Winter Trippin' In Antartica

My parents are always laughing at me when I go to visit them in the Yorkshire Dales. While they wear t-shirts I’ll often be wearing a jumper at the very least, or when I can get away with it, a jacket.  Friends will see me huddled over trying not to shiver and ask; ‘what’s the matter with you, where was it you just arrived from again?!’ and I respond with a sigh and the usual; ‘I know, I know, it’s just so humid here!’

The reason they don’t understand why I could be cold in Yorkshire when it’s a balmy thirteen degrees Celsius, is because two weeks earlier I had been winter climbing in the Antarctic, guiding for the British Antarctic Survey.  

Due to a series of fortunate events, I had found myself with my old climbing partner Jack Parker. I was on a snowmobile towing a wooden sledge laden with tents and supplies through a heavily crevassed mountain pass just as the sun was rising. The long sunrises typical of an Antarctic winter create some spectacular light effects and give some great purple and violet hues to the snow making it feel like you’re driving through a Pink Floyd album cover. And, just like Syd Barrett, winter alpinism in the Antarctic feels pretty ‘far-out’ man... 

There is a research station sixty kilometers away but the only approach to the camp Jack and I were heading toward would involve snowmobiling, dodging monster slots and knowing a thing or two about keeping safe in the mountains and on glaciers. A big ask of a volunteer rescue team made up of the likes of a chippie, biologist and generator mechanic. The nearest hospital is one-thousand six-hundred and thirty kilometers away and the aircraft used to get you there are serviced in Canada during winter. In short, arriving in a situation that would require a rescue was unthinkable. The only modus operandi is to pick your objectives appropriately and never have an accident. 

Jack and I had decided on attempting the highest mountains on the Island. 

The nearest hospital is one-thousand six-hundred and thirty kilometers away and the aircraft used to get you there are serviced in Canada during winter. In short, arriving in a situation that would require a rescue was unthinkable.

Mt. Liotard is however quite modest in altitude at about two-thousand one-hundred meters high depending on which map you check. The beauty of it is that it rises straight out of the ocean. So, unlike most mountains people climb, it is approached from sea-level (by snowmobile) which is then followed by fourteen hundred meters of ascent. Most of the climb is a treacherous snow-plod or ski up a Cwm which, if there was an addition of some rock-fall danger and a slightly different aspect of slope, would be a text book example of every single objective danger the mountains have to offer, and on a grand scale too. The final stretch is the best part, weaving and meandering through ‘trez cool’ snow mushrooms to the summit. This is a big tick for most people working on the station as Mt. Liotard dominates the view and looks huge with its pyramid mass expanding around and enclosing the whole bay.  It remains a rather special ascent as the level of fitness required, ability to move fast and mainly the weather precludes most efforts. To touch the top of this mountain does obtain some bragging rights, which you can of course mask with various degrees of false modesty, depending on your level of British-ness and adherence to the establishment. 

Mt. Barré is a similar height to Mt. Liotard, give or take a hundred meters. Again, the mapping in this area is still being developed.  It is one of the ‘big five’ on the one-hundred and forty kilometer long island just off the Antarctic peninsula.  Because it is less prominent from the station, ergo less bragging rights, this mountain receives even fewer attempts. However, as with so many examples in life, it’s the outsider that proves to be the best. After ascending nine-hundred meters by ski, the real climbing starts. Because of the mountains position it is exposed more to the maritime air that comes from the west.  The rime builds into huge snow mushrooms as big as buildings. They are constantly changing and evolving through the different weather cycles. Previously documented routes seemed impassable to my eyes, so we made our own way. First we climbed up a few hundred meters of fifty-five to sixty-five degree snow and ice on the east face. That offered huge exposure above the jumbled ice-fall that descended nearly two kilometres to the bay below. It was an incredible position to be in, with the immense run-out below our feet and above us, gleaming in the sun, some extremely impressive architecture. The forty-knot wind had long since subsided to nothing, so we continued. The whole time I was thinking to myself; ‘how the jolly-goodness am I going to get us through these mushrooms?’ But before having to deal with them there was another, poorly bridged, crevasse to cross. 

A crevasse on a sixty-degree slope, two-thirds up a mountain, is not something I’ve had much experience of before but I do have quite some experience of Antarctica defying logic. Tentatively we made it over the bridge where the terrain steepened once again until we were at the foot of the mini-mountains that were perched on the top of the mountain itself. I had scouted two potential lines through the overhanging rime juggernauts but the risks were stacking up and time was running out. We could only look at one option and if it turned out to be a ‘no-go’ our attempt would be over. We sneaked around one mushroom to the wall of another, the ground continually getting steeper as we did until the two joined together.  A vertical pitch of aqua-blue ice presented itself at the choke point. I knew I could climb it so led off making the most of great, sinking, ice-axe placements while stemming out on the reasonably solid rime in an awesome position. The kind of climbing that dreams are made of. 

After the ice pitch we were, like Alice, firmly in the rabbit hole. We continued through incredible sculpted features of incomprehensible size that dripped in the sun. We squirreled through rime and snow and ice. Each avenue was obscured so the end was never in sight until the very last moment. Finally I could see the exit slopes ahead of us, only then did I know we were going to summit. What a trip. What a mountain. One of the climbs of my life. 

The summit and the weather was perfect. We could have stayed for a picnic but time was against us. Reluctantly, after ten minutes or so, we descended the route back to the skis. We changed boots and skied off into the sunset.  Mt. Mangin was ahead of us, totally covered by snow that had been carved out by the wind. It looked like a thousand meter high Mr. Whippy. As the sun became lower, orange and pink hues throbbed instead that time and provided a spectacular vision as we made our way back to camp for some well earned munchies; a fantastic celebratory steak prepared by Jack. 

Back in the UK, so far removed and jet-lagged, it’s difficult to know if any of it actually happened. What I do know to be true is; Yorkshire is the coldest place on Earth I’ve ever been. 

Ashly Fusiarski is a Guide for mountain, jungle, desert, polar & sailing expeditions.