The Captain’s Log Round Up #4 – Spectre Expedition

When possible, Leo has been in contact with updates, stories and thoughts of how the Spectre Expedition is unfolding.

This third weekly update sees the team go from Spectre Basecamp, to the summit and then begins the LONG haul home.

A more detailed account and a real-time map of the team can be found at spectreexpedition.com

Spectre Summit

Date = 8/12/2017
Day 18 (Expedition) Day 24 (Antarctica)
Location = Spectre Base Camp
Temperature = -10C
Wind speed / direction = 0 – 10knots gusting 20+ Windchill = -15C
Distance travelled = 0 Distance remaining = 1736km

…Gradually the cloud built and the light flattened, with it the intimidation increased and the mood subdued.

Never did we discuss retreat, but I know we were all thinking “if the wind picks up, this is a survival situation and we’re out of here”

With the constant dead-ends and slow progress, we were being drawn into a very committing game of grown-up snakes and ladders. All the while with the cloud thickening, and not knowing whether it was the front of a storm or just a band of moist air in the atmosphere?

It took hours and hours to progress towards false summit, before false summit. When we thought we must be nearing the summit we hit a 25m cliff band that we had traversed two full rope lengths of snow ramps to reach.
Proper climbing, but short enough that I was sure I could get up it quickly.
But it was wide, loose, and hard. By the time we got to the top of the rock band, which was still some hours from the summit, we were all starting to feel pretty strung out.

The level of commitment of being high on a steep, complex face out here at the end of the Earth is impossible to overstate. Away from the sanctuary of our camp, we are so very isolated, and so very exposed. 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.

Antarctica smiled upon us, and eventually we could go no higher – the summit…

A full Spectre Summit briefing can be found on our blog here.

Difficult decisions, where to draw the line?

Date = 10/12/2017
Day 20 (Expedition) – Day 26 (Antarctica)
Location = Spectre Base Camp
Temperature = -20 to -7C
Wind speed / direction = 0 gusting 40+ knot !!! Windchill = variable
Distance travelled = 0
Distance remaining = 1736km

In the last 48 hours we have experienced drastically changeable weather from 40+ knot gusts in the night that we feared may damage the tents, to dead calm with clear skies, but biting cold below -20C, to cloud cover and -7C; reasonable climbing conditions.

We have spent most of the day carefully studying the wall with binoculars and assessing our options. To stand a chance of completing our return journey on time we need to leave base camp around the 14th December. Realistically that means we have one shot at another big climb.

There is a stunning line up the South spur of The Spectre that I have had my eye on for a long time. It looks almost within reach, given a few days of solid weather. But it’s a much more of a big wall than an alpine rock climb.

At least 500m of steep, clean granite with the upper section looking particularly complex and hard.

To attempt it within the margins of safety, taking into account our extremely remote position, our long journey ahead and the instability/harshness of the weather, we feel would require a much heavier, big wall style approach using a port-a-ledge and 5-7 days. We have decided that to attempt it in the fast light style we intended, is a level of commitment too far.

It is with pang of regret that we turn our attention away from the South spur of our desires. But Jean and I can take pride in our decision that whatever we do out here, our priority is to come home safely. We must not push too far. The slightest change in the breeze can mean life or death if you are not equipped for the situation.

Therefore we have decided to focus our attention on a secondary objective. A skyline traverse of the Organ Pipe Peaks from left to right. A proud line and a major undertaking but with the option to escape off the back at each col, it is a far less committing prospect than the South Spur.

We have travelled so long, and worked so hard, to get here. I have schemed, trained, planned and grafted with so much energy to get us to this magnificent mountain. But we must accept we are at mercy of the weather.

Already this far out, and with such large-scale objectives, we need some stability to make a safe attempt at anything…

[Leo Houlding]

A Chance

Date = 12/12/2017
Day 22 Expedition, Day 28 Antarctica
Location = Spectre Base Camp
Temperature = -20 to -7C
Wind speed / direction = 0 gusting 40+ knot !!! Windchill = ???
Distance travelled = 0
Distance remaining = 1736km

Yesterday we woke to sun and no wind; exactly what we hoped for. This time we packed huge amounts of clothes and gloves in preparation for the worst.

We walked up to the col leading to North side together, before leaving Mark to explore alone. Jean and I set off up Tower A from the North aspect via the easiest looking line, with an attempt at the Spectre traverse in mind.

Once again immediately it became apparent, as the pilot said; nothing is easy out here! Here in the Gothic’s, everything’s bigger, further and much, much steeper than it appears.

The snow slope we thought we would walk up for 200m to start, quickly turned to blue ice. The tricky looking short, wide crack leading to the easier looking alpine terrain was in fact a horrific 15m off-width/squeeze chimney with blue ice in the back leading to serious and steep mixed climbing.

I set off up the wide crack with a cam 6, a big bro and an ice screw to keep my harness clean to avoid getting stuck. I was thankful of the ice, as whilst squirming and wrestling with the horrible width feature, I was able to wedge myself and reach back to place an ice screw on to which I was happy to hang and then stand.

I made it through the awkward squeeze and into steep snow, finding a belay at the very limit of the rope.

Jean, a much more accomplished alpine climber than me, took over leading steep, narrow snow slopes interspersed with vertical steps of snow, ice and rock that were difficult to protect. Using ski touring ice axes and crampons to the maximum of their ability, until finally he dug through the summit cornice and emerged onto the summit.

The granite is so compact and devoid of cracks, other than very large features, it was a struggle to find anchors from which to rappel off the top. But the weather held firm and glorious. It was even possible to climb for short periods without gloves, and warm at the belays, albeit wearing lots of clothes.

It was far less stressful and more enjoyable than our ascent of the Spectre although the climbing was technically much more difficult and sustained.

After four long, committing rappels down a shockingly steep face, we reached the foot of tower A. The approach to tower B looked far more involved than expected. We checked the time- 10.30pm. We had already been climbing for almost 12 hours.

The complete traverse would certainly become a 30+ hour ordeal. Just getting to the start of the climbing on Tower B would take at least two hours up steep blue with just four ice screws. Taking into account that everything thus far has been far harder, longer, steeper and slower than anticipated, although the weather was as good as we have experienced so far, with our long journey out commencing in just a couple days, the only wise choice was turn back to camp and in the direction of home.

So it seems the summit of Organ Pipe A is the turning point of our expedition. We begin our long journey back towards home. It’s a warm thought; I miss my family terribly and am glad to be heading in their direction. We came, we climbed and now we must refocus for the long march out.

P.S 30 knot gusts late in the night after we got down. Would have been awful high on the Spectre traverse…

[Leo]

The Long Walk Home

Date = 13/12/2017
Day 23 (Expedition) Day 29 (Antarctica)
Location = Scott Glacier
Coordinates – 86 03.376, 150 25.400
Altitude = 1263m
Temperature = -20 to -7C
Wind speed / direction = 0
Distance travelled = 12km
Distance remaining = 1424km

Homewards

Today is nicest weather we have experienced during the whole trip. The wind howled all night and we were worried we were in for an awful first day of man-hauling. It took a couple of hours to dig out camp and to say thank you and goodbye to The Spectre by which time the weather had become delicious.

A real treat to ease us into this next difficult task. We descended from base camp to our ski stash on the Scott Glacier. We discussed kiting to start, but decided we should get our march on. Jean led the way through complex terrain, heavily crevassed, lots of snow bridges some very wide, interspersed with blue ice and pressure ridges. It’s tough going with more than 100kgs each, but we are pleased that, with effort, it seems the next stage of our trip is possible.

Man-hauling. Walk for 50mins, break for 10mins and repeat for 8 – 10 hours aiming for 15-20km per day. The worst case scenario is that we must do this for 300kms all the way back to depot A. The 1100km kite leg to finish is currently firmly out of mind.

We a hoping to be able to upwind kite at least some of the way to depot A, when the terrain improves. For now the top of the Robison Glacier is our next target 60km up this remote labyrinth. In these conditions it will be a pleasant hike. No doubt as we return up to the plateau and gain 1500m of altitude, we will be back into the deep freeze. Once again it is our old frienoted that, which will be walking into, all the way, that will decide how much we freeze, how hard we have to try, and how long it will take.

It should be noted that we have decided, due to the extended tribulation of our approach, and difficult terrain, that our intention to travel from one ice shelf to the other is no longer a priority. We have no wish to continue another 75km down the hazardous Scott Glacier to the Ross ice-shelf only to immediately return extending the beginning of our very long journey home.

As we then forsake a “trans-continental” traverse there is no need to go via the Ronne ice shelf to our ultimate destination Union Glacier, thus saving us in total around 300km and reducing our total target distance from 2000km to 1700km and saving about week.

We had considered this before we set off and have an alternative exit route planned that takes us directly to Union Glacier through The Ellsworth Mountains. It actually looks like a much more interesting route. But that is over 1400kms and a month away. Let us focus for now on our more immediate challenges and ensure we don’t revisit the same crevasse my pulk found on the way down here!

We are happy with today’s progress and pray for this joyous weather to continue. Spirits are high and we are all happy to have turned in the direction of home. Far as it is now, in a month and a half we will be there one way or another and no doubt the days ahead will have stories to tell!

[Leo]

Man-Haulings Not Easy Either…

Date = 14/12/2017
Day 24 (Expedition), Day 30 (Antarctica)
Location = Scott Glacier, Promised Land
Temperature = -15C
Wind speed / direction = 20-25 knot, South, sunny Windchill = -27C
Distance travelled = 12km
istance remaining = 1412km

Working for it.

A 25 knot head wind greeted us at 6am this morning but the temperature a balmy -15C giving us the chance test our cold and wind management systems in a less critical scenario.

We just put in a solid 8 hour effort through pretty awful terrain; crevasses, pressure ridges, uphill, steep steps into wind. Although sunny, it was fairly brutal. Skiing roped together with the huge pulks in such terrain is, trying, to say the least!

We are a bit disappointed to learn from the GPS that we have only covered 12km in straight line from our last camp. But we must’ve done at least 18km with all the weaving around. Good news is the terrain ahead looks better, at least for a while.

Families back home are starting to gear up for Christmas. It makes me well up thinking about mine in the wintery Lake District. Best not to think about it too much – It’s sad to be away from little kids at Christmas, but it is awesome to be here in this incredible mountain range so few have visited.

There is a limited window in the year and limited opportunity in life to make things like this happen. We are here, and this is happening. We must focus on making this the trip of lifetime, come home safely and as successful as we can. There are lots of things in our favour; plenty of food and fuel, we’re having a laugh despite hardships and exhaustion, It’s warm in the tent. In fact it is like a summer holiday when compared to our arrival on the plateau!

Think of some of the other expeditions out here, man or woman-hauling for 60+ days. We only have to do this for a week or two. Then we’re sailing 60+ with the kites. At least that is the plan; all of which has so far been very far from reality.

One thing is for certain, these 100kg pulks are not going to move themselves and we will never get home if we don’t keep putting one foot in front of the other!

Keep up to date at spectreexpedition.com for more details and a real-time map.