the ice floes in forbodingly gray water. The site also includes a link to a podcast interview by the Times’ Andy Revkin with travel journalist Jon Bowermaster, who happened to be a guest lecturer aboard the “National Geographic Endeavor,” which reached the stricken “Explorer” at about the same time as the “Nord Norge.” He reported that by the time the two ships reached the scene at 3:00 a.m., passengers and crew had been in lifeboats for about four hours.

The Times report, written by Revkin and Graham Bowley, indicated that the engine room was flooded early in the incident. According to the report, this was not the first time this same ship, which was built in 1969, had experienced problems in these dangerous waters. The Times reporters wrote, “In February 1972, the Explorer, then operating for a Norwegian line as the Lindblad Explorer, ran aground close to the same spot, in similar circumstances. Amid the heaving seas, all her passengers then — mostly Americans — had to be rescued by the Chilean Navy.”

While earlier reports indicated that the ship had a double hull, the Times reported: “It had a double bottom, a second sheath of steel to protect it if the ship runs aground, but the vessel did not have a double hull, a complete second complete sheathing of steel — developed after the Titanic, with a double bottom, sank. Built in 1969, the Explorer was small, to move swiftly through dangerous waters.”

When passengers are required to attend a lifeboat drill shortly after boarding any ship, they usually do so a bit grudgingly, thinking they will never need to know how to put on their life jackets or to which lifeboat station they are assigned. But I’m betting the approximately 100 passengers on the “M/S Explorer” (above left, during a normal Antarctic trip), a relatively small expedition ship and not a luxury cruise ship, were glad they knew what to do and where to go when she hit an iceberg and began taking on water.

All of the passengers and 54 crew members escaped without injury and were taken aboard the “M/S Nord Norge,” which then went on King George Island in the South Shetlands. The”Explorer” was “in a sector of Antarctica claimed by the United Kingdom,” according to CNN‘s report of the incident. The “Nord Norge” reportedly had room for the “Explorer’s” pasengers who might want to continue on their trip, according to Susan Hayes of Toronto-based G.A.P. Adventures, which owns the ship.

She told CNN that “there was plenty of time for calm evacuation” and pointed out that passengers heading for Antarctica are equipped for cold weather. When the incident occurred on Thursday night, air temperatures were said to be 23 degrees Fahrenheit, with sea temperature at just around freezing. That’s springtime in Austral waters.

Again according to CNN, “Capt. Carlos Munita of the Chilean navy said they received a distress call from the Explorer, saying the vessel had hit an iceberg around 10 p.m. ET Thursday. G.A.P. Adventures spokeswoman Susan Hayes said it was not an iceberg but a ‘submerged piece of ice.’ She added that while the ship was listing at 35 degrees or more it was not clear whether it would sink.” Susan Hayes from Gap adventures talks about the rescue mission.

Several online news reports have been posted, and I’m not going to keep track of all of them, but I’ve seen various numbers of passengers (91 to over 100). At last report, the ship had not sunk but was listing 35 degrees. CNN reported that “Explorer” was 12 days into a 19-day program according, but on a 25-day itinerary, according to Also, different media cited different numbers regarding the degree the ship was listing (initially 21 degrees, then 35 and later as much as 40), but of course, that changes as crews try to pump water out faster that it flows in. The collision with the iceberg or submerged piece of ice reportedly left a fist-size hole in the hull, but water was coming in through resulting cracks.

G.A.P. Adventures’ website describes the “Explorer”: “At only 75 meters in length and equipped with an ice hardened double hull and a fleet of robust zodiacs, she is a go-anywhere ship for the go-anywhere traveller.” My first reaction was: Imagine how much worse the circumstances would have been if she were single-hulled ship. Later, I wondered how such a small puncture could wreak such damage on a vessel of that size.

In some ways, I can identify with the entire situation. My husband and I and a friend traveled to Antarctica some years ago aboard the “Disko,” a ship built for coastal travel in Greenland where it subsequently ran aground. The “Disko” was not built for the rough Drake Passage that we crossed between Ushuaia, Argentina, and the Antarctic Peninsula and where the “Explorer” ran into trouble. That was our sole Antarctic experience, but our friend has been back twice since then. Antarctica is that captivating! As a guest blogger on Feast, I recently reviewed a book called Berserk in the Antarctic, about an unbelievable crossing of the Drake in a 27-foot sailboat called “Berserk.” Few people would have given the little Berserk odds of making it to Antarctica and back but she did, and few people would have given the “Explorer” odds of not making it.

Antarctic Adventures Aboard ‘Berserk’

I was invited to be a guest blogger by my friend Rosemary Carstens who maintains an elegant quarterly E-publication and an equally elegant blog, both called Feast. She covers travel, art, food and books, which are passions we have in common. I wrote a review of Berserk, a wild tale of three mismatched shipmates (boatmates?) who crossed the world’s roughest ocean in a dinky 27-foot sailboat. It’s a great read — and both incarnations of Feast provide great reads too.

Sometime in the future, I might post my review on this blog too, but meanwhile, use the link to visit Rosemary’s sites.