As Sir Edmund Hillary declares in his autobiography, “Antarctica is the last great wilderness on the planet”. The continent is Split by the Transantarctic mountains.
Location: Divides West and East Antarctica from the Weddell Sea to Victoria Land
Length: 3,200 km (2,000 miles)
High point: Mount Kirkpatrick – 4,258 m (14,856 ft)
It is the coldest, windiest, driest and highest continent on Earth. It is a vast expanse of near endless white, with deeply crevassed ice sheets made of intertwining glaciers that encase up 4,776 m (15,669 ft) of vertical ice (Wilkes Land, East Antarctica).
And the Transantarctic Mountains stretch across the entirety of this great wilderness.
Geography of the Transantarctic Mountains.
The Transantarctic Mountains, or TAM, demarcate the border between West and East Antarctica. To traverse the continent, they must be crossed, and most explorers to the southern polar region have had to gaze upon and negotiate their icy-bound slopes.
Stretching over 3,200 km (1,988 miles), these mountains are part of a rift uplift that reaches out beyond the continent’s edges. It is located from the shores of the Weddell Sea to Victoria Land beyond the south-eastern corner of the Ross Ice Shelf.
Peaks rise above 4 km (2.5 miles) in height in less than 40 km (25 miles) from the coast. Sharp variations in height are a distinctive feature throughout this snaking north-south mountain range. It is dotted with dry valleys that are remarkably snow-free – even in the coldest place on Earth, if there is no precipitation, there can be no snow or ice.
Exploration of the Transantarctic Mountains.
The mountains were first seen by Captain James Ross from the Ross Sea in 1841, and first crossed by Ernest Shackleton on his unsuccessful first quest to reach the South Pole in 1908 (via the Beardmore glacier).
The Transantarctic Mountain’s sub-ranges are named after royalty of the western nations who first sent expeditions, as well as those very explorers who were the first to brave these mountains.
The high point is Mount Kirkpatrick at 4,258 m (14,856 ft) in the central Queen Alexandra Range. This is one of a number of peaks that rise out of the ice, rare glances of the rock underneath, that are referred to as nunataks. This peak is over 600 m (1,970 ft) shorter than Vinson Massif, found in the Ellsworth Mountains of West Antartica.
But these mountains are unlikely to be getting any bigger. After a history of significant travel (as today’s continents were formed millions of years ago), Antarctica is in a state of deep-freeze. With the least seismic activity of any continent, Antarctica and its network of huge glaciers will slowly chip away at the peaks.
Unspoilt and unknown majestic giants.
Surely anywhere else on Earth, this range would draw the fascination and wonder of similar ranges. In sheer scale and dominance of a continent, this range is comparable with more famous ranges, such as the Andes of South America and the Himalayas in Asia.
But perhaps this is also for the better. As Hillary notes, Antartica, along with the deep ocean, is arguably the least touched place on Earth. While expeditions have gone there since the early 20th Century, and scientific surveys continue to search the continent’s secrets, the scale and harshness of the environment protect it from the commercialisation that has damaged other ranges around the world.
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