Major new route in Antarctica by Houlding and team

Posted by Lindsay Griffin on 28/01/2013
The Ulvetanna Massif. The north face of Ulvetanna (in sunlight) is separated from the giant east face (in shadow on the left) by the northeast ridge. Stein-Ivar Gravdal/AAJ collection

In late January, after a year spent organising the project, Leo Houlding, Sean Leary (USA), Alastair Lee, Jason Pickles and Chris Rabone stood on the summit of Ulvetanna, having made the first ascent of the huge northeast ridge.

Ulvetanna (2,931m) lies in the Orvin Fjella of Queen Maud Land, in the  Norwegian sector of Antarctica.

The area became known to mountaineers after a productive 1994 Norwegian expedition led by Ivar Tollefsen, which achieved many first ascents, the most notable being Ulvetanna (Wolf's Fang) by the northwest face (990m: 7a+, A2 and 70°).

Since then the area has attracted some strong climbers, including more Norwegians, the French GMHM, the Huber brothers and Stephan Siegrist, all of whom put up new routes.

Houlding's dream was to make the first ascent of the long northeast ridge and then BASE jump from the summit, over the giant and seriously steep 1,200m unclimbed east face, possibly the biggest of its type in Antarctica.

The ridge is characterized by a long narrow but gently-angled crest in its middle section, leading to a very steep headwall.

The team, with award-winning cameraman Lee, had film commitments and given the length and complexity of the ridge planned a largely fixed rope ascent.

After being flown onto the glacier, they first established an advanced base immediately below the start of the ridge, hauling almost 1,500kg of supplies and equipment to this point.

The initial rock buttress gave hard climbing in course granite cracks and off-widths, though the climbers often had to negotiate loose and hollow flakes,  crumbly rock and ice filled cracks.

After around 17 pitches and fixing 1,100m of rope the team reached a col at the start of the narrow arête, a sort of "Dinosaur's back". Any wind would make the next section precarious and the ridge turned out to be the "World's scariest VS".

Eventually ropes were fixed along the ridge and portaledges established on a good ledge, dubbed the "Plateau of Great Expectations", below the final 400m headwall.

Throughout the climb there were many gruelling 20-hour days, leaving the climbers too exhausted to leave camp on the following day.

On their final push from base camp the five, filmed by South African David Reeves, who remained on the glacier, regained their high point and got stuck into the headwall.

An initial compact slab required two hand-drilled bolts but above a spectacular series of cracks and corners led upwards for 200m.

The team was then hit by a fierce three-day storm, but continued to push out the route. The summit day provided the worse conditions of the entire expedition but the five reached the top of Ulvetanna - in temperature of -35°C.

Although they noted a perfect launch site for a wingsuit BASE jump over the east face, they were simply thankful to summit and escape the mountain.

The route gave 1,750m of climbing at E6 6b and A2/C2.

This was the fourth overall ascent of Ulvetanna, the northwest face being climbed by Robert Caspersen, Sgur Nesheim and Igor Erik Tollefsen in 1994, the 960m north face by Caspersen, Stein-Ivar Gravdal, Trond Hilde and Tollefsen in 2006 - the biggest wall yet completed on the continent (21 pitches, A4 and 5.9/5.10), and the northwest buttress by the Huber brothers, Siegrist and Max Reichel in 2008 (Sound of Silence, 800m, 20 pitches, 5.11- and A2).

Also in 2008 the GMHM retreated from around five pitches below the summit on the southwest ridge, which remains unclimbed.



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