Norrøna Ambassador Robert Caspersen gives us the full story and lots of pictures, back home after his Antarctic climbing adventure:
“We are now safely back home in Norway just in time for Christmas, and it’s time to sum up our trip to Antarctica. In short it sums up to: too much challenging weather, too little time, not enough guts, great friendships and breathtaking surroundings, and still some projects to finish.
We were unfortunate to experience bad weather in three out of four weeks, and even the one-week of good weather was surprisingly cold due to a steady cooling breeze. First we were stuck in Cape Town because there was a storm at Novo (the Russian airstrip/scientific base). When we eventually got to Antarctica, the weather was still unstable but we tried to fly further in to Fenriskjeften already the day after. Things were looking good. We were optimistic. But five minutes before we reached Ulvetanna the weather deteriorated and we could not see anything and the pilot said there was no chance of landing – so we returned to Novo in increasingly bad weather. There we were stuck for a week waiting out the snowstorm with growing frustration…
Optimism and a glimpse of Ulvetanna on the first day in Antarctica.
Frustration. Heading back to base.
Then finally, almost two weeks into our trip, we landed close to Ulvetanna in a weather window. Circling over the mountain before touch down, I got enough information to give me second thoughts about our initial plan. There was more snow on the low-angled mid section than I had ever seen. I knew that there were compact unprotected slabs under that snow, and that the snow would be loose and of no help. We would have to spend a lot of time scraping away the snow to find features to climb on and cracks to put protection in. And the middle ridge section looked longer than I had hoped, not 700 but more like 900 metres, and increasingly sharp in the top.
Still, we man-hauled all our equipment to the base of the climb and started climbing. But all the time I had this strange feeling in my belly, and a strong voice in my head telling me that this project had no realism. I did not feel well enough prepared for this. We had a poor strategy for this climb, at least under these conditions. No way we would manage to climb the middle section of 900 metres in one day without bivouac. It looked more like a three-day encounter. We could not spot any ledges for our tent, and we hadn’t brought a port-a-ledge. After two pitches I just broke down – I felt it was too much – and I didn’t believe we would manage under the circumstances. Ivar and Trond backed my decision and we turned our attention to what we considered a more realistic project considering the conditions on the mountain, our lack of port-a-ledge and the fitness of the team: the south ridge of Ulvetanna.
Hauling our gear over to the other side of the Ulvetanna for an attempt on the south ridge, seen in the background, following the left skyline.
The south ridge of Ulvetanna is by no means an easy climb, but its nature makes it climbable without a port-a-ledge. It starts off with a very steep wall of approximately 350 metres to reach a big plateau on the south ridge. Here you can pitch a normal tent if you want. From here the ridge is not technically very difficult, but still long enough and with plenty of challenging loose, unprotected rock. We climbed the steep wall in two days. We found bolts on all the belays from the Swiss attempt in 2001 and the French attempt in 2009. This made it fast and convenient for us. We could understand the use of bolts on the belays since the crack was very big and most of the time requiring very large camming devices, and since the return is the same way, but a lot of the bolts on the ropelengths seemed unnecessary.
Pre-bolted, very practical when in a rush, but maybe some of them unnecessary?
Trond and Ivar on the day we moved up to the ridge
The day we jumared our ropes to the plateau to pitch a small tent before our summit try, the weather worsened again, first with light snow and then wind. But up on the ridge we were in a good position to try for the summit. After a cramped night in our small two-men, one walled, tent, we set out early in the morning. But we soon found the ridge more complicated than we had expected. After eight hours we had still not quite reached the steepest section. None of us had full sensation in our feet all day. A few frostbitten fingers were adding to our worries. The weather was grey, overcast. No warming sun, but instead a cooling breeze. The prospect of continuing for 24 to 36 hours none stop to reach the summit seemed quite unattractive in such conditions. We also knew there was bad weather coming in 24 hours. It was a difficult and ego-crushing decision to take but all our rational senses pointed downwards. We abseiled off.
The day we tried for the summit. Complicated ridge.
Awakening in our tent the next morning at the foot of Ulvetanna, we were engulfed in a snowstorm and lucky to be of the mountain. We spent four days waiting it out in our sleeping bags. On the fifth day the weather was still not good enough for difficult climbing, with strong winds. To ease our frustration we decided to spend the day moving by ski 35 kilometres to another mountain range that we hadn’t explored, the southern part of Holtedahlfjella, where we hoped it was possible to climb some easier summits even in the less favourable conditions. So we did. The day after, starting from our new tent camp at the foot of Holtedahlfjella, we skied 40km and climbed six easy summits (unfortunately never breaking out the rope). The first part of the day we walked facing into wind of storming strength and snowdrift, struggling to keep warm and to reduce the marks of frostbite in our faces. But then, as we reached our first summit in the afternoon the wind suddenly dropped and the sun came out. The rest of the day was very pleasant. We found a cairn on the top of Skorvestallen and possibly the remains of one on the top of Svartnupen, meaning there had been people there before.
Engulfed in a snowstorm and lucky to be of the mountain.
The next day we woke to the best weather this season. For the first time we could comfortably hang around outside the tent without desperately wanting to get in for shelter and warmth. We could relax our shoulders and breath slowly. What if it had been like this all the time? We could have climbed with rock boots and no gloves on a day like this! Wow. It was as though the mountains were pointing their nose at us. Tempting us again. Fuelling our dreams. And clearly stating the point that we are but small irrelevant parts of this nature, defenseless against mother nature with all her forces. At the same time, on the satellite phone with Novo, we got the message that there was a new storm coming in fast, possibly the strongest this season, so they wanted to pick us up and fly us out as soon as possible. End of holiday. We packed our sledges and skied backed to Ulvetanna and the pick up point, enjoying our last day at this magic place. The next morning the aeroplane came and took us out just in time before the weather again deteriorated.
Flying away from the mountains and Antarctica I was filled with a mixture of feelings. As a sportsman I was very disappointed with not reaching my goals. Even though the weather was not on our side, I will always question myself if it is really necessary to turn back on a climb. And it usually is a mixture of circumstances and reasons. We certainly experienced that next time we need more disposable time to be able to wait out possible bad weather, and we might need a different strategy and some other equipment (port-a-ledge). We know for sure we will be more experienced and better prepared.
Still, the dominating sentiment after this trip, and helping in soothing my disappointment, is the great friendship I have experienced with Ivar and Trond. We have worked as one organism, no discussions, just everyone trying to do their best for the team all the time – with a lot of generosity.
Our love and fascination for this continent and these mountains is not reduced, neither is our humbleness in face of the nature here. We will be back!
The south ridge with the south wall at the start.
Thanks to Norrøna for all their support; their solid, reliable and functional gear and their belief in us!
Related products: Norrøna trollveggen – workwear for the mountains