Mt. Roots, First Ascent. Approximately 850 nautical miles east-southeast of the Falkland Islands, the island of South Georgia is approximately 100 miles long and 30 miles wide and lies just outside the Antarctic Circle. A wet, cold, and hostile climate coupled with the rugged mountains and glacial terrain ensure that any expedition will have a hard time. Getting there is as arduous as the climbing itself!
The Southern Challenge Expedition was a sailing and mountaineering expedition undertaken by the British Services over a period of nine months from September 2000 to June 2001. The climbing team was comprised of Bill Bilous (Expedition Leader), Will Manners (Lead Climber), Stu Macdonald, Tania Noakes, Marcus Stutt, Clive Woodman, Llinos Owen, and Brian Spivey. The aim was to sail a yacht from the U.K. to South Georgia and back again. Whilst on the island, the expedition intended to make the first ascent of Mount Roots (7448'), the highest unclimbed peak in British Territory. At least five teams had previously attempted the peak, some of which wanted to return and claim the prize.
The team for the South Georgia Leg assembled at Brize Norton and flew to the Falklands at the end of December. After ten days of work, we sailed out of Mare Harbour into the Southern Ocean. The following seven days were a mixture of beautiful sunshine, storms, and bouts of vomiting. Half of the crew of 12 were experienced sailors whilst the remainder were mountaineers with a minimal amount of sailing experience. For someone as inexperienced as myself, it was a baptism by fire.
We landed around midnight on January 12 at King Edward Point, cold, wet, hungry, and behind schedule. The following day, the packing was frantic and by 4 p.m. the first group departed onboard one of the military patrol boats from the tiny British Garrison, bound for Cumberland Bay East and the foot of the Nordenskjold Glacier. The glacier was calving huge chunks of ice into the sea and the resulting tidal waves threatened to swamp our stockpile. With no time to lose, we began shuttling loads up onto the glacier. After three days of hauling gear, we had established ourselves at our high camp below Mount Roots. It was a fairly clear day and the views over the island were spectacular. We were the only team climbing on the island and the feeling of remoteness was incredible. After digging snowholes to protect us from the infamous winds, we spent a day examining different possible routes on the mountain.
A meandering line up the north buttress looked most favorable. The team leader, “Bill” Bilous, selected Will Manners and me as the first summit team. We decided to try that night, weather permitting.
We moved at a good speed and after two and a half hours we reached the top of the buttress. The climbing had been very sustained and we were both glad for a short break. As the sun began to rise, we continued up a broad ridge toward the summit. The wind speed was increasing slowly as visibility began to draw in, but we knew how close we were. The moist sea air had created incredible ice formations near the summit. There were arches of rime ice 30 feet across and bizarre mushrooms all around. Four hours and 45 minutes after crossing the bergschrund, I stepped onto yet another icy knoll, the mist cleared for a moment, and I realized there was no more mountain left to climb.
In worsening weather, we decided to downclimb the upper part of the north buttress and traverse onto a glacier that then led down to a plateau at the bottom of the buttress. The down climbing took a lot of concentration and the heavily crevassed glacier made movement painfully slow; it took us five hours from the summit to cross the bergschrund. The descent back to high camp and the ensuing events were far from dull.
Over the next ten days, the team of eight split into two groups at high camp. One team (Brian, Will, Bill and Tania) descended to our base camp to undergo a ski tour and look at some unclimbed peaks, whilst the other team was to attempt a new route on Mount Paget, the highest peak on the island. The ski tour group, which comprised the remaining four, succeeded in making the first ascent of an unnamed 4,600-foot peak at the head of the Heaney Glacier. The peak was subsequently named Mt. MacArthur in honor of the British yachtswoman Ellen MacArthur, who placed second in the Vendee Globe race. The mountain was climbed via an obvious snowy couloir (Scottish I, 1,500'). At the top of the couloir there were two pitches of grade II mixed ground leading to a three-foot square summit. We descended by the same route.
Winds over the following days reached an estimated 130 miles per hour. We were unable to walk and were forced to crawl to make progress. Both of our tents were destroyed and we were forced to spend a night in an improvised snow shelter. After the wind dropped, we managed to make it back to base camp and rendezvous with the other team.
The second team had experienced the same storm while high on Mount Paget. At one point, Will Manners had both axes in the ice with his body blowing horizontally in the wind. It is a miracle that the team made it down alive. Credit for this must go to Bill Bilous for holding a fall by Will and to Tania Noakes for making the decision to turn around. After meeting up, the two teams packed immediately and descended the Nordenskjold Glacier to the beach and our arranged pick-up point.
The team members have climbed in the Himalaya, the Alps, Alaska, Yukon, the Andes, Scotland, Norway and Greenland. All team members agree that they have never experienced wind like on South Georgia. It is absolutely ferocious.
Stuart Macdonald, The Alpine Club