Antarctica – White Giants II | Polarjournal
The subpolar natural gem of South Georgia is home to tens of thousands of king penguins, as seen here in St. Andrews Bay off Mt. Brooker (1881 m) and the Cook Glacier in the foothills of the Allardyce Range. (Photo: Christoph Höbenreich)

The subpolar island world

No longer directly on the Antarctic continent, but lying within the Antarctic Convergence in the Southern Ocean, the ice-clad mountains of the subpolar South Shetland Islands, South Orkney Islands and, of course, South Georgia Island must not be forgotten. South Georgia is a true natural gem not only because of its birdlife and large colonies of penguins, seals and elephant seals. The Allardyce and Salvesen ranges form the backbone of the largely glaciated island and offer very adventurous expedition mountaineering on difficult to access and very rarely climbed peaks such as Nordenskjöld Peak (2354 m), Mt. Brooker (1881 m), Mt. Sugartop (2323 m), Mt. Ashley (1145 m) or Mt. Roots (2281 m). Like the Falklands, the former whaling island of South Georgia is part of the British Overseas Territories, so although it is not part of the United Kingdom, it is under its sovereignty and is rich in British polar history. In 1916, Ernest Shackleton crossed the island on his epic voyage to rescue his “Endurance” crew stranded in the Antarctic. And the first ascent of Mt. Paget (2935 m), the highest mountain on the island, was achieved by members of the British Combined Services Expedition to the Antarctic on December 30, 1964.

The active volcano Mt. Erebus (3794) on Ross Island was the first major mountain climbed in Antarctica on March 10, 1908. (Photo: Michael Martin)

The volcanoes of Marie Byrd Land and Ross Lake Region

The promising-sounding name Antarctica conjures up images of vast ice plateaus. Volcanoes are not part of the usual picture of the continent around the South Pole. The best known of these is probably Mt. Erebus (3794 m) on Ross Island in the McMurdo hinterland. Not only was it the first large mountain to be climbed in Antarctica (as early as 1908), it also unfortunately gained sad notoriety due to the biggest disaster in Antarctica: On November 28, 1979, an Air New Zealand passenger plane on a sightseeing flight got caught in a whiteout and crashed into the mountain; all 257 people on board were killed.

Other Antarctic volcanoes such as Mt. Melbourne (2733 m) in East Antarctic Victoria Land are less well known. On the Pacific Antarctic coast of Marie Byrd Land, there is even a 700-kilometer-long chain of 22 volcanoes strung like shiny pearls. At its center is the 80-kilometer-long volcanic group of the Executive Committee Range, with the highest ice-covered volcanic peaks on the continent. Among these, in turn, no other towers above Mt. Sidley. However, its height – around 4200 meters – has not even been accurately measured. The complex stratovolcano is the geologically youngest volcano of the “string of pearls” and is considered extinct. But just a few years ago, seismologists using sled vehicles under the ice sheet just 50 kilometers from Mt. Sidley detected strong seismic activity and discovered a mantle plume, that is, a huge rising lump of hot magma nearly 100 kilometers below the volcano. When the former Gondwanaland disintegrated into today’s southern continents, the continent of Antarctica was also tectonically torn apart. Thus, in West Antarctica, rift valley fractures were formed that resemble the East African rift system, but are covered by the ice sheet several thousand meters thick. The Bentley Trench, whose deepest point is 2500 meters below sea level, is the world’s deepest tectonic depression not covered by oceans. On the surface, the mighty volcanoes are visible witnesses of the strong tectonic activity. And hidden beneath the West Antarctic ice sheet, another 138 volcanoes have been discovered. Previously unnoticed time bombs? The eruption of a subglacial volcano would probably have devastating consequences.

The path to the summit crater of Mt. Sidley leads through a maze of giant ice mushrooms. (Photo: Christoph Höbenreich)

The volcano Mt. Sidley was first sighted by U.S. polar explorer Admiral Richard Evelyn Byrd during a reconnaissance flight in 1934. He gave the literally outstanding appearance the name of Mabelle Sidley, the daughter of a financier of his expedition. Previously, the admiral had already named the entire region adjacent to the Amundsen Sea after his wife. Marie Byrd Land, with an area of 1.6 million square kilometers, is three times the size of France and is very rarely visited, even by Antarctic standards. Off its coasts there is no regular shipping traffic, and inland there are neither landing strips nor permanent research stations. Marie Byrd land is not even territorially claimed by any state to this day. It is the largest no man’s land on earth! Therefore, it is not surprising that even volcanoes as shapely and coastal as Mt. Siple (3110 m) hardly receive any attention and lead a sunny shadowy existence.

On January 14, 2017, Michael Guggolz became the first German to reach the summit of Mt. Sidley. (Photo: Christoph Höbenreich)

Mt. Sidley – the highest volcano in Antarctica

An even more isolated and uplifting feeling of being “above things” is conveyed by the highest volcano in Antarctica, which, although not quite as high, is completely free-standing. The U.S. Geological Survey map (1961), U.S. Air Navigation Chart (1963), and SCAR Air Operations Planning Map (2016) indicate an elevation of 4181 meters; Antarctic Logistics & Expeditions indicate 4285 meters. In fact, however, the summit crater rim is neither precisely surveyed nor marked. Nice that there are still mountains with such secrets! Almost completely iced over, it rises about 2200 meters above the seemingly endless West Antarctic ice plateau Marie Byrd Lands. On the outside, gentle white and light blue shimmering ice flanks characterize its majestic face. By a freak of nature, bizarrely shaped ice mushrooms of meter-high accumulated ice adorn the rim of the summit crater like a crown on the ice-spiked head of the king of Antarctic volcanoes. The horseshoe-shaped inner side of the crater has a diameter of five kilometers and breaks off 1200 meters into the depth in an imposing steep wall of crumbly lava rock and ice. Its location close to the South Pole, the elaborate logistics and its almost complete virginity make the mountain a very exclusive destination for adventurous “Volcanoholics” who, as collectors of the “Volcanic Seven Summits”, climb the highest volcano of each of the seven continents. This attractive collection of extinct or still active fire mountains was only discovered in 2011 at the summit of Mt. Sidley first completed by the Italian Mario Trimeri and since then only a small handful of climbers. The fact that Mt. Sidley is still hardly known even in well-informed mountaineering circles is hardly surprising, the summit area of the volcano was first visited by the New Zealand polar explorer Bill Atkinson only on January 11, 1990. In 1994, members of the U.S. Antarctic Research Program (USARP) followed suit. And it was not until 2011 that the first ascent of the mountain, previously practically inaccessible to private climbers, was achieved in the course of an expedition not organized by the state. An expedition to Mt. Sidley continues to call for a pioneering and exploratory spirit today. Here, a mountaineering team is still completely on its own. In January 2017, I had the honor of accompanying and leading the eighth expedition ever to this mountain, together with fellow American mountain guide Tre-C Dumais – to one of the most remote and rarely climbed mountains on earth.

Karl Pichler and Paul Koller on January 18, 2009 as the first people on the summit of the Steirerturm with a view of the Kamelbuckel in the center of the picture, which was climbed the next day, and the Würfelturm, on the left, which the author was able to climb for the first time ten years later, on January 7, 2019, together with Michael Guggolz and Kjetil Kristensen. (Photo: Christoph Höbenreich)

Climate change in Antarctica

Polar travel is in vogue. The well-documented climate change is fuelling the travel boom in the highest north and deepest south. There almost seems to be a kind of gateway panic along the lines of: visit the polar regions while they are still white!

The dramatic images of melting polar ice come from the Arctic, from record ice melts in Greenland, from melt water in the thawing permafrost seed bunker on Spitsbergen, and from a North Pole soon to be ice-free in summer. In recent decades, the Arctic has warmed more than any other region of the world. One speaks there of a temperature rise of 6 degrees (!) within the last thirty years. The impact on the landscape in the North Polar region is unmistakable.

But what’s going on in the south polar region? The signs of climate change are also visible in parts of Antarctica: Some small ice shelves on the Antarctic Peninsula have broken up over the past three decades. In contrast, winter sea ice cover around Antarctica has been steadily increasing for years. And coastal areas are seeing more and more precipitation. However, effects of climate change in Antarctica are difficult to measure. Around the South Pole, 14 million square kilometers are covered by ice. The frozen carapace is more than 4500 meters thick in places and squeezes the continental shelf underneath it. Calculations suggest that 30 million cubic kilometers of ice lie dormant here – 90 percent of the world’s frozen water. Is the impression deceiving that the ice of East Antarctica, by far the largest ice deposit on earth, is currently sleeping through “global” climate warming?

Oblique aerial photographs of the southern Holtedahl Mountains by Autor 2009 (left) and from the 1939 German Antarctic Expedition (right) show not only no decrease in mountain glaciation, but rather increased snow accumulation. (Photo: Christoph Höbenreich, Archive BKG)

In a long-term comparison of current aerial photographs with the photographs of the German Antarctic Expedition of 1939, Karsten Brunk and I were able to determine that there have been no changes in the landscape of the mountains of New Swabia over the past eight decades that would indicate a decrease in snow or ice cover, as is otherwise dramatically observed in virtually all high mountains of the low and middle latitudes and also in the Arctic. Antarctic mountain glaciation, on the other hand, has not retreated. The flank icing of the mountains has not decreased either. On the contrary! Renowned polar scientists confirm this observation. Dr. Georg Delisle of the Federal Institute for Geosciences and Natural Resources in Hannover, Germany, which maintains two summer stations in East Antarctica, confirms, “There has been no evidence of marked climatic changes here in the past 30 years.” And according to a report by the Scientific Committee on Antarctic Research, much of Antarctica has not followed the global trend of climate warming in recent decades, but has actually cooled! A cutting-edge study published in 2020 in the prestigious science journal NATURE confirms, “The Antarctic continent has not warmed over the past seven decades despite a monotonic increase in atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gases.”

Observed surface temperature anomaly (K) over 1984-2014 compared to the base period 1950-1980. The contours show the surface elevation above sea level in meters. (Graphics: H.A. Singh, L.M. Polvani 2020)

Dr. Heinz Miller of the Alfred Wegener Institute for Polar and Marine Research in Bremerhaven also affirms that East Antarctica is a very stable structure. “And even if inner Antarctica warms up,” he says, “it will still remain very cold.” After all, temperatures as low as -80 degrees Celsius are sometimes measured in the interior of the icy continent, and the annual average in East Antarctica is more than frosty at below -30 degrees Celsius. “If it gets a few degrees warmer there, nothing still melts,” the Innsbruck native sums it up soberly. Rather, warming could even lead to increased snowfall in the otherwise extremely dry ice desert. And indeed, by comparing the aerial photographs in the high mountains of New Swabia, an increase in snow accumulation and ice cover can be clearly observed. In any case, there is no sign of melting glaciers or ice flanks in the interior of Antarctica. Or, to put it another way, climate change is still leaving the high mountains of Antarctica completely cold.

With ski touring boots, alpine racing skis and high performance snowkites, Leo Holding, Mark Sedon and Jean Burgun demonstrated how they literally moved themselves and their heavy sleds across the ice at lightning speed. (Photo: Mark Sedon)

Polar Logistics

In Antarctica, as everywhere else in the world, most alpinistic activities are concentrated on a few well-known and relatively easily accessible mountain destinations. Although almost every point of Antarctica up to the South Pole can be reached by yachts, ski planes or four-wheel drive vehicles, and despite the increase in polar tourism in the last twenty years, Antarctica will probably always remain a dream for most people. The area is too unexplored, the costs too high, the bureaucracy and organization too complex. Therefore, most regions of Antarctica will continue to be hardly visited, such as the extremely difficult to access southern parts of the Antarctic Mountains, the still hardly known mountains on Alexander Island or Palmer Land on the Antarctic Peninsula, in Marie Byrd Land, in Mac Robertson Land or on the subpolar islands.

As a climber and skier in Antarctica, you face extreme UV radiation from the hole in the ozone layer in the atmosphere, katabatic downdrafts from the southern polar plateau, and always frighteningly large crevasses. An expedition to Antarctica thus requires not only perfect equipment, experience and meticulous preparation, but ultimately always a portion of luck as well.

My personal ideal of a polar mountain expedition is to be completely free and self-sufficient in small teams with skis, tent and pulka sled. For mountaineers, the door has opened to a new age of alpine exploration. The world-class climber Leo Holding, Mark Sedon and Jean Burgun impressively demonstrated the expedition style of modern polar expeditions in 2017: From the landing point of their ski plane, they used ski touring boots, alpine racing skis and high-performance snowkites for their spectacular expedition to the 2020-meter-high Spectre in the remote Transantarctic Mountains, literally moving themselves and their heavy sleds across the ice at lightning speed.

Author: Christoph Höbenreich

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