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A Ski Trip to Antarctica

GreatOutdoors.com's ski correspondent Andrew McLean takes a skiing trip to the Great White Continent to help make a Warren Miller film about skiing there--and keep the filmmakers safe in the process.
By Andrew McLean - January 1st, 2010

I had been waiting over a year for this moment, and wasn’t alone. Standing on the upper deck of the Clipper Adventurer staring down at the dock 30’ below, I wasn’t sure if I was shaking with anticipation or if it was just vibrations from the engines below. In either case, I watched as the gangplank was drawn up, last goodbyes were waved from the pier and two dock-workers stepped up to a massive steel cleat. With a signal from the bridge, the dock-workers hoisted the last hawser off the cleat and it was magically retracted aboard. We were off. Antarctic Peninsula here we come!

On a trip to the peninsula in 2003 we had spent eight days in a leaking, cramped, two person tent while it gushed rain day after day. Far from jading me on the experience, I couldn’t wait to get back there and was even more excited for many of my 107 shipmates where were going for their first time. A trip to Antarctica is like a poor person’s version of a trip to the moon. Yes, the laws of gravity still apply, but the spectacular scenery, wildlife, weather and environment make you wonder if you are still on planet earth. We were on a quest to go backcountry skiing on The White Continent, but within a minute of leaving the dock, the trip was already a huge success. The energy level was akin to Frankenstein getting his first electrical jolt of life where his eyes fly open, his body shakes and suddenly… it is time to going skiing. This is going to be a blast.

The year of anticipation started in October of 2008 on what was to be the inaugural voyage of the Ice Axe Expeditions Antarctic Ski Cruise (http://www.iceaxe.tv/cruises/­). The Ski Cruise was the brainchild of Doug Stoup, an Antarctic veteran of twenty trips, whose idea was to charter an entire 300’ ice-reinforced cruise ship, fill it with backcountry skiers and go play in the mountainous zones of the continent’s peninsula. Cruise ships have been visiting this area for roughly the last decade, but their objective has been comfort, sightseeing and the occasional walk on the shore to visit a survey station or view penguins. By chartering the entire ship, Doug ensured that the boat would be stopping at prime ski locations and he also arranged all of the endless permits and logistical details.  

The one thing that that could not have been foreseen in 2008 was that the cruise ship would have mechanical problems and never leave the dock in Ushuaia, Argentina, effectively leaving 100 plus people with nothing to do and nowhere to go. It was like Burning Man without fire. But, unique trips attract unique people and most of them took it in stride and rolled over their trip credit to 2009.
 
The first leg of the trip involves a two day outing across the Drake Passage. The Drake forms the southern boundary between the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans and is one of the most notorious and feared stretches of water in the world. Starting in the “Furious Fifties (50 degrees south latitude) it drops southward 500 miles from Ushuaia into the Shrieking Sixties before touching land again at the tip of the Antarctic Peninsula.  Along the way we were trailed by Albatross, watched whales and took bets on when the first iceberg sighting would occur. Being on a boat built to take punishment and not being affected by sea sickness, I was hoping for Force Ten (60mph wind and 30’ waves) fireworks and was disappointed that we only had Force Three sparklers in the form of rolling seas and a bit of wind, although I don’t think my shipmates minded the “Drake Lake” versus the “Drake Shake” version at all.
 
As dawn broke on our second day of travel (“dawn” is a relative term at this time of year in Antarctica as it was approaching 24-hours of daylight) we arrived at King George Island under blue-bird skies and calm weather, which is a rare occurrence at these latitudes. Urged not to waste it, our crew of ten packed up a Zodiac with more skis, boots, poles and camera gear than a Cabella’s store and set off towards shore.
 
Turn for turn, skiing in Antarctica is just like anywhere else, but it is the location that makes it so special. Standing on top of a beautiful planar slope that drops straight into the dark, blue ocean and seeing Leopard Seals swimming below, penguins on the beach and Skua’s circling above is really what it is all about. It is a unique experience which is both exhilarating and humbling at the same time and deserves respect. Because getting hurt down here is serious business, I try to keep my skiing at the 50-60% level where there is plenty in reserve and I am skiing well within my limits. There is a time and place to push the limits of skiing, but in Antarctica, just being there is enough.
 
For this trip I was serving double duty as both a guide for the Warren Miller film crew and also as skiing talent. Both of these responsibilities were mainly in name only as the film crew (Tom Day, Colin Witherall, Keoki Flagg, Adam Clark, Sam Bass and Brennan Lagasse) hardly needed any guiding and all of them were more than qualified to be on the other end of the camera as well. Kip Garre and John Morrison from Squaw Valley, CA rounded out the skiing talent. 
 
Like most film making endeavors, our first objective was to hurry up and wait, which we did by shooting tidbits known as “B-Roll.” In film making, B-Roll is the glue that holds the story together by using short little clips to convey a passing of time. A peak may take hours to climb, but a few carefully placed segments of skinning, crampons, ice tools and booting can make it go by in a matter of seconds, then magically you are on top and ready to ski. To make sure that we got this type of footage, most of our first two days were dedicated to shooting it and skiing short shots with dramatic backgrounds.
 
Near Port Lockroy on our second day of skiing, reality struck so hard you could hear it snap, like the sound of a tibia breaking in two. Skiing in Antarctica seems benign and sublime, especially in perfect conditions, but underneath that is serious terrain including crevasses. When one of our shipmates plunged through a snowbridge, fell 30’ and broke his leg, it became an immediate test of the ship’s emergency medical system. Although we had a ship doctor, the broken leg required an emergency evacuation, which is an Antarctic logistical nightmare as there are no set helicopter bases or scheduled flights in or out of the continent. By luck, we were able to turn the ship around and make it back to a survey station where a Chilean plane was about to take off and agreed to take the victim with them. Forty-eight hours after breaking his leg, the patient was in a major metropolitan hospital receiving expert care, with little inconvenience to the other skiers.
 
After four days of perfect weather, we were still treating each one like it was our last by getting out early, staying out late and partying like there was no tomorrow each night. The skiing took some getting use to as almost every line ended up being steeper, bigger and icier than it first appeared. The magic combination seemed to be sun-softened corn snow, which due to our southerly location was found on north facing slopes.
 
During the second half of our trip, the weather continued to stay calm and clear as we explored the northern end of the peninsula around Half Moon Island, Admiralty Bay and Discovery Bay. A typical day for us was to make a plan in the morning, change it as soon as we got in the Zodiac, hike, skin, climb and ski all day, radio for a pickup, then arrive back on the ship just in time for a multi course meal with a choice of three entrees and two desserts. The choices were often irrelevant as you were welcome to have one of each, or seconds of any and all of them.
 
The itinerary for the ship involved stopping during the day to let the skiers off, then pulling anchor as dinner was being served and moving to a new location at night while everyone was sleeping, or more likely, partying. This served two purposes; first we got to ski a new area each day, and second, we were treated to a moving visual feast to accompany our meals. Nothing goes with Argentinean beef and Malbec wine like watching towering icebergs drift by with 100’ of your cabin window and a common comment was “This does not suck!”
 
Our final days of skiing involved finding more short, scenic spots to film, looking for wildlife (not hard), recording sound bites and shooting time-lapse sequences. When it was finally time to take a left hand turn and head back to Argentina, nobody needed to be reminded how lucky we had been with the perfect weather, or that this was one of the greatest trips of the collective group’s lifetime. The only regret was that the next Antarctic Ski Cruise isn’t scheduled until 2011, let alone next month.
 
Our trip back across the Drake Passage was even more disappointing to me than the trip down, with seas so calm you could have waterskied behind the boat most of the time. However, the lack of wild seas was made up for by an abundance of wild last-night-on-the-boat parties which carried on until daybreak when the sobering sight of Cape Horn came into view. Motoring back through the Beagle Channel and seeing the town of Ushuaia coming into sight, it was hard to imagine a more perfect ending to a fantastic trip.
 
It’s hard not to believe in karma after a trip like this. When the first boat failed to leave the dock in 2008, it was disappointing, but for those who kept the faith, it was more than paid back in good fortune a year later. The Ski Cruise is one of those fabled good things that come to those who wait, although waiting for the next one in 2011 is going to be tough.

 


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