DRONNING MAUD LAND

Posted on: July 1, 2006


Dronning Maud Land, First Ascents. I flew from Cape Town to the Russian Base of Novolazarevskaya, in Dronning Maud Land, landing on the ice tarmac on Halloween. Before my sixth step onto the frozen continent, my face was numb and my nostril hair had frozen. I had hoped the early season would be warmer than this.

Mike Libecki on the first ascent of Frozen Tears (5.10 A3, 460m), Windmill Spire (ca.2300m), Dronning Maud Land (aka Queen Maud Land), Antarctiva. In November and December, 2005, Libecki spent five weeks solo in Donning Maud Land, where he managed two new routes, one of which nearly killed him. [Photo] Raphael Slawinski

After a two-hour flight from Novolazarevskaya, small islands of pure granite walls and towers emerged from the ice. I signaled where I wanted to land; the pilots seemed confused that I would attempt to climb these strange formations by myself. In a way, I felt the same.

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There were two things that concerned me about spending the next five weeks climbing alone in Antarctica: the katabatic winds and the hideous, rotten granite. After a day of kite skiing and scoping routes, I found several aesthetic lines to summits. I could tell most of them would involve kitty-litter rock; however, one in particular, on a beautiful ship's prow, looked promising. Before long, despite the high winds and negative temperatures, I had three pitches fixed. As I traversed a small ledge beneath a hollow spiderweb of cracks, two haulbag-sized flakes stood in my way. On a good stance with bomber gear, I touched one of the flakes and they both went crashing toward the ground. A chain reaction started immediately as large pool-table-shaped flakes, part of a splitter crack system in a dihedral corner about ten feet to the right of me, exploded. A truck-sized mass of granite let loose, followed by more thunder and falling stone. I closed my eyes and tucked into the fetal position. The wall shook; it sounded as if it were crumbling. All of the stone to my right, including part of my intended route, erupted. The explosions rattled loose stones from above. When it was over, what seemed like seconds and yet hours later, I gasped for breath. There was silence, a small chilly breeze, bright blue sky and a gleaming sun. I felt hot and wet. Then I realized I had peed my pants.

I rappelled the route shivering from fear and shock. When I awoke fifteen hours later, I felt a new energy about me. I was still in Antarctica. I had ventured every bit of my energy and know-how to get here. I took the day to digest the experience and consider my options.

Nearby, a route on a beautiful spire led to a small cafe-table-sized summit. In and out of wind battles and storms, I found mostly solid stone and made the summit sixteen days later. Standing on top was glorious, but the fear of rotten rock had consumed most of the enjoyment of getting there. I had tiptoed with each move and even wore free-climbing shoes the entire time for precision, despite the obvious frostbite I would have to endure. I barely slept each night. Nonetheless, my route Frozen Tears (5.10 A3, ca. 460m) had taken me to the summit of the needle-like Windmill Spire (ca. 2300m).

Safely back at camp, I enjoyed the sunset rolling across the horizon. Though I would be leaving soon, I still wanted to stand on top of the ship's prow. Three days before the Russians picked me up, I skied to the back of the ship's prow and went for a push on its long, dragon-back ridge. Several hours later I found myself atop the summit, having climbed one of the most beautiful ridgelines I have ever seen: the Dragon Back Ridge (5.5, 760m).

Mike Libecki, Salt Lake City, Utah



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