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Antarctic Spire Summited in ‘Big-Wall Sufferfest’

The Northeast Ridge (5.12 A2, 1750m) on Ulvetanna (2930m), Fenriskjeften range, Antarctica. The 35-pitch route was established by Leo Houlding, Sean “Stanley” Leary, Jason Pickles, Chris Rabone and filmmaker Alastair Lee last month. [Photo] Alastair Lee

Leo Houlding, Sean “Stanley” Leary, Jason Pickles, Chris Rabone and filmmaker Alastair Lee completed a new route up the northeast ridge of Ulvetanna (2931m), just shy of 72 degrees south in Queen Maud’s Land, Antarctica. The stunning spire rises 1300m from the ice and is the highest summit in the Fenriskjeften range, the name meaning “Fenrir’s jaw,” after the monstrous wolf of Norse mythology. Landing on the icecap on December 22, the team celebrated the holidays in a rather lavish base camp before spending 10 days on the wall, climbing through 5.12 A2 terrain in expedition style.

Ulvetanna (2930m), Fenriskjeften range, Antarctica. [Photo] Alastair Lee

“You must be careful what you wish for but honestly I genuinely hope that, save for frostbitten extremities or serious accidents, we are pushed further and harder than ever before, get our arses kicked and spirits near broken, and come back in one piece, friendships intact with a kick-arse movie, some more truly epic tales and hopefully another elusive summit under our belts!” wrote Houlding on the team’s blog the day they departed from South Africa.

Sitting in camp the day before departing, “Leo was of course the only actual person getting things ready for the trip, dashing back and forth, sorting kit out and almost lost in his own thoughts with the occasional shout out, ‘everyone packed their spork, yeah?'” wrote David Reeves, the team’s ground-based cameraman. Jason Pickles, meanwhile, sat chanting a litany: “Big-Wall Sufferfest, BIG-WALL SUFFERFEST.”

Ulvetanna rises only 1300m from the ice, but the northeast ridge is 1750m long, a topographical truth that did not mesh well with the siege tactics employed by the climbers. Hundred-kilogram haulbags required two men jumping to move upward, and often got stuck on low-angle terrain that makes up the lower mountain.

Leo Houlding free climbing in -25 degrees Celsius. Houlding alternated climbing bare-handed with thawing his digits in the hand warmer-filled gloves dangling from his wrists. [Photo] Alastair Lee

Though the route has a simple moniker, the Northeast Ridge, the team give more colorful descriptors to the features on the climb. Their topo shows the “Mind Blowing Ridge” above the “Col of False Hopes.” Above their highest ledge camp, they climbed 200m up the headwall to the “Roof Slot of Despair.”

The Northeast Ridge (5.12 A2, 1750m) marks the fourth route up Ulvetanna. The peak was first climbed by Norwegian Ivar Tollefsen and Robert Caspersen in 1994 via the West Face, and is widely considered the most beautiful peak in Antarctica. The peak’s name, which translates to “wolf tooth,” was given by the original Norwegian Polar Institute expedition that explored the area in 1959-1960. Caspersen and Tollefsen returned in 2006 with Trond Hilde and Stein-Ivar Gravdal to put up another route on the north face. The Norwegian Route (5.10 A4, 960m) took 14 days of climbing in capsule style.

Sean Leary leads a “superb” crack pitch high on the headwall of the Northeast Ridge route. The team encountered difficulties up to 5.12 free and A2 aid. [Photo] Alastair Lee

The only other route on the mountain, Eiszeit (5.10d A4, 24 pitches) on the northwest ridge, was climbed in 2009 by Alex and Thomas Huber, along with photographer Stefan Siegrist. In 2010, Russian Valery Rozov became the first and, to date, only person to BASE jump from the summit, which he did after making the fourth ascent of the peak with Alexander Ruchkin and photographer Thomas Senf via the Huber brothers’ line.

The Ledge Camp over half way up the north east ridge of Ulvetanna. [Photo] Alastair Lee

The 2013 team reached the summit of Ulvetanna on January 24 after 10 days, staying only briefly to snap some photos. Throughout the climb, weather conditions were extreme. The climbers felt temperatures as low as -31 degrees Fahrenheit with windchill, and endured a three-day snowstorm on the wall. Houlding and Leary initially intended to BASE jump off the summit in wingsuits, but ultimately felt the wind conditions were too dangerous and elected to descend the old-fashioned way. It took them two days to get back to a welcoming camp.

“Our outpost on this glacier that a month ago felt like the edge of the world, now feels like home,” wrote Lee on their blog.


The team summited in the coldest conditions of the whole trip, -35 degrees Celsius. Houlding and Leary originally planned to wingsuit from the top, but rappelled with the rest of the team because of the weather. [Photo] Alastair Lee