Antarctica – one of the last puffins, unspoiled places left on the planet. Land of penguins, sea leopards, whales and a multitude of other exotic wildlife. What could be better than a dream trip to visit the White Continent? How about skiing there?
It started with an email from Andrew McLean in November 2012 with whom I had skied last year in Alaska. He was putting together a group to guide in Antarctica and would I be interested in joining? Although I had considered visiting at some point, the chance to ski in Antarctica sealed the deal. The conditions were expected to variable and might include some steep skiing on firm snow (read ice). Also, much of the skiing could involve relatively long and flat approaches. This called for a lighter and skinnier set up than my usual backcountry touring. After some research the Kastle TX series seemed like what I was looking for. One problem – by the time I was ready to purchase there were no skis in stock anywhere. Enter Randy and Doug at Cripple Creek Backcountry. They were expecting to receive 2013 -2014 models in mid October. Well, I was leaving on November 1st so that was cutting it pretty close. But they delivered. As soon as they received the skis they mounted bindings for me and shipped them out. I got the skis with 5 days to spare. Great service!
So, on November 1st I was off to Argentina. Five airports and 24 hours later I arrived in Ushuaia, Argentina which claims to be the most southerly city in the world (though Port Williams, Chile would argue otherwise).
Ushuaia is a funky little town and the jumping off point for ships headed further south. There is also great skiing 10 minutes from town on the Martial Glacier. I headed to the glacier the day after arrival and met some of the other people on the trip who had the same idea. Great skiing under clear blue skies on 4-6” new snow which had fallen the night before. The next day I returned with our guide and two of the other members of our team to ski and make sure all of our equipment was in order. The weather was more typical with light snow and strong winds but surprising good skiing – warmer and more like spring corn.
On Tuesday, November 5 all of the gear was loaded onto the boat and we made our way down the Beagle Channel towards Antarctica. At 10 knots the trip takes about 2 &1/2 days most of which is crossing the Drake Passage, reputed to have some of the worst weather and ocean conditions in the world. We escaped with better than average weather, wave heights peaking at 20-25’. By the evening of November 7 we sighted first land, Smith Island, one of the South Shetland Islands northwest of the Antarctic Peninsula itself. On the horizon a thin white line appeared. This turned out to be an extensive area of ice. Although not solid ice it did significantly slow progress. Eventually it was decided to go around rather than through the ice. This amount of ice was more than typically seen at this time of year and for the rest of the trip made access to land challenging. A number of planned ski regions were inaccessible but the crew did an excellent job of finding alternate landing sites. Skiing involves taking a Zodiac with 10 skiers from the boat to land. Much of the shoreline is comprised of thick glaciers and finding a flat area to land the Zodiac and disembark can be difficult. Over the next 6 days we were able to ski all but the last one mostly along the Gerlache Strait. The skiing ranged from breakable crust (only one run, thankfully) to 6-8” of cold powder, firm snow (ice) and some spring-like skiing. Most days averaged 5,000 – 8,000’ feet of vertical. Wind is a common theme in Antarctica but we had two days with absolutely no wind and clear blue skies turning the ocean into a perfect mirror.
Penguins were present at almost every landing site and frequently waddled over to check us out. Many bird species, especially petrals and albatross were seen along with seals and few whales.
After 6 days it was time to face the Drake Passage again. The weather was a little more exciting on the return trip with swells to 35’ but most of us had our “sea legs” by then so sea sickness was not an issue for most.
Overall this was an amazing trip. I can’t say enough about the organization of the trip by Doug Stoup and Karyn Stanley of Ice Axe Expeditions and the Quark Expedition crew on the boat. For anyone interested you could check out the Ice Axe Expedition website – highly recommended.
PS – the Kastle TX87 skis worked great in all conditions.