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Photograph by Mike Libecki

Antarctica: Exploring the Frozen Frontier

Pick up the September 2013 edition of National Geographic to read writer Freddie Wilkinson’s feature story about this expedition.

Queen Maud Land—the adventure starts in sun-soaked South Africa in late spring.

On the evening of November 11, 2012, a little after dinner hours, a group of men steadily forms in the back corner of the departures terminal of the Cape Town International Airport. Most are clad casually, in blue jeans and windbreakers, work pants and ski jackets. Some might be oil riggers flying home after a work stint, others lawyers, off on a ski holiday. If you were rushing by to make boarding call, you wouldn’t give them a second glance …

… but if you looked twice, you might notice the backpacks and pelican cases—and the high-topped, over-sized duck boots tucked conspicuously under everyone’s arms. Our four-man team of Mike Libecki, Cory Richards, Keith Ladzinski, and I joined them and checked in for flight # YRY9173, or “D1”, shorthand for Dromlan 1, the first jet plane of the season to land on the blue ice runway near Schirmacher Oasis, Novolazarevskaya Station, Antarctica.

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Looking down on Cory Richards and Freddie Wilkinson at a portaledge high camp 1,200 feet up Bertha’s Tower during the first ascent, named after Mike Libecki’s grandmother Bertha, who always encouraged him to follow his dreams of exploration and climbing. Photograph by Mike Libecki

The rough aestheticism of frontier life has always attracted strong personalities. Over the next six weeks, I came to know my companions very well. We laughed like billy goats and swore like sailors as we explored a range of razor summits in the Wolthat Mountains of Queen Maud Land. At each turn in our journey, the latent physical power of the landscape dictated every aspect of our lives.

We returned to Cape Town on December 21, having consumed approximately 200 kilograms in food weight, destroyed three tents, climbed two new routes to likely unclimbed summits, and made a ski circumnavigation of the range to further explore.

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The team’s route on Bertha’s Tower went right up the steepest part, right on the arete where the white rock meets gold rock. Photograph by Mike Libecki

This was team leader Mike Libecki’s third trip to the mountains of East Antarctica, and it did not disappoint.

“The rock we climbed on seemed to be created by Dr. Seuss himself,” Libecki writes. “My previous trips there were simply stepping stones that led to this incredible challenge of wind, cold, and the wildest rock features and formations I have climbed on.”

One key difference: the Wolthat Mountains are located approximately 150 kilometers east of the more popularly visited Fenris area around Ulvetanna, and subject to frequent blasts of katabatic winds. “For some reason, this region of the Wolthats serves as a major tunnel for winds coming off the polar plateau. It set the tone for an entire expedition of hard work and surreal beauty.”

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Mike Libecki’s self portrait on the summit of Bertha’s Tower, taken in his tradition bringing a mask for the current Chinese Zodiac mask—in this case the Year of the Dragon—on each expedition. Photograph by Mike Libecki

Libecki continues: “I would like to send bow-down, ultimate appreciation and thanks to the team, all of our family, friends, supporters, including the National Geographic Society and the NG Expeditions Council, as well as the Polartec Challenge Grant and the Copp-Dash Inspire Award. It was not just our team of four that succeeded and climbed these towers, it was also hundreds of other people who made this possible, and I appreciate this with all of my heart and soul. We would not have stepped out the door without countless people and their time and energy.”

Pick up the September 2013 edition of National Geographic to read writer Freddie Wilkinson’s feature story about this expedition.

Route Info:

Bertha’s Tower: 5.11R A3+ Grade VI
(Libecki, Wilkinson, Richards, Ladzinski)

Grammie Hannah’s Tower: 5.6 2000+ feet.
(Libecki, Richards, Wilkinson, Ladzinski)