Ascent of the Spectre

I remember the first time I saw a photos of the Organ Pipe Peaks. It was 1970, and I was a graduate student due to leave on my first expedition to Antarctica. I did not believe that any grouping of summits could be so dramatic, beautiful, and perfect. They were a fantasy of mountains rendered with bold and simple strokes, faceted grandeur in black and white. I dreamed of traveling to those peaks, bowing down before their central spire—The Spectre—and sampling a piece of the rock. The photos had been taken by a couple of geologists, Quin Blackburn, who had led a party through the area in 1934-35 and named the peaks, publishing his account in the Geographical Review (1937, v. 27, pp. 598-614,) and Rudi Katz, a New Zealander who had traversed through the area the year before and quickly published his account in the New Zealand Alpine Journal (1970, pp. 398-407.) Alas, the Organ Pipe Peaks remained beyond my reach that season.

Photo of Organ Pipe Peaks taken by Rudi Katz. The central spire is The Spectre. Mount Harkness (unclimbed) at lower right. Watson Escarpment at the rear.

Ten years later on my fifth Antarctic expedition, I found myself camped on Sanctuary Glacier, in the shadow of the Organ Pipe Peaks. My work that season had begun with geological mapping of the La Gorce Mountains and ended with a collecting traverse down the east side of Scott Glacier, essentially retracing Blackburn’s route. Now I was one day away from attempting an ascent of The Spectre—the splendid spire that had awed both Blackburn’s and Katz’s parties.

South face of The Spectre. Photo by Mugs Stump.

Being a klutz with ropes myself, I have always had someone in the party who is experienced with roped climbing in case we needed it. This time, the field assistant/mountaineer for the party was my brother Mugs, who had the year before made his first big mark in the climbing world with the first ascent of the Emperor Face on Mount Robson in British Columbia. From the beginning of the field season, Mugs and I had joked about climbing The Spectre. We figured he would do all the leading, and if necessary would winch me, the older brother, up on the rope. Now that we were camped in the shadow of The Spectre, looking up its backside, the climb was no longer a joke. It was real, sheer, and daunting. Mugs studied the fractured upper wall of the spire, and, although he couldn’t see a clear route, said “we’ll just wander around on the face and see where it leads.” I understood Mugs’s nonchalance and trusted him completely. I also trusted myself. I must admit, however, that I didn’t sleep well the night before the climb. What would it be like? Would the rough passages be vertical or overhung? Would I be in way over my head? I hadn’t had such a case of butterflies since before wrestling matches in high school.

North face of The Spectre showing our ascent route.

After a big breakfast Mugs and I snowmobiled over to the foot of The Spectre. We carried a minimal rack of climbing gear: a half-dozen carabineers, several slings, and four pitons to secure the rope. The first half of the ascent was a straightforward climb up a steep (50°) snow chute to a shoulder on the right skyline, with Mugs kicking in all the footsteps and I following in his prints.

Mugs kicking steps at the start of the climb.

At the shoulder we pulled out the rope, and while I belayed, Mugs began working his way across and up the face, which in this stretch was pretty much vertical. When he reached secure spots, Mugs would set the belay for me, and I would follow up his path. There were good-sized cracks in the rock that gave plenty of handholds and places to rest, so I mostly managed to climb with no problem.

Mugs displaying his rack.

The most difficult passage of the climb—the crux—occurred at a place where there was a slight overhang. The only handholds were high above my head, but there was nowhere to place a toe if I pulled myself up. I thrashed around some as Mugs laughed and tightened the rope. But then I found a bulge on the rock out to my left side that could be grasped between my knees. From there I could reach the next handhold, and we were both past the touchiest part of the day.

Mugs (in circle) belaying on steep part of the climb. I am in the shadow below. Photo by Steve Self.

After about two hundred feet of roped climbing (two pitches), we made it past the steepest stretch, and came out onto a rock face with a slope angle closer to 60° than to vertical and with lots of snow-filled cracks that made planting steps easy. Here Mugs packed the rope, and we continued upward across the face. We had started the day in full sun, climbing in shirt sleeves with our parkas packed, but as the sun circled its way to the south, we slipped into shade and the chill that it brings. Rather than take off our packs on the steep terrain, we decided not to pull out our parkas, and pushed on to the summit.

This is me freeclimbing the upper portion of The Spectre. Photo by Mugs Stump.

A small cornice of soft snow maybe eight feet high was the last barrier to the top. Mugs chopped and kicked his way through and over it, and we emerged into sunlight on the flat of the summit. In all directions splendid peaks reached for the heavens, piercing the undulating mantle of white and blue. No sound stirred the silence. We took a round of photos and then had some lunch.

Bros at the summit of The Spectre, shot to the west.

You could say that we were pleased with ourselves. I can also say that we brothers never felt closer. Each of us knew that he wouldn’t be at this spot were it not for the other. I had provided the opportunity and Mugs the expertise. What I recall most was agreeing with Mugs that our parents would be more than doubly proud. We lingered a bit longer and finally descended; I rappelled most of the distance down to the shoulder, and Mugs mostly downclimbed after me, stripping the hardware from the belay points. At the shoulder, we figured a glissade down the snow chute would be the fastest way back to the base of the mountain, so we sat back on our heels, set the points of our ice axes in the snow for braking, and slid all the way down to our snowmobile. My dream a decade earlier of bowing before The Spectre had been exceeded. What a grand and memorable day in the mountains it had been! (Adapted from The Roof at the Bottom of the World.)

Gallery – Intrusive Patterns

When liquid magma intrudes solid rock, it often produces interesting patterns. When more than one episode of intrusion occurs in an area, the results can be highly complex. This week’s gallery highlights several localities where multiple intrusions have left their marks.

2 comments


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  • […] Ascent of the Spectre – The Transantarctic MountainsOct 9, 2011 … 598-614,) and Rudi Katz, a New Zealander who had traversed through the area the year … Photo of Organ Pipe Peaks taken by Rudi Katz. […]

    February 29, 2012

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