Tuxedo Touring - Antarctica Style
It’s hard to put into words the sights, sounds, thoughts, thrills, and feelings, that have overcome me on my recent ski touring adventure to Antarctica- the world’s last uninhabited true wilderness, but here it goes.
When I was 19, I embarked on my first ski trip to a continent outside of my home country of Australia. I ventured north to ski at Whistler in British Columbia, Canada for a few weeks during my university summer holidays. The trip was a huge adventure in every way, opening my eyes to big resort skiing, sharing the mountain with other soul skiers, experiencing Canadian culture, and discovering my one true love- powder skiing. It was the start of what was to be my journey to visit and ski, six out of the seven continents on the planet.
Over the course of the next several years on that journey, I ventured onto ski bum in Japan in the ‘blower powder’ of Nagano, to live, work and ski in the French Alps, and then returning back to Australia where I continued my passion using telemark skis. Following this, I returned to live and ski in Europe, and commence my heli-ski business, which allowed me to ski and heli-ski extensively around North America, Europe and even India. After seven years based in Europe, I immigrated again, this time to California, USA settling in San Francisco, a stones-throw from Lake Tahoe, where I regularly ski at Squaw Valley, my ‘home mountain’.
However, it wasn’t until this year, 2015, that an opportunity to ski South America and the great southern wilderness of Antarctica came about when I met Doug Stoup. He’s one of the world’s leading polar explorers and climate change evangelists, and President of wilderness ski touring company Ice Axe Expeditions.
This unique trip to Antarctica pioneered by Doug, is a two-week ski expedition cruise, occurring annually in November and it’s been on the calendar of an increasing number of the world’s most famous pro-skiers and boarders. The likes of Chris Davenport, Seth Westcott, Jeremy Jones, Seth Morrison, Matt Reardon, Points North Owner Kevin Quinn, and Kristen Ulmer have all done the trip.
Participants meet in the cruise-launch port town of Ushuaia, Argentina. We spent two or so days meeting our guides and getting acclimatised with local ski touring and dry land activities before stepping on board our private charter run by polar cruise experts Quark Expeditions. Perhaps unsurprisingly, there were not one, but three distinct staff crews powering this expedition. Firstly, the Ice Axe Guide Staff who ski guided us safely through our ski touring outings in the wild mountains of Antarctica (see below). Then there were the Quark Boat Expedition Leaders, consisting of biologists, geologists, and historians who brief and educate us plus escort us in the zodiacs to shore. Finally, there was the hotel crew- the cooks, captain, house keeping, engineering, and wait and bar staff to manage the hospitality on board. All in all, about 80 crew for 120 guests. Now that’s pampering!
The boat is a 100m reinforced steel, polar–ready expedition boat aptly called ‘Sea Adventurer’. It’s sentimental of the 70’s era, with featured wood panelling, equipped with communal areas like the Clipper Lounge, Dining Room, Library, and Lounge Bar. Every cabin has an ensuite, with impressively hot showers. There’s even a gym on board. Notably satellite internet is available, but owing to the $2 per Mb (yes, Megabyte) charge it’s pretty much off-limits, and one of the best gifts of the whole trip! The Sea Adventurer, our home at sea, is large enough to be very comfortable, yet importantly, small enough to feel intimate, and like we were on an expedition.
As the boat set sail, we first had to travel for two days each way across the formidable Drake Passage. It’s known as being one of, if not the roughest stretches of water in the world owing to the harsh winds and storms. Its known, as either being calm “Drake Lake” or stormy, “The Drake Shake”. We had it both ways, and I am pleased to say that I survived without any seasickness. Many people wore the preventative prescription patches. I wore it the calmer one way, but felt that it made me feel weird, so kept off it on the ‘stormy’ return with no consequences. I’ll never forget as we got nearer to the peninsula the sighting of our first large iceberg. The captain announced it and we all ran up on deck to witness it.
Once we were across the Drake Passage, we hit the majestic Antarctic Peninsula, of craggy peaks, snow-cliff shoreline, and countless icebergs many with wildlife aboard. We gradually got into a routine, and each morning, the ‘Expedition’ activities were announced to us in our cabin over the boats PA system in the form of a wake up call. Alex, the amiable Canadian Quark Expedition Leader, would firstly play fitting wake-up music, e.g. “Riders on the Storm” during our most stormy day, and commence the announcement with a familiar ‘Gooooood Moooorrrning Everyone’ greeting. The activities were planned based on a careful observance of current and impending weather, vis-à-vis where we need to be positioned for the route, and our objective of skiing the best peaks in the Antarctic Peninsula.
We would meet for breakfast, then armed with our ski touring and wildlife viewing expedition plans of the day, kit up, group up, and hit our landing targets by our zippy zodiac boats. Photo opportunities were endless. Taking 1000+ photos was a conservative outcome of the week. So much fun!
On shore- we oscillated between ski touring objectives up Antarctica’s wild, craggy peaks, and wilderness outings to see penguins, seals, birds, and whales. Grouped up with four clients to one guide, similar to heli skiing, we ventured out in these intimate groups to explore the opportunity and adventure that each day’s weather, circumstances, and location held for us. Crevasses are a real and present danger, avalanches less so. As such, it was essential that we roped up alpine style whilst we skinned on our skis or climbed in crampons and boots up the hill. Belonging to one rope, it quickly became tight teamwork. If there were to be an accident down there, it would severely impact the expedition. There are no helicopters. The Wikipedia definition of adventure is ‘An exciting or unusual experience. It may also be a bold, usually risky undertaking, with an uncertain outcome.’ That’s sure what if felt like in Antarctica- very frontier.
And if we thought this was frontier, Hadleigh, our resident British historian didn’t let us forget the brave and heroic feats achieved by the early polar explorers who discovered, traversed and named this vast wilderness. Shackleton, Mawson, Amundsen and others pioneered such incredible human feats in exploring this land that quite simply are hard to believe, once you’ve seen the height of the seas, felt the depth of the cold, and shuddered from the powerful winds down there, like I have now.
Needless to say, each day brought resoundingly memorable skiing opportunities, including some rare and unexpected powder (given it’s the world’s biggest desert), outstanding wildlife encounters, incredible scenery, and hilarious fun on board our ship.
One night, the ship sailed through the stunningly beautiful Lemaire Channel- a narrow channel of ice-berged water with hanging glaciers from peaks rising up from the sea on either side. A sight of immense beauty and one that is rare to see. The cruise hadn’t been able to complete it in the past five years because of ice. The vista was breathtaking, the most beautiful sailing I had ever done. Another evening we went ashore to Danco Island at around (9pm) to see a penguin rookery and were rewarded with a real-polar sunset.
In contrast, another day, we went on a shore excursion to Port Lockeroy, a decommissioned British WW2 scientific research station and penguin rookery. We landed in the middle of an Antarctic gale. Wild and unforgiving, we were engulfed with gale force winds, and driving snow. The penguins didn’t seem bothered, in fact they were openly breeding in this weather. It was all but hopeless on my camera and hands as I tried to operate my SLR and change lenses. I thought the camera was toast it was so wet with snow. The wind further increased and for an hour or more we were ‘stuck’ on the island because the winds were too strong to send the zodiacs to pick us up. Rather than be upset, we reveled in this experience- the true Antarctica, a land of contrasts, one moment serene, and pristine, the next wild and vengeful. As if Mother Nature was sending a reminder of how fragile our beautiful planet is and how vengeful she can be (if we don't look after it).
In the bar at night, each night, over the “Aass” Norwegian imported beer or killer cruise cocktails they had on board, we’d receive a recap of the day, by the Quark Staff. There’d be Hors d’Oeuvres roughly two hours before dinner (go figure how you can go on a ski touring expedition and gain not lose weight, I’ll be damned!). For meals, it was wonderful to have ten days, (meaning thirty meals) to be able to indulge in meaningful conversation with fellow cruisers over formal sit-down three course affairs with spectacular Antarctic scenery, and alpenglow light as the backdrop.
So, who goes on one of these trips?
Lots of ridiculously interesting people, that’s who. People for which skiing, travel, and adventure is at the core of their hearts, and lifestyle. Yet, people for whom Antarctica is also an inspirational bucket list item, and every single one of us was grateful to be there. It’s people who derive from every ski town imaginable from around the world, people from Australia, USA, Canada, Europe and New Zealand. People who have likely done that adventure, objective, or visited that location to ski or explore that you have always wanted to. Looking for a shopping list of your next few adventures? There’s no shortage of inspiration and true-life stories here.
For travel and ski adventure junkies like yours truly, one of the highlights was being able to hang with the Ice Axe guide staff on board (lead by the one and only Doug Stoup). The list of 18 mountain guides read like a who’s who of the global professional alpine guiding and skiing industry, drawing from elite ski communities of Tahoe, Alaska, Washington, Chamonix, and Jackson Hole. Several of them have Everest guiding ascents and ski descents under their belts. Most were sponsored by the worlds leading outdoor brands. Household alpinism legends included Doug Stoup of Squaw Valley, Chris Davenport of Aspen, Andy McClean of Park City, Kristoffer Erickson of Chamonix (now Morocco), Mark Sedon of Wanaka, Bill Barker of Hotham and Gulmarg, Glen Poulsen, Brennan LaGrasse and Todd Offenbacher of Tahoe etc. Can you imagine? The stories? The expertise? The conversation? The fun!!!!!
Their presence was further showcased when each evening, we would benefit from a presentation done by a guide on an aspect of their career, their achievements, or an adventure they wanted to lure us on next- whether that be to ski in Greenland, India, Morocco, Alaska, or the North Pole. Their charisma, and passion for their career was evident, addictive, and we all agreed, a great sales tool for the audience that needs little convincing of planning further skiing adventures. The only question that needs to be answered is ‘where next?’
Adding to the whole affair, there were special onboard activities of note like the Polar Plunge, and the White Party. I am proud to say that Yours Truly received certification of diving into polar waters at 1.4 degrees Celsius as part of a staged event complete with vodka chasers post-plunge and a cheering crowd. It was another group bonding experience of the week. And the White Party didn’t disappoint. Photos don’t do it justice. Lets just say, some of the guides have ‘notable’ après-ski interests ;-)
Last but not least, to the title of my blog- Tuxedo Touring- a blog about escapades on Antarctica wouldn’t be Antarctica without mention of the 14 million native inhabitants – the penguinos, who are an incredibly important part of the ecosystem and food chain. We met three types intimately- the Gentoo, Adelie and Chinstrap penguins. Strange, cute, and curious little creatures, they are so clumsy on land, but so adept swimming in water like their seal counterparts. We visited many rookeries, their breeding ground, and discovered how they breed in largely monogamous pairs, building nests with stones painstakingly acquired from the sea, witnessed them breed, and socialise. We saw first hand, how they are so clumsy on land that if they were to fall into a humans foot step of snow, they may not be able to climb out (we had to stick on the paths), and that since they were so curious, we needed to make sure we stayed 5 metres away from them and always give way to them when they often walked across our path.
Even though we also saw seals and orcas, I took many more photos and took much footage of the penguinos since they were just so adorable. I remember thinking, as the horrific world terrorism events were unfolding in Paris during our trip, that the rookery scenes with these innocent creatures couldn’t be further from that monstrosity that humans created. And perhaps the most indelible memory for me of Antarctica can be summed up in the sight of the little curious penguin who would inevitably be hanging around usually on his or her own, on the shore where our zodiac’s landed, just looking around at the sight of us, I am sure just wondering what and who we were. It happened at almost every landing that one was just there, as if it were the designated welcoming committee we all used to joke. So funny.
If you ever considered skiing the 7 continents or just want to experience a true world-class adventure, then let me leave you with this: There was nothing like skiing back down to the zodiac landing site from the peninsula, from the epic mountain we’d just climbed, looking ahead with the vista of ice bergs, and our ‘Sea Adventurer’ home in the distance. Of skiing down to the spot right next to this little, curious penguino who would be bobbing his head, flapping his wings maybe and generally just being the cutest thing ever. We were 'Tuxedo Touring' in the truest sense. There’s nothing like it.
Nothing like it in the world.
*Photo credit: Keoki Flagg