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The Cold Case: Mt. Herschel, East Face, Antarctica

The unclimbed east face of Mt. Herschel (3355m), an objective that Sir Edmund Hillary once dreamed of, more than a decade after the first ascent of Mt. Everest. For other Antarctic climbing tales and objectives, see author Damien Gildea’s Mountain Profile of the Sentinel Range in Alpinist 44 and his book Mountaineering in Antarctica.

[Photo] Colin Monteath

Mt. Herschel isn’t the highest peak in the Admiralty Mountains, but its razor-sharp lines cut the sky, rising straight above the sea. Since 1841, when the British explorer James Clark Ross first glimpsed the peak, the gigantic east face has caught the passing gaze of thousands of Southbound scientists and support personnel. Just south of Cape Adare, site of some of the earliest landings on the continent, Herschel is a sentinel for history, watching over the entrance to old Antarctica, over the legendary paths of Scott and Shackleton, and later, of Sir Edmund Hillary.

After summiting Mt. Everest with Tenzing Norgay in 1953, Hillary spent the summer of 1957-1958 driving tractors to the South Pole from New Zealand’s Scott Base, which he had officially opened the previous season. It was clear that the ranges of Antarctica contained lifetimes of adventurous ascents, and he was set upon returning. In 1966 the US government backed an American ascent of the Vinson Massif. Encouraged, Hillary wrangled permission from New Zealand and US authorities, and he put together a team of old heads and young muscle.

To him, the east face of Herschel was the most obvious good big thing. In his autobiography, Nothing Venture, Nothing Win, Hillary wrote:

On the northwest shore of the Ross Sea were a group of steep and slender summits with ice fluted faces and narrow soaring ridges…. Queen of the area was Mount Herschel…. The closer we got…the more impressed I became. We had hoped to put a party on the east face, but we could now see that this route would involve 3,000 feet of gleaming ice topped by a couple of thousand feet of vertical rock. Nowhere was there room for even one camp….

In October 1967, the Kiwis flew from McMurdo to the old US/ New Zealand base at Cape Hallett with nearly three tonnes of gear, and wrestled their snowmobiles over soft snow and tidal cracks to the snout of the Ironside Glacier. Above base camp, they skinned loads up the badly crevassed side valley while power-snow avalanches threatened to thunder down surrounding walls. Hillary, no longer with the strength of his youth, struggled through the deep spring powder under huge loads, joining the team at just over 1000 meters on a northeastern spur of the mountain. From here, they could look across to the vertiginous east face, where steep, green glass ice melded with frigid rock. They realized their change of plan–from the east face to the north ridge–had been wise.

Though the team intended to place higher camps, Mike Gill and Brian Jenkinson decided just to go for it–a 2300-meter vertical push to an untouched polar summit. With a straight wooden axe and bendy crampons, Jenkinson cut steps up the short crux ice wall; then they worked their way over a shoulder that was longer and more intricate than foreseen. Up the narrowing spine of the north ridge, the rock became icy and awkward, growing steeper and sharper, until creeping exhaustion forced them to abandon more and more gear along the way, eventually even their down jackets and ice axes–leaving just two humans, climbing.

Thirteen and a half hours after setting out from Camp I, they stepped onto the summit. It was too cold to linger. Five and a half hours later, they were back in camp. Pete Strang and Mike White went to the top the next day, avoiding the upper ridge by traversing into a vast glacial cirque on the west side, which hardly proved any easier. Strang still recalls the dry and brittle ice shattering under their old ice pitons. They belayed off axes rammed into the surface as best they could.

Hillary never tried to summit: he knew that the climb was beyond him at this point in his life. As it turned out, this would be the last big climbing venture, the swan song, of one of the most famous mountaineers in history.

Today, with modern technology, no geography is truly unknown-even in uninhabited lands. Only on a smaller scale, such as that of a climber on an unclimbed face, can we still experience the physically unexplored. The sweeping lines and aesthetic geometry of the east face of Herschel remain an obvious objective, not contrived or conditioned with semantics. Sure, there are steeper walls, higher unclimbed mountains, more remote ranges. There are plenty of harder routes in Antarctica–blank walls in Queen Maud Land or huge faces in the Sentinel Range–but the reality is that most people won’t go there, because those who have the money often don’t have the ability and vice versa. The high peaks of Alexander Island are more mysterious, but even more unlikely to be visited, so hard to get to, for climbing of such unknown worth.

Accessible but not convenient, daunting but not impossible, Herschel’s east face is a compromise in a land of absolutes–absolute south, absolute cold, absolute remoteness–but as Hillary himself found out, there hasn’t been an expedition go South that hasn’t compromised on something, at some time. Antarctica takes so much time, effort and expense that it forces us to examine why we want to do what we do there. What is the value of unclimbed? What is best? Obscurity and price are no guarantees of quality. Unclimbed status is temporary: your very success will kill it. With a goal so ephemeral, the value is not in the object, but in the whole experience.

You can no longer take a plane to Herschel, and you shouldn’t want to. Quick flights cut us off from the journey. Sailing keeps us connected: we come into the country at its own level, across the water at the pace of the place, slowly meeting the mountain, not just suddenly dropping in, a few hours out of a heated room. Attempting the east face of Herschel will be a true adventure in an age when that term has been whittled down, packaged up safe and sold into redundancy. There’s only a narrow January-February window for navigating the dangerous ice in the Ross Sea and Moubray Bay. Then you must discover a way ashore, hoping to blast the lower snow slopes before confronting the steepening ice and rock in the upper half. Unsure if you can camp in -40 degreesC temperatures on such a face, but wanting to be strong for the crux near the top, instead of escaping out the obvious ramp to the left, you’ll try to keep the line straight to the end, to the apex of a soaring mountain face perched on the edge of the world, rising more than 3000 meters from penguin to peak.

Afterward, you might have time enough for something else, the unclimbed Mt. Sabine (3719m) across the way or the myriad 2000-meter faces on surrounding peaks. But don’t forget the “Antarctica Effect”: everything is bigger, farther and often harder than it looks. Maps and numbers only tell part of the story–not the feeling of your crampons skating off glass as your arms stiffen with cold and you remember that the nearest ER is more than 2,000 miles away.