There are mountain trips that are unlike any other. They are journeys that take us to another world. In search of the most remote mountains on our planet, one inevitably comes to Antarctica at some point.
Even though Antarctica has recently become the focus of world attention, the difficult-to-access Antarctic high mountains are still far beyond the consciousness of most people. Even in specialized geographical literature on the high mountains of the earth, those of Antarctica play a minor role at best. Thus, who knows about the ice-armored beauties of the Antarctic Peninsula? The high four-thousand-meter peaks on the roof of the continent in Ellsworth Land? The bizarre rock towers in Dronning Maud Land? The volcanic giant slumbering unerneath the ice in Marie Byrd Land? The storm-tossed peaks of the subpolar islands? Or the mountain range across the continent that is even longer than the Himalayas?
Only in a few places do mountains break through Antarctica’s ice sheet or rise freestanding above it. Most of the mountains are hidden under the inland ice, which can be up to four kilometers thick.
The Antarctic high altitude wilderness is of incomparable, almost extraterrestrial beauty. Their landscape, if anything, can be compared to the highest and probably most beautiful floors of the Alps – or even the Himalayan mountains – in winter. But of course there are also very significant differences due to the polar climate and the high latitude. For example, in the southern summer, because of the midnight sun in Antarctica, you do not have to worry about being “surprised” by darkness. You can travel around the clock to your heart’s content. And that, due to the low sun, in often the most beautiful afternoon light. Most of the time it is freezing cold. However, the cold is relatively well tolerable due to the extremely dry air. The loneliness, remoteness and unspoiled nature of the Antarctic high mountains without signposts, mountain trails and shelters are unique anyway. Countless unclimbed mountains offer plenty of new territory for alpinists eager to explore, from simple snow flanks to steep ice couloirs, combined walls and wildly weaving ridges to vertical granite pillars.
The 100 to 300 kilometer wide Transantarctic Mountains extend from Victoria Land past the Geographic South Pole to Coatsland. It divides the continent into East and West Antarctica and, with a length of about 3500 kilometers, is the fifth longest mountain range on earth. The peaks of the mountains reach heights well above four thousand meters. The highest is the 4528 meter Mt. Kirkpatrick in the Queen Alexandra Range. In this most inaccessible southern part of the mountain range lies Mt. Elizabeth (4480 m), the highest unclimbed mountain on the continent. But also in the more northerly parts of the mountains, countless large peaks are still awaiting their first ascent, such as Mt. Ajax (3770 m), Mt. Sabine (3719 m) or Mt. Royalist (3640 m) in the Admirality Mountains. From the South Polar Plateau, huge outlet glaciers flow through the Transantarctic Mountains and feed the Ross Ice Shelf. In the famous “Race to the South Pole” in 1911, Briton Sir Robert F. Scott followed the 160-kilometer-long and 30-kilometer-wide Beardmore Glacier, while the victorious Norwegian Roald Amundsen found a way across the shorter but steeper Axel Heiberg Glacier through the Transantarctic Mountains. A special and desert-like phenomenon of this mountain range are the practically precipitation-free Dry Valleys, where NASA is preparing for Mars missions.
The heavily icy mountains of the Antarctic Peninsula, which rise directly out of the sea and in places to more than two and a half thousand meters, attract seagoing alpinists, ski tourers and freeriders. The Antarctic Peninsula and its islands, such as Brabant, Anvers or Adelaide Island, are relatively easy to reach by yacht from the southern tip of South America – but before that, the notorious Drake Passage with its storm-swept latitudes of the “Howling Fifties” and the “Screaming Sixties” must be crossed. And this is precisely the biggest hurdle for a mountain expedition to the Antarctic Peninsula. Hurricane-like storms and waves up to ten meters high are not uncommon here. The journey to mountains with such sounding names as Mt. Parry (2520 m), Mt. Shackleton (1465 m), Mt. Scott (880 m), Mt. Demaria (635 m) or Jabet Peak (545 m), must therefore be paid for by many with full seasickness. By the way, one should not be deceived by the comparatively low heights of the mountain peaks. The high alpine face of the mountains resembles that of the alpine mountains above the firn boundary, which in Antarctica does not begin at 3,000 meters, but at or just above sea level: it is as if the ocean surf were beating directly against the foot of a Droites north face, a Brenva spur, or a Walker pillar.
The heavily iced coastal mountains with their rugged walls, wildly jagged glaciers spilling into the sea, floating icebergs, whales, seals and penguins make the Antarctic Peninsula a maritime-polar high mountain natural paradise of incomparable beauty. Its strong glaciation is a sign of the often stormy weather and the westerly wind zone, rich in precipitation, into which the peninsula extends. Only a few climbers have dared to tackle the difficult rock routes here, such as Stefan Glowacz, who in 1999 succeeded in a ninth-degree climb on the double-peaked Renard Towers (747 m, since 2008 also called Una Peaks), which he christened – nomen est omen – “Hart am Wind”.
The highest elevations on the continent are in the Sentinel Range, which, together with the lower but more extensive Heritage Range, forms the Ellsworth Mountains. The mountain range is named after U.S. pilot Lincoln Ellsworth, who sighted “a very high, cloud-shrouded range” on a polar flight in 1935. The actual Vinson Massif, however, was only discovered during a US Navy reconnaissance flight in 1957 and identified as the highest mountain peak. Here are Mt. Vinson (4892 m) as the highest peak and Mt. Tyree (4852 m), Mt. Shinn (4660 m), Mt. Gardner (4573 m) and Mt. Epperly (4508 m) the highest mountains in Antarctica. As far as their appearance and also their relative height are concerned, they certainly do not need to shy away from a comparison with Himalayan giants, as they rise well over 3000 meters from the ice masses surrounding them.
It takes good preparation to be dropped off in the middle of nowhere and far away from any civilization on completely lonely mountains of the size of Mont Blanc. And especially in terms of physiological height. This is because the thinning of the atmosphere towards the poles means that the partial pressure of oxygen here is similar to that at a high five-thousand-meter peak in the lower latitudes. The four-thousand-meter peaks of Antarctica therefore require good acclimatization. While the major peaks of the Ellsworth Mountains have already been climbed, there are still numerous unclimbed three-thousanders and, most importantly, there are still large walls and ridges waiting to be climbed.
Dronning Maud Land – New Swabia
Probably the most spectacular mountains on the continent can be found in Dronning Maud Land and its sub-region New Swabia. Here, imposing rock towers pierce the slope of the East Antarctic ice plateau and rise vertically from the white plains with their reddish, sometimes bizarrely weathered rock. Not as high as the Ellsworth Mountains and not as hidden as the Transantarctic Mountains, the Filchner, Drygalski, Holtedahl or Humboldt Mountains are true dream destinations – not only for climbers and alpinists, but also for photographers.
Hardly any region of Antarctica inspires dreams and fantasies more than New Swabia, which was discovered during the German Antarctic Expedition of 1938/39 and explored from the air by Dornier-Waal aircraft catapulted from the mother ship “Schwabenland”. Thus, in today’s topographic maps, one finds hundreds of German-language mountain names such as the Matterhorn, the Zuckerhut or the Kubus alongside equally apt names, some of which are reminiscent of Norwegian mythology, such as Ulvetanna (“Wolf’s Tooth”, 2931 m), Holtanna (“Hollow Tooth”, 2650 m) and Kintanna (“Molar Tooth”, 2724 m) in the Fenriskjeften Mountains (“Denture of the Fenris Wolf”) or Rakekniven (“Razor”, 2365 m) in the massif of Trollslottet (“Troll Castle”, 2737 m). Jøkulkyrkia (“Glacier Church”, 3148 m) is the highest peak of Dronning Maud Land. Since the area is claimed territorially by Norway, some Norwegians even consider this mountain to be the highest mountain in their country. Like all other territorial claims in Antarctica, however, Norway’s is literally put on ice due to the Antarctic Treaty of 1959.
Only a handful of peaks have been climbed here so far. On the vertical rock monoliths, however, the continent’s most difficult climbs have been achieved – by climbing stars such as Robert Caspersen, Ivar Tollefsen, Conrad Anker, Alex Lowe, Ralf Dujmovits, Mike Libecky, Thomas and Alex Huber, Alexander Gamme, Andy Kirkpatrick, Leo Houlding and Alex Honnold, to name but a few. Sam Beaugey, Sébastien Collomb-Gros and Géraldine Fastnacht even managed the first base jump in Antarctica on December 13, 2009 at Holstind. Valery Rozov jumped from Ulvetanna in 2010, Kjersti Eide and Espen Fadnes in 2014 from an unnamed mountain in Holtedahlfjella.
Author: Christoph Höbenreich