Expedition Antarctica: 6 Climbers, 17 Days, 15 Summits

Through freezing temperatures, crumbling rock, and dangerous descents, this multi-generational climbing team managed to rack up epic routes in Queen Maud Land.

Published 26 Jan 2018, 19:06 GMT
Conrad Anker climbs up a new route—one he eyed within minutes of landing in the mountain ...
Conrad Anker climbs up a new route—one he eyed within minutes of landing in the mountain range—on the western face of Antarctica's Ulvetanna in an attempt to reach the summit.
Photograph by Savannah Cummins, The North Face

High above the mountainous, alien environment of Antarctica’s Queen Maud Land, four climbers teetered up an exposed rib of crumbling granite no wider than a timber plank and rising at a steep 80-degree angle. The summit of Holtanna, an El Capitan-sized granite molar protruding from the ice cap, was a few hundred feet away. It was cold that day, even by Antarctica’s standards.

Savannah Cummins, Alex Honnold, Anna Pfaff, and Cedar Wright wore all their layers. They knew they had to keep moving, not just to stay warm but to survive. They climbed in fleece gloves and down coats—what Wright referred to as his “terrestrial space suit.”

“Life is not meant to exist in Antarctica,” he later wrote. “It’s a constant exercise in survival. Drop your gloves or jacket on a climb and get frostbite or worse … you might freeze to death!”

The climbers could see the domes of their yellow tents thousands of feet below, set like faint gold studs within the fathomless icy expanse. Aside from three teammates in those tents, there were no other people for hundreds of miles.

Anna Pfaff leads the way up an unnamed peak in the Wolf's Jaw massif.
Photograph by Savannah Cummins, The North Face

The mountain dropped away from the granite rib, adding to the commitment and loneliness of the climbers’ position. They felt good standing and climbing on rock, instead of the near-constant ice in Antarctica. 99.7 percent of the continent, a landmass that’s 1.5 times the size of the United States, is frozen water. Antarctica is almost entirely buried beneath a 15,000-foot slab of ice. Seventy percent of all of the earth’s freshwater is locked up in this frozen layer, which is so heavy it actually depresses the continent thousands of feet below sea level.

Antarctica is the coldest, windiest, and, ironically, driest place on earth. To climb here “comfortably,” if such a thing is possible, means chasing sunlight, which can make the consistent minus 29°C temps bearable with proper protection. Shade and wind are the real killers.

A Perilous Climb Up

The climbers were divided into two teams of two. Honnold and Cummins on one rope; Wright and Pfaff on the other. Each rope team was employing a style of ascent called simul-climbing, whereby each climber ties into one end of a 200-foot rope and moves upward in tandem, a full rope’s length apart from each other in order to keep as little slack in the system as possible. Scant gear is clipped to the rope along the way; that gear is placed by the leading climber and retrieved by the follower.

Simul-climbing is faster because there’s no need to pause in freezing Antarctic temperatures and feed the rope through belay devices. With this method, climbers are speedier and warmer because they’re always moving. The single compromise to this approach is safety. Simul-climbing demands a must-not-fall mindset and total trust between partners, since one climber’s error could pull the other off the wall.

Soon, the four climbers stood atop Holtanna (8,694 feet; 2,650 metres) having completed the second ascent of the mountain’s 1,500-foot wind-scoured north buttress, a route dubbed “Skywalk” in 2008 by a European team that included brothers Alex and Thomas Huber and Stephan Siegrist.

Anna Pfaff gathers her gear in preparation for a freezing Antarctic climb.
Photograph by Savannah Cummins, The North Face

A Riskier Trip Down

Now the question was how to get down. The climbers had been under the impression that fixed anchors were installed by the first ascentionists, which would allow for rappelling, yet they found virtually no anchors—only two bolts on the entire route.

“We had thought that this was going to be a fun, rad outing,” said Cummins. “But it ended up being one of the biggest days of the trip.”

“The hardest part, beyond the cold, was just the uncertainty of knowing where to go,” said Honnold. “How to get up a peak or get off of it. The whole time, we were all just really stressed out.”

The team made the decision to down climb the buttress as opposed to rappel. At one point, however, Cummins and Pfaff found themselves uncomfortable with the difficulty of the down climbing.

“So Anna and I literally rappelled off of Alex’s body,” explained Cummins. “Then he down-soloed.”

Honnold laid down in a shady hole, turning himself into a deadman anchor, with a sling around an uninspiring, loose flake of rock as a mental backup. With the rappel rope clipped to his harness, Honnold used his body as a counterweight to Pfaff and Cummins, who rappelled at the same time.

“I felt so bad; it was so cold. We knew Alex must be freezing,” said Cummins. “I’d never rapped off of a person before.”

After 16 hours out, the team finally returned to basecamp, with some of the members sipping on a belt of whisky and cooking dinner in their tent. After a day of rest, all were back at it, gunning for the next summit.

Anna Pfaff streches at the team's basecamp under the morning sun.
Photograph by Savannah Cummins, The North Face

Numbers on the Board

A climbing expedition’s success, according to Conrad Anker, can be judged by the following criteria:

“There are no injuries or fatalities, we come back as friends, and we get a summit,” declares Anker, a 55-year-old mountaineer from Bozeman, Montana. “In that order.”

Anker has logged countless expeditions over the course of his storied climbing career. This most recent one, to Antarctica’s Queen Maud Land with fellow American climbers Jimmy Chin, Savannah Cummins, Alex Honnold, Anna Pfaff, Cedar Wright, and cameraman Pablo Durana, must certainly rank among his most successful climbing trips yet.

There were no injuries, not even a nip of frostbite; friendships were solidified; and an impressive number of summits were reached.

From December 1-17, 2017, the six climbers collectively reached a total of 15 summits via 12 new routes in Fenris Kjeften, a name alluding to the “jaw” of Fenris, a wolf from Norse mythology.

“The mantra of the whole trip was ‘numbers on the board,’” said Wright, meaning that the goal was to reach as many summits as possible. The climbers believe that two of their summits were true first ascents in that the formations had never been climbed before. They dubbed one of these formations the Penguin and the other the Fishhook. They later learned that this second serpentine ridge of rock had been named Jörmungandr by early Norwegian explorers, though not climbed.

Notably, Wright and Honnold free-soloed (climbed without ropes) the first ascent of Jörmungandr. Wright said of the experience, “While I have soloed hundreds of routes … I’m no Alex Honnold, and it took all of my faculties not to panic as I danced along the extremely loose knife-edge ridge.”

The last time an expedition was this productive, at least in terms of summit count, may have been the very first climbing expedition to reach these mountains, which are part of the Drygalski range of the Orvinfjella mountains in eastern Antarctica. Over the first two months of 1994, a Norwegian expedition led by Ivar Tollefsen achieved first ascents of 23 peaks, with a cumulative total of 35 summits by various team members. Damien Gildea, a veteran Antarctic climber, Antarctic mountaineering historian, and author of Mountaineering in Antarctica, calls that initial Norwegian expedition “almost unparalleled in expedition history.”

The images and stories from that early trip served as inspiration for every subsequent climbing mission to these tooth-like granite peaks, which form the shape of a lower jaw and jut out of the sheer white icecap—including this most recent expedition, funded by The North Face.

As a team, the six climbers summited nearly every major tower in Fenris Kjeften, including the tallest one, Ulvetanna (9,613 feet; 2,930 metres), which means “Wolf’s Tooth.”

“They used high skill and modern tactics to get a lot done, in a serious place,” said Gildea in a nod. “That's not nothing.”

Jimmy Chin moves up a new route on the face of Ulventanna.
Photograph by Savannah Cummins, The North Face

Divide and Conquer

After landing in Cape Town, South Africa, and returning to civilization, expedition leader Wright was still buzzing about his and his teammates’ 17-day climbing binge during a phone interview.

“This was the wildest, most outrageous trip of my life!” he howled. “Queen Maud Land is the most pristine place I’ve ever seen. It was like we were on Mars. We never stopped climbing the entire time.”

Sitting beside him was his far more measured climbing partner Alex Honnold, who, in 2017, achieved the first free solo of El Capitan in Yosemite National Park, California.

“I’m pretty stoked,” Honnold said in his typical undertone. “The cold was definitely traumatic at times, but the trip was fun in retrospect. I was way out of my comfort zone.”

To reach so many summits in such a short amount of time, the six athletes divided up into three teams of two.

Chin and Anker predominantly focused their energy on a single, formidable objective: Ulvetanna.

“We put all our eggs in one basket to get that summit,” explained Anker.

“After five days of toiling on the route we still had almost two thirds of the mountain above,” said Chin. “We were warned by the Norwegians who first explored this area that things down here would be bigger and colder than they might first appear. Turns out they were right.”

After multiple days of work, including an ultimate four-day push high-up on the headwall, Chin and Anker finally reached the summit of the tallest peak in the Wolf’s Jaw for its seventh known ascent.

“We showed up in Antarctica with a loose agenda,” said Chin. “The crew needed time to size the place up, feel the weather, understand the distances and scale before making any decisions. As one’s climbing style in the mountains is a very personal expression of one’s ambitions, we found the range offered many options for everyone.”

Cummins, 24 and the least experienced member of the trip, and Pfaff, 36, focused on mountaineering-style ascents together, climbing some smaller peaks in the range.

“Anna and I climbed a few smaller peaks in the range and that was rad because it didn't feel like we were going to die,” said Cummins. “We went out and had fun. We were laughing and having a good time. Climbing with the boys was a little bit harder and a little bit scarier. They were just more accomplished in that kind of terrain so it was more about learning and pushing myself.”

By summit count alone, the most productive teammates were Wright and Honnold, who reached at least 13 summits together, including Fenris, Hel, Kinntanna, Midgard, Stetind, and Holtanna, as well as a handful of less prominent peaks. Honnold, also skied up on peak, bringing his personal tally to 14 summits.

“A lot of it was pretty dangerous,” said Honnold. “There were some moments where I was like, ‘Thank God, we’re actually good climbers, because otherwise we’d probably just die.’”

Honnold and Wright’s Secret for Success

In the 1963 edition of the American Alpine Journal, Yvon Chouinard, a dirtbag climber who would go on to become the renowned founder and CEO of Patagonia, posited that the climbing techniques being developed on the granite big-walls of Yosemite National Park would one day be used to tackle even taller, more remote objectives.

“The future of Yosemite climbing lies not in Yosemite, but in using the new techniques in the great granite ranges of the world,” Chouinard prophetically wrote.

Honnold and Wright, both native Californians, honed their skills as climbers on the glacier-polished big-walls of Yosemite, where speed climbing is often the name of the game. In Antarctica, the climbers quickly realised their background in Yosemite-style speed-climbing tactics gave them a huge advantage.

“By simul-climbing as much as possible, we could both keep moving and stay warmer. We free-climbed everything up to 5.11,” said Wright, referring to the technical difficulty of each free climb. “There were definitely moments of experiencing legitimate panic about the cold. You’re so far out there and you realize how quickly things could go bad.”

“Alex is already the strongest, boldest climber in the game,” said fellow teammate Conrad Anker. “So for him to onsight 5.11 with no gear is no big deal. And those guys, once they get moving, they're able to keep that momentum going and stay warm.”

The duo achieved the first free ascent of Kinntanna (8,937 feet; 2,724 metres) by simul-climbing its entire 1,400-foot north buttress, risking frequent runs between gear placements of up to 100 feet.

The sparse opportunities to place gear was made worse by the low quality of the rock itself.

“It was some of the worst granite I’ve ever touched,” said Honnold. “It would just crumble in your hands. The good thing was, if you got hit in the face with a loaf-sized block, it would just shatter into bits.”

After each climb, Honnold and Wright would have to dump out the fistfuls of pebbles and debris that had accumulated in their chalkbags.

On December 13, Honnold and Wright established a new route on the east pillar of Stetind (8,392 feet; 2,558 metres). Although Stetind is far from the tallest mountain in the range, their ascent, which they dubbed “Dark Tower,” represents perhaps the boldest climb of the trip.

"I experienced the scariest lead of my life," declared Honnold, who is widely known for his fearlessness. "I was like, ‘OK, this is badass.'"

The team's basecamp and home during their time in Queen Maud Land sat beneath the gigantic "fangs" that make up Wolf's Jaw massif in Antarctica's Fenris Kjeften range.
Photograph by Pablo Durana, The North Face

A Tribe of Generations

“One of the highlights of the trip was how we all became a big family,” said Honnold. “Every morning in the tent, Conrad [Anker] was like the dad, getting up early and making coffee for everyone.”

“When I was last here [in Queen Maud Land] in ’96, I was 34, in my prime,” said Anker. “Alex is 33 and in his prime, so that was kind of a cool thing for me to share my experience with the next generation. And then you have Sav [Cummins]—she’s 24, a little older than our youngest son. I’m older than her dad. Her goal is to become an adventure photographer like Jimmy [Chin]. It was touching to see Jimmy share his insights, and see that mentorship take place.”

Chin’s father passed away the day before he left on this trip to Antarctica. He seriously considered bailing before ultimately deciding to go. For him, the trip ended up being cathartic. He said, “On the summit, I cried tears of joy, tears of sadness, thankful for the moment, for my father, for Conrad’s friendship. The climb had taken us to the edge and I knew I couldn’t have done it, any of it, without everything [my father] had instilled in me.”

“When Jimmy and I reached the summit of Ulvetanna, it was -34°C up there and windy,” said Anker. “From the summit, I could look over and see Rakekniven, the peak I climbed with Alex Lowe 21 years ago. I had some of Alex’s ashes in my pocket. For Jimmy to remember his dad on top of Ulvetanna was pretty special. The whole trip was truly special.”

This story is part of National Geographic's Expedition Antarctica series, which follows a team of climbers exploring Antarctica in an effort to summit untouched peaks and forge new routes in Queen Maud Land's Wolf Jaw massif.
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