Ascent of Mount Barre

Mount Barre is one of three large peaks that make up the Princess Royal Range in Antarctica. Liotard, Gaudry and Barre dominate the horizon to the West of Rothera research station, towering above Ryder Bay. Although only a little over 2000m in height these peaks stretch down to sea level giving them a similar vertical relief to that of larger mountains elsewhere that start on high plateaus.

Due to the fact that the range is only visited during the winter months when the weather is particularly fickle and the hours of daylight short these mountains see very few ascents. I was lucky enough to reach the summit of Mt. Liotard in 2012 with that years wintering Doctor, Rob Lambert. Since then Liotard has had no more ascents.

Two weeks ago I got the opportunity to have a crack at Mt. Barre with Phil Stevens, another BAS field guide. At the end of all winter trips the field guides get a trip of our own, which is a great opportunity to try some of the slightly more committing objectives on Adelaide Island. Historically the end of September/start of October provides us with particularly poor weather and this year started off as no exception… Phil and I spent the first half of the week staring out of the window in frustration as heavy snow fell and 40 knot winds raced past. This weather system thankfully passed and we ski-doo’d to the Western side of Adelaide Island and set up camp beneath Barre.

We woke early to find beautiful blue skies overhead and hardly a breath of wind - perfect conditions! We drove our skidoos 6km from camp to the base of Barre and clipped into our mountaineering skis. We made good time up the initial steepening (despite deep snow, and Phil’s skins failing to stay stuck to his skis!) to gain the col between Barre and Mangin. At the col we were greeted by 20 knot winds which were unhelpfully picking up the soft snow that had fallen over the previous few days obscuring our vision. We persevered further up in the hope that the winds would calm down but sadly they just increased in strength. We reached the first of the difficulties and couldn’t see enough to pick a good line through the bands of seracs so made the call to head back down to our camp. By this point the winds had picked up around camp too so we unpacked the kite for a few hours of fun!

The next day started in a similar vein…blue skis and hardly any wind. We didn’t want to risk having two unsuccessful attempts on Barre and could see some spindrift coming off the summit ridge. After procrastinating for an hour while we warmed the skis and skins up in our tent we decided to go for it. On reaching the point where we parked the skidoos the winds were horrendous, even stronger than the day before… cue some more procrastinating… and then the decision to ski to the col for a better look. Our plan payed off and the winds died down to a gentle breeze.

We reached our high point from the previous day and picked a cunning line over some large crevasses and through the threatening seracs. From here we gained the col beneath the summit itself. The summit is made up of a mass of rime ice, which forms into the prevailing wind, creating a summit mushroom similar to that commonly found in Patagonia and the Andes. These mushrooms are notoriously hard to climb as the rime ice is very aerated and provides no purchase for crampons or ice axes. The common way to overcome such obstacles is by tunnelling vertically through the snow - a tiring and very time consuming task.

Knowing that these formations grow into the prevailing wind we thought that if we could traverse around the summit and reach the Southern side it wouldn’t be as steep or difficult to surmount. It was impossible to tell from below but there appeared to be a sort of ledge going round on the right hand side. We followed this route, half expecting it to become a dead-end. To our surprise it did exactly as we had hoped and spat us out onto a 50 degree slope to the top!

The views back down towards Rothera were sublime, and gave us a great perspective of the whole of Adelaide Island. After the obligatory summit photos and a quick radio call back to base we made a rapid descent back down the same route and back to our camp for tea and medals.

A fantastic end to the winter and a very memorable summit!