The plane’s alarm went off as the landing wheels crashed hard into the Antarctic ice. We briefly touched down, then the pilot changed his mind and swept us back into the chilled air of Queen Maud Land.
We keep running out of landing strip, said the co-pilot, laughing. The plane circled and we dove back down for the fifth attempt.
The landing wheels smacked the ice again, and were thrown forward, only to be strangled back in place by our seat belts. The tiny airplane cracked and rumbled and eventually came to a halt.
That was tricky! the bush pilot admitted A little shocked to hear that, I raised an eyebrow and looked at the guy.
The door swung open. No wind, blue sky and nothing but ice. Miles and miles of ice. I walked down the plane’s stairs and paused just before taking the first step onto the snow. I suddenly knew what Neil Armstrong felt like. The icy surface of Antarctica’s fabled Queen Maud Land was just a foot away, but this would be a giant step for me.
The ice crunched under my boot, and it felt like I had woken up inside my dream.
Antarctica is the ultimate No Man’s Land. It’s the only continent without an indigenous human population, and there’s a good reason for that. Antarctica is the coldest, windiest and driest place on earth, with the highest average elevation of all continents. Conditions here are cruel and brutal. The average wind speed is 25 miles per hour, and the average temperature in the dead of summer is minus 20- F. Even though this place is technically a desert, it contains 70 percent of the world’s freshwater, of course, it’s all frozen. Ice, more or less, is the only thing here. Antarctica is almost 1.5 times larger than the United States, but only .3 percent of this continent is not frozen water. To give that ratio some reference, imagine if every state in the U.S. was covered in ice up to 15,000 feet thick except for Vermont. The sheer weight of the ice sitting on Antarctica’s bedrock is so great that if it melted the bedrock would rebound up to 3,000 feet in the continent’s interior.
The history of this forbidding land is equally fascinating. Until relatively recently, Antarctica was a mythical place up there with Atlantis and the Seven Cities of Cibola the only mention of a giant barren landmass capping the southern half of the globe had been in stories told by the Ancient Greeks. But for thousands of years, those were only stories. It wasn’t until 1820 that this fabled Southern Land was actually seen by a person, and not until 1821 that a human foot touched its shores.
No one paid much attention to Antarctica for the next 80 years. Then, as the 19th century drew to a close, the so-called Heroic Age of Antarctic Exploration began. During the first 25 years of the new century, eight different countries launched over 16 major expeditions to Antarctica, spurring an intense scientific and geographic inquiry into this new frontier. The Holy Grail of these excursions, of course, was to be the first to reach the South Pole.
One of the most memorable tales of this age was that of Ernest Shackleton and the Great Southern Journey of 1908, when he and his team made it to within just 97 miles of the South Pole, the farthest south any human had been at the time. The team turned around and barely made it back to their ship having survived a 1,700-mile walk through the Antarctic tundra on half-rations of food. Shackleton returned home to England a hero and was knighted for his effort. In 1911, Roald Amundsen, a Norwegian explorer, officially became the first person to stand at 90 degrees south latitude.
Queen Maud Land is the name given to the territory of Antarctica that was claimed by Norway in 1939, an honor given to Maud of Wales, the Queen of Norway in the early 20th century, who was apparently pretty cool (she supported charity, music and art, liked to ski and dressed well).
It was only 14 years ago, however, that the Norwegian mountaineer Ivar Tollefsen first discovered the incredible mountains of Queen Maud Land. When my brother Alexander and I first saw his pictures of these big-wall granite incisors jutting out of the jowls of the icy flats, we were sold. One day, we vowed, we would go there.
We were determined and motivated, but didn’t have the financial means to afford such a journey. You either have to be very rich or you need a good sponsor to have $45,000 to spend on a two-month climbing trip. Back then, Alexander and I were neither rich nor did we have a deep-pocket sponsor. Still, we kept the dream alive by starting an Antarctica savings account, and steadily added to it over the years.
In 2008, our situation improved. Not only was our Antarctica savings box half full, but we found a new sponsor. Adidas was enthusiastic about our project, and all of a sudden the wind was at our backs. The Swiss powerhouse Stephan Siegrist decided to join us, and we invited Max Reichel to film our expedition.
In Shackleton’s era, just getting to Antarctica was an epic journey that could take over half a year and was an adventure in and of itself. Our flight to Cape Town, South Africa, the closest point to Queen Maud Land, was unspectacular and only 14 hours from our home in Berchtesgaden, Germany.
We had a two-day layover in Cape Town, where we bought 450 pounds of food, including plenty of salty ostrich meat, to get us through six weeks in the outback. That’s when we got the bad news.
Our agency, TAC, or The Antarctic Company, told us that we wouldn’t be the only people there. What? A French military expedition was going to be climbing in the same mountains and at the same time as we were. You spend $45,000 per person to go to the most remote and unique corner of the earth, to climb and experience total solitude and it turns out you might have to wait in line to rope up?
We could only hope that we’d get along with the French, and come to an agreement.
We were sitting in the Cape Town airport, enjoying our last taste of draft beer for over a month, when, shit, there they came: the French. I wasn’t happy to meet them, to be honest, and even though they appeared to be quite nice, I was skeptical.
One hour and a few beers later, we had each explained our respective objectives and discovered two important things. First, the French were looking to do the North Buttress of the peak called Holstind, which is an adjacent, but totally different, mountain than the one we had in mind: Holtanna, a Norwegian name that means hollow tooth. Second, and most important, the French were actually nice.
Our goal was to establish a free climb up the West Face of Holtanna (8,694 feet). The West Face is an extremely large and gently overhanging 2,460-foot big wall. Would free climbing be possible in Antarctica?
There we were, finally. Just us, the tents, the mountains and the French. We had set up camp as close to the mountains as possible, but far enough away that we’d never find ourselves suffering in their long, cold shadows.
Our first night in Antarctica was rough. The temperature dropped to minus 22- F. It was late November, the beginning of summer in Antarctica, and the season when the sun never sets. At midnight, only the summits of the mountains are in the bright sun. It was magical, but the bright nights and frigid conditions took getting used to.
The next day, the French left to inspect the North Buttress of Holstind, while we beelined it to Holtanna’s West Face. The closer we got, the more impressive the gigantic face became. It looked more and more like El Cap: 2,400 feet high and overhanging in its upper fathoms. A system of cracks on the left-hand side of the face offered the only sensible path. The wall was brilliant, but our hopes had dimmed: free climbing a project such as this, steep, compact, brittle and absolutely cold, had begun to seem impossible.
“Wow, a brutal face,” Alexander said. “Rare, but beautiful.”
We were a bit crestfallen, but we would try anyway. Alexander roped up and the adventure began. He started up an icy crack that in normal conditions would be 5.9. But it was minus 25- F, and even colder with the wind chill. This 5.9 felt like a 5.14a, or virtually impossible! My brother aided and free climbed, and fixed two pitches. It was all we could muster on the first day.
The next day I climbed to the upper end of the buttress and found two bolts. We were not the first ones here but we knew that. A Spanish team had tried the face eight years ago. The question, though, was how far had they gone? We traversed left and found more bolts. One pitch was even drilled like a sport climb. We hoped these bolts would end soon.
As I continued aiding, freeing and doing whatever it took to get up the face, I was encouraged by what I found. Up to this point, everything was free climbable, and nothing was harder than 5.11c/d. Maybe it would become warmer in December, and we’d be able to return and free climb this route. My day of leading was coming to an end. We fixed ropes, rappelled and returned to camp.
Until now, it had been blue skies day and night, but absolutely frigid. Nevertheless, our bodies were adapting to the cold, making micro adjustments to keep our internal temperatures normal. The next day, Stef was up to lead, and he did so in superior style. Every now and then, we ran into more bolts from the Spanish, but they were becoming fewer. I was belaying Stef, who was working steadily but slowly up an awkward chimney. All I could do was watch the rope crawl millimeter by millimeter out of the Grigri. Alex and Max had rapped down already to escape the growling wind. I was alone.
Half an hour later, Stef had climbed 10 feet. I swore under my breath. I hated this situation, this face and the fact that Stef was moving like an Antarctic sloth. But what could I do? I was sure he was doing his best. I just sat and experienced true despair.
Suddenly, I heard Stef yell from above, “Without climbing shoes, we don’t have a chance!” Noooo, really? Did he just now realize that free climbing in mountain boots was limiting?
I pretended I didn’t hear his dumb comment, and instead just said, Looking good, Stef. I was certain he felt my anger through the rope. His desperation turned to a burst of energy, and he managed to go on. Five minutes later, he was at a two-bolt anchor.
I arrived at the belay and looked up the wall. Now it was starting to get really steep! I saw three more bolts, the last one 30 feet up and with a carabiner clipped to it that suggested the point of retreat. Good. That was the end of the Spanish route, we hoped. We rappelled to join Alex and Max for a warm drink at camp.
Heavy storms kept us in our sleeping bags for the next two days. The temperature dropped down to minus 45- F and minus 65- F with the wind chill. Sleeping bag, or black fingers? The choice was easy.
A few days later, Alex and Stef advanced our position up the wall. It was the same old story. The climbing would not be harder than 5.11c, but it was just too cold to free climb. At every belay we needed to rest and desperately warm our frozen fingers. Halfway up the wall, the climbing began to get serious. The rock had become brittle and was flaking off like scabs.
We should just forget about free climbing, Alexander said, getting to the point. So we should just stop fixing ropes.
With that, we hauled everything up the face, and within an hour, had turned this unforgiving vertical world into a cozy portaledge camp.
Max filmed, Alexander belayed, Stef melted snow, and I hung from yet another bird beak placed in a thin A4 seam. The climbing was fully demanding, and I had to pause and take deep breaths. The hairline seam had taken all of my concentration and all of my bird beaks. I had to continually remind myself: Concentrate. Don’t make a mistake.
Four hours later, and 50 meters higher, I reached the beginning of an actual crack. I built a belay, fixed the rope and returned to our Hotel Vertical frozen, hungry, exhausted. We melted more snow and wrapped ourselves up in our sleeping bags so only the tips of our noses stuck out. That night we all slept well, 1,000 feet above the endless ice desert of Antarctica.
In two days, we were in a position to summit. We gave the sharp end to The Weapon. Alexander moved fast, as he always does. The climbing had become less difficult, and he moved through the terrain quickly and all free. By 4 p.m., we were all standing on the summit of our new route, Eiszeit, or, Ice Age (5.10d A4, 24 pitches). As bad as the rock was, and as cold as the conditions were, this face and this line are beautiful, real gems. Ours was the third ascent of this mountain, and though we didn’t achieve our goal of a new free route, we felt truly fortunate just to be on top.
After Ice Age, bad weather trapped us in camp for five days. The French had returned from their route, also successful. The high we felt from completing our respective routes had reached a crest, and we were now in a deep lull. Life was monotonous, the ambiance dull. We felt ill-humored and introverted. I felt hollow and couldn’t escape the deep desire to step off the plane in Munich and hug my loved ones. But I was stuck in Antarctica for a few more weeks. I decided to focus on waiting for better weather.
None of us had showered in a month, and our beards had gotten long and scraggly. Fortunately, the weather was getting much warmer. Midday temps were up to 40-F and, it was only minus 22-F at night.
On the first day of cloudless skies, we returned to Holtanna to check out the North Buttress, which appeared to be easy enough to free climb, especially now that we had these warm conditions on our side.
What we found was one of the most unique routes I’ve ever done: a razor-sharp fin of rock that is incredibly exposed, but only 5.10- at its hardest! After 10 pitches of moderate climbing, we found ourselves, once again, on the pinnacle of Holtanna, only this time we had achieved our goal of completing an all-new free climb to the top of an Antarctic spire. Our new route, Skywalk, has a name that says it all. Though only moderately difficult, the beauty of this route is unmatched.
There was possibly enough time left for us to do one more new route, so we set our sights on Ulvetanna, or the Wolf Tooth. Nearly 10,000 feet high, Ulvetanna is about 1,000 feet higher than Holtanna, and is considered one of the most difficult mountains in the world. Despite a few storms here and there, we seemed to be getting quite lucky with the weather. We decided to go for it. Plus, with all the time we had been spending at camp, we were getting on each others’ nerves. It was either go climbing or kill each other.
The forecast called for two days of good weather, so we had to climb fast. I left at 7 a.m., before the others, to start leading up the wall, while they hung back to gather the rest of our supplies. I pulled my sledge, lost in thought, excited to climb a new mountain, but even more psyched to soon be traveling home to my family. I enjoyed the two-hour hike, the complete solitude and the deep appreciation for this rare and beautiful vantage. At the base of Ulvetanna, I donned my crampons and set off.
I navigated a 40-degree snow slope, then reached 50-degree ice that took me600 feet up the face. I fixed a rope and soon the others caught me.
Division of labor is crucial to making it up any wall. The Weapon wanted to lead and we let him. Like I said, Alexander is fast and very good. My job became organizing camp and hauling gear. I went back down the slope, shouldered a heavy haul bag and nearly crumpled under its weight. The pig pulled me down, but I was stronger! Stupid swine!
The climb back took me an hour and by that time Alexander had completed the first pitch and was getting on with the second one. Great! My brother and Stef continued climbing, Max filmed and I organized our ledge, unpacking sleeping bags and pads, and melting snow. Tomorrow we needed to reach the summit or suffer through the forecast of gusty, bitter snowfall.
Stef and Alexander returned to the advanced bivy late at night, chilled to the bone but bright eyed. They were raving about the climbing, especially the 300-foot splitter crack in the overhanging shield of Ulvetanna’s North Face. Like the Salathe Headwall, Alexander said. In our minds, it would be free climbable, but we knew we’d be forced to climb it in expedition boots and aiders.
The next day, it was my turn to lead and I eagerly jugged to Alexander and Stef’s high point 150 feet up the Salathe Headwall crack. It was truly that good, and I screamed out into the Antarctic sky. Whoo!
I continued climbing up the headwall. Sixty feet up, the overhanging crack widened to a chimney and offered actual free climbing. I shoved and squeezed my way up the fissure, but Ulvetanna is a tough peak. Two hours of my fastest climbing later, there was still no end in sight. How big is this thing? At that point, I had no idea which way to go; left or right?
Alexander, which way? I called down to my brother, 100 feet below.
He looked up from the belay, studied the face, and said, Right!
OK, why not? I snaked my way up a chimney and found myself on a table-sized ledge just right of an easier-looking ridge that led to the summit. Now the climbing had become thrilling!
It was one of those awesome moments when you’re doing a new route, onsight, and decisions none of them all that great have to be made. All around me the rock was brittle. Setting up a belay would be tough because the rock was so compact, and the last good belay was 15 irreversible feet below me. If I tried the sequence out right, there would be no turning back. Should I give up and drill a bolt?
No. I took off my gloves, ignored the cold and set off onto the unprotected face, past the point of no return. I crimped along a rail, and smeared and edged my boots on small granite crystals. I was actually sweating in Antarctica!
My mind started playing out disaster scenarios. What if something were to break? Don’t ask! I thought about my little daughter, Philomea. Pull yourself together. Focus. Keep three points of contact on the wall.
After 20 more feet of nerve-wracking climbing, I was able to place my first good piece of protection, and soon I had reached a decent enough belay to bring up the team.
Going right, out to the ridge, had been the correct choice, and soon enough, we surmounted the technical difficulties and only had walking terrain between us and the summit.
On top, tucked into a little niche, we found a little Norwegian flag. We shook hands for the third, and final, time of our trip, and looked out over Queen Maud Land. Clouds surrounded us, and there was absolutely no wind. In fact, there was no sound at all.
It was completely silent, a perfect sound that not only gave us the route name Sound of Silence (5.11- A2, 20 pitches), but allowed us the freedom to experience deep reflection.
Thomas Huber is one of today’s most prolific all-around climbers, with multiple first ascents in the Himalaya, such as the Direct North Pillar of Shivling (which won him the Piolet d’Or), and many first free ascents of El Capitan, Yosemite.
Who Owns Antarctica?
Though Antarctica comprises nearly a tenth of the world’s land, it is technically owned by no one and there is no government here. Prior to 1961, seven nations, Argentina, Chile, Australia, New Zealand, France, Norway and the U.K., claimed eight slices of Antarctica. Norway came away with two claims: Peter I Island and Queen Maud Land. Each of these claims are only honored between the seven nations themselves; the U.S., for example, has no claimed territory here, and it also doesn’t honor the claims of others.
Following World War II, when the most powerful countries were embroiled in the political battle to carve up every last remaining square inch of land on earth, people suddenly realized that no one owned Antarctica and that someone should do something about that before anyone tried to set up oil rigs or dump radioactive garbage there. In 1959, 12 countries signed the Antarctic Treaty System, which was the first diplomatic agreement established during the Cold War and which designated Anarctica as a scientific preserve. Basically, the Treaty says that you can’t wage war, test weapons or harm the environment here. As a visitor to Antarctica, you are subject to the laws of your own country, but even that is unclear.