Ortho photo of Livingston Island

Omega Livingston Island GPS Expedition 2003

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Livingston Island lies approximately 150km off the coast of the Antarctic Peninsula. It is 65km long and up to 30km wide, though some sections are much narrower. The majority of the island is relatively flat, but the south-eastern corner contains a 25km long arc of rugged mountains, with a highest peak rising to over 1600m – Mt. Friesland. On a rare clear day, these mountains are seen by passing cruise ships, particularly those who stop at the popular Deception Island, from where Livingston appears to be a dramatic sweep of icy peaks rising abruptly out of the ocean. However, few people have visited the high mountains of Livingston and Mt. Friesland has only one recorded ascent, by a Spanish team in 1991.

There are presently two permanent scientific stations on Livingston – the Spanish base King Juan Carlos I and the Bulgarian base Kliment Ohridski. These are occupied only throughout the summer, in addition to field camps of other national Antarctic programs elsewhere on the island, particularly the Cape Shirreff and Byers Peninsula areas. These latter areas support significant wildlife habitats and are thus designated as Antarctic Specially Protected Areas (SPAs), zones where human activity is strictly controlled. The Omega team will not be operating in these areas nor in areas close by.

A New Map of Livingston
The Spanish and Bulgarian programs have both undertaken topographical surveys of the eastern end of Livingston and there has been a BAS map of the island for many years. However, it is well known that this map is somewhat inaccurate in many parts and there is also some confusion over the names of various mountain features. The Bulgarians in particular have assigned names to numerous features but it is not clear at this stage how accurately these names correlate to the actual topography, parts of which may or may not have existing, officially accepted names.

In addition, the height of Mt. Friesland is quoted at a variety of figures and the name and height of the second-highest peak is also uncertain. The Omega team will endeavour to climb as many of the peaks of the range as possible, height the summits using GPS and attempt to resolve any outstanding issues of both height and nomenclature. This new information will be combined with data from both the BAS maps and work by the Spanish, to produce a new, more accurate map of Livingston Island. This map will be in both digital and paper format and made available to all later in 2004.
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The Omega team have already received excellent support and input from the University of Barcelona and the Cartographic Institute of Catalonia in Spain, the British Antarctic Survey (BAS) and Geosciences Australia. Omega hopes to be able to both complement and build upon their excellent work over many years, in doing so making another significant contribution to humanity’s understanding of the Antarctic continent.

The Omega Expedition
The Livingston project follows on from the success of last year’s Omega Shinn GPS Expedition 2002 which established a new, very accurate height of 4660.6m for Mt. Shinn, Antarctica’s third-highest mountain. Damien Gildea, 34, of Australia and Chilean, Rodrigo Fica, 36, who comprised the team on Shinn, will be joined on Livingston by Australian GIS specialist John Bath, 33 and Chilean student Osvaldo Usaj. Osvaldo is 19 years old and a political science student at ARCIS in Punta Arenas. His inclusion is part of the Omega Foundation’s commitment to raising awareness of Antarctic issues amongst young people and to making a contribution to the Antarctic culture of Chile and the Magallanes region in particular.

The Omega Foundation has run several expeditions to Antarctica in recent years and first attempted to measure Mt. Shinn in December 2001. That attempt was thwarted due to avalanche danger high on the mountain, but it provided the knowledge and experience to make the 2002 expedition so successful. Conditions this season on Livingston Island will make scientific fieldwork in the mountains extremely challenging and the team know that there is a chance that all their objectives may not be met this season. This is the norm for scientific work in Antarctica, but the Foundation’s long-term commitment to Antarctic science ensures that further work can be undertaken in following seasons if necessary.

The Plan
The team will be using the services of DAP, the well-known airline of southern Chile. DAP will fly the team from Punta Arenas to King George Island (KGI) aboard their 8-seater King Air, along with all the expedition supplies. At KGI they will transfer to a DAP B105 helicopter and undertake the first of two 30 minute flights to Livingston Island. Damien and Rodrigo, in consultation with the DAP pilots, will select a suitable site for the landing and placement of the expedition base camp. The two options are either a northern camp, on a high plateau that gives easy access to Mt. Friesland, or a southern camp, on the Macy Glacier, which may be more heavily crevassed but which appears to give shorter and quicker access to most of the main peaks of the range. Once the site is secured the helicopter returns to KGI to ferry John, Osvaldo and the remaining equipment to the base camp.

After establishing a safe base camp, the first priority will be the ascent and measurement of Mt. Friesland. The team will once again use the Iridium satellite phone network to submit their raw GPS data, collected on their Trimble 5700 GPS receiver, to the AUSPOS site run by Geosciences Australia. This provides post-processing of data that will enable the Omega team to know the exact height of Friesland, if the job went well, while they are still in the field. Once this first phase is completed the team can then go on to measure the other high peaks of the range. All activity on Livingston, including the helicopter flights, will be extremely weather-dependent as the island receives some of the worst weather in the world. The team plan to be on the island for four weeks, but may only see five or six truly clear days in that time.

Team Biographies
Damien Gildea
   This will be Damien’s sixth trip to Antarctica. In addition to leading last year’s Omega expedition which made the first accurate measurement of Mt. Shinn, Damien has summited Vinson Massif, climbed peaks on the Antarctic Peninsula and guided a two-month sledhauling expedition to the South Pole. He is the Antarctic correspondent for a number of publications, including the American Alpine Journal and his writings and photos appear in numerous magazines and websites. In 1998 he wrote and published The Antarctic Mountaineering Chronology, the first and only reference on ascents in Antarctica and South Georgia. Previously Damien studied at both the Institute for Antarctic & Southern Ocean Studies in Tasmania and the Scott Polar Research Institute in Cambridge, UK. When not climbing in other parts of the world like China, Pakistan or New Zealand he lives on a farm near Goulburn, New South Wales.

Rodrigo Fica   In late 1999 Rodrigo and some Chilean friends spent 99 days making the first complete north-south crossing of the Southern Patagonian Icecap. This great achievement was just one factor leading to his joining the Omega Foundation last year to climb and measure Mt. Shinn. Though originally a computer engineer, Rodrigo now works as a mountain guide in South America and has had his articles and photographs published around the world. Most recently Rodrigo summited Mt. McKinley (6194m) in Alaska with his wife Patti, a former Everest summiteer.

John Bath   The Expedition’s GIS specialist, John has experience conducting mapping operations in remote parts of Australia and the South Pacific and in training others in GPS and remote sensing systems. He is now the Program Co-Ordinator for a major outdoor recreation course. He regularly guides backcountry ski trips in the Australian Alps and teaches other outdoor programs from his base in northern Victoria. He has trekked and climbed in Patagonia and Nepal. This will be John’s first expedition to Antarctica.

Osvaldo Usaj   Osvaldo, at 19, is the youngest member of the Expedition. A student in Political Science at Arcis University in Punta Arenas, he has also undertaken his military service, during which he learned survival techniques, GPS navigation and other outdoor skills that will be useful on Livingston Island. In addition to hunting and trekking, Osvaldo plays rugby and briefly studied English at St. Clare’s College, Oxford. With his strong language skills, outgoing nature and broad education, The Omega Foundation hopes that Osvaldo’s participation in the Expedition will raise awareness of Antarctic issues in Chile and beyond. Follow this link for more information about Osvaldo and the selection process.


Mount Friesland from the west. Photo by Francesc Sabat


Thanks to Damien Gildea for this expedition overview!


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This page last updated on 7 December 2003