High spir­its

A kit­ing ad­ven­ture in the heart of Antarc­tica cul­mi­nates in a rare sum­mit of The Spec­tre, a prom­i­nent spire in the Gothic Moun­tains.

Action Asia - - CON­TENTS - Story and pho­tog­ra­phy by Mark Se­don

THE RA­DIO CRACK­LED INTO LIFE. IT WAS Leo, panic in his voice. “My pulk’s in a crevasse and is pulling me to­wards it, HELP.” It was the call we’d been dread­ing. A pulk is a type of to­bog­gan, and ours were full of climb­ing and camp­ing gear, kites and enough food for up to 70 days in Antarc­tica. Weigh­ing nearly 200 kilo­grams each, they were easy enough to pull be­hind us across the ice with a kite, but swing­ing be­low in free space, they were a lit­eral dead­weight.

Leo is Leo Hould­ing, a pro­fes­sional climber and adventurer from Bri­tain. He’d been speak­ing at the 2017 New Zealand Moun­tain Film Fes­ti­val in Wanaka, which I or­gan­ise. We were catch­ing up over a beer when he got bad news. The third mem­ber of his team bound for a kit­ing and climb­ing ex­pe­di­tion to Antarc­tica had to pull out to spend time with his ter­mi­nally ill fa­ther. “Where can I pos­si­bly find some­one who can kite, ski, climb, can take two months off without pay, has Antarc­tic ex­pe­ri­ence, pho­tog­ra­phy and cin­e­matog­ra­phy skills, and can join at such short no­tice?” he said. Coin­ci­den­tally, I was re­turn­ing from guid­ing a ski tour on the Antarc­tica Penin­sula, to Ushuaia, Ar­gentina, just a few hours bus ride from their team’s meet­ing point in Chile, on the day their trip started. “I can,” I ca­su­ally said, not ex­pect­ing him to take me se­ri­ously. He gave me an ap­prais­ing look, then sim­ply said “You’re in!”

In early Novem­ber 2017, we flew from Punta Are­nas, Chile to Antarc­tica on a char­tered Rus­sian Ilyushin jet, land­ing at Union Glacier Camp on a blue-ice run­way. So pol­ished is the ice from a mil­len­nium of Antarc­tic winds, we could hardly stand up­right as we stepped off the plane into a fresh -15˚C. Leo, French kiter Jean Bur­gun and my­self were head­ing on the ad­ven­ture of a life­time: a 10- week ,1,700- ki lo met re kite-ski and man-haul­ing ex­pe­di­tion to climb one of the most re­mote moun­tains on earth, The Spec­tre. The trip cost US$350,000 – with a pre-paid res­cue bond of US$100,000 on top – all of which Leo had raised through spon­sors and sup­port­ers. Even so, we’d had to economise. With an­other US$100,000 we could have flown to the moun­tain, but in­stead we planned to use kites to pull us the last 350 kilo­me­tres there, then all the way back to Union Glacier. That meant kit­ing up­wind at least some of the way, some­thing never be­fore at­tempted with such heavy loads. Af­ter a few days sort­ing food and re-pack­ing gear, on Novem­ber 20 we boarded a Twin Ot­ter to fly on as far to­wards our goal as we could get.

First we made a four-hour hop to what must be the most re­mote gas sta­tion in the world, Thule Cor­ner, which con­sists sim­ply of sev­eral bar­rels of avi­a­tion fuel buried in the snow. “Noth­ing is easy down here,” said our pi­lot in a thick Cana­dian ac­cent, as he bashed at the frozen fuel cap on a bar­rel with a steel wrench in an at­tempt to open it. His voice stuck with us and we would re­peat his phrase al­most daily on our jour­ney ahead. We flew on­wards, the pi­lot tak­ing us close to ‘the point of no re­turn’, where he had to turn back or risk run­ning out of fuel. There he set us down on bumpy hard­pack. We were 3,000 me­tres above sea level and 200 kilo­me­tres from the South Pole. The cold smacked us in the face as we dis­em­barked. It was -35˚C, with 10-15 knots of wind. It was galling to con­tem­plate the months of this – and doubt­less worse – that lay ahead. We had to steel our­selves to not turn round and get back on board. We un­loaded the plane and then the pi­lot waved good­bye and flew off back to the com­forts of Union Glacier. I had to fight down the urge to panic as the sense of iso­la­tion and the mag­ni­tude of the jour­ney sunk in. As we set up the tent in bit­ter cold, I no­ticed a few thin clouds on the hori­zon and told the oth­ers: “Looks like a storm brew­ing”. They looked up at a near-per­fect blue sky and then back at me, clearly think­ing I was nuts. I was keen to make sure it was only the beauty and seren­ity of the Po­lar Plateau that blew us away, so we fin­ished with the tent as fast as pos­si­ble. Then, the cold seep­ing into our lay­ers, we dived in to brew up din­ner. Sure enough, I woke dur­ing the night into a full-blown Antarc­tic storm as 40-knot gusts drove snow near-hor­i­zon­tally into our tent. I knew how weird this was: the Po­lar Plateau is a desert and it barely snows all year. We’d had our first les­son in not mak­ing as­sump­tions about the con­di­tions. Af­ter break­fast we went out­side to check on the tent and gear, and shoot some footage for the movie we were mak­ing of our trip. Film­ing with down mit­tens in tem­per­a­tures ap­proach­ing -60˚C with wind chill is not much fun, but we kept our spir­its up with jokes and ban­ter – ban­ter that drew thin as the storm then raged on for four days. We all un­der­stood the pre­car­i­ous­ness of our sit­u­a­tion. A stove flare-up could melt our tent, or a gust of wind could rip it apart, and we’d not sur­vive for very long. Our tent was a frag­ile co­coon, like a lu­nar cap­sule, pro­tect­ing us from cer­tain death in the intensely hos­tile at­mos­phere out­side. On day five the clouds parted, and the winds eased to 20-25 knots. In bit­ter cold we rigged up our nine-me­tre Ozone kites know­ing that we’d be over-pow­ered, but that they were the small­est we had. The heavy pulks needed a fair bit of power to get started but we had eight-me­tre traces on them so that if we crashed, the pulk would hope­fully stop, or at least slow down be­fore run­ning us over like a speed bump. We also tied knots in the rope, a stan­dard glacier travel tech­nique, so that if a pulk fell in a crevasse, the knot might catch in the snow and keep us from be­ing pulled in. Jean launched first while I filmed and was promptly hoisted sev­eral me­tres off the ground, be­fore get­ting the kite un­der con­trol. Leo went next and was hoisted even higher. We kited for three to four hours that first day, mov­ing quickly over the rough snow, and some­times en­coun­ter­ing me­tre-high sas­trugi. Sas­trugi is a wind-etched snow for­ma­tion as hard as wood, frozen into waves that would some­times flip our pulks if we hit them too fast, or at an an­gle. A flipped pulk meant side-step­ping or kit­ing back to right it, which when we were so over-pow­ered wasn’t easy as the kite was al­ways try­ing to drag us in the op­po­site di­rec­tion. We still had much to learn– and af­ter a while my gog­gles froze up re­duc­ing my vi­sion to a blurry haze. I got on the ra­dio and told the oth­ers

I had to stop and I ejected my kite. Un­for­tu­nately the oth­ers were in the same po­si­tion and we ended up 500 me­tres apart, caus­ing us to spend an hour drag­ging the pulks to­gether into what be­came a hastily con­vened camp. Still we were stoked to have got mov­ing af­ter the storm. From then on, we cov­ered as much ground as we could each day. The winds were stronger than an­tic­i­pated. We’d been told about po­lar high-pres­sure sys­tems that give clear skies and 10-12 knots. But we were bat­tling 20-plus knots and stormy skies. We’d kite for as long as pos­si­ble be­fore hav­ing to eject our kites, erect camp and crawl into our tents out of the wind. Ev­ery day we’d set out in high hopes, ev­ery evening crawl­ing, com­pletely spent and beaten up into our tents. It be­came known as the ‘Spec­tre spank­ing’! ‘Noth­ing is easy… ,’ as the man said. We had 8,000-me­tre down suits to keep our bod­ies warm but de­spite ski boots three sizes too large, lined with spe­cial lin­ers and with a neo­prene over-boot, our feet of­ten got re­ally cold. Frost­bite was a real con­cern. “I can’t feel my toes,” said Jean one morn­ing and I quickly laid his bare feet on my stom­ach for 30 min­utes to re-warm them. Bare skin would freeze in a minute and if you re­moved your gog­gles you could feel the liq­uid in your eyes freez­ing over be­tween blinks. It was about day eight when things re­ally spiced up. We were kit­ing down from the Po­lar Plateau, slowly los­ing height when the ter­rain in front of us dropped out of sight. The sur­face turned to con­crete-hard blue ice with car-sized ridges and truck-swal­low­ing crevasses. I had an idea of what was ahead and called Leo on the ra­dio to say we must be off route, as this looked like an ice­fall. The wind was strong, over 25 knots and we couldn’t stop, the kites lift­ing us off the ground if we flew them over­head. He replied that the GPS route we had was point­ing this way so we car­ried on. I was last man and came over a bulge to see Leo’s pulk up­turned be­low him, the trace

stuck around an ice bulge. Jean was try­ing to get to Leo’s pulk to flip it back up­right. But his own kite and pulk were also down­wind and down­hill of him, try­ing to drag him down the ice­fall. The only thing to do was eject our kites and roll them up so we could then right the pulks. The pulk skids failed to gain trac­tion on the ice and slid be­low us side­ways, scrap­ing loudly across the blue ice. We gin­gerly skied them down, all the while on the verge of be­ing dragged into a po­ten­tially deadly head­long tum­ble down the ice-fall. Grate­fully reach­ing the bot­tom in­tact, we found more blue ice and it took us a fur­ther two hours to find a patch of snow to camp on. There we stayed for two days, wait­ing out the strong winds. Luck­ily we’d dropped 1,500 me­tres and the tem­per­a­ture had risen to -20˚C without the wind, which now seemed rel­a­tively warm! When the winds dropped on Day 10, we cau­tiously re­launched our kites – we hadn’t even got­ten the 12m or 15m kites from their bags – and had our first en­joy­able kite ses­sion. We had reached the Cal­i­for­nian Plateau, close to the moun­tains. All smooth pow­der fields and crevasse-free, we rel­ished some high-speed down­wind travel. For a while… A few hours later we’re over-pow­ered again, on hard white ice in the mid­dle of the ex­tremely crevassed Scott Glacier. Drag­ging my pulk over to our in­tended camp, a snow bridge over a hid­den crevasse fell in as my pulk nudged it softly. Kit­ing here was clearly fool­hardy, so next day we roped to­gether for six hours of hard walk­ing over ice bulges and around per­ilous crevasse bridges to get to where we could kite again. “We’re get­ting spanked,” re­ported Leo on the daily blog. It was day 16, just a kilo­me­tre short of The Spec­tre, with me up ahead set­ting up the much an­tic­i­pated ‘ar­rival’ shot, when Leo’s pulk fell through a bridge and al­most dragged him in too. Luck­ily a knot caught on the lip and he quickly placed an ice screw that held un­til Jean got to him. Jean ab­seiled into the crevasse and la­bo­ri­ously emp­tied the pulk so the oth­ers could pull it out. We set up camp be­low the im­pres­sive 1,000-me­tre gran­ite faces and af­ter a few days rec­ce­ing, set off to climb the moun­tain via a new route. It had only been vis­ited and climbed once be­fore 40 years ago, by fa­mous Amer­i­can climber Muggs Stump and his ge­ol­o­gist brother, Ed. They had landed a plane on the Cal­i­for­nian Plateau and driven down on a ski­doo. We set off at 8:00am and af­ter climb­ing a steep snow couloir, we moved onto the rocky up­per north face. It was steep, per­fect pink gran­ite with very few cracks: just chim­neys and off-widths. Jean and Leo are both world-class climbers and they led pitch af­ter pitch of tricky mixed climb­ing. Weight con­straints meant we only had su­perlight al­loy ski tour­ing ice axes and Petzl Hy­brid cram­pons, de­signed for ap­proaches and glacier ski­ing. Hardly an ideal setup! Af­ter 15 hours of very dif­fi­cult and danger­ous climb­ing in de­te­ri­o­rat­ing weather, it was 11:00pm – the ever-con­stant sun blocked out by the clouds – when we care­fully clam­bered onto the sum­mit, took some quick pho­tos and made a hasty re­treat. Seven rap­pels later, we re­gained our camp at 5:00am af­ter 21 hours on the go. Within 30 min­utes a storm blew in to buf­fet our camp. We’d done well to avoid it – stuck on that moun­tain in high winds would have quickly be­come an epic ef­fort in sur­vival. We spent the next week try­ing the dif­fer­ent sur­round­ing peaks – all un­climbed – but kept get­ting shut down by se­vere winds and un­set­tled weather. We man­aged to get up only one more be­fore it was time to set off on our 1,400-kilo­me­tre

ICY DEPTHS Jean Bur­gun in a crevasse, help­ing to ex­tri­cate Leo Hould­ing’s pulk.

GOOD TIMES AND BAD Winds that were help­ful while kit­ing took the wind­chill way down when try­ing to rest.

SCENES FROM THE SNOWS Far left: The au­thor, flanked by Jean Bur­gun (left) and Leo Hould­ing. Left: Hould­ing pack­ing up.

PO­LAR PLATEAU Kit­ing on wind-packed snow in Sas­trugi Na­tional Park.

THE MID­NIGHT SUNS On one overnight, ice crys­tals in the air pro­duced wild parhelic cir­cles and sun­dogs.

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