Union Glacier: Scaling Antarctica’s Vertical Limits
An all-female team sets out in search of new routes and peaks in one of the most inhospitable places on earth.
Words by Christine Amour-Levar | Images courtesy of HER Planet Earth, Christopher Michel & Yoshiko Miyazaki-Back of Antarctic Logistics & Expeditions
Goaded by a mighty tailwind, the massive Ilyushin IL-76 TD aircraft hurtles southwards at a velocity of 495 mph (800 km/h). The Drake Passage below sparkles to a far horizon as we make our way westward from Punta Arenas in Chile to the Antarctic Peninsula, and finally to Union Glacier, a private base operated by Antarctic Logistics & Expeditions (ALE), located in the Heritage Range, below the Ellsworth Mountains.
Scaling Antarctica’s Vertical Limits
After about four and a half hours in the air, we prepare to land on the Blue Ice Runway, a rare and naturally occurring ice strip as hard as concrete that is solid enough to support the weight of this monstrous Soviet military aircraft. This kind of ice is so dense – so devoid of air bubbles – that it absorbs long-wavelength light, which is why it appears mesmerisingly blue. It’s minus 15 °C as we get off the plane and take our first steps on Antarctica.
The vast ocean of white unfolding before my eyes is simply magnificent. I look up to see the sun ablaze in the blue polar sky, while the fierce wind makes me literally moonwalk on the frozen runway as I try to move from the plane to the four-wheel drive waiting to take us to the main camp.
“January is the heart of summer in Antarctica,” as told to us by one of the ALE staff, “It’s the best time to visit, because the weather is the least hostile.” Indeed, man has never permanently inhabited this remote landmass. Accessible only during its warmest months, from November to March, it has no metropolis or village to speak of, no habitat except perhaps the odd expedition shed or research station. It’s all just massive, desolate, glacial emptiness and bone-chilling temperatures that can range anywhere from minus 10°C to minus 80°C during the colder months.
Our all-female team arrives at Union Glacier Camp and, after a quick tour of the facilities, we get assigned to the dual occupancy “clam” tents. Most of us are based in equatorial Singapore, and it has taken us close to 48 hours to get here. No wonder settling in feels good, and the tents are surprisingly comfortable to live in. They are double-walled and designed to withstand polar conditions with a high-tech nylon covering and durable aluminium frame. The large “doors” and a tall interior allow us to stand upright and move around easily as we sort out our gear.
Exploring uncharted territory
We spend the first few days at Union Glacier brushing up on our climbing skills and getting acclimatised to the Antarctic conditions. The team practices rope work, crevasse rescue, navigation, weather observations, and polar camping skills. During this period, we also discuss and plan our objectives with our guides, two incredibly qualified female climbers who have extensive mountaineering experience in polar conditions.
We are in very good hands. The team has no doubt that the next few days, as we go further inland to explore uncharted territory, will be nothing short of extraordinary. In addition to our thirst for adventure, we have a very clear goal in mind. Our group of six is on a quest for new routes and peaks in the surrounding mountain ranges. Ultimately, we want to use this pioneering challenge to raise awareness for a cause very close to our hearts – the plight of underprivileged women affected by climate change.
Antarctica: A powerful symbol of struggle and survival
We chose Antarctica because it is a powerful symbol of this struggle since it is also fighting for its own survival. In fact, Antarctica, the world’s largest desert, which is 98 per cent covered in ice, is melting at an alarming rate. The continent is losing large chunks of ice the size of cities from its coastline as a result of global warming, and when these icebergs melt and increase sea levels, this could have catastrophic consequences for our planet.
After a few days in Union Glacier, we get ready to explore. The team will have to drive about half a day away on a massive snow tucker. The whole Heritage mountain range is spread over multiple glaciers with many hidden crevasses. So, before we head out, ALE uses a thermal scanner over the area to check that it is safe enough to traverse. “Only once did a vehicle fall in a crevasse not far from Union Glacier camp,” we are told. “No one died, the driver managed to be pulled out unharmed.” Serves us right for asking.
Despite our reservations, our team sets out in high spirits with a generous supply of food, our camping gear, and climbing equipment because, depending on how the weather behaves, we may be out there for several days. The climate in Antarctica is extremely volatile and conditions can often change dramatically and very suddenly. So we hope for the best but plan for the worst.
As soon as we reach the Larsen Valley, an area that is still largely unexplored, we set up our shelter for the night. This time, the tents are very basic unlike the clam tents at Union Glacier, which now feel like the Shangri-La Hotel in comparison. We shovel snow over the flaps all around the base of the tents to ensure the glacial wind does not get through as we prepare for our first night out alone in the wild. In all this landscape, in all this space, we are the only living things. Like tiny dots in the middle of nowhere, our location is the very essence of remote.
Over the next few days the team sets out on multiple exploratory climbing trips that vary from hard technical ascents to magnificent ridge traverses with views over the Ronne Ice Shelf and Polar Plateau. We attempt steep ice and snow couloirs, classic ridge traverses, icy crests, rock pyramids, hidden valleys, and finally unclimbed peaks!
We are blessed with good weather for the most part and therefore our determined group is able to establish several new routes, claim the first female ascent of one peak and the two first ascents of unclimbed mountains. As a result, we have the right to name these two new peaks. The first, a beautiful mountain with incredible ridges is christened “Mount Gaia” in celebration of our NGO’s name “HER Planet Earth.” Gaia is ancient Greek for the Goddess Earth. The second mountain is named Mount Malala in honour of the Nobel Peace prize winner, Malala Yousafzai, who embodies courage and women empowerment in the face of injustice and violence.
The Ultimate Challenge
After several days camping and climbing under the 24-hour Antarctic sun, we lose all sense of time and space in this immense white expanse. The days are endless and the light is like no other light on Earth, because the air is so free of impurities. During our climb, we confront both the physical challenges of the adventure and our own human vulnerabilities. The scale of the emptiness is at times almost too much to absorb and the sense of isolation is overwhelming.
Our days of climbing are long and draining and we are constantly alert for hidden crevasses on the route. On two occasions, one of us falls partly into a crevasse, but we are roped together at all times in groups of three, 15 m apart, so no one is lost to the depth of the ice. We encounter unpredictable weather at times, with low clouds and icy winds causing the temperature to drop to minus 25°C and forcing us to turn around on several occasions. Even when the summit ridge appears so close we think we could almost touch it, we know that distances seem shorter than they really are in such conditions. And if the weather continues to degrade as we climb higher, it could endanger the whole team, so we do the right thing, we descend back to camp.
On the days the weather holds, and we are able to summit, the sense of achievement and pride is truly indescribable. The team is ecstatic and feels that the spirits of legendary female explorers are cheering us on pushing us forward to new frontiers on our Antarctic sojourn. Despite the exhaustion, the painful sprains and bruises, the frost nip on our extremities – cold injury due to vasoconstriction – and the fact that on one occasion, part of the team gets stuck on a technical mountain face for close to 24 hours, the whole experience turns out to be unbelievably rewarding. Antarctica, subject to such extreme conditions, has a natural beauty and raw exquisiteness that surpasses all of our expectations.
Our mission accomplished, we finally head back to Union Glacier camp, where we are privileged to meet renowned climbers and polar explorers. We soon realise that like us, they are equally passionate about adventure as they are about protecting the integrity of this oldest of continents, where dinosaurs once ruled. Uniquely, Antarctica remains the only landmass that humans have yet to exploit for its resources. The 12 countries that regulate the continent – part of the Antarctic Treaty System – are adamant that it should remain free from pollution and bacteria. This means that all waste, including human waste, is taken out of Antarctica where nothing decomposes because of the freezing conditions.
Ultimately, this vast continent at the very edge of the earth – the last to be discovered by man – does not disappoint. Looking back on our expedition, I now see that Terra Antarctica, as it is also known, has a way of cutting you down to size and making you ponder your own insignificance. It forces you to re-evaluate everything you know and feel about yourself and your place on this planet. I realise that the most valuable lessons of the journey resulted from the experiences that, at the time, felt like the most miserable and desolate, that true growth only comes from adversity and challenge.
It showed me that no matter where you are in the world you can seek and find adventure by opening up your mind and exploring your own limits. And finally, becoming the first to scale unclimbed peaks as part of an all-female team in order to create a world where human rights and environmental integrity can blossom and prosper will count, without a doubt, as one of the most empowering experiences of my life. No wonder they say Antarctica gets under your skin, and when that happens, your soul is changed forever.