In 2017, a crack team of The North Face athletes travelled to Queen Maud Land, Antarctica in search of first ascents. Americans Cedar Wright, Alex Honnold, Savannah Cummins, Anna Pfaff, Conrad Anker and Jimmy Chin racked up a total of 15 summit ascents in 17 days.
The team were surrounded by six main peaks at their base camp, namely Holtanna, Hollstind, Kinntanna, Stetind, Hel and - the most renowned of them all - Ulvetanna (2930m), or the 'wolf's tooth' in Norwegian.
The group began with a first ascent of an unclimbed spire, which they named The Penguin. Honnold, Wright, Cummins and Pfaff climbed Holtanna (2650 m) via a repeat of Skywalk, the route first climbed in 2009 by Alexander Huber, Thomas Huber, Stephan Siegrist and Max Riechl. Anker and Chin established a new route on the mighty Ulvetanna while Honnold and Wright used their expertise at moving quickly to avoid the cold and climbed three new routes, including a 400m line up Mount Fenris. Honnold alone achieved 14 summits (one on skis).
Anker is no stranger to the Drygalski Range. In 1996-97, alongside the late Alex Lowe and Jon Krakauer, he made the first ascent of Rakekniven, the "Razor." 21 years later, he returned with a young but highly competent team, carrying some of Lowe's ashes to scatter from the top of Ulvetanna.
We sent some questions to a few members of the team to find out more about the trials and tribulations of an Antarctic expedition...
What were your expectations before leaving?
Anna: I really had no idea what to expect! I wanted to keep an open mind and be ready for anything!
'More than any other place I've been to, it feels like we're not meant to be here.' - a quote from an expedition video dispatch. Clearly there's a sense of wonder in exploring such a remote, relatively untouched place, but is there also a sense of guilt, or perhaps responsibility in visiting Antarctica, environmentally speaking?
Conrad: When visiting Antarctica two emotions come to mind that relate to the human experience. The first is "Will our presence permanently alter this landscape that has been relatively intact for the past 400,000 thousand years? Interior Antarctica is a life desert. Aside from the snow petrels and the occasional lichen there isn't much going on. By practising Leave No Trace we kept our impact to a minimum. The second point to ponder is the amount of carbon consumed to make this journey a possibility. By planning on carbon offset purchases we addressed this in a manner that took a bit of the guilt away.
How were weather conditions generally? Were you able to climb every day of the trip?
Conrad: If the sun came out and there was no wind the weather was generally OK. Once the sun was low on the horizon or obscured by clouds the temperature dropped. Wind was our nemesis. It took just a little for it to become very cold. We had one rest day due to weather. Otherwise we went right after the pursuit of gravity.
Savannah: The weather was better than I had imagined it would be. I had two expeditions earlier in the year and the majority of my time was spent sitting in a tent in bad weather; I had the expectation that Antarctica would likely be the same. To our surprise, we only had a few days of high winds.
Cedar brought a fingerboard to maintain climbing fitness during the expedition. How did the cold/fatigue/different food affect everyone physically and emotionally? You are all experienced in tough conditions, but is Antarctica on a different level?
Conrad: Getting used to 24 hours of light took a bit of adjustment. Once we acclimated to the cold we were able to climb in most conditions.
Savannah: At least the altitude isn't so extreme! I was thankful we didn't have to deal with altitude since the cold was enough to deal with! Luckily we had plenty of food, and I think knowing we'd never run out of daylight kept the psyche high for getting after it.
You are all experienced in tough conditions, but is Antarctica on a different level?
Conrad: Once we were used to the cold it didn't seem that bad. Cold is a constant adversary. While it might seem "not that big a deal" it requires constant vigilance. Climbing is good fun and all, yet loosing digits from hand or foot is not worth it.
At least the altitude isn't so extreme! If these temps were to be found on Everest, the lack of oxygen would make it much more of a challenge.
The team had plenty of daylight. How did you plan your climbs - what did a typical day's climbing look like, routine-wise?
Conrad: We experienced 24 hours of light during the austral summer. The sun never dipped below the horizon. At base camp the sun was obscured by Ulvetanna. The little bit of shade the peak cast was noticeable. Jimmy and I would head out after a quick meal and work on the route until it was too cold. When we were at camp we met up most nights for our evening meal.
Conrad, you were arguably the most experienced climber on the team, especially when it comes to climbing in this area. What was it like to return to the area?
Conrad: Returning to the Queen Maud Land was a dream realised. In '96 I didn't think I would ever have the opportunity to see the range for a second time. There is a degree of silence to the range. Knowing that Queen Maud Land exists as I type on my computer is an affirmation of how inconsequential we are.
The team climbed 15 peaks in just 17 days. Which of the ascents stand out as the most memorable/challenging? Ulvetanna stands out as the most famous and biggest, but how did other peaks compare?
Conrad: The style in which Cedar and Alex climbed was memorable. They were able to use the techniques that they refined in Yosemite. Simul-climbing, tandem raps and moving together were the basis of this technique.
Savannah: I did not climb Ulvetanna but I went up with Conrad and Jimmy on their fixed lines the day they made their big push to shoot photos. Seeing the amount of work they put into climbing Ulvetanna was incredibly impressive and really put into perspective just how experienced Jimmy and Conrad truly are.
Anna: Holtanna was an amazing, memorable experience for me. It's a beautiful, aesthetic and exposed ridge to the summit.
How did you divide up into teams? Some of you have climbed together before in various combinations. How important was it that you had a trusty partner in such terrain?
Savannah: The teams split up naturally. Conrad and Jimmy have climbed together the most, then Cedar and Alex, and myself and Anna. I'd never climbed with anyone else on the team besides Anna so that partnership made sense, just like the others. it meant a lot to be climbing with Anna because we know each other's strengths and weakness and we communicate well with each other
Conrad: A trusted partner is the foundation of all adventure. I trusted all of my teammates while in Antarctica.
What is the granite like - is it very different to the granite in USA/Europe?
Conrad: Glaciers have not caressed the granite on the upper reaches. Once glaciers have polished granite it is a bit smoother. The weather – wind and cold – had a greater effect on the granite. We had to be very careful to make sure we did not abrade our ropes. It was different, yet very much the same.
Do you think climbing in the Drygalski range/Antarctica generally will become more popular in time?
Conrad: Due to the cost and seasonality of climbing in Antarctica it will not see the destination draw that many areas see. It will, however, continue to be a place the eccentric will be drawn to.
Savannah - how do you manage your camera equipment in such harsh conditions? The cold must have rinsed your batteries!
I had 10 batteries and never ran out! Since we had 24 hours of daylight solar was a key part of my daily routine, moving the solar panel around to face the sun as it moved across the sky and charging batteries. I always slept with my laptop, as it would die the fastest. I was impressed at how my camera batteries held up though. I was shooting with a Sony A7Rii.
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