Mountaineering & Expeditions

End of the World | We Asked Leo Houlding About His Mission To Climb Antarctica’s Spectre

Fifty-two days, 1,700km and 31 camps later... the British climber discusses his incredible journey

Ahead of the start of this weekend’s Kendal Mountain Festival, we caught up with renowned climber and patron of the festival Leo Houlding about his recent expedition to climb one of the most remote mountains in the world, the Spectre in Antarctica.

Fifty-two days, 1,700km and 31 camps later, the team arrived at Union Glacier having completed one of the most logistically complex and ambitious undertakings ever, redefining modern exploration and adventure. The three men travelled by kite-skiing, pulling sleds of up to 200kg, and were frequently pinned down in their camps by vicious storms.

The Berghaus athlete, who was born and raised in the Eden Valley of Cumbria, describes what climbing means to him, what is next on his bucket list and who, of anyone in history he would love to climb with.

“Give me the political intrigue of Thrones S1 – S3 over the dragon battles of S7 any day”… is what we imagined Leo said at this point.

What inspired the Spectre project?

I suppose, two elements, one is that in 2012 I led another expedition in Antartica to Queen Maud Land to climb the mountain Ulvetanna and that was kind of my wildest dream. As a climber, I had been dreaming of that expedition for my whole life and when we finally made it happen, it went pretty smoothly. Although that mountain is extremely remote, it’s actually only 100 miles away from the local logistics of that area of Antarctica, it is pretty much roadside. So although the closest hospital is 3000 miles away, you are actually only an hour away from civilisation and that really helped.

“The most hardcore thing I’ve ever dreamed up”

I thought wouldn’t it be cool to try and do something this epic but somewhere really remote that takes weeks to get there and weeks to get back. I was already aware of kite skiing as a way of travelling in polar regions and I also knew about Spectre and I thought that’s the one. The thing is with the Spectre is it is more than 1000km away from the closest anything and that’s beyond the range of a ski plane without refuel. To get there you have to do multiple fuel flights which means the expense becomes exponential and it really is the end of the world, you couldn’t be further away. The combination of trying to climb a technical mountain with a long polar journey is kind of the most hardcore thing I’ve ever dreamed up.

Was there any point on the trip where you felt you just couldn’t do it?

The first 20 days of the trip were brutally difficult. We were a really strong team, there was only three of us and we are all extremely experienced and really tough and we were right on the edge of not being able to continue. Turning back wasn’t really an option but not continuing was, and we were kind of in that zone for almost three weeks, it was really really challenging.

Pictured: Birds of a Feather. Christmas Special.

Had you been on expeditions with your teammates before?

No. The skillset for the trip was extremely unique. You’ve got to be a good climber, both alpine and big wall, you’ve got to have polar experience, you’ve got to be a really good kiter, you’ve gotta have three months spare over Christmas and new year and you kind of need to be able to operate a camera as well, at least a couple of us did, so there’s only a handful of people in the world that fit that profile.

In an ideal world we would have had a warm-up trip together, or two warm-up trips – a kiting one and a climbing one – but that just wasn’t going to happen. I knew Jean (Burgun) reasonably well and I knew Mark (Sedon) a little bit, however, those two had never met. I kind of knew it was going to be ok, I’m a pretty good judge of character and it worked out, actually I couldn’t have possibly found better people to do the trip with. Despite the intense hardship, we had a good time.

Let’s go and fly a kite. The XXX Extreme Edition.

When did you first go climbing and what inspired you to take the sport up?

I started climbing when I was 10 years old and I grew up just outside the Lake District in the Eden Valley. My Dad was always quite outdoorsy but not a rock climber and a friend of his took us out together one day and immediately I connected with climbing, I knew it was something I wanted to do. I really enjoyed the physical aspect as well as the problem-solving side, but more than that it was the fast track to adventure that going vertical gives you. You don’t have to go to the ends of the earth to find real adventure when you go climbing, you just have to go up.

The other thing that really attracted me to climbing was the lack of rules and regulations, you don’t have to be qualified, you don’t have to pay anyone, you don’t have to know what you are doing. You are totally free to go out and get yourself into a terrifying situation and for safety, climbing self-regulates because humans are innately scared of heights. In some ways, it is quite remarkable, especially in somewhere like America where everything is so regulated, that you can walk up to El Cap, not knowing what the hell you are doing with your clothesline and you’re free to have a crack. Of course, you may not get off the ground or you might die, but I really like that freedom.

Have you always climbed outside or have you climbed inside too?

I used to compete, back when I was a junior. I was the British Junior Champion in 1996 and I still climb indoors quite regularly, but for me, that is less than half the package. You miss out on what I really love about climbing if you are indoors.

“Of course, you may not get off the ground or you might die, but I really like that freedom”

You’ve climbed the Spectre, what next?

We didn’t actually do what I wanted to, the south pillar of the Spectre is the route that I wanted to climb, we climbed it from the north, which is splitting hairs if you are a layman but if you’re not, there’s a big difference. So I want to go back and try again, with a little bit more equipment. So that is still my dream climb, which is annoying because it’s a hard place to get to.

Would you go with the same team?

Yeah, I wouldn’t hesitate to go with the same team if they were up for it, but there is also a load of other places I would like to go.

If you could climb with one person from history, living or dead, who would you pick?

It would have been cool to climb with George Mallory. I made a film about Everest in 2007, about the disappearance of Mallory and Irvine and became extremely intimate with the story, having read a dozen books on the subject. Mallory was a really interesting character, one of the best climbers of the early 20th century and quite a visionary. I would also have liked to climb with Warren Harding, the America maverick and Jim Bridwell too.

If you had any superpower, what would it be and why?

To know exactly what the weather was going to do for the next 10 days, to the minute.

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