Leo Houlding snow-kiting Antarctica and the Organ Pipe Peaks

Posted by Sarah Stirling on 12/12/2017
The Gothic Mountains. Photo: Ed and Mugs Stump
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Leo Houlding is currently in Antarctica with Jean Burgun, an alpinist and cutting edge snow-kiter from the French Alps who ‘kites to ascend low technicality alpine climbs in minutes’, and Mark Sedon, a filmmaker and experienced mountain guide from New Zealand. They are three weeks into a three month trip. The plan is a 2000km traverse of the continent using traditional sledge-hauling on cross country skis, but with a modern twist - snow kites to help pull them along. The trip also has a climbing objective: the team are currently exploring the Organ Pipe Peaks in the Gothic Mountains.

The trio flew into the Gothic Mountain region in a Twin Otter plane with skis on the bottom (see below) and, aided by snow-kites where possible, spent almost three weeks skiing 350km over the Scott Glacier to the Organ Pipe Peaks, a 13km-long row of huge, aiguille-type rocks. The forecast had promised a stable period of high pressure, but their journey was beset by storms and low visibility, and it took longer than planned to reach the primary objective of the trip: the Spectre, the 2,020m central peak.

 

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The Twin Otter in the background

The Spectre was first climbed in the 80s, by two American brothers. Ed Stump, a geologist, was exploring the Gothic Mountain region for research back then, and found himself drawn to the Spectre. A self-confessed 'klutz with ropes', Ed persuaded his brother, Terrance, AKA 'Mugs', an experienced exploratory mountaineer (who has since died on Denali), to join him on the ascent. The northern aspect of the Spectre offered the easiest route, but there was no obvious route up the wide, fractured wall: the brothers' successful ascent was the culmination of Mugs' simple plan to "wander around on the face and see where it leads.” 

However, the southern aspect of the Spectre is quite different: a clean, towering pyramid of rock. Leo spotted the ‘aesthetic perfection’ of this side of the mountain in the Stumps' trip report (see image below). It had never been climbed.


South Face of the Spectre in the middle. Photo: Ed and Mugs Stump

Leo's team received a ‘mega grant’ of £50,000 from the Mount Everest Foundation for their Antarctica trip. Their kit is state-of-the-art - designed specifically for them by Berghaus to be both light, durable, and capable of facing both temps as low as -45 degrees C and winds up to 80 knots. The team were certainly better kitted up than Mugs and Ed; there are some great photos of Ed climbing the peak in a plaid shirt and braces on his blog.

However, Leo's Antarctica plan is rather more complex. After exploring the Gothic Mountains, the team plan to kite south to the Ross Ice shelf, the edge of the Antarctic continent. They will then man-haul uphill for 450km into the wind to their original drop off point. Favourable wind patterns can then hopefully be harnessed to kite 1000km to Hercules Inlet on the Ronne Ice shelf on the opposite edge of the continent (marked Union Glacier below). If conditions allow the team will attempt to go via the South Pole. 

Before the trip, Leo commented: “This is the most adventurous and hardcore expedition concept that I've ever conceived. It represents true 21st Century, new school exploration, with a mixed international team, and in the greatest playground on earth. There is a realistic possibility of success, but the odds are not short, and of course no one has done this before.”


Leo and team's route. Red = Twin Otter flight, black = skiing, blue = kiting (wind allowing)

 

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The Spectre is the highest peak in the background

Arriving at the foot of the Spectre last week (the highest summit in the photo above), the trio partially circumnavigated the peak to check out their options. “Basically, everything looked pretty hard, long and seriously committing,” commented Leo, honestly. “After much consideration, we decided the wisest course of action was to attempt to summit the Spectre by the route of least resistance” - roughly the Stumps route.

Leaving camp at 8am on 7 December, with light loads and fairly minimal kit, the three nipped over the col they had inspected previously and were at the foot of the north side of the Spectre by 10am, faced with what Leo described as, “A complex maze of snow ramps, chimneys and steep buttress steps that do not form an obvious line to the summit." You can see the route the Stumps took on Ed's blog here.


Ed and the summit of the Spectre. Photo: Mugs Stumps

A steep snow couloir offered easy access to the col that forms the left saddle of the Spectre when viewed from the south side (you can see it in some of the photos above). In his report, Ed Stumps described glissading down this snow chute after their own climb: "We figured this would be the fastest way back to the base of the mountain, so we sat back on our heels, set the points of our ice axes in the snow for braking, and slid all the way down to our snowmobile."

The temperature in the couloir last week was what Mark described as ‘panic cold’ - 20 degrees C colder than in the sun. Their fingers frozen and muscles tightening, Leo, Mark and Jean moved back into the sun as quickly as possible, waited for it rotate onto the face, and played the customary paper, scissors, stone hand game to decide who would lead the first block. Jean won.

The weather was finally good, so the team entered the maze without too much anxiety. However, the route presented more difficulty than anticipated: Leo described it as a “game of snakes of ladders” - four ladders might lead in four very different directions, three of which might lead to snakes to slide back down.

 

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The Gothic Mountains from above

The three zig-zagged up the face for hours, coming across an old piton and sling abseil station left by Mugs and Ed. As they progressed past false summit after false summit, gradually the cloud built up and the light flattened, “And with it the intimidation increased and the mood subdued,” commented Leo.

When they thought they must be nearing the summit, the team hit a 25m cliff band of loose, hard climbing. Leo commented: 
“The level of commitment of being high on a steep, complex face out here at the end of the Earth is impossible to overstate. If Antarctica snarls, it is very quickly a survival situation. It was with more anxiety than pleasure that we pushed on to the summit, ready to turn and run at the first whiff of wind.”

Reaching the summit at midnight, the gang quickly prepared for the descent. Within three hours they were back in the approach couloir, and by 4:30am they were back in camp. "Almost immediately the wind began to blow," remembers Leo, "And as we laid down to sleep after a 24-hour session it gusted over 30 knots. The gods of these Gothic Mountains had been kind to us."

Back at base camp, Leo noted:

Date = 8/12/2017
Day 18 (Expedition)
Day 24 (Antarctica)
Location = Spectre Base Camp
Coordinates - 86 03.376, 150 25.400
Altitude = 1263m
Temperature = -10C
Wind speed / direction = 0-10 knots, gusting 20+
Windchill = -15C
Distance remaining = 1736km

The team has little time left for additional exploration and climbing before they have to start their long journey home (they still have over 1,700km to travel), which makes a viable attempt on the south face of the Spectre an impossibility. Therefore, they have decided to focus attention on their secondary objective - a skyline traverse of the Organ Pipe Peaks. 

 

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The team on the summit of the Spectre

 


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