What It's Like to Climb the Mountains of Antarctica

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There are two ways to reach the top of Mount Markham: by helicopter, or one step after another until you reach the top

In Antarctica, first ascents of mountains generally fall into two categories: the easy way, set out on the summit by a helicopter, and the old-fashioned way, one step after another till you reach the top. During my 13 seasons of NSF-funded geological research in the Transantarctic Mountains, I've done plenty of both. It comes with the territory.  However, my most gratifying first ascent, that of Mount Markham, falls somewhere in between. Mount Markham is a 14,275 foot peak in the central Transantarctic Mountains, discovered in December, 1902, by the Southern Party of the British National Antarctic Expedition, Robert Falcon Scott, Ernest Shackleton, and Edward Wilson.

During the 1985-1986 season, I was working out of a large, helicopter-supported field camp at the head of Lennox-King Glacier. Mount Markham is a huge buttress with intricate ridge systems rising up its north, east, and west sides. To reach the summit from any of these ridges remains a challenge for extreme mountaineers. The south approach, on the other had looked easy to me, at least by comparison. The summit morphology of the Mount Markham massif is that of a three-sided escarpment or buttress surrounding a flat area about a half-mile wide. The Markham Plateau, as it is called, sits at about twelve thousand feet and descends gently to the south over a distance of thirteen miles to a saddle at about nine thousand feet, one thousand feet lower than the normal, allowable ceiling for flying helicopters in the field.

The others in the party were Russell Korsch, a geologist from Australia, and David Edgerton, my graduate student. Our plan was to be put in by helicopter in the saddle along with our snowmobile and sled, and then to drive to the top. The day of the put-in was still and clear. Once the helicopter had departed, we quickly packed the sled and started up the long ramp. Russell and David rode on the loaded Nansen sled, and I drove. With the combination of the weight, the incline, and fairly soft snow (in which we left a two-inch deep track), the snowmobile crept for most of the distance at full throttle.

Because air thins with increased elevation, we had to rejet the carburetor every thousand feet to maintain the proper air-to-gas mixture. The jet was a thin metal tube about three quarters of an inch long that screwed into the throat of the carburetor. I loosened and tightened it with a special little wrench about two inches long, and when I took it out or set it in place, I needed a bare finger and thumb to hold it, gloves being too bulky to fit into the throat of the carburetor. The whole procedure took about eight minutes, and generally I had to put my bare hand back into a mitten once or twice to regain feeling.

Although the day had started out calmly, after several hours a headwind sprang up, flowing directly down on us out of the north. To make matters worse, a ceiling of cloud began to form as the wind quickened, settling in at about eleven thousand feet. I stopped about one hundred feet below the cloud to do the last rejet. Although we could still see rock outcrops that bounded the ramp we were climbing, all surface definition on the snow at our feet was gone. I worried that if the cloud was too thick, I would have no visual means of staying in the middle of the ramp.

As I started the rejetting, an eerie incident occurred. Out of nowhere, a skua appeared, circled us several times, landed on the snow about fifty feet up slope, and sat there calmly watching me. The powerful bird, more than 500 from open water and its source of food, squatted inscrutably beneath the gathering gloom. Then, having rested, it spread its tawny wings, rose slowly into the wind, drifted east beyond the rocky edge, and dropped from sight.

If ever there was an omen, this surely had to be. But was it bad or was it good? I took it to be good, and fired up the snowmobile for the final leg, about a mile to the summit flat. When we hit the bottom of the cloud, all visibility and surface definition went to zero. I steered by keeping the wind directly on the nose of the snowmobile, and figured that when the slope went flat, we would be on top. To make matters worse the wind speed steadily increased as we continued to climb. Then a blessing, the snow surface began to break up into patches of blue ice, and I again had a surface that I could see, albeit for only about thirty feet ahead.

When the surface finally flattened, the patches were less snow than blue ice, and the wind was an unwavering stream at probably thirty to forty knots. I chose a patch of snow to plant the tent. Russell and David were stiff from the cold; I was sweating from gripping the handlebars of the snowmobile behind its windscreen. The next ten minutes were a frantic blur, setting up the Scott tent "by the book" in a strong wind. With shelter secure, we dove into the tent, started the stove, and melted some snow for a brew. Dinner followed. Although the wind was still howling as we crawled into our sleeping bags, the only real concern as we fell asleep was, when would it end?

The answer came as we awoke to a brilliant sun and not a breath of wind. Our marching orders being "Geology First," we carefully worked down the ridgeline that drops from the northwest corner of the buttress and spent the day mapping on the exposed cliffs. After coming back to the base camp, we drove over to the summit rise, parked the snowmobile, and climbed a thousand feet or so up a slope of snow and sandstone ledges. The summit of Mount Markham is a broad, flat slab of sandstone maybe one hundred feet across. With only the slightest bit of breeze, we walked to the northern edge of the slab and gazed out at the most spectacular panorama I have ever beheld. A grand and graceful system of ridgelines rose twenty-five miles out and steadily climbed through highs and lows, converging on our lofty spot. Nimrod Glacier cut the scene in half, with mountains on the other side extending back another fifty miles or more. Both the Ross Ice Shelf and the Polar Plateau were in view.

Can it ever be any better than this?



Adapted from Edmund Stump's The Roof at the Bottom of the World: Discovering the Transantarctic Mountains (Yale University Press).

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Edmund Stump is a Professor in the School of Earth and Space Exploration at Arizona State University. He has spent 13 field seasons conducting geological research in Antarctica.

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