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