Ulvetanna, Antartica (Alastair Lee)
Interview Words : Phoebe Smith | 08 December

Ulvetanna, Antarctica: Story behind the photo

Wanderlust editor Phoebe Smith talks to Alastair Lee about his photos of climbing the summit of Ulvetanna in Antarctica, which featured in the Dec 2013/Jan 2014 issue of Wanderlust

In this month’s Wanderlust we feature photographs of Antarctica from Alastair Lee from his new film The Last Great Climb. In it he follows British adventurer and climber Leo Houlding and his team as they attempt to summit the mammoth peak of Ulvetanna. Here Wanderlust editor Phoebe Smith caught up with them to ask if this really was the final big adventure…

Leo, what made you choose Ulvetanna for your expedition?

The first time I saw a photo of Ulvetanna, I thought, “Wow! That’s the most amazing mountain I’ve ever seen. One day I’m going to climb it.” It took me 15 years to acquire the experience, skill, position and team to make the expedition happen. The combination of massive vertical wall, gnarly Antarctic conditions and extremely expensive logistics create a challenge in a setting and on a scale totally unique on Earth. When I started seriously researching the trip I discovered that the incredible mile long NE ridge was still unclimbed. A rare prize in the 21st Century.

Alastair, how difficult was it to shoot in the harsh conditions of Antarctica?

The main difficulty was dealing with how bright it was, when you looked into the camera it took a while for your eyes to adjust. I’m pretty well trained at shooting in the cold, being based in Lancashire.

Leo, how was Antarctica?

The Last Great Wilderness did not disappoint. The Fenris Kjeften range in Queen Maud Land is considered to be one of the most spectacular places on the continent.

All who have the privilege of seeing it refer to it as “other-worldly”. I concur wholeheartedly. Not just the scenery, but the endless daylight, the cold, the feeling of remoteness, a detachment from the rest of the world, the arduous struggle to do the simplest things and the overwhelming feeling that, though magical, you are in an alien environment, somewhere that you do not belong and should not stay for too long.

How did you get your amazing shots Alastair? You must be a good climber too?

A lot of people think that but I’m nowhere near as good as these guys! To shoot the film means that on the pitches I want to capture, they climb it first and set up ropes and protection for me, then I have to jumar up (a tool used for ascending a fixed rope) and then they have to re-climb it for the camera. The aerial shots were taken from the DC3 twin prop aircraft we used to access this remote part of the world. The landscape shot featured [in Wanderlust] was taken on our way home, it was one of the most amazing ‘shoots’ of my life, unreal.

Leo, was it everything you expected?

Simply put yes. Any Antarctic expedition is a pretty serious proposition.

One to climb a line such as the NE ridge of Ulvetanna significantly more so, combined with the aim of shooting an ambitiously high production value film and you have set yourself a truly Herculean mission. But that is exactly what we set out to do, and precisely what we did. It was not by good fortune that we succeeded, it was by meticulous planning, years of experience and a committed, positive team.

Knowing what to expect, foreseeing all potential problems and being suitably equipped and prepared to deal with them was the key to our success. And a special thanks goes out to Berghaus for all their support.

Alastair, what advice would you give to anyone taking photos in such an extreme climate?

Have your kit well organised, spare batteries etc all the usual stuff. Hand warmers are very useful as you can still take your big gloves off and if you do get cold hands pop ‘em back in the big gloves with some hand warmers. Be ready to work hard.

Finally, Leo, it’s called The Last Great Climb, but do you think there are any more ‘real’ challenges left out there for adventurers?

Yes, to those with a creative drive they are endless. Nature provides the set, the ambition of your imagination creates the scene. There maybe no such perfect, massive rock lines anywhere but there will always be another ‘last great’ climb, journey, challenge etc. I prefer to think of it as ‘the last great climb... before the next’ that I’m already planning, to another equally spectacular, but drastically more remote monolith in another part of Antarctica. Possibly the most remote technical peak in the world? Watch this space...

Alastair’s new award-winning film The Last Great Climb is available now from www.posingproductions.com