Says Norwegian climber Robert Caspersen, back home after his fourth trip to the Antarctic and his third to the magical mountain Ulvetanna (Wolf Fang). The team of Caspersen, Ivar Tollefsen and Trond Hilde unfortunately suffered bad weather for three of their four available weeks. Even the 'good' week was surprisingly cold because of a steady, icy wind. But the challenges started back in Cape Town, en route to the Antarctic. A storm at Novo – the Russian air base in the Antarctic where the team was to land – resulted in a long wait in the South African big city.
"After we finally landed at Novo, we flew on to Ulvetanna the next day," says Caspersen.
"It looked good. We were optimistic. But five minutes before we reached Ulvetanna, the weather turned bad. We couldn't see a thing. The pilot said it wasn't possible to land. So we returned to Novo in steadily deteriorating weather conditions. And there we sat : A week at the air base waiting for the storm to break. It was extremely frustrating. Two weeks of the trip were used up and we still hadn't even made it to the mountain."
Then a weather window suddenly opened. The climbing team hopped on the plane and took off for Ulvetanna. When they circled the mountain during the approach, Caspersen studied the planned route up the northeast ridge in enough detail to trigger doubts. There was much more snow on the route's bottom section than he had ever seen. He knew there were difficult to secure rock faces under the snow and the snow would be useless for setting up protection. Caspersen realized they would spend a lot of time scraping away snow to find holds and cracks for protection. On top of that, the middle section of the ridge looked much longer than he had hoped, and grew steadily sharper toward the top edge of the ridge.
"Nevertheless, we carried the equipment to the bottom of the route and started climbing," says Caspersen.
"But I had a strange feeling in my gut, and a clear voice in my head telling me that this was not a realistic project. I did not feel like I was adequately prepared for this kind of a climb. There was no way we were going to manage the 900 meter middle section in one day without spending the night. It looked more like a three-day trip. And we couldn't see any ledges where we would be able to set up a tent. And, unfortunately, we hadn't brought a Port-A-Ledge."
After two pitches, Caspersen threw in the towel. He saw no chance of climbing the route under the tomannsexisting conditions. Tollefsen and Hilde backed the decision, and the team turned their attention to a more realistic project : The south ridge of Ulvetanna. It was by no means an easy climb, but it was possible to do the route without a Port-A-Ledge. It starts with a very steep 350-meter wall, which gives access to a large plateau on the south ridge. It would be possible to set up a egular tent there. The ridge from there did not appear to be technically difficult but was long with a lot of loose rock that would make protection a challenge.
"We used two days to climb the wall," says Caspersen.
"We found bolts at all the anchor points left by the two earlier attempts on the route by the Swiss team in 2001 and the French team in 2009. That made the climbing faster and more comfortable for us. We understood their use of bolts at the anchor points, because this was also the line for rappelling and because the cracks were so big they would have required extremely large climber's cams. But many of the bolts along the pitch seemed unnecessary. Just the same, it was very exposed and excellent climbing." The weather turned bad as the team used Jumar ascenders to get to the plateau where they set up a small tent for a summit attempt. First there was light snow, then wind. But up on the ridge, they were in a good position for an attempt on the peak. After a very cramped night in a two-man tent, the trio
set off early in the morning. They quickly discovered that the ridge was more complex than expected. They messed up the route and after eight hours still had not reached the steepest part of the ridge. It was too slow. In addition, they were all struggling with cold feet. A couple of frostbitten fingers were also cause for concern. The weather was overcast and grey. No warming sun, but instead a freezing wind. The prospects of a 24-36 hour non-stop climb to the summit did not seem particularly inviting. And they knew the weather would be getting worse in the next 24 hours, with a new storm forecast.
"It was a difficult and ego-bruising decision to make, but our rational thoughts were all in the direction of turning back. So we rappelled down," says Caspersen.
When they woke up in their tent the next morning, at the base of Ulvetanna, they were in the middle of a snowstorm. For four days, they lay in their sleeping bags, waiting. On the fifth day, it was still blowing hard, and conditions were in no way ideal for climbing. But to keep their frustration in check, the team decided to use the day for a 35 kilometer ski trip to another mountain area they had not checked out earlier : The southern part of the Holtedahl Mountains.
"We had hopes of maybe climbing some easier mountains, even if the weather conditions were not the best," says Caspersen.
"And we did it. The next day, we started from our new camp at the base of Holtedahl Mountain, skied 40 kilometers and climbed six easy mountains." The next day offered the best weather of the season. For the first time on the expedition, Caspersen, Tollefsen and Hilde could stay outside the tent without suffering from the wind and biting cold. They could relax and enjoy life, even though it was with the sour taste of a task left undone.
"Imagine if we'd had these conditions the whole
time," says Caspersen.
"Then we could have climbed without gloves and in rock-climbing shoes. It was as if the peaks were thumbing their noses at us. Not just that, they were
tempting us ; giving new sustenance to our dreams. And once again, we were left with the feeling of being small and insignificant in this vast nature ; defenseless
against Mother Earth and all her power. At the same time, we received word on the satellite telephone from Novo that another nasty storm was right around the corner, maybe the worst storm of the season, and that they wanted to fly in immediately to pick us up. So much for that vacation..."