Antarctica; skiing on the white continent

The main reason to leave everything behind and travel for a year was to complete skiing on all the continents. After skiing in Morocco in the end of March there was only one continent missing on my list: Antarctica. A two day crossing of the Drake passage would bring me to some of the most remote skiing on the planet.

I arrived in Ushuaia, the gateway to Antarctica, a couple days early. I took things easy and prepared my gear for the trip. November 3 there was a so-called early-bird meet & greet in the KUAR bar, located just out of town. Together with Scott, an Australian I had met in the hostel I stayed at, I went over to have a look, curious to see what kind of crowd we would spend the following eleven days with. I have to say it was both interesting and shocking at the same time. Skiing on Antarctica is not exactly a cheap thing leading to a typical crowd. Let’s say I wouldn’t have many friends amongst these people in regular life. It was also a huge contrast from the hostel crowd. The last couple of months I have been surrounded by people worrying about every single penny. On the cruise to Antarctica however, there were people who spend an easy 200.000 US dollars a year on skiing only. Yep, you read that correctly. From doctors to entrepeneurs, from managers to other fortunate people. And then, there was me, an unemployed traveler. I felt I had just arrived at a convention of a conservative party, it felt just wrong.

Luckily for me there were also some interesting people from the ski industry. Doug Stoup, the owner of Ice Axe Expeditions (the company I booked with), lives a very interesting life. He has crossed both the North- and the South Pole on mulitple occasions, done standup paddling all over the world and appeared in multiple Warren Miller ski movies. He is a very charismatic person as well and has a true love for Antarctica. From all the ski movies I have watched over the last couple of years, a couple of skiers have truly inspired me. Amongst those are Andrew McLean and Chris Davenport. When I entered the bar, I immediately noticed Andrew in one of the corners and a bit later someone introduced himself to me: “Hi, I’m Chris, who are you?”. That’s the way to do it, those guys should introduce themselves to the skiing Dutchman!

a giant petrel welcomed us to the Antarctic

a giant petrel welcomed us to the Antarctic

After a day of checking out our gear and practising glacier travel at the Glaciar Martial near Ushuaia, it was time to prepare ourselves for the first part of the trip: the crossing of the Drake passage. After meeting some hilarious people during dinner and breakfast the following day, we all went to the boat. Two days of possible sea sickness were awaiting me in order to reach the Antarctic peninsula. The cruise ship was perfect. It wasn’t a boat with a lot of fancy stuff. There were no swimming pools or casinos. The capacity of the boat was around 250 people including staff and crewmembers and the boat had a lot of character. My cabin was larger than expected and I shared my room with Phil, an easy going guy from Calgary. I quickly took some medication I picked up at a local pharmacy, hoping for the best. The first dinner went down perfectly but we were not in open water yet. The next morning however the swell was significant and the delicious breakfast ended up in the toilet pretty soon. I spent the day in bed since a horizontal position prevented myself from looking down into the toilet all the time. In the evening however I got hungry again and tried the delicious tuna. The food was truly amazing during the eleven days on the boat. The tuna however had a short visit to my stomach as well. Oh my god, was I enjoying this trip…

After another day of sea sickness we finally reached land. It was truly amazing to see Smith island and the surrounding icebergs for the first time. Even better was the fact I could finally eat again since we were in calm waters. Excitement amongst all the passengers since our first day of skiing was just around the corner. My group consisted of four people plus a skiguide. Mike was nicknamed “Mr. Cool” and lives in Venice Beach near Los Angeles. He helps starting businesses and organizes a mountain bike race in Haiti. A strong skier and more important a very nice person. Next we had Jennifer from Vermont. She had recovered from a heavy injury but was looking forward to explore the white continent. In daily life she runs a NGO trying to get food for streetdogs. She is a passionate photographer too. The last person to complete our group was Richard, a banker from London. As a typical Brit he enjoyed his beers and he was a friendly guy.

two Gentoo penguins enjoying the Antarctic beach

two Gentoo penguins enjoying the Antarctic beach

The first day we ascended Mount Tennent, with 690 meters a nice warm up run. After a leasurely stroll uphill we were rewarded with a breathtaking view of the Antarctic peninsula. We enjoyed the views for a while before starting our descent. It was a mellow run in variable but mostly challenging conditions. I kept an eye on other groups and soon noticed we were one of the slowest. This was not what I had been training for the last two years. Mixed abilities and physical conditions formed a serious danger to the skiing. On the bottom of our run however, we got treated with an encounter of the continent most famous inhabitant: the penguin. A rookery of Gentoo penguins kept us busy for a while before the zodiacs drove us back to our floating hotel or flotel as they call it in Brazil. I didn’t arrive back in my cabin totally exhausted as I expected but nevertheless a good day!

I talked to my guide that evening and mentioned I wanted to ski more and better terrain the following days. The evening was spent watching ¨Australis¨, a ski movie featuring Chris Davenport, Stian Hagen and Andrea Binning. A truly inspiring movie about skiing some great lines on the Antarctic peninsula. Having Chris around on the boat made it extra special of course.

skiing Mount Tennent (690 m) on the Antarctic peninsula

skiing Mount Tennent (690 m) on the Antarctic peninsula

The next day it took some time before we got going. Skiing on the Antarctic peninsula is a very complicated affair. First of all the cruiseship has to arrive at our destination. Spring in the Antarctic means ice can prevent the ship from moving on. In case we do reach the destination the zodiacs go out for a scouting session. Can we go ashore? And, if so, is the area suitable for clients to get up to the glacier? When both questions are answered in a positive way, then they have to make an estimate whether ice or strong winds might prevent zodiacs to pick people up later in the day. Time restrictions are another thing to consider. Most of the days we had to be back at the boat before 7 pm and one day another cruiseship came in to visit a penguin rookery and we had to move. Finally weather conditions and terrain must be suitable for all groups. The crew of the ship and Doug Stoup faced these challenges every single day. We had planned to cross the Lemaire channel this day to possibly ski Mount Scott or Mount Demaria (both skied in the movie “Australis”) but unfortunately we had to change plans. A long transfer brought us to some skiable terrain where visibility was not great but at least we could go skiing. After one run both Jennifer and Richard called it a day leaving Mike and myself alone with the guide. We asked to go as steep as possible but unstable conditions prevented us from going all the way (even though another group climbed up a very tempting but possibly unstable face). The guide got stressed because he couldn’t deliver us the steeps and felt the pressure. For me staying safe is priority so not skiing a face because of avalanche danger is perfectly fine. However, the stress impacted the atmosphere and that was something I didn´t like. Some discussions cleared the tension and we enjoyed our final run towards the zodiac in beautiful evening light…

The third day started promising; blue skies and no wind. We had an early start on Nansen Island and soon we made it to our first summit of the day. From that summit we had a clear view of a nearby peak, a very nice steep part. Andrew McLean and his team went up there to probably ski a first descent. By only looking at it, we put our guide in a difficult situation again. Jennifer and Richard didn´t want to ski that pitch but we had only one thing in mind: one way or the other, we had to ski the damn face! In my opinion the guide lost it a bit and chose to ascend the ridge looker’s left (see picture below). Some huge crevasses made it look difficult from a distance but I think he just wanted to show his authority by doing things his way because the obvious way was to use the bootpack set by Andrew. After a failed attempt it felt the day was over but Mike insisted on checking out Andrew’s bootpack. Thank you Mike! Jennifer and Richard waited below while we climbed to the summit. We were finally about to make some serious turns. A bergschrund at the bottom turned the normally not so difficult face into a no fall zone. Conditions were good though with some nice grippy snow, so we all made it down safely. Estimates of the slope angle ranged from low 40’s to low 50’s (degrees that is) according to some of the guides. I guess low 40’s is about right…

a nice steep face on day three of our stay on the peninsula

a nice steep face on day three of our stay on the peninsula

After the best turns of the trip to Antarctica so far, we joined the others who had enjoyed a bite to eat in the meantime. We quickly transitioned to uphill mode and skinned up to a nearby peak. Some skied back down to the boat while we descended a nice slope into the opposite direction. A short additional skin was required to get us back to the boat from there. We all had a tough day. Not in terms of exercise but the stress was clearly back in the game…

Another fantastic dinner was followed by another great ski movie. During the trip we watched the latest Warren Miller movies and Valhalla, a Sweetgrass production. Valhalla is more about hippies than skiing. Obviously I will never watch that movie again. Doug Stoup is one of the stars in both Wintervention and Ticket to ride, the Warren Miller movies. He promotes skiing on the Antarctic peninsula, Spitsbergen and Greenland. Those destinations are also offered by Ice Axe Expeditions. Showing those movies to a wealthy crowd is more than entertainment only. Well, anyway, I enjoyed the movies until I fell asleep. Still hoping to ski challenging terrain the following day I wanted to be in good shape…

Day four started with some bad visibility. The composition of our group had finally changed. Scott and Lisa, two snowboarders, joined Mike and myself looking for more challenging adventures. Most groups visited a huge crevasse called “the Blue Room”. We, however, skinned up looking for some more challenging terrain after checking out a Chinstrap penguin rookery at the landing spot. Scott and Lisa were great company and definitely more adventurous than our previous companions but they didn’t have a lot of backcountry experience. The guide prefers to play it really safe in this remote part of the world. One of his quotes during the trip was “maybe you won’t enjoy the skiing with me but at least you won’t die!”. I was still alive but I was not really enjoying the skiing on the peninsula, so he was definitely right about that. To his defense, the skiing is very complicated over here and one accident can put the total trip (for everybody on the boat!) in danger because of the remote location. Because of all these factors we still ended up skiing mellow terrain although a short climb on a exposed ridge created some excitement. We skied down in snowy weather conditions and made our way towards Bluff Island…

amazing terrain on the Antarctic peninsula

amazing terrain on the Antarctic peninsula

The weather had cleared and from the landing spot you had a nice view of some typical Alaskan terrain (not that I have been to Alaska…). The message from Ice Axe was very clear: “don’t expect to ski challenging terrain, we have to act conservatively”. Therefore I didn’t expect people to ski this kind of terrain during this trip. However, soon became clear that multiple groups were heading into the direction of a fantastic and challenging face. The guide had a look at the face and decided not to go because of the huge overhanging cornice. During transition to bootpack at the bergschrund all groups were in a serious terrain trap (if the cornice would have fallen, they would all be sent home in a body bag). He asked if I wanted to take more risk and ski this line with another group. This is the terrain I came for and therefore I answered positively. Let’s call it the human factor because he was of course right about not attempting the climb. For some reason he never contacted another guide. Next, Doug Stoup and Chris Davenport passed by together with photographer Keoki Flagg to ski a very steep and safe face more looker’s right (not visible in the picture). While they were all making first descents, we were skiing safe but more mellow terrain. It was very painful to watch the others ski down…

Back at the boat, it was time for a completely different adventure; the so-called polar plunge. After a day on the Antarctic slopes, the majority of people quickly changed into swimming shorts to dive into -0,6 degrees Celcius water (yep, apparently that’s possible…). As a great swimmer (I can barely survive in a swimming pool!) I was surprised I was actually doing it. Mike persuaded me by mentioning this would most likely be the only time in my life to jump into the Antarctic waters. Luckily for me I was the second person to jump so I didn’t have much time to reconsider my decision…

luckily I had worked on my tan before jumping into the freezing water...

luckily I had worked on my tan before jumping into the freezing water…

Initially the water felt good and I decided to make a couple of strokes. That however made me realize I quickly had to turn around to the safety of the boat. That was freaking cold! Just to let you know, everyone was wearing a harness for safety reasons during the swim. Back in the boat I was very much awake and enjoyed a hot shower before making my way to the upper deck for a BBQ. Great food and sensational scenery because of the evening light made a great evening.

During the BBQ I talked to Tim, a nice guy from San Francisco who I had met earlier on the trip. It soon became clear he was in a similar situation with regard to the skiing. He and Gary were in a group with a couple of ladies who had trouble using their bindings, let alone making turns. I enjoyed the company of Lisa and Scott because they were great people. However, in order to ski the steeps we had to form a new group. Mike, Tim, Gary and I joined forces and created a new group. Mike knew Kim Havell, a professional freeskier from Jackson Hole who worked as a guide on this trip. He arranged to ski with her the next two days looking for the most challenging terrain. Things finally looked promising!

sensational background for a BBQ

sensational background for a BBQ

Tim is doing pretty well at a company called Google (sounds familiar?) but he was different than most of the others on the boat. He had no attitude at all and was there primarily to ski. I have no idea what Gary is doing in daily life but he was definitely low key with a good sense of humor. Kim was very relaxed in the Antarctic environment, it all felt much better. The only big concern was the weather. We started the day with some skiing on Livingston Island. For the first time this trip we were not the slowest skinners which felt good. We quickly ascended to a big rock where we transitioned to bootpacking. Visibility was terrible and after a short hike we decided to ski down. Surprisingly good snow conditions made us go for a second lap. We went back to the ship for lunch and in the afternoon we had some nice objectives on Half Moon bay. Short but steep couloirs could be lapped a couple of times, I couldn’t wait. All the runs there would be first descents too! Back on the boat however, we received some disturbing news (not in terms of a tsunami killing thousands of people but still…disturbing). Another cruiseship was approaching and we had to move before 3 pm. Since it was 1 pm already, this meant skiing was not on the agenda anymore for the afternoon. We had a short visit to a penguin rookery instead. Some things are simply beyond my control…

Once I got rid of my frustrations (I know… Antarctica is the wrong place to be frustrated), the evening was approaching. On the agenda was a so-called “White party”. I do like a party every now and then but forcing people to wear a costume doesn’t create a smile on my face. Also, having only one day of skiing left and possibly the only one with serious skiing on the agenda, I thought the timing of this party was not ideal to say the least. However, all the others seemed to enjoy getting dressed for the occasion and used the open bar to its full potential. I was one of the very few not wearing anything white…

After a couple of Beagle’s (artisanal craft beer, produced in Ushuaia) and watching the most crazy person on the boat disappear with a Norwegian man into one of the cabins, I called it a night. Hoping for the best conditions on the final day of skiing I fell asleep. The next morning I woke up and even though the visibility was so-so, Kim told us we would be in one of the first zodiacs. Boot crampons were needed because we would climb some steep couloirs. While enjoying some smoked salmon (yummie…) and a cup of tea, I noticed visibility was getting worse and worse. Soon it became clear there was no skiing today. What an anticlimax! We finally had a strong group together with a very motivated guide but the weather prevented us from doing anything. Even though I was on the white continent, I have to admit I have had better times!

it doesn't happen everyday that you end up between penguins on your skis...

it doesn’t happen everyday that you end up between penguins on your skis…

Now the skiing was over, time had come to make our way back to Ushuaia. This time I tried to manage the crossing a bit better. I stayed in bed as much as possible and only went upstairs for a quick visit to the restaurant. Many times I took the food straight back to the cabin. I didn’t feel great but at least the number of visits to the toilet were minimized. Some of the others were enjoying drinks at the bar and followed all the lectures and watched the many movies. That however, was still not an option for me.

After eleven days on the boat, we made it back to the harbour in Ushuaia. I was looking forward to getting back into regular life. The days on the boat were spent amongst a crowd that is not really a random sample of the world’s population. I am not sure where I belong but I definitely do not belong in this crowd. Back at the hostel in Ushuaia, I felt free again…

Any trip to Antarctica is amazing. I have been on a truly amazing boat with great hospitality and fantastic food. My cabin was more than perfect. The main reason for me to visit the white continent however was the skiing and that disappointed. I do realize that I´m a lucky bastard being able to visit all corners of the world including this amazing and remote part of the world. I just had different expectations of this trip. I had been training for over a year in order to be in good shape and skied the months before departure in order to have my skilegs ready to go. I expected to be in a group with true ski mountaineers looking for the most challenging terrain every day. However, I ended up in a group with mixed ability skiing very mellow terrain. When I finally ended up in a perfect group with a guide who was willing to push it, the weather came in. Did I do anything wrong? Most definitely yes. I should never have signed up with a guide in advance. This way I got in a group based on guide preference instead of skiing ability. The guide on the other hand should have changed groups in an earlier stage. He knew even before the trip started that at least two people in his group had completely different abilities. Now he faced a very difficult situation on a daily basis. It was a very complicated trip, both for him and for myself. Did I have the wrong expectations? Possibly, but when a questionnaire consists of questions like ¨Are you capable of skiing 45 degree slopes?¨ and ¨Are you comfortable making uphill kickturns up to 40 degrees?¨ then I expect to be in that kind of terrain. If they only ask you whether you are comfortable skiing flat terrain or not, yes, then my expectations would definitely have been too high.

I wish I could have enjoyed just being there but I had been working towards this moment so much that ´simply´ being there was not going to be enough. I could easily have lived with a small dodgy cabin, average food, bad service but great skiing. Unfortunately it was the other way around…

This most likely was a once in a lifetime trip (please National lottery, let me go again!) so I can’t easily return and do it again. In case I do win the lottery I will send señor Davenport an email straight away and book the whole boat in order to get private guiding from the master himself. That way, I will be sure to ski good terrain! (Well…, first I will have to win the lottery…) I guess it’s better to visit this part of the world when money doesn’t matter. In that case you probably don´t put as much pressure on the trip as I did so you don’t mind the trip not being perfect because you simply come back the next year. Also, you’d probably fit much better in the crowd and you can use the trip for networking purposes as well. For me it was great to witness the most remote and breathtaking scenery on the planet but was it worth the enormous amount of money? Honestly, in order to justify the bill the skiing had to be a lot better…

Click here to see more pictures of my trip to the Antarctic peninsula!

…or check out this little clip from some nice steep skiing on the white continent:

6 Responses to Antarctica; skiing on the white continent

  1. Rosco says:

    Hey Paul. Looks like a great trip though if you have high and specific expectations for a trip you gotta take a team of folk with similar experience focused on those objectives. cheers Rosco

    • Paul says:

      You´re absolutely right Ross. To have the best chances of skiing good lines over there you´ll have to go in a smaller sailboat, unfortunately with another pricetag too…

  2. AE Wille says:

    Prachtig verslag Paul,heb weer genoten!

  3. Nice!!!! Hope you will win the lottery to come back with your own boat and guide! Have a nice trip Paul!

  4. Martijn Nieuwhof says:

    Hi Paul, knowing how much you lived up and worked to this particular part of the trip, it’s a shame you couldn’t get the full satisfaction. In my mind having travelled to the Antartic and being one of the few people in the world who have been skiing the 7(!) continents, is a major feat in itselve! You be proud of that! (And watch skimovies and win the lottery!).
    Being able to tell other friends and family I have a friend who did all this is a special experience for me. You enjoy all the good memories and never regret anything that made you smile! 😉
    Get back safe!

  5. Dan says:

    Nice article. My son and I are also skiing 7 continents (just finished #5). We skied Antarctica Dec, 2013 with Antarctic Network. Base camped at Union Glacier next to Vinson for 6 days. Incredible experience but skiing was not great. Definitely the most experience ski trip I’ve ever taken…

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