Nabil Al-Busaidi's Antarctic expedition diary

Our Arab explorer finally makes it to the top of Mount Vinson to plant the Omani flag.
Nabil Al-Busaidi's Antarctic expedition diary
ARAB EXPLORER: Nabs during his quest to climb to the top of Mount Vinson. (Supplied)
By Nabil ‘Nabs’ Al-Busaidi
Sun 17 Jan 2010 01:28 PM

He made his name by becoming the first Arab to walk to the magnetic North Pole, and now Nabil ‘Nabs’ Al-Busaidi has the Antarctic’s highest mountain in his sights.

The 39-year-old Omani, who entered the record books last April after completing a 24-day trek across the Arctic, is preparing to scale Mount Vinson, one of the world’s Seven Summits – or the highest peaks on the seven continents.

In his bid to conquer the 4,892m peak, which stands some 1,200km from the South Pole, Nabs will face arctic conditions and need expert mountaineering and glacier skills. The expedition is far from risk free, and only 1,400 have succeeded in climbing Mount Vinson.

Over the coming days, we’ll be featuring regular diary updates from Nabs and his teammates in their bid to plant the Omani flag on Antarctic’s highest peak.

Nabs makes it to the summit to plan the Omani flag

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By now, I was really beginning to suffer. I could not breathe and my head was pounding louder and louder with each heartbeat. Eventually I broke down for the first time and asked Scott for a break, so I could detach my rucksack. Without the weight on my back and the constriction on my chest from the shoulder straps, I was back on track and just able to keep up with Scott, but I was still hyperventilating from the thin air. The earth is not entirely circular but flatter at the poles and for some reason this makes the air thinner, so for every height we climbed to it actually felt 500m higher.

A weary six hours after starting, we approached the final plateau before the summit ridge. The wind was bitter, gusting 60kmph from the east and blowing up the Vinson Massif and down the other side. We were grateful for a pocket of calm as the wind rushed up the summit overtopping the edge and down the other side. It was a small pocket of heaven for us, having suffered seven hours of battering in the wind.

We made our final preparations for the push to the summit under the guidance of Scott. I put on every piece of clothing, had some shots of energy gel, stashed all the remaining equipment and steeled myself to ignore the pounding in my head for one final hour. With the conditions we were in, we could only afford half an hour to traverse to reach the summit and half an hour to return, without risking frostbite.

By now the wind was roaring at 50kmph, approaching up to 80kmph, making it hard for me to stand up. We proceeded as fast as we could along the sharp, thin, rocky ridge. We had the ice axes ready, were roped together for safety and put spiky metal crampons on our feet to help our footing. Each step along the ridge brought into view another peak slightly higher and further along than the one we had just climbed. This was intensely frustrating, making me wonder when this hell would end.

After what seemed like at least another hour, but was actually less than 20 minutes, we came to an innocuous 2m high pyramid of rock and snow that was clearly higher than any point we could see for miles. As with the magnetic north pole, it was so nondescript that I could not quite believe it was the right summit. There really should have been neon lights; an arrow or at least a plaque to lend the location more gravitas, just something to confirm this was in fact the goal I had struggled so hard to reach. 

We circled around the east side of the snowy goal and from the south side of it I paused briefly. Scott handed me the small Omani flag that I had taken to the Arctic and the summit of Kilimanjaro and said something encouraging which was whipped away by the howling wind. As I scrambled up the last few feet from the south side I could see the west side of the pyramid was no more than an accumulation of snow piled up on the leeward side of the slope and if I strayed too far to the left I might be avalanching unintentionally 1,000m to my death. So I decided to conservatively stay on the windward side, which I knew was rock underneath.

All these distracting thoughts contributed to me losing my footing just as I reached the top. To cover up my clumsiness I dived on the summit like a rugby player scoring a try, planting the Omani flag, at the highest point of snow, on the highest mountain, on the highest continent, in the coldest driest place on earth. The time was 19:12 GMT on January 17, 2010. And I was the first Omani to summit Mount Vinson, one of the seven highest summits on the seven continents.       

Day 11: Summit day brings doubts and bad weather.

Our guide Scott woke us up at 7.30am but I refused to tuck my head out of the sleeping bag - I was in denial and thought by hiding my head the whole experience would go away. I was very nervous about summit day, and unsure if I would be able to make it to the top. My head was still thumping slightly and my stomach was turning with the thought of what lay ahead. Mark, my fellow climber, was also anxious which was surprising considering how experienced he was. If he was apprehensive with all his years of mountaineering, then it was probably best that I was ignorant of what lay ahead.

The weather forecast was not as good as yesterday, and anything higher than 50km/h winds at the summit meant we would have to wait another day. The estimated wind speed at the summit was 40-60 km/h. With the weather likely to change for the better or worse, we decided it was worth climbing and hoping that in the six hours it took to climb up, the wind would decrease enough for us to attempt the summit. It was certainly better than sitting around for another day kicking our heels and getting cold!

We set off from high camp at 9.30am up a 25° glacier that took over an hour to climb. As soon as we topped that slope and turned the corner, the wind hit us straight in the face. The bitter wind reminded me of some of my worst days walking to the magnetic North Pole, while the altitude began to take its toll on me. My Achilles were straining, my heart was racing, my lungs were bursting, but worst of all my head was thumping. I was terrified that I was progressing towards acute mountain sickness. I had read about high altitude cerebral edema. It is a dangerous thing and I was scared.

Mark, who has climbed all over the world since he was 18, maintained that mountaineering at altitude was not about fitness, but about mental attitude. As long as you were determined, you could summit. I felt I was incapable of making the summit, the physical effort was so great and each step we took I hoped would be our last. But I also knew that each step I took, I could take one more. And as long as I could take one more, I would never give up. So I just focused on making the next step. I didn’t doubt my determination, but I doubted my body.

I spent the first hour repeating duas that my father had taught me before the North Pole. Repeating these in my head would occupy my mind until my body overcame the pain barrier. And then once I was through on the other side, I would listen to my iPod. The psychological benefit of climbing in a small group was that every time my spirit dropped, I could look over at Mark or Scott and see them facing the same challenges, knowing that if they can do it, so can I. But on each step I was secretly hoping that one of them were sneaking a break.  

We stopped briefly for a break and while I adjusted my clothing, Mark did some personal admin. Suddenly the safety rope linking us all together dragged me backwards down the hill. Mark had dropped one of his mittens and, knowing how dangerous that was, ran immediately after the glove. Losing our big down mittens, which protect against frostbite, would have meant we would need to turn back. It was a desperate situation overriding anything else. I was being dragged downhill after Mark and in return I dragged Scott downhill, who had at that moment been attempting to relieve himself! Luckily, Mark managed to retrieve his glove.

Four hours after we began to summit, the wind was still marginal. Our faces stung from the wind and we had to consider whether it was prudent to descend. Scott asked us if we wanted to turn back and try again the next day. I don’t think there was any hesitation from Mark or I when we said we both wanted to continue. There was no way I wanted to suffer that climb again tomorrow and I would rather continue in harsh winds than start again.   

Day 10 and Nabs is struck by altitude sickness

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I went to bed last night with a thumping headache because of the altitude. I had a similar problem when I was climbing Mount Kilimanjaro. It can be alleviated by drinking lots of water and resting, which I have been doing, but I still woke up several times in the night with my head pounding, which was not a good sign.

I woke in the morning to a brilliant day for summiting Mount Vinson. It was perfect weather with very little wind - but I still had a major headache and told the guide I needed a rest day. I took diamox, which is an altitude acclimatisation medicine. It is not an immediate fix for the acute mountain sickness I felt, but it speeds up part of the acclimatisation, which in turn helps to relieve the symptoms.

Mark and Scott decided to try and take advantage of the weather and go from high camp to the summit, but two hours into their walk, they turned around and came back to high camp. Mark was also feeling the effects of the altitude and needed more rest.

The altitude at high camp is 4,000m, but because the air is so thin at the poles the occurring altitude is almost 300-400m more. But again, we had great weather. The temperature in the tent went up to 20°C in the sun, but as soon as the sun dropped behind the mountain leaving us in the shade, the temperature instantly dropped to -8°C.

One of the rules for climbing here is to make sure the route is in the sun and not the shade, as it can make almost 30 degrees difference. With 24-hour daylight in Antarctica during the summer months, weather conditions and how we respond to the altitude, rather than clocks, dictate our activities so schedule and ‘time’ takes on a different meaning.

I hope the weather tomorrow is as good, as the route to the summit is exposed making it sensitive to strong winds. Summit day is expected to be our longest day of climbing, between 9 to 12 hours, so I needed all the rest I can get tonight to acclimatise properly before summiting Mount Vinson.

Day nine, and Nabs has the top of Mount Vinson in his sights.

The weather has been great and both Mike and I feel better, so we decided to ascend from Vinson low camp to high camp, which lies at 4000 m. It was an elevation gain of 1,200m. The walking distance that day was very short, about half a kilometre, before we reached the start of the 45 degree slope and fixed the ropes to the cliff face. We put crampons (snow spikes) onto the bottom of our boots, and put all of our equipment into our rucksacks, clipped our harnesses to the ropes and then spent almost four hours climbing up the slope. The route took us up the broad mixed spur at the northern end of the Branscomb Ridge through rocky sections and areas of blue ice.

It took us five and a half hour to get from low camp to high camp, and when we finally got there, we were so exhausted. Mark was feeling dizzy and I had a thumbing headache from exercising at altitude. Both are typical symptoms and are part of the body’s reaction to the lower oxygen pressure. The atmospheric pressure at high camp where we are now is only about 60 percent that of sea level, and at the Mount Vinson summit it will drop even further  to around 50 percent, making the climb that much harder.

The combination of extreme weather, low temperatures and high altitude has a great impact on our bodies, and the steep slopes often require quick, accurate decisions, which is even harder under these circumstances. It is therefore extremely important that we give our bodies rest days and time to acclimatise in order to fully get used to the new atmospheric pressure.

With only five to six hours climbing every day, we have a lot of spare time during the expedition. We do not do much in between, maybe go for a short walk, but otherwise spend most of the time sitting in the tent, eating and drinking hot drinks and simply letting our bodies rest.

At low camp we had a cooking tent, well more precisely, it was a square hole in the snow with a big pole in the middle and a bottomless tent over it. The food we ate up until low camp was prepared and carried from Patriot Hills. High camp is more basic and so we cooked simple, dehydrated meals and ate them in our tents just like during the North Pole expedition. The snow is so clean and pure here that we can melt it and use it for cooking and drinking.   

Climbers and guides are coming and going at their own pace and with their own agenda and it varies from camp to camp how many of us there are. At low camp there was only Mark, our guide Scott and I. Although, just before we left low camp, another two rangers came along; Rob and Patchy, following us to high camp.

Tomorrow is a new exciting day. If the weather is good and our bodies are sufficiently rested in the morning we may be able to climb the last 14km, taking Oman and the Renaissance Services Antarctic Expedition to the top of Antarctica!

Day eight, and Nabs takes a break to recover and acclimatise to the lack of oxygen in the air before a big push tomorrow.

After the walk yesterday, we needed a rest day giving us a chance to acclimatise. Due to the extreme southern latitude of Mount Vinson, and consequent thinning of the atmosphere, there is less oxygen available to our bodies. This makes the climb much harder to cope with than a peak that lies closer to the equator. I can feel a remarkable difference on the effect it has on my body compared to both Mount Kilimanjaro and what I experienced climbing in the Alps.

Even on rest days, it is important we stay active, so we walked to a nearby hill, which was a three-hour walk. I was exhausted from the day before and effected by the altitude and really didn’t want to go, but it turned out to be a quite easy walk. The weather was sunny and bright and we ended up walking without jackets. We were sweating despite the thermometer showing minus degrees. In fact, the tent temperature that night was 18°C despite the frost outside. The weather here has been absolutely brilliant and the worst day in Antarctica isn’t as bad as the best day I had at the North Pole.

You might wonder how this diary makes it all the way from Mount Vinson to you, with no electricity, no mobile network or internet here in the Antarctic – the answer is satellite phone. To minimise our environmental impact the only energy source used at Antarctica is solar power. Even the camp at Patriot Hills is run solely by solar power and we use small portable solar panels to charge our satellite phones, iPods and other electronics during the expedition. With 24-hour sunlight and short days of walking and climbing, this works great and we have no problems continuously charging our electronic equipment. I used the same solar powered satellite phone and solar panels at the North Pole, but with little sunlight and opportunity to charge the satellite phones due to weather conditions and 10 hours walking every day, it was a lot more challenging.

This got me thinking about energy efficiency in general and how we take electricity for granted. There are so many ways we can make our homes, offices and buildings more energy efficient only by paying attention and caring. A simple example is using fluorescent light bulbs instead of incandescent bulbs, or insulating our houses. Where there is a will, there is a way.

Tomorrow is a big day with increasingly difficult climbing conditions, 45 degree angle slopes and 1,200m elevation gain. I am excited, but also worried how I will cope with the altitude now we get closer to the top.

Day seven, and Nabs learns that when the going gets tough, the tough get going.

Today we had planned to move from Vinson base camp to low camp, which is a 9km trek and 700m (2300ft) elevation gain. It should have taken us five to six hours, but the previous day we’d gone for a short three hour walk in the nearby hills and I had really struggled to keep up with Scott, the guide, and Mark, the other climber. In the end we returned before we reached the top of the hill because I was struggling so much. So I was very nervous before setting off on today’s climb.

Each of the climbers is carrying a moderately heavy load over the course of fairly long days. In my previous expedition to the North pole, we dragged our equipment behind us on a sledge. Here, we have  to carry our personal equipment, food and a share of the group’s gear on our backs while climbing, which makes it a lot tougher. The combination of the cold, the snow, the weight of the rucksacks - and of course the altitude - made it much harder, in fact maybe four times harder, than my previous climb of Kilimanjaro.

Scott, our guide, is very experienced. He has almost done the Seven Summits – the highest peaks on the seven continents - four times and Mark, the other climber in my group, is also a very good climber. So before setting off I was very nervous about holding everybody back, being slow, easily getting out of breath and not being able to cope. However, there is only one way forward!

The best time of day to start the climb is around early afternoon. Although we have 24-hour daylight and the sun never sets, then the moment the sun is behind the mountain and we are left in shadow, the temperature drops considerably. So we try to time our days to take advantage of the sun and warmest part of the day. 

Our guide told us that it is a comparatively warm climate for an Antarctic summer. He also mentioned that there have been comprehensive studies of the ice glaciers in the Antarctic showing that the ice has been melting for the past three years at a much faster rate than ever before, which is worrying. The Antarctic ice cap has 29 million cubic kilometers of ice, which is 90 percent of all the ice on the planet and between 60 and 70 percent of all of the world's fresh water. If Antarctica's ice sheets melted, the world’s oceans would rise between 50 and 60m.

Our route from Vinson base camp to low camp followed the gradual rise of the Branscomb Glacier. We started out heading east, and then after about 3km turned north under the West Face of the mountain. Climbing mountains is not without risk and due to crevasse hazards; we travel roped together all the time.

It only took us about four and half hours to walk from Vinson base camp to Vinson low camp, and I was relieved I had no problem keeping up. Today was a very positive day for me!   

Day six: he has landed in Antarctica and made it to the Mount Vinson base camp.

The flight time from Punta Arenas to Patriot Hills was approximately 4.5 hours and I slept through most of the flight to Antarctica. We landed at 2 o’clock in the morning at Patriot Hills on the Blue Ice glacier. During the summer season, November through January, there is 24 hours of sunlight and even at 2am it was bright as day, so bright we had to wear sunglasses. With 98 percent of its area covered with snow and ice, the Antarctic continent reflects most of the sun's light rather than absorbing it.

We all had to walk about a kilometer (1/2 mile) from the glacier to the Patriot Hills camp. The air was heavy with diesel and brown aviation gas, but once we arrived into the camp the air was incredibly clean and crisp. Antarctic is the windiest and driest continent on earth with an absolute humidity lower than that of the Sahara Desert, and the air was also surprisingly different from the North Pole. The brutal weather conditions and strong winds that delayed our arrival for several days have been synonymous with Antarctica since its discovery - and can often be a major challenge to explorers and scientists. For the same reason I chose to climb Mount Vinson during the summer months from November to January, as the weather is the least hostile during these months. The temperature at the South Pole at our arrival was also warmer than at the Arctic last year, perhaps due to the extreme weather conditions we faced during the North Pole trek with strong winds and temperatures as low as -80 degrees. 

The Patriot Hills camp is very well established and comparatively luxurious. Everything at the camp is either recycled or flown back to Chile for disposal, so there is absolute no litter at the Antarctic. All wastewater from washing and toilets is even sealed up, frozen and flown back to Chile as well, so we do not leave any footprints behind at all! The philosophy behind this thinking is very inspirational, and something we all should think more about in our day-to-day lives.

Part of the camp was a long dining tent, which worked as the gathering place for everyone. The dining tent was surprisingly warm, due to the constant sunlight warming the tent. Due to our late arrival, we went straight to the two long tents, where we settled in for our first night in the Antarctic.

At 9 o’clock we woke up for breakfast and received instructions for the following day. We finally had good weather, which meant that our flight from Patriot Hills to Vinson base camp was able to leave the same day. The flight took approximately 1 hour and 15 minutes and followed the spine of the Ellsworth Mountains, with impressive views of the peaks and broad valley glaciers that form the Heritage and Sentinel Ranges. The Vinson base camp is at 2,150 meters, but because of the cold, it felt like 400 meters higher. The weather was finally on our side and I was one step closer to the start of my climb of Mount Vinson.

Here, we catch up with him on day five of his journey, as his delayed luggage finally appears and he sets off by plane to Patriot Hills, Antarctic, on the first leg of his expedition.

I was woken up again at 9 o’clock by a phone call, which made me panic wondering whether it was a call about my flight to the Antarctic leaving or my last bag arriving. In fact it was neither, it was just the organisers with an update to inform us that the flight might be at 3 o’clock depending on the weather, as the wind was decreasing at Patriot Hills, Antarctic. The weather is dictating our departure and our entire expedition, just like at the North Pole. If we are blessed with good weather the expedition and climb may take 7-10 days, in bad weather it can take up to several weeks.

The influence of the weather made me think of the global warming issues the world is facing and how that similarly may dictate our lives in the future. Scientists have sounded a lot of alarm about global warming and there’s been controversy too. One thing most scientists agree on though is that we, as a collective, can prevent global warming. At the start of my journey I said that getting to the top would take a lot of small steps, and similarly, reducing global warming takes a lot of small changes in your daily habits. You can change to florescent bulbs, turn off the lights you’re not using, or turn off your engine if you’re not driving instead of keeping the car running for the AC. Just as Oman is banning smoking in public places, I hope they ban this harmful habit too!

I went down for breakfast and met some of the climbers from the other groups. There were a lot of very interesting people, including a 17 year-old, who is the youngest to have climbed Everest and now is climbing Mount Vinson to become the youngest person in the world to climb the Seven Summits also. The Seven Summits is the highest mountains on the seven continents, something only around 200 people have achieved. I also met Suzanne from Dubai, who will be the first Arab female up Vinson, John who used to live in Oman, and Mark who works in Qatar. I am not sure why the Middle East is so highly represented, but perhaps we are trying to escape the heat? One of the guides of the group, was a guy called Dave Hahn, He has been to the top of Mount Everest 11 times, which is more than any other non-Sherpa climber. We were all there for different reasons and with diverse backgrounds, but all dependent on this one flight to get us to the Antarctic.

Thankfully, with the one bag that I had received last night, it had more than 50 percent of my gear and most of the equipment that would make the difference between surviving the expedition and making it, if not enjoyable, then bearable. The last bag was still nowhere to be seen. With little time left before the weather conditions would improve enough for us to take off, I spoke to the organisers in desperation and they sent someone to the airport to try and retrieve my last bag. For some reason, the airline was holding on to it, planning to deliver it in their own sweet time. 

The organisers called me later on in the day and gave me the positive news that they had managed to get my second bag. I was so relieved, you can only imagine. I finally had all my carefully selected gear and equipment. I managed to clear my bags at 4pm and to my luck, the flight had been delayed till 5pm, which left me with one hour to repack all my gear and get my clothes ready for a possible flight from Punta Arenas to Patriot Hills, Antarctic at 5pm.

However, at 5pm I got another phone call to say the flight was again delayed until 7pm which just contributed to the increasing stress we all felt waiting by the phone for the hourly phone call and jumping every time the phone rang wondering whether we were leaving or not.

The organiers picked up my repacked bags at 6pm. The second they had collected my bags, all the stress and tension I had gone through the last three days, suddenly disappeared and I felt very relieved but also tired. Luckily at 7pm we got the phone call we had all been waiting for, most people longer than me as I only just managed to clear my bags, and we were ready to go ahead. Finally at 10pm we took off to the Antarctic in a very rudimentary big Russian Ilyushin 76 aircraft. The Renaissance Services Antarctic Expedition had begun and I was on my way to hopefully be the first Omani to climb Mount Vinson and set foot an all 7 continents.

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