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Una's Tits, Fondling the Antarctic Bosom

It is heretical, perhaps, to begin a tale of pure mountain exploration from inside the industrial confines of a sandblasting helmet, the hideous din of compressed air carrying its own desert storm against a boat’s hull, against the process that the ocean environment does best: that of rusting steel. Hours will pass like this, the roar of the sand and the skeletal ache of directing this holocaust obliterating any romantic thoughts of treading untrodden snow and sailing wild seas—and this but a tiny part of the work at hand. If I could shake my head inside this thing, I’d truly wonder whether the promise of (only) a little bit of climbing—and maybe a few dodgy telemark turns on bad snow—is truly worth all the effort. If there was ever an opposite extreme to the idea of walking through air so rarefied that the very clarity of it makes one hallucinate, on peaks that have never seen footsteps, within sight of one’s own comfortable home, this is it. Yet in sailing mountaineering, one invariably involves the other: it is truly an activity of opposite extremes.

If you thought that climbing was expensive, forget it. If you thought that climbing was technical, forget it. If you ever thought, relaxing in the pub with a beer afterward, how far out there you were after a tough day on the rock, forget that, too. Ocean sailing in the high latitudes makes all these things pale by comparison; but for me, all this machinery is set in motion by the simple call of the mountain waiting to be climbed. The challenge posed by the unseen face, the conquest of the fearsome move that leads to the fulfillment of a dream, the idea that out there is a ridge that demands attention, is enough to fuel months, maybe years, of effort on the off-chance that you will be a match for the challenge on the day you arrive there. In this game, there are still huge vastnesses to explore, whole vistas of virgin peaks to wander amongst; embedded in the fierce weather of the Southern Ocean and North Atlantic are the realities that inhabit our dreams, the solid vein of gold that, much diluted by history, is the philosophical underpinning of even the lowliest plastic wall.

There is, however, one problem with all of this. Where do you start? If one were to fly over, say, Antarctica, one would see range after range of mountains stretching to the horizon, for the most part unexplored, even unnamed. Faced with such a profusion of possibility, the mind goes blank. Why climb this one when the hundreds of others around it seem just the same? Why go to the mountain tops when the valleys are just as remote? If one were silly enough to sail there in a small boat, would not the reality of just being there be sufficient reward for your trouble?

The answer is obsession. The mind knows when it sees something that is part of your future—something that you must rise to or be diminished by, something that seems like a good idea from a long way away. It is the duty of the body to transport the mind to where the gauntlet can be thrown. Such a thing was Smith Island. Such things, although not as fully matured, were Una’s Tits.

Hang on, hang on, what’s all this about tits and boats in a climbing journal anyway? Isn’t sailing that boring sport where everyone is either rich or gets seasick? Who is Una, and what has she got to do with Antarctic vistas?

For part of the answer to this, I’ll have to go back a couple of years to the Smith Island story, aptly described by Dan Mannix in last year’s Journal. That year, our boat, Northanger, thundered into the Straits of Magellan, a tiny bucketful of unfinished history driven by the Southern Ocean wind and a crusader’s sense that somehow man, machine and mountain must meet in perfect symmetry. The circle must be closed before we could go on to other things.

On the summit of Mount Foster in the South Shetland Islands, I felt that emotion that must be the ultimate goal—and ultimate dread—of all mountaineers: perfect satisfaction. There we were, on a sublime point in space and time, surrounded in splendid isolation by the ocean that had been the nemesis of all prior attempts, but which stood aside for us that day and allowed us to walk in Valhalla. Ten years of death and rebirth, desolation and dreaming welded together forever by a single perfect moment. After that, there was no going back to work for the bank; but what could we dream up now that could possibly compare?

The euphoria of the summit did not evaporate soon after the descent, though, perhaps because I now saw climbing as part of a much larger geographical challenge rather than an adrenaline hit on weekends. I had been afraid that climbing would lose its luster as an excuse to launch the machine; but most of all, I feared losing the simple urge to climb, unencumbered by the aura of the “expedition.” It was time to get back to basics.

“We’ll just go down there for a look around and see what takes our fancy,” I lied to Rich Prohaska and Jia Condon as we headed south from Cape Horn. Rich and Jia had arrived in Ushuaia after Christmas, bristling with skis and other sharp appendages, the modernity of which I eyed with envy. Obviously, they had used these things a lot lately. Meanwhile, they surveyed the woeful condition of my and Keri’s surviving climbing rack with evident disdain.

“You still climb with these things, huh?” seemed to be the general tenor of the verdict. I could already see the wheels turning: “Let’s dump these old sailing fogies when we get there and go do something desperate.” They’d come for vertical action; Antarctica had not yet penetrated their souls. And why should it? Canadians scarcely know it exists—they have their own wild frontiers to get lost in.

Unbeknown to them, we’d already gotten our next obsession on a gentle rolling boil. One cannot look upon the twin towers of the mountain that has become known as Una’s Tits without lusting after its summits. Following the Smith Island excursion the year before, we’d had time for a good reconnoiter for other prospects in the Antarctic Peninsula area. Heading south down the spectacular “Kodak Crack” (Lemaire Channel) is almost a compulsory part of the experience, not only for sailors in this area, but also in days past for the ship-borne crews of the British Antarctic Survey bases at the bottom end of the Peninsula. In their own inimitable jargon, they had christened the two awe-inspiring rock towers that guard the entrance to Lemaire Channel after the least-forgettable features of probably the last female staff member they would see for several years. Today, no one remembers Una, but she still takes center stage in the south.

The year before, a strong yacht-based attempt had been made on the towers, but had been denied the prize by the combination of dirty weather and uncompromising tourist schedules. Owing to the high cost of access to this area, climbers often will choose to splice their efforts onto an existing tourist charter, thus severely limiting their windows of opportunity. This year, our plan was to roam at will, taking our opportunities where we found them and drinking beer when there were none.

As the single hump of Cape Horn diminished in the distance, though, my thoughts were drawn increasingly to the bright promise of the twin humps that awaited.

The best thing to hope for in the Drake Passage is a boring crossing, skipping through between those fabled Antarctic storms that litter the lore of the area. The crossing usually is rough, but mercifully brief, like passing through a cold twilight void on the way from one world to another.

“I’m not going to be just the boat minder this time,” my wife, Keri, stated somewhere in the void. I knew what she was referring to. Stalwart sailor though she is, her passion also is lit by the lure of the inaccessible mountain, and last year she felt she’d been robbed of the action on Smith Island by having to skipper the boat. Never mind that she had made the whole thing possible, sailing back through an icy storm to retrieve us from the island; she likened this to cleaning up after a party. The dream wobbled a little. Who would do the “chores” this time? I owed her a big one, and somehow the payback had to be worked into the new obsession. Antarctica is notoriously lacking in bombproof anchorages, and this is both the joy and the bane of the sailing mountaineer. If the boat is not safe, you cannot leave it to climb—but this insecurity is part of the very reason for going there.

I started to slide references to the towers sideways into conversations.

“If the weather is too bad in the north, we could always nip down and look at Una’s Tits” was a favorite. I knew darn well that Rich and Jia would rise to the bait, but for the moment they were too busy being terrified of what we’d told them the ocean could do to them. They were happy enough to count off their watches until Antarctica finally reared up out of the ocean.

One of our favorite anchorages on the Antarctic Peninsula is Port Lockroy on Wiencke Island. As bombproof as it gets, it also is backdropped by the leering walls of the Feif and Wall ranges. These are split by the Thunder Glacier, down which roars the storm wind of the northeaster when it is working. Most of the rock walls rise to about 3,200 feet and are, for the most part, rotten and over-corniced. If you look closely, though, a number of solid-looking buttresses ripple forward out of the tottering mass, and the area is a paradise for ski touring and easier climbing on postcard-perfect peaks.

We had picked out one of these buttresses in the Wall Range to firm up our sea legs, one that had all the requirements for an obsession but was too distant from the sea to recognize. Rich, Jia and I joyfully surged forward, increasing our karmic debt by leaving Keri to care-take the boat yet again. This time, though, she seemed not to mind, content with the promise of later excursions and the chance to drink in the surroundings without us.

It was on about the eigth pitch that we realized we perhaps should not have been so joyful in our surging. We were not even halfway up and I began to be glad that I’d put two Power Bars in my pack instead of just one. The buttress was starting to rear up on us; leads were getting harder and the rock looser.

“Hope there’s an easy way down the back of this,” Jia said, voicing the obvious concern. The farther we climbed up, the more hideous the thought of having to rappel the route became. About mid-afternoon, we passed the point where retreat was more difficult than topping out. Solid granite alternated with ephemeral piles of choss stitched together with thin friction. At about “dark,” as we cramponed fearfully beneath the rimed overhangs of the summit ridge, we could look back on 17 pitches dropping away to Thunder Glacier, the first gusts of a northeaster beginning to re-sculpt the geometry of the final pitch. Because I had on the plastic boots (deemed unnecessary at the outset), Rich solemnly handed me the waterfall tools and I began to wade through vertical sugar toward the summit.

I began to think that a sheet of plywood would have been more useful as I left Rich behind in the dark spindrift. He surely must have wondered what I was doing up there, as I termited my way through the cornice, moving heaven and Earth so that the tools might find something solid. My rare glimpses showed him cowering beneath his helmet as yet another man-made avalanche descended. “Glad I’m not going with that lot,” was all the sympathy I could muster.

After an eon of fear and four-letter words, the tools found the solid ice of the windswept ridge. I collapsed onto it, wasted, but elated at the thought of running easily down the back side. We all stood there in the howling wind, laughing with conquest and relief—until I bent down to remove my crampons. I couldn’t even see them, let alone a 2,000-foot descent route to the glacier, skis and boat. What really ruined the parade, though, was my discovery that overtrousers and gloves had mysteriously evaporated from my pack. “Getting sloppy—too much sailing and not enough climbing,” I thought as the elation began to crumble. I quickly fashioned a pair of “breathable” overtrousers from a plastic rubbish bag as Jia ruefully ripped the Gore-tex liners from his gloves and passed them over.

We packed it in after a few hours of shuffling along the ridge, not knowing whether each footstep would find air or ice. When a handy ‘schrund appeared, we jumped into its marginal shelter, hoping to outlast the storm and still find our easy descent route. None of us even wanted to imagine the alternative—that of rappelling the entire route in an Antarctic storm.

That, however, is exactly what happened. With our second Power Bar long since eaten and the sun’s upswing lightening the sky, we knew we had to be gone, and fast. We were starting to lose the ability to move at all and we knew that this weather could easily last for days. For 12 hours, rappel after rappel, the last dozen or so on a rope partially severed by falling rock, my “trousers” gradually breathing harder and harder, clown hands trying to set anchors and manage ropes, we crept down the buttress. Food, glorious food awaited at the skis and then, stuporing back along the trail we’d left in the glacier 39 hours before, I had time to consider that I’d better sharpen up my act if I was going to get lucky on Una’s Tits. Our “warm-up” was equal to a whole week’s work in less than two days.

So Whozuna? was born (about 5.9 or so if you like putting numbers on mountains).

The longed-for protuberances thrust upward out of the sea, her startling white brassiere delineating the towers from the perfect blue of the sky. Northanger’s red hull paddled happily around the base, happy to be there, happy to be part of this kind of action once again. After Whozuna?, we ceased to kid ourselves. It could be years before we had another chance this good, and by then the towers would be besieged by Frenchmen in colored pants undoing her clasps with cheater sticks. This was what we had come for, and here it was, right in our faces, right now.

Of the twin ice streaks that had been tried last year, there was now no sign. In their place were two long brown streaks of rotting rock that occasionally rumbled and splashed. The west side of the towers were very steep and solid—alas, more solid than we; we decided to leave them for future portaledge-types.

Northanger tiptoed around to the unsounded waters of the east side and found what we needed. Enough of a rock jutting into the sea to be called a beach, a steep ice ramp to a tentsized shelf, and, best of all, easy access to the base of the rock itself. A route up the skyline ridge looked stiff, but doable.

I know that in all things the Piper must be paid, and when he comes forward with his hand out you must have what he asks. The inflatable was being loaded when Keri, usually staunch in these situations, finally admitted what I had suspected the last day or two.

“I think I have the flu or something. I don’t think I can handle the boat by myself this time.”

I knew it was true; my nasty voice told me that it was finally my turn to clean up after the party. The nearest good anchorage was Hovgaard, 25 miles through the ice-strewn Lemaire Channel, and the entry to the anchorage was convoluted at best. Even for a fit crew, it would be a stretch if something went wrong. Here, 700 miles south of the place they call the end of the world, you just can’t take a chance like that. If something happens to the boat, the very best you can hope for is an international incident. Pipers everywhere.

I looked at Jia and Rich, already kitted up for the move. I’d even remembered my overtrousers this time. Maybe we could have come back for it; but I knew that momentum and weather would be against us. No backup, no climb. Simple as that.

I heard myself say, “Five days, we’ll be back in five days,” as I threw my pack out of the inflatable and back on deck.

It was starting to get dark as I nosed the little rubber boat gingerly around the menacing shadow of a leopard seal and headed back to Northanger, delivery complete. Jia was already on top of the ramp, hauling skis, ropes, tent—enough stuff for a month if necessary. They were looking strong as Keri and I worked our way free of the ice at the cape and turned into Lemaire Channel. I knew they’d make it if the weather cooperated. To my surprise, I didn’t even mind. I looked at the intricate dance necessary to get even this far with a half-formed obsession, and took my place in the new scheme of things, happy enough with the “assist” this time.

The weather packed it in soon after we got to Hovgaard, and we settled in to wait in warm comfort, maliciously enjoying the idea that Rich and Jia would be dogging it out in the tent, marooned beneath the tower and frustrated at being so close without a chance to climb. During the next five days, there was less than one good day of fine weather, and I began to fear that maybe we would return to Cape Renard with the obsession still intact.

Snatching a weather break on the sixth day, Northanger nosed out of the anchorage, do-si-doed among the ice pack in Kodak Crack, and eased around to the hidden side of the towers. No sign of anyone. The bright yellow tent stood out in the white desert like an alien spaceship, but nothing stirred.

The radio squawked, “Can you see us, can you see us?”

We looked up and up, following its directions until we spotted the two tiny red spider mites against the vast gray of the rock.

“Are you on your way up or down?” we fired back.

“Down!” the radio squawked again.

The hit-list flickered and the numbers rolled upward. Una was gone, and as we watched the mites dance and dangle their way down the wall, there was plenty of time to examine our feelings. I felt strong envy, of course. I’d not be human if I didn’t; but looking at the scene from far away—a tiny boat in a huge sea, two tiny figures farther out, but connected to that boat by some metaphorical umbilical cord—I realized that, regardless of one’s part in it, the play is the play, and the show must go on. In the future, we’d probably have many roles, forcing many different dreams out of their easy cocoons into the harsh stuff of reality. Always interesting. Always challenging.

The summit is still the summit, though, and there we must walk, if the play allows.

Epilogue

Rich and Jia collapsed back onto the boat late in the evening. They’d snatched the brief weather break a few days before and fixed the first five pitches. When the weather came right on the last day, they fired up the lines and climbed the remaining ten pitches (of about 5.9 A2), topping out onto the summit ridge of the eastern tower. They had reached the aureole, but the actual nipple was about 20 feet higher, 200 meters or so away along a double-corniced line of snow mushrooms perched precariously on the knife-edged ridge. Deciding they liked the idea of living more than the urge to defile the summit, they retreated down the route, serendipitously arriving on Northanger just as it began to snow. We groped our way back to Port Lockroy in a dark blizzard, taking turns at spotting icebergs and growlers on the bow, only able to stand outside for 30 minutes at a time while Rich and Jia slept the sleep of the just. Cleaning up after the party.

Later, again taking advantage of the protection of Hovgaard Island, the four of us made an exploratory venture onto Booth Island, again underestimating the size of the climb. Variously pulling on scabrous rock and tiptoeing along icy ridges, the summit far out of our grasp, we began putting more obsessions into the bank. There’s got to be something to hope for on the outside of a sandblasting helmet.

Summary of Statistics

AREA: Antarctic Peninsula

FIRST ASCENTS: Whozuna? (V 5.9 mixed, 18 pitches), on Pt. 1050m in the Wall Range, late January, 1997, Greg Landreth, Rich Prohaska and Jia Condon in a 40-hour push; Unazwhat? (V 5.9 mixed A2) via the east buttress of the Cape Renard Tower (a.k.a. Una’s Tits, 747m), February 1-4, 1997, Rich Prohaska and Jia Condon (route was climbed to the east summit); attempt of Wandel Peak (c. 950m) on Booth Island via the north ridge, early February, 1997, Keri Pashuk, Greg Landreth, Rich Prohaska, Jia Condon