The Last Great Climb

Story of the first ascent of one of the world's most remote mountains via its longest route; the NE ridge of Ulvetanna.

Our objective: to scale the unclimbed North-East ridge of Ulvetanna Peak in Antarctica, which would involve over a mile of climbing in temperatures as low as minus 30.
Our ride to Antarctica put old cold war technology to good use—a Russian Ilyushin Il-76 plane, perfect for landing on the blue ice runway, because there are no sealed surfaces in Antarctica.
We landed at the rather desolate Russian science base of Novo.
From the airbase we take a short flight in a twin prop, landing in the deep snow just below Ulvetanna Peak.
Once our gear has been unloaded, we establish our basecamp 4km away from the mountain—to avoid the freezing temperatures that come with being in the night-time shadow of this towering peak.
In this part of the world the sun is out 24/7, but don’t let that fool you into thinking the conditions will be comfortable.
We built snow walls and double-poled all the tents as many storms were forecast. Fortunately, they never quite materialised in the full Antarctic force, which can typically be 100mph winds and spell certain death for anyone not tucked up in their tent when they arrive.
Our team, including all the climbers—Leo Houlding, Sean Leary, Jason Pickles, Chris Rabone, and myself—spent almost two weeks establishing an advanced base camp at the foot of the NE ridge.
We continued to prepare for the worst by building an ice cave as an emergency shelter, even featuring Lakeland sheep skins, luxury!
As expedition photographer and film maker I heard about a plane that had crashed on take off on the other side of the range.
I took my opportunity to ski around the range not only to get some spectacular shots of this surreal landscape, but to photograph the damaged fuselage of the plane. Unique shots!
Myself and Chris Rabone skied for almost 16 hours non-stop for the round trip. This was possibly my favourite day of the trip—one of the few times I could relax and really just enjoy being there, without being too caught up in my film-making duties or stressing about hanging hundreds of metres off the deck on a single line.
The easy angled central section of the ridge was one of the finest features I have ever seen on a mountain, easy to climb, but bold (no protection) and awesomely exposed.
We had a 22 hour day getting all our kit up to the wall camp.
At the wall camp, we lived in portaledges (tents hanging on the cliff).
We had done over half the route, but there was still 500m to go.
Now we had to tackle the initial steep 250m of headwall.
The temperature dropped the higher we climbed and some of the filming on the upper section of the mountain was the hardest I have done, shooting in around minus 25, it was torturously cold and very hard to think about photography!
Lead climber Leo Houlding did an amazing job of free climbing in these temperatures, resting on the gear to put his freezing hands back into his gloves equipped with hand warmers.
Then just as we were within striking distance of the summit the weather finally turned in.
We pressed on for the summit on the worst day of the trip in increasingly snowy conditions.
Finally, in temperatures of minus 30, we made a successful summit bid.
Whilst the summit marks the completion of the climb, you are now in the most dangerous position of all. It’s well known that most accidents occur on descent. Sixteen abseils later we were back to the relative comforts of the ledge camp at half height of the mountain.
Capturing the ascent of the NE ridge of Ulvetanna was undoubtedly the highlight of my career and a great personal experience, but you don’t really begin reflect upon with any clarity of perspective until many months after the expedition.
Watch trailer of the award-winning Last Great Climb expedition documentary film:

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