Words by Stephen Venables
Stephen Venables recently organised his seventh expedition to the sub-antarctic island of South Georgia. The team made several first ascents including Mt Baume and Starbuck Peak, which Venables had been wanting to climb for 27 years. Starbuck was possibly the hardest technical climb yet achieved on the island.
The following is an extract from Stephen Venables as featured in Climb Magazine.
South Georgia has always beckoned Stephen Venables. A long way away, and very hard to get to, it took years of dreaming before Stephen finally crossed the Antarctic Convergence to the hostile and under-explored territory.
Six expeditions later, there were still two noticeable omissions from the racked-up list of first ascents on the island – the spectacular Starbuck Peak (1434m) and the unforgiving Mount Baume (1912m), one of the highest unclimbed summits.
After another unsuccessful attempt to climb the routes fell-through due to blasting winds two years prior in 2014, Stephen, alongside Skip Novak, Crag Jones, Henry Chaplin, Simon Richardson and David Lund, returned to South Georgia in September 2016, to finally climb Mt. Baume and Starbuck, 27 years since he first laid eyes on them.
First Ascents – Mt Baume | Starbuck Peak
After a blissfully easy four days passage from Stanley, we anchored in perfect conditions at my favoured bay, Trolhull, with just one easy glacier pass between us and Starbuck Peak. That afternoon, helped by our wonderful support team, we got all the gear and sixteen days supplies landed on the beach, stowed safely where no four ton bull elephant seal might accidentally crush it. At dawn the next day we waved goodbye to Pelagic Australis and set off, towing hideously heavy pulks. Soon we were navigating by compass in a whiteout and by mid afternoon we were pitching camp in falling snow.
Excellent, I thought, as the wind blew from the northwest for the next four days, burying the tents in snow the consistency of concrete. Excellent – the boys are getting the authentic South Georgia experience. In fact one of ‘the boys’ Crag Jones, knew the island better than me and Skip and had probably done more first ascents here than anyone. The other three, who were new to South Georgia, took the incarceration with admirable good humour.
David Lund remained as phlegmatic as he had been when I had last climbed with him, on Monte Rosa, in 1978. Henry Chaplin, expert skier and thoroughly sound all-round climber, endeared himself to me by saying I cooked the best risotto he had ever eaten in a tent. Sharing the other tent with Jones and Novak was the hardcore Scottish winter climber and ace alpinist Simon Richardson – our secret weapon.
Each night Novak telephoned Skipper Dave for a weather forecast and by the fourth night we were promised a spell of settled high pressure over the island. Sure enough, we woke to blue skies and a stunning view of Starbuck plastered white. After the long chore of digging out the tents and packing, a quick descent and a three hour climb got us to a new camp right beneath the north ridge. While the old men pitched the new camp, the youngsters – Simon and Henry – skied up to nab a subsidiary little summit and recce the approaches to my ramp.
Shortly after dawn the next morning five of us assembled on the east side of Starbuck and watched the sixth – the secret weapon – disappear over a little notch on the North Ridge.
It was a brilliant opening move, getting us straight on to the West Face ramp and, after six years wondering, I was thrilled to find solid climbable snow and ice sticking to it. The problem was how to climb the vertical headwall above. In the absence of any discernible weakness, Simon just kept working round the mountain, with the rest of us following obediently, admiring the eclectic selection of pegs, bulldogs, ice screws, slings and hexes assembled at each improbable belay. One dramatic ‘Traverse of the Gods’ was protected with a backrope. A pitch later we crossed a notch onto the South Ridge and then continued to spiral round onto the East Face.
It was now mid afternoon. Simon was out of sight above and Skip was muttering gloomily about it nearly being his bedtime. But at last there was a shout and Skip and Crag set off up the only weakness in the entire headwall. Henry followed and I came last, marvelling at Simon’s lead of a classic udging shuffle up fathomless sugar stuck loosely to some of the most unhelpful rock any of had ever seen, ending with a body belay standing in a hole just beneath a fantastically pointy precarious summit, on which we each took turns to stand. A snow bollard got us safely back down to the final belay, from where we reversed our upward spiral, abseiling and downclimbing into the darkness, back to our skis and eventually our beds at around midnight.
Standing on the summit of Starbuck, looking across at the snowy dome of Carse, where I had stood almost 27 years earlier and first wondered about this improbable pinnacle, was one of the great moments of my life. Even better was the realisation that, blessed with an extraordinary sustained spell of high pressure, our show could go on. By way of relaxation, the next afternoon Simon, Henry and I skied round to two nice little unclimbed snow domes. Then we all spent a day in harness, moving camp to one of the highest cols on the island. From there Henry and David made the first ski ascent and descent of Mt Pelagic. Skip and Crag had made the first ascent eleven years earlier as consolation for a failed attempt on Mt Baume – the peak which four of us now set off to try again.
We knew it would be a long day, so we set off at 11.00 in the evening. In the dark Crag led us up several pitches of excellent mixed climbing, failing to recognize any of it from his previous attempt, until, at daybreak, he found a single forlorn bleached abseil sling at the 2005 highpoint. It was a beautiful clever route, weaving sneakily up a safe buttress just to the side of some very dangerous seracs, to get onto a big upper snow-ice face. Here we toiled laboriously in the hot sun, with Simon leading the way, emerging finally beneath a typically vertiginous South Georgian summit nipple, climbed via a spectacular ice tube.
Again, it was a one-at-a-time summit, with the most awesome 2,500 metres drop straight down to the ocean. Then the race was on to get back to the rock buttress before nightfall. This we just achieved, but the final six abseils were all done in pitch darkness and we had been on the go continuously for twenty-seven hours when we finally rejoined Henry and David back at camp.
The weather forecast was now finally looking less promising, so it was time to quit while we were ahead. For me it was another trip down Memory Lane, trundling enjoyably north, over the Ross Pass and down onto a Ross Glacier transformed almost out of recognition since I had first seen it in 1989, and now looked virtually impassable in its lower reaches. But Novak, like Baldrick, had ‘a cunning plan’ to continue north, up the subsidiary Webb and Cook Glaciers to St Andrew’s Bay.
The plan worked, but one route-finding mistake cost us a day’s delay, tentbound in ferocious winds, eking out the last scraps of food. In my tent breakfast on Day 16 was a biscuit. In Novak’s tent they had conserved rations more judiciously and they feasted royally on porridge and pesto. Then, in glorious sunshine, we packed the pulks for the final time and skied down to beach, where the penguins watched indifferently while the support team welcomed us with hugs and champagne.