12/13/2012 07:34 am ET Updated Feb 12, 2013

Antarctica's Remote, Towering Mountains

Straddling the continent of Antarctica, the Transantarctic Mountains are the most remote mountain belt on Earth. A rift shoulder rising to elevations greater than 14,000 feet, this barrier dams the East Antarctic Ice Sheet, which spills through mighty outlet glaciers into the Ross Sea, Ross Ice Shelf, and West Antarctic Ice Sheet. The mountains are a minimalist landscape of ice, rock, and wind, the last, pure wilderness on Earth, Nature at her polar extreme. Even to seasoned travelers, these mountains are largely unknown. Tour ships do ply the waters of the Ross Sea, offering landings with Zodiacs, and in some cases helicopter flights. The interior portions of the Transantarctic Mountains, south of McMurdo Sound, are accessible only by air. The austral summer season is upon us, time to dream of the possibilities. Beginning with this post, I will post a bi-weekly, guided tour of the four major sectors of the Transantarctic Mountains: northern Victoria Land, southern Victoria Land, the central Transantarctic Mountains, and the Queen Maud Mountains.

Perhaps the finest approach to the Transantarctic Mountains is by ship, following Capt. James Clark Ross' 1841 route of discovery along the southeast coastline of northern Victoria Land, where dramatic, ice-clad peaks of the Admiralty and Victory ranges rise abruptly out of the Ross Sea to elevations in excess of 10,000 feet. Glaciers draining these peaks spill directly into the sea, forming floating ice tongues. During most of the year these protrusions are locked in seasonal ice, but late in summer the sea ice breaks out leaving open water around the tongues. At the eastern corner of northern Victoria Land the coastline turns abruptly northwest, with much lower mountains than along the southeast coast. A thin ridge of volcanic rock runs northward from the bend in the coastline, terminating at Cape Adare. This is where Karsten Borchgrevink's party settled down in 1899 for the first winter-over on the continent of Antarctic, and where his hut can still be seen today.

Extending inland from the southeast and northeast coasts is a vast system of low-relief ridges, overlooked from the east by Mount Minto (13,660 feet), the highest summit in northern Victoria Land. In 1987-88, an Australian mountaineering expedition sailed to Cape Hallett, traversed up Tucker Glacier to the base of the mountain, and climbed it. Interior northern Victoria Land centers on Evans Névé, a broad snowfield that drains to the north through Rennick Glacier and to the south through the glaciers feeding the ice tongues in Lady Newnes Bay. The western margin of northern Victoria Land is sparsely strewn with rocky ranges poised against the East Antarctic Ice Sheet. The width of northern Victoria Land is more than 200 miles, double that of any other sector of the Transantarctic Mountains.

Beyond the western ranges, the ice sheet blankets the continent out to the coastal margins of East Antarctica and for 1,500 miles along the backside of the Transantarctic Mountains to where it merges with the West Antarctic Ice Sheet and inundates the mountains altogether.

Priestley Glacier, the northernmost of the outlet glaciers, taps the ice sheet and furrows through the mountains, cutting a chasm 4,000 feet deep before emptying into Terra Nova Bay. Set out from the glacier is Inexpressible Island, where in 1912 a British party led by Victor Campbell survived a horrific winter-over in a squalid snow cave after their ship, Terra Nova, was unable to pick them up. 9,000-foot Mt. Melbourne stands sentry at the northern end of the bay. This graceful cone is kin to Mt. Erebus and Mt. Discovery, prominent volcanoes in the McMurdo Sound area.

At the southern end of Terra Nova Bay, Reeves Glacier spills across a low point of the mountains. Formed as air over the ice sheet cools and becomes denser, gravity-driven, katabatic winds pour through the breech at Reeves Glacier. The result of this nearly constant flow of air is the formation of a polynya, an area of open water surrounded by frozen seas, where the winds flowing across the waters of the bay keep it from freezing over.

Antarctic Mountains