Flash Freeze- A Brief History of the Ice Axe Antarctic Ski Cruise
For such a monochromatic continent, Antarctica has a very colorful history. Many of the early black & white photos of expeditions show grim faced explorers and it is hard to imagine that any of them were having much fun. Tales of survival, death, suffering and slogging are par for the course, but the recent discovery of a case of single malt scotch belonging to Sir Ernest Shackleton hint at the idea that it wasn’t all pure misery. It is hard to have a boring trip to The White Continent, even though nowadays they can be booked on-line and completed door-to-door in less than three weeks. The adventure and sense of discovery is as strong as ever – you just don’t have to pay for it with your fingers and toes.
Beginning in 2008, Doug Stoup of Ice Axe Expeditions began writing a new chapter in Antarctic history when he launched the Antarctic Ski Cruise. The idea was hatched in February of 2000 when Stoup and five other ski mountaineers chartered a small sailboat to cruise around the Antarctic Peninsula looking for new skiing terrain. The sailboat would move to new locations in the evenings, and then deploy a small inflatable Zodiac boat to shuttle skiers to and from the shore during the day. With clear weather and perfect ski conditions, the trip was successful beyond anyone’s imagination. This led to the idea of scaling it up to a commercial operation based off of a 300’ cruise ship with 100 guests and 24 guides.
This was an audacious plan to begin with, and made even harder by the rules & regulations required by the International Association of Antarctica Tour Operators (IAATO), which understandably seeks to limit the environmental impact of humans on the continent and keep people safe. Cruise ships have been going down to Antarctica for years and allowing passengers off at select historical stations or penguin rookeries, but the idea of allowing a commercial group to have free range among the peaks, glaciers and wildlife took some convincing and teamwork with both IAATO and the cruise ship operators. Aside from following all of the existing rules, there was also the stipulation that once on land, skiers had to be with mountain guides for crevasse and avalanche safety, among other things. This was a major hurdle to skiing in Antarctica and many people don’t realize that cruise ships will not allow their passengers to randomly disembark and wander around through the crevasses and Leopard Seals. The only other option would be to book your own private sailboat, but you’ll want to be sitting down when you see the price tag on that.
After eight years of planning and dreaming, the inaugural Antarctic Ski Cruise congregated at the southern tip of South America in the Argentinian town of Ushuaia in November of 2008. As the first trip, it was filled with early adopters from all over the world, including such exotic locales as Squaw Valley, King’s Beach, Truckee, Tahoe and even a few people from outside of California. Anticipation was high as the group of 100+ people gathered at a seaside restaurant in the late afternoon sunset glow to watch our ship, the Lyubov Orlova come in through the Beagle Channel. Cheers of “It’s our boat!” were followed by a moment of silence before a few people started murmuring “Should it be smoking that much..?”
Ice reinforced cruise ships are a rare breed and they split their time between cruising the northern latitudes in our summer, and then head down for the austral summer around Antarctica in our winter. Along the commute, the Lyubov Orlova had developed engine troubles, including taking water into her crankcase oil. It turned out to be a fatal blow to the ship, but not before we spent days trying to salvage the expedition. When it was finally announced that we were out of time and the ship was beyond repair, only two questions remained; who’s coming back next year and what are we going to do with all of the booze that we can’t bring on the airplane? The ensuing party was a fitting farewell to the Lyubov Orlova before she broke loose from her tow line on way to the salvage yard and became a rat-infested ghost ship which was last seen off the coast of Ireland.
The Ski Cruise is generally offered once every two years, but as everyone was offered either a refund or a rebooked trip the next year, 90% of the cast of characters were back again in 2009, including a group of three Finns who have now become icons in Ski Cruise history. This time the boat left the dock on time and proceeded across the 50 hour Drake Passage in calm seas. Seeing Antarctica for the first time is something you will never forget, but seeing it at a distance on a clear sunny day after crossing the Drake is more of a slow burning feeling that builds instead of a sudden adrenaline rush. The peaks are impossibly white, the sea a cold, dark blue and the wind is usually strong enough to remind you of where you are on the planet. It’s a sensation that doesn’t diminish with subsequent trips, especially when your spine starts tingling in anticipation of actually going skiing in such a place.
The first ski day of the 2009 trip was picture perfect – clear, sunny, calm and gorgeous. Veterans of skiing on the continent encouraged everyone to get out and get after it, as days like this are uncommon. The next day was the same… as was the next, and the next and the next, until we had racked up a week of all perfect days in a row and could barely walk. The ship was filled with multiple film crews and photographers, and many of their images are still in prime circulation to this day.
Oh-nine was also host to the first, and so far only, serious injury on the Ski Cruise when John DelMonte broke a leg and the ship had to be rerouted for an emergency evacuation. Even though we had to alter our route, we were in the middle of endless ski terrain and hardly missed a turn. It was also the debut year of the Black & White party, where the Finns distinguished themselves by showing up in fishnet stocking and goulashes before turning the party into a mosh pit of tennis racquet spanking and spilled drinks before Karyn Stanley, the Office Manager of Ice Axe Expeditions, intervened with adult supervision.
With two years to recuperate, the 2011 voyage felt like it picked up right where the last one left off. By now, the word had spread and people were showing up from all over, including Europe, England, Australia and all over the U.S. We once again had a smooth crossing of the Drake Passage, which considering it is renown as one of the most turbulent stretches of water in the world, was disappointing, at least to the sailors on board.
One of the more frustrating aspects of Antarctica weather is that it seldom dumps snow outright, but instead storms are more a matter of high winds and poor visibility. It is possible to get out, but due to crevasses, the skiing in such conditions is very cautious and sticks to known low angle slopes. We had a few days of low visibility to warm up to, but after that, the sun came out and it was party time. Armed with prior knowledge of the peninsula from 2009, the second half of this trip was a feeding frenzy and led to the climbing and naming many of the lines and areas which are now considered classics, such as The Farm and Victoria.
This was also one of the few times that lines were in shape for steep skiing. Antarctica is the driest of all seven continents and receives an average of only 7” of precipitation per year. Combined with temperatures which can fluctuate wildly, high winds and being right on the ocean, hard snow is the norm and the best skiing is on north facing corn (everything is opposite in Antarctica), or recrystallized powder. More often than not, a 45 degree slope which would be fun in the Wasatch will be terrifying in Antarctica. It takes a warm spell, followed by a shot of sticky new snow to make the steeps skiable, and even then, it doesn’t last for long. However, we lucked out with the weather and conditions in 2011 and were able to ski lines which haven’t been in shape in subsequent years. Get it while you can.
After three smooth Drake crossings in a row, the weather demons finally awoke and delivered a Force 12 hurricane on our return trip. I was in heaven. The boats are meant to take it, but that does not mean they do so in any sort of comfort or tranquility. Dishes were smashed, the piano escaped its moorings, waves broke over the top deck and breakfast was served on the floor. The ship’s crew assumed passengers would have enough sense to stay inside, but after a drenched party was called down from the upper outside deck, the doors were marked with “Closed” signs until the storm passed.
Another two years later, in 2013, the Sea Adventurer was loaded with skiers again and slid across glassy seas for the third Ice Axe Ski Cruise trip. Little did we know it, but this was to be The Year of the Ice. For the best skiing, the Ice Axe trip is usually one of the first trips down of the season, which means it is breaking trail in unknown conditions. The cruise ship industry is surprisingly large in Antarctica, with multiple ships taking multiple trips each year. No matter how epic the ship’s return crossing may have been, once the boats reach Ushuaia, the passengers disembark, supplies are loaded on and a new group heads out within about eight hours.
Much of the Antarctic Peninsula is caked with frozen sea ice during their winter, and although it does break up and float out to sea, it doesn’t do so all at once. Instead, it breaks into millions of chunks which come and go with the wind and tides, and even after it has evacuated a bay, it can be blown back in a few days later. The cruise ship is designed to push its way through some of this, but it does so at the risk of having the ice close in behind it and trap the boat. The Zodiacs however can barely make it through any sea ice (nor would you want to when you see how powerful it is and how much it moves…), so even a 200’ barrier against the shore means you have to scout a new landing. Such was the case in 2013, which necessitated many landing attempts before we could finally get ashore and ski, but when we did, the skiing was great.
Breaking with the every-other-year tradition, the next Ski Cruise was held one year later in 2014. This one filled up at the last second and cast off under an amazing double rainbow in the Beagle Channel before a smooth trip across the Drake.
Whereas the year before had lots of ice, this trip had more than its fair share of wind and flat light. Aside from being unnerving, the wind isn’t that bad for skiing, but it does threaten the Zodiac shuttles, especially on the trip back from the shore when the boats are empty except for the driver and are subject to being flipped by gusts of wind. The Zodiac drivers are pros (I think they secretly even like it), but when icebergs are slamming into the gangway and waves are washing overboard to the point that they are triggering the automatic lifejackets, caution is the better part of valor. Once again, we had to hunt and peck for suitable landing spots and in the end only lost 1.5 days of skiing. By Ski Cruise standards this was quite a bit, but by almost any other ski trip standards, Antarctica is generally very reliable.
As the trip progresses over the years, it has become a mix of both returning to old reliable ski zones and also searching out new ones as conditions allow. There’s an endless amount of terrain to be skied, and although almost everyone goes down there for the turns, in the end it is the overall experience of the trip that is remembered the most. On the ’14 trip, one of the more memorable moments was arriving at a new landing site near a beautiful peak, only to discover 200+ Crab Eater seals sleeping in a hidden swale. Another memorable moment, or perhaps a horrendous ordeal depending on your viewpoint, was the 108+ knot hurricane we traversed through on the way back to Ushuaia. This storm was technically stronger than the 2011 version, but because we were tackling it more head-on rather than taking it from the side, there was less rocking & rolling which is easier to stomach for those affected by motion sickness.
The history of Antarctica is constantly evolving and the Ice Axe Ski Cruise has added a new and colorful twist to a tiny segment of a huge continent. It’s hard to imagine Shackleton, Scott or Amundsen dressed in day-glo ski clothes and dropping sick lines of Antarctic gnar, but I think if they were around, they’d appreciate the sense of adventure, spirit and enthusiasm that people are bringing to the lands which they first explored. If anything, it might bring a smile to their faces to see what Antarctic exploration has become.