Skitouring and wild adventures on the Antarctic peninsula.
Photos by Tucker Patton / Triplepoint Expeditions
Antarctica has always been my dream. The last frontier of wild, untouched nature. The ocean, the mountains and more ice you’ve ever seen in your life, as far away from civilisation as one can get. A hard place to get to and unforgiving to live on even during these modern times. A place where explorers go, where there is still new wonders of nature to be discovered. Until last year, I never really figured out a way to get there reasonably cheap and still experience the nature how I want to experience it: by skiing and climbing.
The Antarctic cruise is a unique opportunity to experience Antarctica’s mind-blowing nature and to set foot and ski on this world’s wildest and most pristine continent. The trip is organised by Californian company, IceAxe Expeditions. The founder of IceAxe Expeditions, Doug Stoup, is the world’s leading polar explorer and has skied to North- and South poles more than anyone before, done first descents all over the world and is now leading expeditions to both poles as well as other exotic locations and doing all kinds of good things for the environment, science, charity and all of us fellow skiers who get to ski the Antarctica and the world with him.
Long time ago, after visiting the peninsula for the first time, Doug had a dream to charter a boat and come back with a bunch of his best friends and ski these beautiful peaks and glaciers. And here we are, over 10 years later, skiing these wild, beautiful mountains off a luxury ship. A dream come true for many people.
The adventure begins from the Southernmost tip of Argentina, the mythic city of Ushuaia. Beginning of November we pack our bags and head towards South. We recommend people to arrive in Ushuaia a few days early to make sure all the luggage arrives in time and to go skiing and training on the near by mountains and glaciers. It’s funny to start the skiing seson in spring conditions in the beginning of November when Europe is preparing for the winter. The program in Ushuaia is normally a few days of nice skitouring with fellow guides to shake off the stiffness after 30+ hours of travelling, enjoying Argentinian food and wine and getting to know the people. There’s a guide’s orientation meeting, training day with clients and a general get together with everybody.
Day 1, The cruise starts from Ushuaia. We pile all the equipment, bags and skis, onto a huge mountain of gear in the hotel lobby, from where it is taken to our cabins on our ship, the Sea Adventurer. We will set sail and cruise through the Beagle channel, towards the Cape Horn and the open waters of the Drake passage. We start the action with lifeboat and emergency training as we travel through the Beagle channel. It is an easy start to the sea voyage, waters are calm and people get used to being on a boat. Captain’s welcome cocktails and dinner set us happily on the way.
Our ship, the Sea Adventurer, was built in Yugoslavia in 1975. She is a 1A class ice reinforced ship and perfect for the wild and unforgiving waters of the Antarctic and Arctic. The ship is owned by a Canadian company, Quark Expeditions, who are the leading operator in the Antarctic and Arctic adventure cruises. The Sea Adventurer can carry around a 100 passengers and almost the same number of crew, sailors, expedition staff and hotel- and restaurant personel. All the staff on board are fantastic! Super friendly and professional, happy and helpful. You have a feeling of being in a five-star hotel but still visiting and experiencing the wildest nature in the world. Our captain has more than 30 years of experience on the icy waters of extreme North and South and Quark Expeditions being the best there is, we were in good hands.
During the first night on board we will hit the open waters of the notorious Drake passage. This 800 kilometers long stretch of open ocean is the meeting point of Atlantic-, Pacific- and Southern Oceans and one of the stormiest corners in the world’s oceans. Antarctic Circumpolar Current, world’s biggest current, flows around the Antarctic continent and this keeps warm ocean waters away from Antarctica, enabling that continent to maintain its huge ice sheet. The Drake is rich with nutrients, krill and plankton, which attracts fish, whales, seals, penguins, albatrosses and a wealth of other species. Wildlife spotting on the Drake is phenomenal. During our crossings we have Albatross and Petrels to keep us company while effortlessly soaring over the ship and swooping the waves. Last year we came across a pack of 30-50 Humpback whales. Our captain stopped the ship and the whales were curious enough to come see us and to give us quite a show for half an hour.
The Drake crossing takes us three days. The life on the ship is full of interesting events. Besides eating 3-4 times a day and watching birds and whales, there are also interesting lectures by the mountain guides or Quark specialists. The Quark Expedition staff are awesome! Their job is to run day by day operations during the expedition, drive the Zodiacs, take us to shore to ski, organise wildlife watching and to keep us safe and in line. They are the real experts in polar expeditions and nature. Among them there are marine biologists, ornithologists, historian, geologist, medical specialists, kayak- and wild water guides, boat captains, park rangers etc. Their experience and knowledge is unbelievable and through out the trip they shared their knowledge about history of the Antarctic, polar expeditions, whaling, adventures, wildlife, ice, rocks, snow and water. They really help you to get best out of your trip, super interesting! There are also mountain guides from all around the world and their experiences and stories from the mountains around the world are quite something also.
This year we were the first expedition of the season so all the ice- and weather conditions were mostly unknown. We would have to take it step by step following the conditions given, nature sets the rules and we are just visiting. As we were approaching the peninsula it became clear that this year the amount of sea-ice was greater than usually and floating masses of ice and icebergs slowed us down considerably and made us a bit late for the next day’s skiing objectives. Big waves, a snowstorm and a huge looming low pressure system on the Drake on our West side added up the spice with the ice. We were all quite relieved to arrive to the sheltered waters of the Antarctic peninsula.
Day 4. First ski day. Chiriguano Bay. Mt. Victoria and the Farm. The day started off with lowest of the low pressures imaginable. According to the weather maps and barometer, we should have gone through a hurricane but finally being sheltered by the peninsula it was not too bad. We did spend most of the morning on a weather hold though. High winds, 60 knots in the gusts, and white-out kept us on the ship until lunch. When the captain with 17 years of experience starts taking photos of the barometer, you know there’s something special going on. The needle of the barometer dropped below the charts and was actually resting on the metal framing of the meter, that’s how low it went.
Around noon it cleared and calmed enough for the Zodiac drivers to put the boats on the water and start driving the ski groups through the drifting ice on to the shore we we could actually start to put our skins on and start going uphill. We started off from the Mt Victoria in a reasonably good conditions. Well it was a bit of a white out but still kinda ok visibility. It had snowed the night before, which it does not often happen in Antarctica, so we actually had some fresh turns. We skinned up towards the summit but the bad visibility and a threatening seracs stopped us after a something like 400 meters of skinning. After a decent powder run in ok visibility we called in a Zodiac and changed the location to the other side of the bay to go ski at the area we call the Farm. We got to shore with a welcoming committee from the Gentoo penguins, had a shot of Yhden Tähden Jallu (famous Finnish drink) and got going in a deteriorating weather. We got on the way and after something like 500-600 meters of skinning we got in to a full on blizzard and were forced to turn back because we could barely see our rope team of 5 people. Actually the skiing was good! Visibility was a bit limited but hey, when ever you get to do powder turns in Antarctica it’s da bomb! So the game is on: first day of skiing in Antarctica in the pocket and spirits were high!
The contrast between the life on the ship and skiing on the mountains is extraordinary: Every day you see and experience some wonder of nature you’ve never seen in your life, something new, beautiful and unforgettable. We get to ski some of the wildest terrain imaginable, huge mountains and glaciers, more ice and snow one can imagine, cruise between the icebergs with a Zodiac, see penguins and seals and whales and be far away from everything else in the world. But when we have had enough of skiing and glaciers for the day, we call in a Zodiac pick-up to take us back to the ship where there is awesome food, water, warmth, shower, dry clothes and five star service to answer your needs. Normally in an environment like this you’d be living in a tent, melting water from snow to drink and eat, trying to stay safe and warm and alive while camping out on the snow. But we are very lucky and spoiled to be able to enjoy and experience Antarctic this luxurious way and still ski.
Every morning between 0400-0600 we started the day with a guide meeting. We would go through the day’s objectives, plan the day, assess the risks, study photographs and see the conditions and prepare ourselves the best we can for the day of skiing. Guiding on the huge glaciers over the water can be tricky sometimes. Lots of crevasses and hanging seracs everywhere, big terrain, big exposure. We send out two Zodiacs first thing in the morning to scout out the landing sites where we can actually start bringing people onshore. Sometimes we needed to shovel a lot of snow to be able to go ashore, sometimes the swells were too big to safely land. As we are very far from the nearest rescue service and a potential accident can have very serious consequences, we were happy to take the exposure- and risk level as low as we possibly could.
I love those early morning Zodiac scouting missions between the icebergs and floating ice. It’s a real feel of adventure while you’re cruising in a small Zodiac, trying to find a way through the ice that’s hitting the boat on all sides and bottom, snowing, waves, weather, it’s fucking awesome! One morning we stepped onshore, thigh deep powder, just to find a Fur seal stick his head out from the fresh snow just 5 meters from us and a Gentoo penguin hanging out next to him. Wonders of nature one can only come across in Antarctica.
Our 5th. morning was sunny and beautiful. Everybody headed out early to enjoy nice spring day of skitouring and skiing. Bluebird day and good snow, what more can one ask..? In the afternoon we go for a Zodiac cruise to see an old Swedish whaling ship Governören, that shipwrecked in the area. Of course we see a few seals, penguins and cormorans on the way. We also picked up some old glacier ice to take to the bartenders, who make ice sculptures to go with our cocktails when we get back to the ship. It’s just crazy…
We were cruising with a ship on the western side of the peninsula, sheltered in between the islands. We would spend the day in anchor, skiing and doing our thing and then start moving towards the next destination in the evening and over night. Where we could go, depended solely on the winds and the sea-ice. We could never know in advance, it’s all weather dependant and comes down to the Captain and his judgement. I was happy not to be in his shoes, lots of decision making to do. We had the coolest captain who wanted to take us to places so we were all good!
On our 6th morning we woke up to a full on blizzard. It was obvious that we would not be skiing any time soon. We did manage to get some Zodiacs in the water and to go scout the landing to Port Lockroy. After some serious shovelling in a snowstorm and strong wind, we managed to establish a landing and get onshore to this old research station, nowadays turned into a museum. Port Lockroy is not generally open to public but we got a special permit for a visit, as long as we would shovel the living quarters clear of snow for the staff arriving a few days later. Port Lockroy area is an active Gentoo penguin colony and it was funny to see these little creatures wonder around in the blizzard doing their penguin business. It was not as funny to shovel one year’s worth of penguin guano mixed with snow. Penguins don’t have any natural enemies on land so they were fearless and curious. It’s funny to sit down on the snow and let them come to see you and check you out.
In the afternoon we headed South towards the famous Lemaire channel. Lemaire is a narrow strait surrounded by very steep and impressive mountains: big walls of snow and ice, seracs, summits, couloirs, rock walls and glaciers. Lemaire is ofter blocked by sea-ice this early in the spring but now it was relatively free of ice and we managed to traverse to the other side where there is some amazing skiing terrain and famous summits.
We spent the evening eyeing the lines and taking in the scenery. There were some remarkable lines and summits around us everybody was quite amped up for the next day. In the morning we realised that the floating sea-ice on the shore would stop us in many places and prevent us from going ashore, which was a bit disappointing but nature sets the rules so we look elsewhere. We did manage to get on shore on one of the main objectives on the foot of the famous Mt. Mill. The captain and our expedition leader Alex, were keeping their eyes open for the fast moving sea-ice throughout the day. We skied a full day but we were on alert all the time because of the huge amount of sea-ice that was constantly moving and might move in and block our return route through Lemaire channel. Luckily winds stayed the same and we got a full day of skiing in on Mt. Mill.
Mt. Mill starts as a nice and mellow glacier skin straight out from the water. As we skin up, it continues to get steeper and steeper on this nice open glacier face that ends up on a nice shoulder with a steepening pitch towards the summit ridge. The snow was firm and at some point we put our skis in the backpack and switched into crampons and ice axe. We did not ski from the summit because it was steep and icy but we did climb up to the top to take a look and hang out on a summit for a bit. Such a cool experience to take a look in to the other side towards the South pole and the immense glaciers that continue as far as the eye can see. We took it easy skiing the steep parts but when we got down to the lower angle stuff we could open up a bit and cruise fast down this pool-table-flat surface of grippy cold snow. Such a pleasure! Mt. Mill was also the Southern most part of our trip this time, we reached 65° 15” degrees South. We start to make our way North.
As we travel through the Lemaire we come across a unreal sight. A family of five Orcas are travelling the same direction as us. The captain slows the ship to their speed and we travel side by side for twenty minutes, sharing the same waterway, us going skiing towards North and the orcas travelling to their family heritage hunting grounds further East. Another dream come true to see these magnificent animals from so close and have our marine biologist Jimmy to tell us more about them and their habits. In the evening we anchor close to Danco island and it’s Adelé penguin colony. After dinner we go to ashore to watch the sunset with the penguins. Yes, how sick is that!? Sunset watch with penguins in Antarctica…
The day number eight lands us straight back to the weather hold with snowstorm and white-out. Fresh powder on the deck is looking promising and as we do our scouting we come up with almost a meter of fresh pow. Serious avalanche danger to take into consideration and limits our terrain. We do manage to find some super good Antarctic pow on a good terrain and everybody skis a full day. A rare powder day down South! Stoke is high. As we come back to the ship, the crew have prepared us a polar plunge, meaning a refreshing swim in the sea. The water is cold. The program for the evening is the White Party! Everybody would jump into a white costume and party hard until dawn! Big fun!
The next morning dawned early for me, scout boats out at 0500 and go get some fresh air and spot landings for Zodiacs, not too much sleep but good life. Half of the people were on a slow motion after the party and quite a few people started the day by visiting the near by Chinstrap penguin colony and get some fresh air before skiing. After we got enough of the chinstraps we headed over to the other side of the bay to go skiing some very interesting terrain with ridges, faces and couloirs. Definitely the most enjoyable skiing terrain so far on the trip. We skied a few cool lines on a good snow and headed back to the ship happy but at the same time a bit blue because the next thing was to head back North towards the civilisation.
Magnificent sunset and towering icebergs wish us well on the way over the Drake passage and towards Cape Horn. Nice sunset was just calm before the storm. Luckily this time we did get a proper Drake shake in a form a solid class A storm with over 10 meter swells and strong winds up to 80 knots. I woke up in the middle of the night being trashed around in our cabin with other flying objects and Einar from Iceland around me. I tied myself to the bed with a sling and tried to sleep. Always good to witness the immense forces of the nature and still be reasonably safe in a solid ship. Experience not to be missed. Even these modern days it’s no joke to sail the Antarctic waters. A fellow ship, Ocean Endeavour, was cruising the same waters when hit an iceberg at 14 knots just before leaving to cross the Drake passage, but had to stop for 16 hours of repairs and still were forced to cross the passage with a hole in a hull. Another ship suffered a fire in the engine room and had to be evacuated by British Navy.
Besides a good shake, our crossing was uneventful. We did enjoy interesting presentations and slide shows, ate well and rested in-between the parties. It was a bit sad to arrive in Ushuaia and say good bye’s to all the amazing people. We stayed a few days in town, visited museum and went hiking in a beautiful Terra del Fuego national park.
It’s hard to describe the experience with words. I have travelled to many remote corners of the world but this remains as one of my favourite destinations and wildest experiences. I hope I can go back and I highly recommend it to anybody who loves wild nature and skiing.
Big, huge thanks to Doug Stoup and Karyn Stanley for putting this together, Quark Expeditions for taking care of us, fellow guides for good times and the team Make, Mikko, Jeff and Carl for being awesome and all the rest of you who made it possible and unforgettable!
Special thanks for:
Rossignol skis and snowboards