Antarctica, South Georgia
Richard Spillett and I left the Falkland Islands in mid-November aboard Skip Novak’s vessel Pelagic Australis, which was to deliver us to the snout of the Nordenskjold Glacier. We hoped to attempt the first complete ascent of Mt Nordenskjold (54°29.337'S, 36°21.619'W), the second highest peak on the island. Christian de Marliave, originally credited with the first ascent in 1988 after a bold solo effort, had honorably pointed out to Tim Carr that he had not reached the summit. Tim had provided me with this nugget of information some time ago, but I had been unable to obtain elaboration. Rick Armstrong, John Griber, and Doug Stoup had made an unsuccessful attempt in November 2001, and I had failed in 2009, with Julian Freeman-Attwood and Novak.
Dropped off on the coast below the Nordenskjold Glacier on November 18, it took six days to establish base camp at 1,130m on the uppermost section of the glacier. This period was characterized by cloudy and occasionally wet weather and poor visibility. A day was lost returning to the coast to collect replacement boots, after a sole became detached. Very lean conditions in 2011 meant sections of icefall proved awkward to negotiate with heavy sledges and skis, much more difficult than on my previous attempt. We left one of the sledges and our skis on the middle section of the glacier, allowing us to load carry up a steep snow field and avoid the difficult icefall guarding the upper glacier. We towed the remaining sledge, with all our gear, in tandem to the eastern end of the glacier below Nordenskjold’s north face.
We took a rest day, with promising weather forecast for the following day. We set off at 4 a.m. on November 26 and moved together for the entire ascent. We already knew of a safe line skirting the lower rocks, a line protected from serac fall on the central section of the face. Above, we slanted left to reach the crest of the northeast ridge above its rocky lower section and beyond my 2009 high point. The time was 8:30 a.m. We followed the ridge in its entirety to the summit, including the crossing of a distinct hump into a saddle before the final section. Though the ridge is relatively easy-angled, its convergent faces fall away steeply north and south, and the crest consisted of glass-hard ice for nearly the entire 600m of its length. A 30cm rooster’s comb was a saving respite, a ribbon of wind-packed snow glued to the crest. Continuous whiteout, combined with intermittent cornices, kept us entertained, and unusually for South Georgia the winds remained tolerable, as forecast. We reached the summit at midday after a height gain of ca 1,200m.
We descended via the same line, moving together for nearly the entire descent, which took 14hrs. We returned to our tent at 2 a.m., after a 24-hour roundtrip. After resting the remainder of the day, we set off for the coast on the 28th. We lowered the one sledge down the upper snowfield and regained our cache of sledge and skis. In the afternoon of the 29th we had reached the shore and were on the boat that evening.
Subsequent to our ascent I made contact with Christian de Marliave. He reported that he got very close to the summit, only stopping below the final ice mushroom, which was too dangerous to climb alone.