Printed by special permission of
High Magazine, UK
Printed by special permission of
High Magazine, UK
Undoubtedly the most notable ascent in Antarctica this season was the long awaited and highly coveted fist ascent of Mount Foster, the highest mountain of the storm lashed Smith Island. Prior to this year very few people had ever landed on the hostile shores of Smith Island, let alone attempted to climb any of its impressive glaciated peaks. The legendary British explorer, Bill Tilman, organized two expeditions to the island, the first in 1966/67 and the last, on Simon Richardson’s yacht En Avant in 1977, resulting in the tragic disappearance of the boat and its entire crew somewhere in the South Atlantic. Subsequently, and much to the dismay of many Antarctic aficionados who felt that this fine objective deserved to be climbed in good style, Foster was attempted by two highly organized British Joint Services expeditions with full ship and helicopter support.
Royal Marine, Jim Kimbery, and team were airlifted on to the east coast in 1991 and made a creditable effort on one of southerly ridges of the 2,100 metre high Foster but were defeated by illness and bad luck. They reported over 40 days of heavy snowfall whilst on the island. Kimbery returned in ’94 and was landed at Cape James on the south coast. Weather again was atrocious and access to Foster was found to be more or less impossible from this point but the team did success in climbing a nearby smaller peak which they christened Mount Catherine James (1,700m). They also erected a small memorial plaque to Tilman’s party.
In late 1995, backed by a Shipton/Tilman award from W.L.Gore, a six person Canadian crew left British Columbia in the 15 meter steel ketch Northanger. This craft had been originally built in 1964 at Faversham in Kent by English mountaineers, Mike Sharp and Rick Thomas, two ex-BAS employees, for the explicit purpose of climbing/sailing expeditions to remote areas. One of the first projects with Northanger resulted in the successful ascent of Mount St. Elias in the Canadian Yukon. Thomas then bought out the partnership and went on to organize and expedition to Antarctica in 86-87. In 1988-89, with Thomas at the helm, Northanger became the second yacht to circumnavigate the Americas via the North West Passage. After Thomas’s untimely death in 1989 on Mount Waddington the ownership passed Canadian residents Greg Landreth and Keri Pashuk.
Arriving in Punta Arenas in early November they picked up a husband and wife film crew who were to make a documentary of the expedition and continued to Smith Island. On their arrival the most remote of the South Shetland Islands was shrouded in the mist and cloud that is virtually omnipresent in this area. Because it was so crucial to land the climbers at the best site for onward travel to the mountain, the boat repaired to the nearest safe anchorage some 125 kilometres distant in the Melchior Islands to await better times.
On the 27th January and in glorious weather Brice Dowrick, Greg Landreth, Dan Mannix and Roger Thompson, together with six weeks’ food for a possible protracted siege, were landed by inflatable. The four climbers established a Base Camp on the ice white Northanger returned to the Melchior Islands. The successful choice of this landing site was a crucial part of the ascent, as any attempt to move Base Camp once the boat has left the island (straight away if the crew is sensible) would be more or less impossible. The ice cliffs surrounding the small rocky outcrops which form the only possible landing "beaches" are extremely active and generate very large waves when the collapse in to the sea.
Unfortunately, to add to the already committing nature of the situation, whilst hauling gear up the initial ice cliffs, a broken rucksack strap led to the SSB radio falling 50 metres into the sea, leaving the four with only a small VHF radio which insufficient range to summon the boat. Foster has three summits with the south summit the highest. However, the north peak could realistically be named as a separate mountain as the elevation loss to the col between it and the middle peak is around 300 metres. An initial foray on to the central ridge of the South East Face, almost certainly the one attempted by the Joint Services and the only line on this side of the island that could realistically be contemplated in single push without a bivouac, was terminated by bad visibility. A light-weight dash was then made on the 29th in a short lived break of good weather.
The four quickly reached the base of the ridge, climbed a pitch of hard blue ice through a rock band and then a further nine pitches of varying difficulty on the magnificently exposed, knife-edged and sometimes corniced ridge above to reach the upper snow field at 1,500 metres. The trudge to the top was broken by a band of ice cliffs which gave a further hard pitch and the summit attained a few hours later. The party noted that the South Summit was, fortunately, indeed the highest (but not by much) and were able to verify the approximate surveyed altitude. Descent was via the same route in steadily worsening weather, with Base Camp eventually regained after 27 hours of continuos climbing.
Amazingly, when close to the summit the climbers were able to contact Northanger on the VHF radio via an Argentinean scientific station and were safely evacuated from the island after having written a significant page in the history of Antarctic mountaineering.
With the highest summit climbed, what major projects remain to be attempted on Smith Island? There are numerous futuristic ice and mixed lines on the south east side of the island and no doubt also on the other side, some more threatened by objective danger than others. However, the most obvious challenges are still the unclimbed summits of Mount Christie and Pisgah. Since it requires a massive logistical and financial effort just to get to Smith Island, it is unlikely that an expeditions would currently be satisfied with these peaks as primary objectives. Perhaps the finest but certainly the most committing of all project should be the grand traverse of the island from Boyd Strait to Cape James. Given the climatic record of this corner of the Southern Ocean, the traverse will probably remain a target for the most imaginative on the next generation.
Northanger is now well-positioned to be able to explore the remote peaks of Antarctica, South Georgia and Patagonia. The owners envisage using the boat as an access vehicle to these locations in the coming years and will be available for charter.
Contact Northanger at: 1-1020 Catherine Street - Victoria, BC V9A34V, CANADA - Tel: (604) 382 3959 - Fax: (604) 381 3972 - email: firstname.lastname@example.org
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