Ulvetanna, North Face

Posted on: June 1, 2007


Robert Caspersen on the first ascent of the Norwegian Route (A4 5.10, 960m), north face, Ulvetanna (2960m), Dronning Maud Land (aka Queen Maud Land), Antarctica. Caspersen, Ivar Tollefsen, Trond Hilde and Stein-Ivar Gravdal made the first ascent of the route over sixteen days, climbing capsule style in temperatures that averaged -20 degrees C. [Photo] Stein-Ivar Gravdal

It was my first trip to Antarctica, and I frantically scurried back and forth between the airplane windows to get the best view. Not to say that Ivar Tollefsen, Robert Caspersen and Trond Hilde, who had pioneered the climbing in this area in 1994, were sitting calmly in their seats solving crosswords. We all acted like a bunch of teenagers fighting to get a glimpse into the girls' locker room. Among the myriad peaks emerging on the horizon, Ulvetanna (Wolfs Tooth) stood out like a giant fang. Its 1200-meter east face was our main objective.

As it turned out, Robert had been absolutely right thirteen years ago when, after his first ascent of Ulvetanna, via the west face with Ivar, he skied past the east face, looked at the dark, looming wall with terror and dubbed it impossible. We took comfort in our belief that a central line on this featureless east face probably never will be climbed, at least not in a sensible style.

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On the other hand, we knew that the warmer and more-aesthetic-looking north face was climbable. Thomas Cosgriff, who also was a part of Ivar's 1994 expedition, completed four pitches on the most obvious line along with Trond, two of them at A4. To Trond's recollection this line offered lousy, coarse-grained rock. We hoped to find an alternative.

One hundred meters to the left of the 1994 attempt and twelve meters above the top of the forty-degree, five-pitch ice field at the base of the wall, Robert finally managed to cram in his first piece of protection. Thus assured, he entered a grim-looking, flake-sandwich dihedral that had the potential to replace the flow of gravel with larger pieces. I unclipped and quietly moved out of the line of fire.

I didn't find the prospect of hitting a ledge while embracing a gong-sounding flake one-third of the way up Pitch 2 very pleasing, but in general the rock quality was not half as bad as we'd feared, and our morale was high. An eight-meter, exhilarating hook traverse led to the first major blank section. Although this pitch was the most time-consuming and produced the longest fall potential (two bolts in forty meters), its pleasant steepness and natural hook placements kept it from being the crux. Robert and I established the first wall camp after Pitch 4, hauling all the gear using tied-together ropes. A few brilliant pitches followed streaks of fine-grain intrusions (A3+ to A4). Trond and Ivar then made a marathon seven-pitch jumar with heavy packs to join us. The two boys acted like lumps of jelly, but the ensuing forty-eight-hour snowstorm gave them plenty of time to rest. Luckily we had two sliced-up books to share.

Once the blizzard settled, I fought my way up a snow-filled slanting crack that led to another blank section. Robert tackled an undulating formation with odd, dubious pro to a dihedral. The transition between the lower face and the narrow headwall offered easier free climbing. After four 5.9-ish pitches, Ivar and I reached our objective, a large cave-like ledge. We'd seen the formation from the ground, but little could prepare us for the fifty-meter amphitheater or the overstimulation of the view.

This "ground" made a perfect base for working our way up the headwall and onto the top pyramid. Here the climbing turned easier, mostly A2-ish with harder passages and the exposed, vertical-to-overhanging, continuous dihedral systems, at times like cam highways. We summited November 20 after twenty-one pitches, 960 meters and sixteen climbing days, feeling very privileged.

Our main objective taken care of, we skied thirty kilometers to the Holtedahl mountains. Mike Libecki, the only other climber we know who has been to this region, had soloed the unclimbed Windmill Spire and Dragon Back Ridge last season. We climbed, mostly unroped, six other peaks (Store Gruvletind, 2254m; Kubbestolen, 2079m; and four unnamed summits, ca. 2200m), which we believe to be first ascents.

—Stein-Ivar Gravdal, Stavanger, Norway

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