Antarctica- Reflections of the Ice Axe Ski Cruise
The Ice Axe Antarctica Ski Cruise had its first successful departure to the White Continent in 2009, and has been returning regularly since then. Pioneered by Doug Stoup, the renowned polar explorer and backcountry ski pioneer, the trip is now a yearly affair setting sail from Ushuaia, Argentina in the late fall. This past November over 80 skiers accompanied by over 20 guides made the trip, with 18 nations being represented. The trip is unique for the fact that most boats sailing for the frozen continent rarely make landfall, much less allowing skiers access to first descents in the South Shetland Islands, Antarctic Peninsula, and surrounding islands. The trip will depart again this fall of 2017 lead again by Doug Stoup and his Ice Axe partner Karyn Stanley.
The Ice Axe Antarctica Ski Cruise is an ever-evolving learning experience, and the main lesson from the first attempt in 2008 was that ship engines do not function when their crankcases are flooded with seawater. Little did we know it at the time, but when the Lyubov Orlova limped into Ushuaia, she was fatally wounded and would never sail again. A slight delay turned into a day, which turned into two days before the plug was finally pulled until the next year. In the meantime, everyone was still encamped on the boat and suddenly had to rid themselves of any alcohol they had brought aboard so they could fly home. The ensuing party was a fitting send-off for the Orlova, which eventually became a rat-infested ghost ship last seen adrift off the coast of Ireland.
The slope below my skis rolled over to a steepness where the slope itself disappeared giving a suspended in midair sensation. My view was directly into the iceberg-filled bay a couple hundred feet below. I stabbed my pole into the snow revealing that the top layer of snow was soft. I took a deep breath and yelled “dropping in”. As I dropped, I felt butterflies dancing in my gut the same feeling I get in a rapidly descending elevator. My first turn felt smooth and reassuring and before I knew it, I was laying out rhythmic slalom turns. An uncontrollable “yahoo” was uttered from my mouth. I couldn’t keep it back, after-all I was skiing one of the steepest lines of my life on perfect corn snow in Antarctica!
After my first trip to Antarctica in 2009 I figured nothing else would touch it. On my first run, our crew took it right the ocean. I was in utter awe. Then I noticed two Gentoo Penguins staring at me. My mind was blown. As the next Ice Axe Antarctic trips lined up, the time of year was hard for me to get off, so I did my best to not think about it all that much. When I went back in 2015 I realized that it wasn’t about checking something off a list; it was about the living in the moment in the most salient way possible. That’s what this trip was about. Bringing like-minded, adventurous souls together for the literal trip of a lifetime. We can share in magical moments throughout the world as ski tourers, but there is nothing that is like the Antarctic experience except actually being there. But that spirit of being present, and living for today is something we should all employ as much as possible in our lives. In the words of Ice Axe guide Todd Offenbacher, “never waste a day”.
This expedition is unrivaled in every regard. The people are world-class individuals, passionate about skiing and adventure that make up the most interest group you’ll ever encounter. Skiing on the Antarctic Peninsular, no matter what the conditions is phenomenal. It’s stunningly gorgeous with glacial and ski mountaineering challenges that give everyday an edge. The guide team that Ice Axes puts together from all over the world is the most competent anywhere. Roping up becomes as routine as putting on skins to gain summits and ski descents everyday. Logistics thanks to Doug and Karyn are flawless, getting 120+ skiers off the boat and onto shore twice a day, consistently. The wildlife is off the charts with penguin encounters, seals, whales and wandering albatross following us on the Drake Passage. In my experience of 35+ years of exploring the world, there is simply no better experience out there than the Antarctic Ski Cruise.
– Angela Hawse, Lead Guide 2017 Expedition.
A routine is settled into aboard the Sea Adventurer, but the excitement is constantly present. Breakfast, ski, lunch, ski, après, dinner, cocktails, and there is always something going onboard in the form of a lecture on history, geology, skiing slideshows, clinics, etc. It definitely is not roughing it. Things ramp up through the week with big ski days, visits to penguin rookeries with thousands of birds, a deck top barbecue with mulled wine and pigs roasted on a spit, the “polar plunge” with shots of vodka for those who make the dip, and the “White Party” in the lounge. The costumes can be outrageous, and you have to see it to believe it. Especially when you realize where you are in the world.
As I awake from a rather restless night, I realized the ship was no longer being tossed about by the raging seas of the Drake Passage. In my drowsy state, I wondered had we finally reached the sheltered waters of the South Shetland Islands or had we sunk to the bottom of the ocean? It investigate further I sat up, reached over and pulled the window blind up and the small room was suddenly filled with sunlight. As my eyes adjusted, a majestic landscape emerged — heavy glaciated peaks of white snow, blue ice and dark rock bathed in morning light jetting from the bay in which we smoothly motored through. A feeling of excitement filled my heart. We had made it; I thought to myself, I would be skiing in Antarctica in matter of hours. My roommate who was in the bed beside me had others things on his mind and grunted and said “dude, what the hell, shut the blind I am trying to sleep!”
This is the best ski trip in the world. You have a warm bed, hot meals, and you are skiing freaking Antarctica. I believe more people have summited Mt. Everest than people who have skied Antarctica.”
It’s late. I need to phantom to bed or else more beers are going to be drunk, and I don’t want to be cross-eyed in the morning, again. My goal is to fill a water bottle with the good stuff from the restaurant, so I try and sneak past the boats’ side bar thinking no one will be there. Wrong. Andrew McLean, John Morrison, and a few of the Finns are in there, shirts off, swaying, whiskeys in hand, and they are fired up! All I knew at that moment was my plan was over, skiing would take care of itself later, and I needed to ride this wave.
It’s 2009, the first official Ice Axe Expeditions trip to land on the frozen continent. For years this was a dream of mine-to somehow figure out how to leave nothing but tracks in a place that seemed liked the wildest place on earth. I was so excited to be onboard, but I also wanted to be as focused as possible since helping Photographer Keoki Flagg and Cinematographer Tom Day capture stills and footage for a Warren Miller film was my duty. My pack was the heaviest I had ever carried, and at the end of the first day I was crushed. The thing is this ski trip is unlike any you will ever go on. In the past, I had gotten accustomed to waking up on expeditions, readying one’s mind and body for a big day, and putting all the physical effort one could out there before resting at night. And when I say resting, I mean eating as much as possible and crashing hard. What I wasn’t prepared for on this trip was the people factor. As the trip progressed I realized spending time meeting new friends, some of which were heroes of mine in the ski world, many of whom I had never heard of or met, was just as inspiring and important as going out to ski each day. My plan to be well rested was gone because every chance to connect with someone was like this unanticipated gift that became more or at least as important as the turns the next day. It’s a theme that makes this trip what it is, the most unique of its kind in the world.
We were waiting our turn to get tethered and dropped into the water. The ritual “Antarctic Plunge.” Suddenly, there were huge splashes as folks started diving off the upper decks. The boat crew was surprised, as this was not “the ritual”, but this was not the geriatric cruise they were accustomed to either, this was the ski cruise. I settled on a cannonball— looking back it was a poor choice—but I hadn’t seen one and thought the judges might award originality points. The slap of ass on the near frozen water was loud. Somebody noticed I was bleeding. The nurse hadn’t seen anything like this, but like I said before this was the ski cruise.
From a guiding perspective, the logistics went as smoothly as they ever have. We were able to get ashore just about everywhere that we intended without being deterred by ice or wind. Plan “A” worked-out almost everyday, which might be a first.
I think the only time we went to plan “B,” in fact, wound up being the second highlight for me… Deception Island. I had visited here in 2008, on my first trip to the deeeeeep south. The cloud-cover was so low on that visit that we had no sense of whether or not it was even skiable there. To go back with such spectacular weather and great skiing stands-out as a highlight for me, for sure.
The Drake Passage is one of the most notorious sections of water in the world and the Ice Axe trip traverses it twice per voyage. From my crossings, it has either been totally smooth (Drake Lake) or the full tilt blender (Drake Shake). Drake Lake is boring, but Drake Shake is as good as nature’s fury gets. Hurricane force winds, huge waves, spray coming over the top of the fifth deck, screaming anemometers, wild gyrations, crashing plates, alternating sky and deep green water out of the window ports and lots of sick people. The boat is built to take such abuse, which is good as the ride can last 50+ hours. It’s awesome.
Scale. That is the first thing that comes to mind in Antarctica. It’s hard to understand what you are looking and just how big the environment is. Antarctica is an endless string of ranges and peaks jetting straight out of the ocean and rising thousands of feet. Our main ship, which is 328ft was simply dwarfed by icebergs. The raw beauty and rugged, inhabitable terrain are elements that were both nearly impossible to fully capture with a camera, and impossible to forget.
The last of the bourban was poured into Joe’s mug as the supermoon rose over the seracs on Mt. Brittania, reflecting off the iceberg filled bay. My father and I grinned from ear to ear as the warmth of the whisky penetrated our bellies. The mug was making it’s return journey to the White Continent after 80 years, having served Joe Healy faithfully while exploring Antarctica by dog sled in the 1930’s. Joe was my great uncle, a mentor to my father and my namesake. A life-long goal of mine has been to follow in his footsteps to Antarctica. As a mountain guide traveling the world for 25 years, the ice of the southern continent had thus far evaded me. To make this pilgrimage as a ski guide and with my father was a dream. The landscape, wildness and surreal beauty of the place penetrated deeply into my pysche and has not let go. Like Joe Healy, the spell has been cast and will bring me back.
-Joe St. Onge
Unknowing of what we would be skiing and what the conditions would be like in Antarctica, I had a bit of a nervous feeling as we made our first landing on the peninsula. Some of the nerve may have come from spending two straight days crossing the Drake Passage but as soon as I stepped foot on land the jitters faded away. Twenty feet from where we stood, putting our skins on our skis and roping up with our teams, lay beautiful Crabeater seals. The wildlife we encountered was truly spectacular. To be experiencing a place on skis that belonged everyday to the seals, the penguins, and the birds felt otherworldly. To experience Antarctica through carving beautiful ski lines in a place so wild and uninhabited by humans was to feel more substantive than ever.
The Sea Adventurer sets sail for Antarctica from Ushuaia, Argentina; a funky waterfront town on the tip of the continent. Despite it’s appearance, there are a number of great restaurants with the requisite beef selections, as well as terrific seafood. There is also a great bar called the Dublin, which was always packed and lively with beer drinkers from all over the world imbibing at the “Fin del Mundo.” Arriving a few days before setting off allows for some time to be spent getting the ski legs ready with some climbing and skiing on the Martial Glacier right out of town; a spectacular setting with views of the Beagle Channel and the surrounding craggy peaks. A taxi can get you to the bas of the glacier, which is an adventure in itself.
The Ice Axe Antarctica Ski Cruise is the ski mountaineering equivalent of the Fountain of Youth – a trip that just never gets old, and may even make you younger. The energy level is always sky high and even though the ship is decadent, there is a real sense of adventure involved with crossing the Drake Passage twice, scouting landings, skiing through a surreal environment and mingling with exotic wildlife. Skiing is the main attraction, but in the end, the skiing is just one small part of a much bigger, mind-blowing experience that makes you feel lucky to be a skier/rider.
–Andrew McLean – 6x Participant