Amundsen Takes the Transantarctic Mountains

100 years ago this week Roald Amundsen and his boys hit the Transantarctic Mountains. They had always expected them to be there, extending from Beardmore Glacier, 200 miles to the north, where Shackleton had forged his route to the polar plateau in 1908, and where Scott this season would be pressing his men as well. Of course, the old idea of the Transantarctic Mountains petering out somewhere in the south was bantered about in Amundsen’s camp. Why not a straight shot from the ice shelf onto the plateau? But there was no doubt on November 8, when the first thin line of relief materialized at the horizon.

Hung with a stratus ceiling, the face of Mount Fridtjof Nansen looms in the shadows. As Amundsen’s party approached the mountains, this massif materialized with a grandeur surpassing all others.

As the party drew closer, the mountains took form, great blocky massifs set back from low, sinuous foothills. On Novermber 16 the party had left the level of the ice shelf and was camped on the rising undulation of the foothills. To the right was a smooth glacier that rose steadily to the south, but it appeared to head at the bottom of a gigantic massif, Mt. Fridtjof Nansen, as Amundsen named it., so that way was out. To the southeast the horizon dropped between Mt. Fridtjof Nansen and a bold peak to the left (east), Mt. Don Pedro Christophersen. Perhaps there would be passage there.

The 8,000 foot northern face of Mt. Fridtjof Nansen.

After dinner Amundsen and two of the others skied up into a col in the nearby range, deciding to head directly south over the ridge system at a reasonable spot. On the way back to camp Amundsen and Bjaaland skied over to a tiny nunatak (island of rock surrounded by snow) making the only bedrock landfall of the entire Antarctic portion of the expedition.

At the front of the photo, detached from its talon, the hooked claw of Mount Betty, Amundsen’s only landfall in Antarctica, connects through a gnarly eastern limb back to the massive body of Mount Fridtjof Nansen. Flanked to the south (left) by Axel Heiberg Glacier and to the west (right) by Liv Glacier, the central massif rises abruptly to an elevation of 13,350 feet along its shadowy, northeastern wall. Mount Don Pedro Christophersen is the dark, dome-shaped massif on the far side of Axel Heiberg Glacier. The pair of stepped icefalls between Mount Don Pedro Christophersen and Mount Fridtjof Nansen was the crux of Amundsen’s crossing of the Transantarctic Mountains. The route taken the first day in reconnaissance by Amundsen and Bjaaland is illustrated in blue. Amundsen’s route south, shown in magenta, links to the route on the following figure.

On November 17 the party covered 11 1/2 miles, rose 2,000 feet, and camped “on a little glacier among crevasses.” After dinner Wisting and Hanssen went in one direction and Bjaaland in another to scout a trail over the ridge crest. The next morning, November 18, Amundsen chose the lower pass. As the party came out onto the crest of the ridge, the full faces of both Fridtjof Nansen and Don Pedro Christophersen presented themselves. Between the massifs was a pass with a short, steep glacier that cascaded down two ice falls separating terraces. Amundsen recounts, “we could follow a little connected line among the many crevasses; we saw that we could go a long way.”

Amundsen’s route through the Transantarctic Mountains winds purposefully across the foothills, up the icefalls of the Axel Heiberg Glacier, and behind Mount Engelstad, the low pyramid to the left of Mount Fridtjof Nansen. The first night’s camp “lay on a little glacier among huge crevasses.” The blue lines show the reconnaissance routes of Wisting and Hanssen to the right and Bjaaland to the left, with both parties reporting back that the next day they would have to descend. The steepest bit of climbing of the entire traverse was in the shadowed stretch of the ridge in the middle of the image. The Norwegians’ three camps at the base, middle, and top of the icefalls are indicated. The topmost in the gap to the left of Mount Engelstad was the “Butcher’s Shop.”

The party descended and then, hell bent on a southern heading, Amundsen chose to drive back up the next ridge rather than letting the party down onto the Axel Heiberg Glacier. By evening they had worked their way across the glacier and followed a deep, snow-filled furrow, and were camped beneath the shadowed face of Don Pedro Christopherson. Bjaaland and Hanssen skied up to the first icefall to scout a route, reporting back that they had found what appeared to be a way through. November 19, As always on the more demanding ascents, Bjaaland was the forerunner, scouting the trail and leading the climb. The dogs double-teamed the sledges up the steep icefall, and the party managed to cobble a trail out of safe ground and solid bridges. Before midday they had reached the first terrace. The second icefall loomed ahead with “nothing but crevasse after crevasse, so huge and ugly” that this step was impassable. However, to the left, the terrace seemed to rise gently toward Mount Don Pedro Christophersen and to merge into its snowy lower slope. The men headed in that direction but soon found themselves in a cul-de-sac of open chasms, so they camped.

Map of the Axel Heiberg area showing Amundsen’s route through the mountains. Campsites are indicated with dots.

While the dogs were being fed and bedded, Amundsen led a reconnaissance sortie to the base of an ice ridge above the camp. The men returned to camp for dinner and then went out again to see what lay beyond the ridge. By keeping in close under Mount Don Pedro Christophersen, they found the passage over the ice ridge to be smooth, except for a few large, open crevasses that were easily avoided. Before long they were sure that they had passed the chaotic part of the glacier and that only one final ice rise stood between them and the plateau. With confidence that they would be on the plateau the following day, the three men skied back to camp. As they came out on a rise and looked down at their tent, Amundsen reflected on the scene: “Great blocks of ice scattered promiscuously about gave the impression that here Nature was too powerful for us. Here no progress was to be thought of. “It was not without a certain satisfaction that we stood there and contemplated the scene. The little dark speck down there—our tent—in the midst of this chaos, gave us a feeling of strength and power. We knew in our hearts that the ground would have to be ugly indeed if we were not to maneuver our way across it and find a place for that little home of ours.” On the morning of November 20, the weather was still and clear. The pull up to the next terrace was strenuous, but the dogs managed to do it with single teams. As the party rounded Mount Ole Engelstad, the plateau opened before. It was now time to turn south again. Directly ahead was a snowy ridge that projected to the west from Mount Don Pedro Christophersen. As they ran up onto it, the surface changed from the soft snow that had been with them since reaching the mountains to hard, sharp-edged sastrugi (windblown patterns in snow.) When the gratified party camped that night at 8:00 p.m., they were at 10,920 feet, having covered 19¼ miles and risen 5,750 feet. They had crossed the entirety of the Transantarctic Mountains in only four days. (Adapted from The Roof at the Bottom of the World.)

Gallery – Crevasses 2.0

This week's gallery of crevasse fields was shot during the 2010-11 field season with my new digital camera, a Canon EOS Rebel T2i with 18-200 zoom lens. The first three are from Beardmore Glacier and vicinity, the fourth image is from the steep country to the north of Mt. MArkham.

Conquering The Spectre In The Gothic Mountains on The Huffington Post

A post I wrote for The Huffington Post titled "Conquering The Spectre In The Gothic Mountains" has been published. The post was adapted from The Roof at the Bottom of the World. Check it out at

The Ascent of Mount Markham in The Atlantic

Despite the lead in to my recent article in The Atlantic, you cannot reach the top of Mt. Markham by helicopter nor did I do it one foot after another. In my new post, I tell the story of how I made it to the top if this 14,000+ foot mountain. Check it out at

The Roof at the Bottom of the World Reviewed by SESE SOURCE

My new book, The Roof at the Bottom of the World was recently reviewed by Nikki Cassis for the SESE SOURCE. The SOURCE is the monthly newsletter from the School of Earth and Space Exploration at ASU where I teach. The November issue also features one of my photographs of the Transantarctic Mountains on the cover. Download the November issue or visit to check out the review.

The Wind

In the static, lifeless landscape of the deep field, the wind is the only animate force. It is movement and sound, alternately relentless and fickle. When it stops and the sun beams down from a cloudless sky, you can strip to bare skin and immediately feel the warmth. But let one puff of breeze disturb the thin layer of radiant air, and shivers will well up. When the wind picks up, it buffets the parka and bites at fingertips, ear lobes, and nose. In its full fury the wind has flattened tents and thrown men from the decks of ships. At these times it is an awesome, fearsome force.

Hold onto your hood.

During the 1980–1981 field season I was camped between Mount Mooney and the La Gorce Mountains a few miles from our put-in site on Robison Glacier. For the better part of the two weeks we spent at that camp, frigid, katabatic winds poured over us from the polar plateau to the southeast. With wind speeds generally around ten to fifteen knots and temperatures about minus 10° F, our days mapping the outcrops in the surrounding area were seldom comfortable, especially along ridgelines where the wind compressed and accelerated. The La Gorce Mountains at the edge of the polar plateau are a first obstruction to katabatic winds that originate deep in the interior of the East Antarctic Ice Sheet. The flat top of these mountains slips smoothly from beneath the ice sheet and rises to the northwest to a dramatic escarpment that drops steeply more than three thousand feet and splays into two major ridge systems. When the katabatic winds meet the southeast or back side of the La Gorce Mountains, they split into three streams: two follow the descending glaciers on either side of the mountains, and a central stream shoots across the flat summit and plunges off the lip of the escarpment. From our camp on the glacier we looked up to the escarpment. On days when the wind was light and there was only a trickle of granular, blowing snow around base camp, we could see a churning plume of wind and snow plummeting from the escarpment lip high above. We would watch it and imagine that somewhere back from the edge beyond where we could see there was a valve that tapped the source of all winds, screaming as it released its jetted fury.

A cloud layer shoots out from the escarpment lip of the La Gorce Mountains. Beneath it, a plume of snow traces the dense, frigid, katabatic wind as it leaves the precipice and plunges into the valley behind the intervening ridgeline.

During one three-day period, the wind speed rose to forty knots around camp, and we were forced to hunker in our tents, enveloped in blowing snow. It is during storms like these that I have learned to love the Scott tents. When planted properly, these four-sided pyramids will bear the fiercest gale, their double walls flapping loudly as they keep out the force of the wind. During this storm, tumultuous clouds ripped through the scene, opening periodically to reveal the escarpment lip beyond the adjacent ridge. A storm such as this can move in quickly, so we always have to be cautious if working far from camp, and watch that the weather doesn’t turn. To be caught out can truly be a matter of life and death. But back at camp with the warmth of the cookstove at hand we can feel secure and even cozy. Then it is good to go out into the blast, not to confront the wind but to feel its pressure, to lean the body into it, to find the angle of balance, to sense the vagaries in the flow, to feel the cold, to listen to the voices wheezing and whistling around every obstacle in camp—tents, boxes, bamboo poles.

Blowing snow drifts over base camp in the La Gorce Mountains, December, 1980. The northern escarpment of the La Gorce Mountains is visible to the left rear. The Scott tent in the middle of the image served as the cook tent for our four-man party, while we each had an individual mountain tents for sleeping (not in view). To the left of the Scott tent are two Nansen sleds with tri-wall cardboard boxes containing food. Two snowmobiles, one covered, the other with its windshield exposed, sit behind a third Nansen sled. On the right, Mugs is taking a shovel out of a wooden box mounted on a Nansen sled, to dig an entrance to his sleeping tent. Behind that is another Nansen sled with a shock of bamboo poles and flags for marking trails.

Out beyond the noise of camp, we hear only the soft shoosh of blowing snow streaming through the sastrugi. We look up to a blue sky and down into the miasma of snow and wind at ground level, opaque beyond one hundred yards. We are walking at the dynamic interface of atmosphere and solid earth; wind pants flap, and we squint with one eye peering down the tunnel of the hood, balancing between the cross gust and the pitch of our strides. Noses drip and fingers begin to ache from the cold. The wind is right there with us: we slip on through its stream. (Adapted from The Roof at the Bottom of the World.)

Gallery – Disturbed Ice

[nggallery id=19] By early January seasonal ice has begun to breakup in McMurdo Sound. This week's gallery is was shot at the interface between shore and sea at Hut Point, adjacent to McMurdo Station.

Remote Helicopter Camps

Remote helicopter camps have been a recurring logistic feature of the U. S. Antarctic Program every several years since its origin following the International Geophysical Year in 1957-58. For my first Antarctic season, 1970-71, I was part of a field party from Ohio State connected to one of these installations. At that time, NSF granted field camps to individual proposals, and Ohio State had been funded that year for extensive geological reconnaissance in a 150-mile swath of the Transantarctic Mountains, about 450 miles south of McMurdo Station. We had three HU-1B (single engine) Huey helicopters, flown by Navy squadron VXE-6. We were a team of seven grad students, one undergrad, a couple of post docs, several faculty, and a mountaineer. Every day the helicopters would take us out to a field site and at the end of the day, bring us back to camp. The Navy crew included a half dozen pilots, about the same number of maintenance personnel, a weather watcher, a medic, and a cook. The camp was built of Jamesways, modular, portable, quonset-style huts that were a holdover from the Korean War. They were warmed with gasoline-fueled Preway heaters. All the scientists slept together in one Jamesway, with a small, partitioned workspace at one end, two other Jamesways bunked the Navy pilots and enlisted men, a fourth served as a mess hall, and a small fifth unit was designated the comms shack. It only takes one person snoring in the room to mess with your sleep, but if there are two or three going off at once with different pitches and rhythms, sleep can become a desperate affair. Earplugs are issued when you climb onto the Hercules aircraft in Antarctica to preserve your hearing in the deafening noise at the back of the plane. They saved me in the Jamesway that season. A decade later the approach to remote, helicopter logistics had evolved. In 1981-82 I was Chief Scientist at a remote, helo camp in northern Victoria Land (NVL), 400 miles north of McMurdo. Instead of the dozen and a half geologists that worked from the 1970-71 camp, we served 65 geologists (a record number at the time) from five countries. What made this manageable was that we put parties out in the field with tents, and in some cases snowmobiles, where they operated independently for much of the time. The camp used the same Jamesway set-up, flown in by Hercs. The Navy was still flying the helos, but the management and maintenance of camp, and the cooking was in the hands of the civilian contractor. A single mechanic maintained the camp generator and electrical system, the snow melter, the Caterpillar front-loader, and the snowmobiles. As Chief Scientist, I slept in the science Jamesway to keep a closer pulse on the camp, but a number of the geologists that stayed at the base camp set up tents at the edge of town in “the suburbs,” to escape the snorers, and gain a modicum of privacy.

The remote, helicopter-supported camp deployed in northern Victoria Land during the 1981–1982 field season. The six structures on the left side of the camp are Jamesways used as berthing facilities, a mess hall, a science laboratory, and a generator shack. The cargo yard extends to the right from these. The disrupted snow at the extreme right is a snow pit dug to supply the snow melter for the camp’s water supply. An LC-130 Hercules aircraft sits next to the camp runway. The two shiny objects immediately above the Herc are fuel bladders, giant “water beds” filled with jet fuel for the helicopters. Two of the three HU-1D helos assigned to the camp sit on the pad. I am aboard the third as it approaches camp.

In 1985-86 I worked with a party of three as a satellite of a remote, helo camp in the central Transantarctic Mountains, 350 miles south of McMurdo. The basecamp had been erected the previous season to host a meeting of international representatives from developing nations that had been agitating at the United Nations for wider inclusion in the Antarctic club. The motivation of the organizers of the meeting was to impress the participants with the severity of Antarctic field conditions and the expense of fielding a program. The basic operations were the same, but in addition to the Jamesway structures, the kitchen area was built of plywood with a plumbing system that included flush toilets and multiple showers. There never has been such a cushy set up for a one-off field camp so far from McMurdo Station.

A portion of the main kitchen facility built for the 1984-85 field camp that hosted dignitaries from the developming nations. The light-filled doorway leads to a 20-foot shaft and ladder for reaching the surface.

The next time that I participated in a remote, helo camp was in 2010-11, again as Chief Scientist. The camp was built on the same site as the camp in 1985-86. The remains of the old, plywood structure still existed, minus the plumbing, buried beneath about 20 feet of snow. In the 25 years since my previous association with a remote, helo camp, a number of changes had occurred. VXE-6 was disestablished on 31 March 1999, ending 44 years of distinguished service by the Navy to the U. S. Antarctic Program. The switch to a civilian contractor brought with it a more streamlined approach to operations. The Navy had always required that one helicopter sit on the ground as a safety precaution in the event of a necessary search and rescue operation, so the remote camps had three helos as part of their operation. The civilian contractor now stipulates only that if two helos are in the air at the same time that they must be operating within a prescribed distance from each other in the event of an S & R operation. Also, the Navy always required two pilots plus a crew member on a helo. The contractor requires only one pilot, a pilot in training, and no crew member. Another change in logistics was the inclusion of de Havilland, Twin-Otter, fixed-wing aircraft in the field operations of remote camps. The normal operating radius of helicopters is 100 nautical miles. The addition of the Twin Otters has extended that range by many hundreds of miles. During the 2010-11 season, one of our parties was flown to the Reedy Glacier area more than 300 miles to the south, with a dog-leg to the South Pole for refueling enroute. The camp itself, which served 100 scientists throughout the season, was considerably bigger than any I had previously experienced. The Jamesways were replaced by Rac-tents, similar in modular design to the Jamesways, but with low walls beneath the arches, so that there is more shoulder and head room inside if you are sitting near the side of the structure. The Rac-tents also have skylights, precluding the need for electrical lighting. All sleeping, except for small darkened structures for the helo and Otter crews, was done in individual tents in a “tent city” at the side of the camp. The cargo yard was so vast and far away from the main structures that some of us joked that we needed a GPS unit so we didn’t get lost when we were tending to our gear and samples.

The 2010-11 CTAM (Central Transantarctic Mountains) camp. A Twin Otter sits on the deck. The row of Rac-tents behind that begins with the mechanics tent, then the comms tent, then two science tents, then the long kitchen and mess, followed by a shower tent, a medical tent, and two sleeping tents for helo and Otter crews. Beyond that is "Tent City." To the left of the Rac-tent row are five dark outhouses. Beyond that is the camp's cargo yard, and to the left of that the science cargo yard.

In many ways the remote camps have become more efficient over the decades, but with regard to support personnel they have not. During the 2010-11 season, the camp staff, not counting pilots and mechanics, numbered 18. This included a camp manager, a camp supervisor, a field support coordinator, two weather observers, a paramedic, a fuels operator, a cargo specialist, three general assistants, a chef, two sous chefs, two heavy equipment operators, a heavy equipment mechanic, and a snowmobile mechanic, plus a rotating dining attendant, and for the better part of the season, a carpenter.

Gallery – Reflections

I thought that I would break out of the Antarctic mold for this week's gallery. These images are reflections on Molas Lake, south of Silverton, Colorado, August, 2011.