Antarctica 2017: Summiting Spectre and the Long Walk Home

Leo Houlding and team summit the mighty Spectre, Ben Saunders faces “post-apocalyptic ice planet Armageddon” and the Ice Maidens soldier on.

It’s been another full-on week for the 3 expeditions, with the Ice Maidens crossing their final degree on the way to the South Pole, Leo Houlding and the Spectre team summiting the “most remote mountain on earth” and Ben Saunders taking a hard fall and continuing his, now long running, battle with the sastrugi.

You can catch up with all of last weeks action here.

The Spectre Expedition

The Spectre team were holed up at the foot of the Spectre last week, prepping to climb and scouting potential ascent and descent lines. Since then they have been more than a little busy!

Their first report back on climbing lines looked fairly bleak, with Leo admitting that “everything looks pretty hard, long and seriously committing”. After much debate they elected to initially try the route originally climbed by Mugs and Edmund on the North side of the Spectre. The team started their climb on day 18 of their expedition, December 8th.

There were no obvious climbing lines, but the usually treacherous Antarctic weather was at least on their side, and they climbed in almost balmy conditions at times. Route finding proved even more difficult than anticipated, making for slow progress. They “zigged and zagged” their way across the face without gaining much altitude and kept a constant eye on the weather.

The cloud thickened and the team were worried that it could become a life and death struggle if the weather fully turned, meanwhile they made only very gradual progress through false summit after false summit. But eventually “Antarctica smiled” upon them and they reached the summit of the Spectre. Summiting close to midnight, celebrations were subdued, with the team a little anxious to start the descent back to the safety of base camp.

On the descent the weather held firm and the team arrived back at approximately 4.20am, finally allowing them to properly celebrate their achievement and get some well earned rest.

Not ones to rest on their laurels the Spectre team were soon plotting another climb, with time constraints allowing only one more major route before they would need to head off on their long return journey.

Leo had been hoping to forge a line on the South spur of the Spectre, but they eventually elected against an attempt here in the alpine style due to the safety risks involved. Instead they opted to aim for a “skyline traverse” of the Organ Peaks.

They were fortunate enough to hit another good weather window and Leo and Jean set off to try the traverse. As with everything during their expedition they found it to be far from easy, “here in the Gothics everything’s bigger, further and much, much steeper than it appears” Leo explains on their blog. However they managed to summit the first Organ Peak and make it to the base of the second before they were forced to make a tough decision. Taking in to account the nearly 12 hours they had already been climbing, they estimated that the entire traverse would be well beyond a 30 hour mission. They decided that “the only wise choice was to turn back to camp”.

By day 23 of the expedition the team said their final goodbyes to the Spectre and set off on the next phase of their journey, the nearly 2,000km trip back to Union Glacier camp. Descending back to their last depot and kites, they decided to begin their journey by man-hauling, but with the hope of upwind kiting at least some of the distance back to their next depot drop some 300km away.

The team reports that “spirits are high” and the three of them are happy to have turned in the direction of home.

Ben Saunders’ Solo Crossing

Ben’s magic number sat at 675 miles to go when we left him last week, and since then he has continued to eat in to this total, even slowly increasing his daily average towards 14 miles.

Ben’s battle with sastrugi has continued unabated, with some ridges dwarfing him and forcing him to take longer winding routes over the terrain. The terrain has been so challenging in fact that Ben explains that “nothing he had imagined about the route” had adequately prepared him for the reality of it.

On day 33 he had his first “proper” fall of the expedition, breaking a ski in the process. Fortunately he was carrying another identical pair, avoiding potential disaster in the process. On day 35 another milestone came and went as he made it to 2,000m above sea level.

His latest update was on day 38 of the expedition, and his distance remaining was down to 577 miles. Fingers crossed that he might escape the sastrugi soon!

The Ice Maidens

The Ice Maiden team had just broken the halfway mark on their mission to the South pole last week. Since then they have hit more of Ben’s least favourite obstacle, the sastrugi. Despite this they have maintained good pace, racking up nearly 30km per day.

Some of the team have been bitten by something known as “polar thigh”, as areas of their skin become overexposed to the cold and the wind. This creates “irritated, and large, angry pink lumps” on your skin, which can blister if not treated. The team are working hard to limit their exposure and push on.

As of their most recent update the group have crossed the final degree line to the South pole, as well as achieving their first 30km day.

Previous / Links:

Antarctica 2017: Crevasse Scares and Sastrugi Battles

Antarctica 2017: Weekly Roundup 12/01

Leo Houlding’s Spectre: “The Most Remote Mountain on Earth”

Solo Trans-Antarctic Kicks Off

All-Female Ice Maiden Team to Cross Antarctica