I used to get this question a lot, when I told people what I do. It seems for most people Antarctica is either penguins flopping into the sea or Captain Scott battling across a barren plain of blizzards. They don't realise that there is range upon range of high mountains, with classic alpine ridges and 2000 metre faces, or clean brown rock pinnacles jutting up into the wind. For many people, including many climbers, Antarctica does remain a great unknown, and that's part of its attraction, but over the last twenty years more and more have done whatever it takes to get there - either to summit the continent's highest peak, Mount Vinson (4892m), to explore the beautiful smaller mountains along the Antarctic Peninsula from yachts, or to fly in and land amongst the soaring rock towers of Queen Maud Land.
For most of the last century the mountains of Antarctica were the preserve of scientists and their helpers, employed by governments as part of their national Antarctic programs. Within these programs the most prolific peakbaggers were the New Zealanders, in the central Transantarctic Mountains near Ross Island, and the British, climbing and travelling the mountains near their bases dotted down the convoluted Antarctic Peninsula. Although there was some activity before WWII, it really accelerated after the war with the advent of the Falkland Islands Dependency Survey (FIDS), which later became the British Antarctic Survey (BAS). The 1950s and 1960s were particularly productive years for these lucky civil servants to make first ascents up and down the Peninsula. Peaks that are now seen by thousands or tourists, and occasionally climbed by far fewer climbers aboard yachts, like Mount Français, Mount William, Mount Scott and Mount Shackleton were all first climbed during the 1950s and 60s by FIDS.
A driving force for several major climbs was the legendary Scot John Cunningham, often in cahoots with slyly imported mates from the Creagh Dhu climbing club back home in Glasgow. Not only did they 'borrow' a plane in 1964 to snare the first ascent of the Peninsula's highest mountain, Mount Jackson (3184m), for Cunningham's 37th birthday, but their climbs around Stonington base, far south near the beautiful Marguerite Bay, laid the foundation for modern ice climbing techniques. Ever since, BAS has employed keen climbers to act as General Assistants (GAs) to assist scientific teams, and they have managed to nip up the odd peak along the way. Sometimes they tell people about it, sometimes not, though all in all they rarely get to do as much as they would like, either because they're working too much, the weather is not right, or they restrain their ambitions in the face of official discouragement of such things from head office.
The other main mountain area to see a lot of climbing is the Sentinel Range in the Ellsworth Mountains. US authorities helped a strong American team to get there in 1966, to bag Vinson so that no one else would want to. They did not want ill-prepared adventurers getting in to trouble and disrupting their programs. They still don't. But in the early 1980s a few adventurers decided that climbing the highest mountain each continent was a good idea. Now you can sign up to pay a company to help you conquer them all, but back then it was strictly DIY, so the wealthy Americans Dick Bass and Frank Wells roped the experienced British polar pilot Giles Kershaw into flying them into Vinson, using a complicated chain of logistics. Their first attempt at the summit failed, though one of their invited guests, a middle-aged chap named Bonington, did push on alone for the top that day, making the first British ascent. His benefactors summited a few days later and thus was born the Seven Summits. The Antarctic portion of this phenomenon would be aided greatly over the following years by Kershaw, fellow Briton Martyn Williams and a variety of partners forming Adventure Network International (ANI) which operated until 2003, when it was absorbed by Antarctic Logistics and Expeditions (ALE), also composed of a strong British contingent. These two companies revolutionised private travel in Antarctica in a way that the entrepreneurial Mr. Shackleton himself could never have imagined. Nearly 2000 people have summited Vinson Massif since 1985 and hundreds have plodded their way, Scott-like, across the sastrugi to the South Pole, to be picked up, un-Scott-like, hours later by an ANI/ALE Twin Otter.
So my new book 'Mountaineering In Antarctica: Climbing In The Frozen South' aims to bring together much of this climbing that has been done, so much of which has largely gone unrecorded. I was able to draw heavily on my own expedition to the Sentinels and the Peninsula, but the book contains hundreds of images, from dozens of climbers who have set foot on so many other parts. Their generosity has made the book what it is and I am grateful to them all. The task of trying to cover most of the climbing done over most of a continent, in over a century, in just under 200 pages, was no easy task and will no doubt fall short in some areas, for some people. But at least it may prevent me from ever being asked that question again.
Oh yes, there are most definitely mountains in Antarctica.
Photo Gallery - Mountaineering in Antarctica
Damien Gildea is the author of Mountaineering In Antarctica: Climbing In The Frozen South.