The highlight of the Antarctic season was undoubtedly the string of big climbs done by the French team of Mathieu Cortial, Lionel Daudet, and Patrick Wagnon, traveling aboard Isabelle Autissier’s Ada II. This was Daudet's third voyage to the mountains of the far south, having climbed new routes on Kerguelen in 2006 and traversed South Georgia—with a new variant on Mt. Paget—in 2007. This third installment of his southern trilogy was arguably the most significant and successful climbing expedition to the Antarctic Peninsula in modern times.
On their journey south the team first came to the massive Smith Island, highest of the South Shetland Islands, near the northern section of the Peninsula. The highest peak, Mt. Foster (2,105m), was climbed for the first time in 1996 after years of effort by various teams. It had become famous for its huge vertical relief and terrible weather. The French decided to try a new route on what they refer to as the western spur of the northeast summit. The first 1,000m were uneventful, but the terrain got harder as they climbed higher, and both Cortial and Daudet took roped falls, the latter while climbing an overhanging serac that plunged 1,000m toward the sea. After tunneling through steep rime mushrooms, they reached the summit at 2 a.m. on January 12, after 15 hours climbing. They then began a 15-hour descent. They named their 1,600m route Le Vol du Sérac (Flight of the Serac).
Their next stop south provided the jewel in the crown for the French expedition— the northwest ridge of Mt. Parry (2,520m) on Brabant Island. Only days after their adventure on Smith Island, the three made the coveted first ascent of the enormous northwest ridge, which rises over 2,500m directly from the sea. Though often looked at and talked about, the ridge had never been attempted and had become likely the biggest and best-known unclimbed objective on the Antarctic Peninsula. This season it was also the target of a primarily New Zealand team aboard the yacht Australis; on hearing that the French were there first, the New Zealanders climbed elsewhere.
Parry had been climbed three times before, always from the east: British in 1984, Chileans in 1993, and French in early January 2010. On that third ascent, Ludovic Challeat led Alwin Arnold, Arnauld De Fouchier, Thierry Garnier, Ulrich Goerlach, Vincent Logerot, and Philippe Poncin from the south and east, on skis. After making one camp on the route, they had a spectacularly clear but very cold and windy summit day, January 13. This team then moved across to the Arctowski Peninsula, making the probable first ascent of Scheimpflug Nunatak (1,150m), on the southern side of Laussedat Heights, and climbing to 650m on higher Pulfrich Peak in the northern half of the Peninsula.
Ada II delivered Cortial, Daudet, and Wagnon to Brabant Island eight days later, most of that time having been spent moored safely at the Melchior Islands. Dropped near the base of the northwest ridge, the three climbed over 1,000m up soft snow, before bivouacking in poor weather. They set off again 39 hours later, enjoying another 1,000m of climbing up an elegant arête, hampered only by several crevasses. The last 500m of this route are decidedly steeper; here the climbers encountered the hardest climbing, on soft, wet snow. Wagnon and then Daudet needed four hours to climb the last 100m, but all three arrived on top at 6 p.m. on the 23rd. It took 19 hours to descend, and rough seas delayed their pickup. This did not seem an immediate problem, as they had brought sufficient food and equipment to counter such a delay. But a giant wave hit their site and washed away most of the food and gear. They shivered through the night, before the yacht could retrieve them the next day. Over the years there have been several incidents of large waves hitting climbers and camps close to shore, sometimes causing injury and loss of equipment. Prospective Antarctic climbers would do well to take this into account when operating in these areas. The French named their route Nouvelle Vague (NewWave).
The expedition continued south, arriving at increasingly popular Wiencke Island. The highest summit there is Savoia Peak (often incorrectly called Luigi de Savoia, or variants), the first real mountain climbed on the Peninsula, by Charcot’s men in 1905. It has now been climbed several times. When seen from the west, its most obvious feature is a narrow ribbon of ice on the left side of the face. Climbers had talked of this but been deterred by avalanches down the face. The three French approached Savoia on skis, pulling sleds. On the 28th they were turned back by poor weather, but two days later tried again. The route gave 800m of steep ice climbing in the gully, followed by another 300m up the ridge to the summit, reached after 13 hours. They named their route Bon Anniversaire Tristan and graded it ED+. They descended the south ridge, thus traversing the peak, and rappeled the gully separating Savoia from the first peak on a serrated ridge running south. This ridge has seven summits, known colloquially as the Seven Sisters of Fief; several have been climbed. The first sister, closest to Savoia, was climbed this season by the New Zealand team aboard Australis.
Leaving the relative civilization of Wiencke Island and the tourists at Port Lockroy, the French headed south, but could not resist stopping at a small but enticing piece of False Cape Renard: the triple-summited feature at the northern end of the Lemaire Channel, just south of the more famous Cape Renard Tower (Una’s Tits). Only one of the peaks on False Cape Renard has been climbed; the Pou brothers in 2007 created the technical route Azken Paradizua up the northwest buttress of the western summit, which they named Zerua Peak. Just right of that line is an unusually straight, narrow ice chute that had attracted the eye of passing climbers but had not been touched. Cortial, Daudet, and Wagnon climbed 550m up the couloir and ridge above, naming their line 42 Balais et Toujours pas Calmé, as a tribute to the fact that it was Daudet’s 42nd birthday and that he has not lost the burning energy to climb such adventurous routes.
The insatiable French then aimed for Wandel Peak (980m), the high point of steep, narrow Booth Island, which forms the western side of beautiful Lemaire Channel, one of the most photographed places in Antarctica. Wandel has been attempted many times over the years, usually from the north. On the east face, rising directly from the Lemaire Channel, is an obvious couloir, a straight shot to the summit. It is steep and somewhat threatened by seracs and overhanging cornices. The French climbed the couloir, reaching the summit ridge just north of the highest point, and proceeded toward it, negotiating the sinuous crest and wild cornices. Looking 900m straight down to the Lemaire Channel, they could see cruise ships passing by. Near the summit was a large crevasse, which Cortial fell into on the descent. The trio found that the top of Wandel Peak consists of two summits separated by a short, narrow ridge. They visited both, noting the smaller, steeper southerly summit to be a few meters higher. In February 2006 a Spanish team claimed the first ascent of Wandel, having climbed the north ridge, but it later transpired that they stopped 15m from the highest point. The French named their direct route La Mystique des Corniches…ons, a play on French slang, Cornichons—Mystical Idiots.
The team’s last success was the probable first ascent of Mt. Statham, at the southern end of Perplex Ridge on Pourquoi-pas Island. This involved hard climbing up the west-northwest face. Perplex Ridge, which runs northeast to southwest in the northwestern section of Pourquoi-pas Island, has two named high points: Statham Peak and Matthews Peak. The latter is named after BAS geologist David Matthews, who in 1965 made the first ascent of Mt. Verne, one of the most notable peaks on the island. Approaching Statham Peak on February 18, the French climbed a couloir to reach a chute of extremely steep and overhanging ice high on the face, probably the steepest ice ever climbed in Antarctica. Part way up Wagnon backed off, so the team traversed right to easier ground and reached the summit after 12 hours climbing. They named the route Bohemios y Locos, originally referring to their summit as Peak Ada 2, not realizing they were on Mt. Statham.
Pourquoi-pas Island has a rich history of French activity. It was discovered by Charcot during his second expedition of 1908-1910 and was the scene of one of the earliest private yacht-based climbing adventures in Antarctica. In 1983 two separate French teams converged on the island, climbing and skiing on Mt. Verne and Mt. Arronax and flying ultralight aircraft.
One reason the expedition aboard Ada II devoted so much time to the Antarctic Peninsula—most teams charter a yacht for only 30 days—was so they could get to the big unclimbed peaks on Alexander Island, where no private expedition has climbed. However, poor weather and severe sea ice stopped them close to their goal, so they moved on to their final objective. Peter 1 Island (sometimes seen as Peter I øy) is one of the most isolated and windswept pieces of mountain on earth. The highest point is Lars Christensen Peak (1,640m), which is guarded by steep cliffs of rock and ice and rough seas with much pack ice. The seemingly unstoppable French managed to get onto the eastern side of the mountain on March 5, only to be stopped after 500m of climbing, by bad weather and large crevasses. They escaped to Ada II and were in Ushuaia two weeks later, finishing an expedition of 75 days. A stunning collection of photos from the expedition can be seen at http://nomansland.project.free.fr.