Trip Report
50 Days in Queen Maud Land
Monday February 17, 2014 7:02am
I was in the climbing doldrums; a trip to the towers of Paine canceled in the autumn, no sign of enough work to fund any future adventures, when one evening an email popped up on my phone:

Andy. I think I have a big project for you. Queen Maud Land. Departure 15 Dec, need you, all costs on me, tv-series, 2 months. Multisport adventure with climb and base and first ascents. 

Are you in?

The mail was from the legendary Norwegian all rounder Aleks Gamme (Pro sky diver, longest polar trip in history solo to and from the South Pole, Everest, etc), who I’d climbed the Troll wall with that winter (get a copy of Alpinist 44 for that story). It was one of those emails which you dream of getting one day, but which, when you do, you wonder if you really have the will (or the balls) to say ‘yes’. I looked up at my kids. “Ella, Ewen, I’ve been asked to go to Antarctica for two months. If I go I’ll miss christmas”.
They both moaned out a long ‘noooooooo’.
“it’s with Aleks Gamma”.
“Really!?” they both replied, having seen Aleks in the awesome film ‘Crossing the Ice” at Kendal the year before. “Oh you have to go if Aleks has asked”.

And so I did.

I turned up in Norway in mid December and met the rest of the team. Two base jumpers Kjerski Eide and Espen Fadnes, a camera woman Ingerborg Jackobson, an 8a+ sport and ice climber called JJonas Langseth, and Aleks. I was still unsure just what we had planned, but it seemed that it would involved base jumping, speed riding, climbing and pulling pulks in order to explore the range. I felt a little guilty, as living in another country I had done virtually no work on the trip. All I could hope was I’d pay my way once we got to the mountains.

The long journey South began in Oslo, stopping at Heathrow, Cape Town, then onto the Russian base at Novo close to the coast of Antarctica (where we were stuck for 5 days in a storm), then to our final destination via Twin Otter.

Credit: Andy KP

We were dropped on into the middle of the ‘Tongue’ of the famous circe of walls and spires, set in the shape of a wolfs teeth, a dreamland for any big wall climber. As the plane lifted off, leaving us alone beside a mountain of kit, and the sound of its engines faded, a silence rushed in that was so total that its oppressiveness was almost too much to bare (several times, on the hardest days, I hallucinated the sound of traffic).

Base camp built we tried to get to grips with being here, and make sense of our objectives, and most of all the juggling of competing projects.

Almost immediately cracks appeared in the team.

They say never to go on a trip with a soloist, and I often joke to partners that I can be hard work due to climbing alone too many times (I tend to want to do things my way). Due to this, afrom the start of the trip I seemed to be bumping heads with Jonas. I had great respect for him as a climber, a nurse, and as a guy who’s strength and ability was always in demand (he was in the Norwegian special forces, and was one of the strongest climbers I’d climbed with) - but as a climber of cold, loose and dangerous rock, I just found I could not find that subtle connection, were I felt safe climbing with him (he had climbed the Troll at the age of 17, but even that was no enough for me). To be fair I was an as#@&%e, and suspect the more I focused myself on testing and questioning Jonas, the more and more doubt he felt about himself. I found myself shouting at him many times, or using harsh words and thoughts. I guess I knew that our objectives would require the ultimate level of skill in hard super alpine/big wall climbing (rock like ‘cornflakes’, minus thirty temperatures, no chance of rescue from the wall), and although a strong and bold climber I made a judgement early on that I could not share the burden of leading with Jonas. This thinking - real or not - caused a great deal of trouble and stress, but somehow, Jonas and I found a way to either overcome or ignore these problems and climb together.

I think I had also put Espen and Kjersti in a box in my head labelled “selfish fun seekers”, they types I’d met so many times in Chamonix. For them life was about having short term fun. Hiking a mountain to jump off for 10 seconds of base thrill, or being dropped off by a helicopter to swoosh down through the ‘pow’. They were good looking, had great clothes (teeth, hair etc) and I felt little in common with them. In fact I know I was just jealous. I was overweight, felt none of my free clothes fitted me, and was out of shape for this trip. Worst of all I had long since lost any interest in ‘just having fun’, and when they questioned why everything had to be ‘hard and miserable’ I felt stung. I said they where childish and didn’t understand what true happiness was, saying that surfing in on the perfect wave with a naked woman on your shoulders was not going to lead to enlightenment. And then I wondered if I was in fact wrong, that these two had it right. And then I saw some footage of Kjersti base jumping with a wing suit in Interlaken, a flight that seemed to take forever, soaring down through chasms and along walls, over trees (and in-between trees). As soon as the video stopped I think my respect for her had grown a thousand times. This was no base princes. This woman was hardcore. Then I a picture of Espen base wind suit flying under the bridge that connects the two sides of the Midi. Maybe their idea of fun was no so different to mine.

After a five day trip to climb the highest mountain in the range (we ended up making the first ascent of the wrong one!), we set to climbing our first wall, a pillar and face on the West face of Holstinnd. This route took about 10 days in very poor weather (a lot of snow), and comprised primarily of 10 rope stretching pitches (most close to 60 metres), ranging from dangerous A4 (loose, expanding and friable flakes, bat hooks in crumbling rock and beaks), Scottish 7 mixed climbing on the worst rock i’ve ever climbed on (like stale bread and old cheese), and a couple of off width chimney pitches that where so horrible I could only recommend this route to Stalin (I’ve always hated off widths, but luckily I’d watched ‘Wide Boys’ not long before I left, and so ended up using a few things I’d learned - do so many arm bars that I wore out the elbow of my jacket - I also learned that a Camalot 6, although big, still leaves quite a gap between where you can aid, and where you can chimney!).

Credit: Andy KP
Credit: Andy KP
Credit: Andy KP
Credit: Andy KP
Credit: Andy KP

The route completed with Jonas, I gave it the name Zardoz (named after the triply sci-fi film with Sean Connery, that features and big stone head that people worship). The route was climbed capsule style from one portaledge camp, and all belays had one 10mm bolt (my Petzl drill snapped on the 3rd bolt, and so I was forced to use a Hilti drill we’d brought along under my protest). No protection bolts where placed, but a dozen or so ‘bat hook’ holes where drilled, as no edges would take a hook without breaking (several hooks blew even when using hooks). I took one 10 metre fall from the crux when a Tomahawk ripped after hanging on it for 10 minutes (rock fell apart), and was held by two stacked beaks lower down.

The first route in the bag we set off for a second adventure trip, heading over to the mountains to the West, where Kjersti and Epsen made a rare base jump from an unclimbed mountain (the trip up and down took us 24 hours).

So far we’d had some very cold days (sub 30 and colder), and began to understand that here in Antarctica everything is longer, higher, harder, colder and more extreme than it first seems. Very soon our stock phrase became T.I.A - which instead of standing for ‘This is Africa’ stood for ‘This is Antarctica’.

Now we switched as a whole team to our final, and major objective, the unclimbed South Ridge of Ulvertanna.

Credit: Andy KP

This route had been attempted at least 3 times (Spanish, French military expedition and Robert Caspersan), which each team getting closer and closer to the top. The route comprised of a 300 metre big wall (a medium to wide crack on good rock, with bolt belays, and re-belays), then a long technical ridge on loose rock (ranging from loose, to LOOSE!!!). All other teams had fixed the wall section, then tried to reach the summit in a push. These teams had been small elite teams who had been able to depend on a great deal of experience. Robert Caspersan had been the highest, just three pitches from the top, but then Robert had already made two first ascents on the mountain, so knew its moods well. In fact Robert had asked us not to try the route unless we chose the purest style - no bolts - ground up - in a push. I considered it for a moment, knowing that Robert was right, to climb such a jewel (perhaps one of the greatest unclimbed big wall lines around) was the ideal. But then no other route had been climbed like this. All others (Roberts, the Hubers, Leo Houlding’s) had been climbed capsule style (fixed ropes, bolts etc). Also I felt that the burden of the climb would rest on my shoulders, and that if we were to get six climbers on the summit at the same time, and climbing in Jan/Feb, we would have to employ those same tactics.

Credit: Andy KP


And so I made a plan to climb the route in phases, climbing and on the job training for Kjersti and Espen when we climbed the bottle together (teaching someone to jumar, clean and haul on an Antarctic wall is one of the craziest things I’ve done). The crux of phase one was hauling a few hundred kilos of food, fuel, camping stuff (enough for 6 people for 14 days) 300 metres up the wall. On that day we where working for 24 hours, the end of which saw us literally crawling up to our camp dragging our bags.

Credit: Andy KP

The next day Aleks and Jonas arrived, bring up our fixed ropes to use on the upper route (and so making escape back down to camp impossible without a total retreat). The idea was Jonas, me and Aleks would now climb the upper ridge, and once we where on the summit, Kjersti and Espen would base jump, but within one day Jonas came down with food poising from eating some dodgy mince at base camp. And so we mixed and matched, until after about 13 days since beginning I climbed the second to last pitch - up a mind blowing horn of rock pasted with wind sculptured rock on one side. I was unsure if I could free climb up this feature, as any object sticking from the rock invariability snapped off when pulled on, but half way up I found a worn hole going through the rock spire and managed to squeeze through (I got my weight up to 100kg before the trip, and lost 15kg in 50 days, so it was lucky this feature was encountered at the end, not the start of the exped). Once through I climbed up a snow ramp and pulled onto a tiny flat area and saw the summit for the first time, just 30 metres away (an easy scramble). The goal had always been for us all to reach the summit together, and I had experienced a real sense of pride at how well the team had worked together, learning new skills, and often putting aside their personal ambitions. I could have so easily climbed up and bagged the summit, but instead knew I had to wait until tomorrow.

Credit: Andy KP

Back at the tent on the shoulder I was shattered, and wondered how I could jug all the way back in the morning, but Aleks said we should wait one day, then jumar up at 2am, so Kjersti and Espen could jump the wall. If they jumped, this would go down as one of the greatest jump/climbs off all time (I often chuckled how crazy the whole project). In the morning I said to Espen, one of the worlds best base jumpers “the most important thing is that you jump”, to which he replied “No - the most important thing is that we all get to the top together”.

It was tense waiting in the tent, drinking tea, hoping we would all be safe jugging up our fixed ropes one more time (the ridge involved some complex terrain, meaning going up and down involved abseiling and jumaring).

Credit: Andy KP

Then at 7am Aleks stuck his head in the tent. “Guys bad news, I’ve just talked to Oleg at Novo. There is a storm coming. He says we will be OK, and I told him we were not at base camp, but high on Ulvertanna, and he said ‘We must get down”. Through out the day cloud had built up around the mountains where we had been forecast clear weather for one more day, giving me a slight feeling of dread. I knew that having a day off had not been my idea, and had been the first divergence from ‘the plan’, but after so many days climbing my body was falling apart (all my fingers and toes had lost all sensation, and I had mild frostbite on my nose and cheeks caused from having my body wedged in so many sunless cracks and chimneys).

The idea of the Russian hard-man at Novo telling us to get down was worrying. Several times I had been trapped on walls in storms and feel that each time I had been lucky to survive. Here, with this team, in an antarctic storm, someone, maybe all of us, may not make it down - well not with all our fingers, toes and noses.

“I think we should set off now” I said, fearing that now the clock was ticking. We had to hope we had time to climb to the top (4 hours), then clean the upper route, in order to fix the lower wall to get off the mouton. It was a tall order, and was going to require no sleep this day, and working into the rest of tomorrow.

“I also think you guys cannot jump” said Aleks. No one spoke. Then Espen asked why, and some reasons where given; splitting up the team, the need for us to have both satellite phones, the fact they would land on the wrong side of the mountain with no support. I could tell Espen was shocked that this dream could falter now we were so close. “What does Andy think?” and all eyes where on me. I didn’t want to one to make such a choice, but in my heart of hearts I knew that I had grown to respect these two base jumpers, their ability to think through problems, to be dependable and reliable (to just do what I asked to do, and in the way I wanted). If a storm came I needed them here. Also, perhaps selfishly, they were no longer just ‘base jumpers’, they were friends who I had grown to care for and I was scared that this crazy climb could so easily become an awful tragedy. “I would like it if you came down with us” I said, and Espen just said “OK”, and said they would not even take there base rigs up, so as to eliminate temptation to jump.

And so, after a meal, we each set off twenty minutes apart and started up the fixed ropes. As we gained height the cloud began to clear, and I had one of those “Oh f*#k” moments, knowing the guys could have jumped. After a few hours I arrived at the final pitch, the others forming up one by one behind me as I led the last loose snow and rock up to the summit pyramid. True to the mountain even the last few metres felt serous and bold, rock lumps the size of footballs crumblings and falling away as a moved up without any pro. And then I was there. A summit with large fractured pinnacle, that I looped with the rope to stop me falling off, and then used myself as an anchor to allow the other to jumar up.

We stood there, a new route on what has been called ‘the hardest mountain in the world’ (due mostly to its locality) and I think we all felt the same - flat and sad. If the guys had had their rigs they could have jumped. Conditions where perfect, and the exit was mind-blowing. I felt no cense of achievement at all. As with all summits all I wanted was to get the hell out of there.

Thirty six hours since waking I dragged myself back to base camp, so shattered by the retreat down the wall, that as I skied along it took all my concentration not to fall over, the sound of my pulk no longer the heavy swish of plastic on snow, the sound of cars, rivers, people talking. The only thing that kept me going was the knowledge that everyone had made it down alive (and with all their fingers and toes - we summited in Feb, with the sun setting, making the cold something to really fear).

Two weeks later, sitting in a boiling internet cafe in Cape Town (going from -30 to +30 in 6 hours is quite a change) I look back at the South Ridge and what we achieved as a team. Kjersti and Epsen repeatedly say “Oh we didn’t climb it, we just jumared it”, while Jonas feels sad that he led so little of the route (all the team apart from Ingerborg lead, hauled and cleaned on the route). I try and tell them that they are too young to this game of climbing mountains to understand what they have done, and that to sacrifice the greatest of dreams to stay close to your partners is someone more noble and worthy than any jump into cold space. I feel so proud of what we did, and what is possible with raw talent. In all these conversations, when I try to make them see what they have done, I always leave them with this final example. Apollo 11 went to the moon piloted by a computer, but they still went to the moon, and more importantly they all came back.

You can see more pics on my Flickr page.




  Trip Report Views: 4,176
Andy KP
About the Author
Andy KP is a climber from the UK

Comments
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Comment on this Trip Report
nopantsben

climber
europe
  Feb 17, 2014 - 07:38am PT
wow - really good TR Andy, thanks. Honesty worth more than pretty pictures...
bigbird

climber
WA
  Feb 17, 2014 - 07:45am PT
Good writeup... articulate and honest as ever......
Toker Villain

Big Wall climber
Toquerville, Utah
  Feb 17, 2014 - 09:26am PT
Gotta watch out for that dodgy mince!
Ghost

climber
A long way from where I started
  Feb 17, 2014 - 09:32am PT
Great stuff.
Myles Moser

climber
Lone Pine, Ca
  Feb 17, 2014 - 09:59am PT
Ohhh baby! What a place!
Dirka

Trad climber
Hustle City
  Feb 17, 2014 - 11:07am PT
Hard core sir
The Larry

climber
Moab, UT
  Feb 17, 2014 - 11:23am PT
Once again, another grand adventure! Thanks for the write up Andy!
saa

Social climber
sadly, sitting on a chair with a beer
  Feb 17, 2014 - 12:00pm PT
Thank you.


Commenting on such a TR is way above my grade, but thank you.

saa
ydpl8s

Trad climber
Santa Monica, California
  Feb 17, 2014 - 12:01pm PT
Holy sh*t, hard core climbing, weather, circumstances, love it!
SCseagoat

Trad climber
Santa Cruz
  Feb 17, 2014 - 12:27pm PT
I. am. speechless.
f'ing unreal

Susan
stevep

Boulder climber
Salt Lake, UT
  Feb 17, 2014 - 12:36pm PT
Super cool Andy. Stellar TR about an experience most of us couldn't even consider. Thanks.
Reilly

Mountain climber
The Other Monrovia- CA
  Feb 17, 2014 - 12:39pm PT
All I have to say is did your mother never teach you not to run with scissors in your hand?

Well done, sir, and good on you not to let those wack job Norskies bail.
Rankin

Social climber
Greensboro, North Carolina
  Feb 17, 2014 - 01:01pm PT
Great TR Andy! TFPU!
Marlow

Sport climber
OSLO
  Feb 17, 2014 - 01:31pm PT
Awesome TR, high end adventure and great writing. And the next time Casper-san is mentioned, Caspersen would be of equal value... ;o)
micronut

Trad climber
Fresno/Clovis, ca
  Feb 17, 2014 - 01:46pm PT
Amazing adventure Andy. Thanks for a great write up. PLEASE POST MORE PHOTOS (maybe at the end of the TR....YOUR PHOTOS ON FLICKER ARE STELLAR!)


Btw...we met at the bridge (while hanging by my buddy's old VW) last summer while I was gearing up for Lurking Fear. Glad you're still out there playing hard. I hope you enjoy some downtime with your kids soon.

Scott

Credit: micronut
mucci

Trad climber
The pitch of Bagalaar above you
  Feb 17, 2014 - 01:39pm PT
100 Kilo Hero.

Great write up Andy, enjoyed the honest look of what one feels on a big, big route. The good and bad.
nah000

climber
canuckistan
  Feb 17, 2014 - 01:48pm PT
thanks.

the internal and interpersonal journey is generally so much more interesting than the blow by blow of what happened on the rock...
Sierra Ledge Rat

Mountain climber
Old and Broken Down in Appalachia
  Feb 17, 2014 - 02:16pm PT
wow

le_bruce

climber
Oakland, CA
  Feb 17, 2014 - 02:35pm PT


What a shot.

What a trip.
limpingcrab

Trad climber
the middle of CA
  Feb 17, 2014 - 02:40pm PT
+1 for that picture ^^^^

+1,000 for sharing that adventure with us. Awesome stuff
Tami

Social climber
Canada
  Feb 17, 2014 - 02:46pm PT
Wow. Sick. Really sick. Esp the guy with food poisoning. Gnarly!

roy

Social climber
NZ -> SB,CA -> Zurich
  Feb 17, 2014 - 03:07pm PT
Great report. And an honest reflection on individual versus team aspirations and dynamics. Thanks, Roy
hossjulia

Trad climber
Carson City, NV
  Feb 17, 2014 - 04:16pm PT
Incredible TR, made my stomach turn in knots and my hnads sweat.

So sorry they didn't get to jump, such a balancing act.

Thanks for the brutally honest write up!
lars johansen

Trad climber
West Marin, CA
  Feb 17, 2014 - 04:44pm PT
Nice report,TFPU.
lars
Sierra Ledge Rat

Mountain climber
Old and Broken Down in Appalachia
  Feb 17, 2014 - 05:05pm PT
wow
again
snowhazed

Trad climber
Oaksterdam, CA
  Feb 17, 2014 - 06:38pm PT
thank you for the time and effort to share!
The Alpine

climber
  Feb 17, 2014 - 06:43pm PT
Thanks! it was also neat to read Espen's account, but it looks like he took it down now.

Credit: The Alpine

Also, this video of a Holtanna expedition is relevant:
StahlBro

Trad climber
San Diego, CA
  Feb 17, 2014 - 07:54pm PT
Almost like being there. Fantastic adventure and write up.
Ezra Ellis

Trad climber
North wet, and Da souf
  Feb 17, 2014 - 09:17pm PT
Simply amazing, thank you!!!
Captain...or Skully

climber
in the oil patch...Fricken Bakken, that's where
  Feb 17, 2014 - 10:21pm PT
Living just a bit near The Edge, are we? Holy Frickin' Cows, man.
Damn good write up. That Place is Real. TFPU!
Todd Eastman

climber
Bellingham, WA
  Feb 18, 2014 - 12:13am PT
Can we follow the cairns?
Mungeclimber

Trad climber
Nothing creative to say
  Feb 18, 2014 - 02:34am PT
thx Andy, another depth of experience both discovered and created in the same effort. Well done.
Guernica

climber
dark places
  Feb 18, 2014 - 03:02am PT
Unmatched candor and wit! You, my unmet friend, are a rockstar! A great read.
bergbryce

climber
East Bay, CA
  Feb 18, 2014 - 03:23am PT
Damn', best thing I've read in awhile.
Really appreciate the honesty. The difficulty of not making the jumps really comes through. Nice writing.
Sierra Ledge Rat

Mountain climber
Old and Broken Down in Appalachia
  Feb 20, 2014 - 04:33pm PT
Wow again
phylp

Trad climber
Upland, CA
  Feb 20, 2014 - 07:00pm PT
Oh, Andy, your write up on this just brings me to tears. Wonderful on so many levels. The feeling of being there. The honesty of your inner dialog. The major accomplishment that you made - you brought them all home safe, nobody came out in a bag.

You missed Christmas with your kids. But take this story and make a little book of it with your photos. Give them each a copy. They'll treasure it forever.

Phyl
Jaysen

Big Wall climber
NYC
  Feb 25, 2014 - 09:29pm PT
Andy, just read ur book psycho vertical to get me psyched up for getting back on el cap this summer. Needless to say, this seems like a pretty low volume trip by your standards eah! Seriously step it up.


(but actually seriously, super badass, cant wait for the next)
little Z

Trad climber
un cafetal en Naranjo
  Feb 25, 2014 - 09:57pm PT
Wow, what an amazing trip and a great story. Seems like a crime to be reading this for free. We are so lucky to have folks like you contributing here on ST!

thanks Andy
10b4me

climber
  Mar 12, 2014 - 10:42am PT
Bump
Marlow

Sport climber
OSLO
  Apr 13, 2014 - 02:42pm PT
Robert Caspersen is in the last number of the Norwegian climbing magazine "Klatring" (120) posing a question concerning Kirkpatrick's FA:

"Are we "murdering the impossible", sacrificing the essens of our sport on the altar of the entertainment industry?

The FA was done in a style not used by the great teams who had tried the route before. (First out: Dimitry, Sebastian and Didier). During Kirkpatrick's FA, ropes were put up all the way to make it possible for the inexperienced climbers of the team to get to the top and to make great TV to satisfy the sponsors. Caspersen is concerned about the lack of ethical reflection during and after the FA... and the consequences for our sport if this continues...
LilaBiene

Trad climber
Technically...the spawning grounds of Yosemite
  Apr 14, 2014 - 02:42pm PT
WOW. Captivating and real.

Having your 10m fall caught by two stacked beaks, in those conditions? (Had to put on a sweater myself to ward off the chills.)

Thank you for taking the time to share your unique perspective of so many different aspects of your journey, including your internal, evolving dialog. Balancing such a large number of varied and competing interests (not the least of which was safety) had to be supremely stressful in and of itself...ensuring that everyone returned safely was no small task (or better, burden?).

Have to read this again. Blown away.
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