My introduction to graduate level ski debauchery came in 1994 at the Derby de la Meije in La Grave, France.  The Derby is a top-to-bottom race with only two gates, one at the start and one at the finish, which that year were separated by 7,000’ of off-piste terrain ranging from a powdery glacier at the top all the way down to a mushy, muddy access road at the bottom.  The event offered sizeable purses for the winners and attracted roughly 500 people, including some recently retired French National Team downhill racers.  A morning weather hold made the race look unlikely with that many people, but this was France.  They had set up five side-by-side starting gates and the bib numbers were irrelevant – first come, first served.  Sliding into the starting gate I get a quick “Trois, deux, un.  Aller!” before skating off through a sea of smoldering Gauloises cigarette butts to join the bedlam.

Times ranged from under ten minutes to over two hours.  Friends skied it together; people stopped under blind rollovers for lunch, there were male, female, team, telemark, snowboard and monoski divisions.  Once on course it was impossible to tell how well you were doing, but from the insane looking tracks going straight through chundery snow, trees and rocks, I knew I wasn’t in contention for anything but a spinal injury.  The only rule that year was that the Trifide Couloirs were off limits, which was a small nod to safety as they were a logical shortcut and known for fatalities.

 

I finished with my life and dignity intact, but one of my hotel mates, Pia, won the women’s telemark division.  We were staying at La Chaumine, which was known as The Skiers Lodge and was also famous for its smoky indoor chimney and reeking sewage leech field.  The hotel was run by a smiling Swede named Pelle Lang, staffed with Swedish ski guides & Swedish cooks and largely filled with Scandinavian clientele.  Pia also happened to be Swedish, so a celebration was in order.

An early arrival was Gary Bigham and his band from Chamonix named The Rock Skis, which was later changed to The Crevasseholes.  While setting up, Gary met a Chaumine worker from Finland, which led to a quick digression:  Finland = saunas.  Saunas = birch sapling whippings.  Whippings = fun.  Within minutes of meeting, Gary asked “Will you whip me with your ski pole for 5 Francs?”  The hotel worker demurred, but I was impressed with Gary’s line of thought and unique delivery.  Soon after this, the hotel’s owner opened a trap door in the floor to bring up some champagne from the cellar, which meant a case.  By now the hotel’s six seat bar was in overflowing and the lounge area was packed, so it was time to toast Pia’s win. With a rousing Swedish version of “Hip hip hooray!” Pia was tossed into the air high enough that her head cracked into the low-beamed ceiling, almost knocking her out.  There was a momentary pause in the music, Pia shook it off and party came roaring back.

Past midnight, with no end in sight, a pitcher of water was dropped in the hallway, which led to accidental slipping, then intentional running & surfing, then bare feet getting cut by the glass shards, which led to a bloody mess.  This was cleaned up, but soon replaced with intentionally spilled beer to keep the surf party going.  The Rock Skis only knew about six classic garage band songs to begin with, including Steppenwolf’s “Born to Be Wild” which had morphed into a 30-minute free-range jam session.  One of the guitarists got into an argument with the drummer and they traded places with no drop in quality.  At some point it became both Open Mic Night and Open Bar Night. A fist fight broke out, people kept stuffing wet wood into the smoky fireplace and someone managed fall off of the back porch, luckily landing in a snowbank.

 

There’s a fine line between going to bed and passing out.  Around 5:00am I assumed a delayed start for skiing the next day, but no.   Breakfast was served two hours later, just with a few less seats to account for the space taken up by the surfing hallway, drum kit, mic stands and people passed out on the couches and floors.  The fire had finally died, filling the room with pure smoke.  Pelle made the rounds, smiling and saying everything was fine, just fine, and complimenting the staff on how fresh they looked.  The van was loaded up and we made the first cabine with no mention of the night, and especially no whining.  It was a formative experience.

Later on the trip I met Ptor Spricenieks and Troy Jungen, who would go on to do the first ski descent of the Emperor Face on Mt. Robson in the Canadian Rockies.  After shadowing our group to a remote village, they asked the hotel van driver for a ride back, which he agreed to, but only if they sat in the open roof rack.   Troy and Ptor were in their international couch surfing Ski Foo phase at the time and were psyched to ride on the roof as they’d brought bongo drums along on the tour and played them during the drive.  I wanted to join them, but didn’t have a bongo.  Lesson learned.  Beacon, shovel, probe… bongo drum.

 

From this fresh beginning, I was lucky to apply my Swedish/French education far abroad.  Quaffing Duck Farts in Talkeetna after skiing Sultana, emptying Trash Cans at the ABC in Anchorage after Hunter, toasting Tui’s in New Zealand and crushing cans of Aass in Norway.  The locations changed, but the goal is always the same – don’t let a good time get in the way of skiing.  Keep your priorities straight and never, ever, ever whine when the two meet.

Just like ski touring, pacing is essential and something you only learn through experience.  A classic mistake is to go out too hard and fast in the beginning and end up with embarrassing social media photos of yourself with Sharpie artwork on your face courtesy of your teammates. It takes forever to get off and emphasizes the importance of the long game. Mistakes are expected but practice makes perfect.

 

It took 12 years to top La Chaumine, but in 2008, Ice Axe Expeditions launched their first ever Antarctica Ski Cruise, although the boat never even left the dock in Ushuaia, Argentina.  Arriving late after a long seasonal migration from the Arctic, the ship had a rakish tilt and was belching black smoke, both of which seemed normal from the comfort of a stool in the Kuar lounge overlooking the bay.  One day of delays led to the next.  Repairs were made and the engines were run up to speed, only to find frothing motor oil mixed with seawater in the main crankcases.  The inaugural Antarctica Ski Cruise was cancelled with the offer to either get a full refund or roll it over to next year.  Skiers are eternal optimists, so most people happily agreed to credit for the next year, which left only one question…  what to do with all of the smuggled contraband before boarding a plane in 24 hours?  Memories are vague, but I faintly remember being thrown off of mechanical bulls, asked to leave a strip club when one of the skiers decided to out strip the locals, people climbing up the anchor chains and finally being scolded by the Customs Officer for swimming naked in controlled waters as the sun came up.   I’ve lost touch with my homies from that night, but know we’ll have plenty of time to catch up and laugh about it later on in some dark corner of hell.

All of this was just a mere prelude to the following year, when not only did the boat sail but with a full cast of characters.  There was a vibrant cross section of humanity, including film crews, British Royalty, derelicts, billionaires, pro riders, frat brothers, real and pretend ski guides, an adult filmmaker, Belgium escort and the most dangerous of them all, the Finns.  Conditions were clear, sunny and calm every single day, which is a rarity for any ski trip and unheard of for Antarctica. Almost every run was a first descent.  After six days of incredible skiing, the party powder keg was primed and the first ever White Party was the match to light it.

The White Party concept is simple – wear something white, in this case to honor of the White Continent, Antarctica.  It could be an elaborate costume, or perhaps just the white bathrobe from the boat, a piece of table linen folded into a diaper or even a single strategically placed white sock.  The setting was spectacular – anchored in a calm bay ringed by snowcapped mountains, 24 hours of daylight, whales breaching, seals floating by on icebergs, penguins preening and a sound system with no governor (this has changed in subsequent years).  The evening got off to a smooth start with a mix of classic butt-rock music and free White Russians but soon took on a life of its own.

Someone arrived dressed as John McEnroe, the angry pro tennis player from the early 90’s, complete with a wicked headband, knee high socks, sneakers, tighty whitey shorts, a collared shirt and wooden tennis racquet. The racquet was soon lost, but reemerged later in the hands of the Finns who very calmly used it, not only to spank each other, but to rate the spanking quality on a scale ranging from boring to an eye watering wonderful.  The Finns were a trio.  Two of them were childhood friends and the third was their camp counselor from when they were kids, which made me wish I’d gone to more exciting summer camps.  In general, Finns are a very dangerous lot as they are bred not to show emotion.  The facial expressions between winning the lottery and having their dog die are the same – nothing.  This is important as they can look you in the eye with complete sincerity all the way up to the point that their eyes roll back in their head and they collapse, although most often they are the last ones standing.

In any case, the tennis racquet spanking became a sport on its own, which in the moment I took to heart, both giving and receiving, until an adult stepped in and thankfully took control.  Butt the damage had been done and as a badge of honor, I became known as a serial spanker. So be it.  I’ve faced off with a Norwegian BASE jumper, a bride still in her wedding gown, a deep sea welder, twin sisters and extreme snowboarders.  I’ve lost to them all with joyful tears in my eyes.  It’s a lot like backcountry skiing – it hurts so good.  In a touching full-circle moment, I declined an offer involving a leather-studded belt from a Swedish friend Per who was there many years ago in La Grave for the Chaumine blowout. I have my limits.  Bruises are fine, scars not so much.

Subsequent Antarctic White Parties have been almost as lively, but after 2009 I had nowhere to go but to teach.  Yes, there was that time (times) in Bridgeport at the annual Green Creek Chuteout, the yacht with 13 Ukrainian “friends” and any business meeting with Paul Oelerich, the Publisher of this magazine, but those are just icing on the cake.  In a heartwarming moment last winter during a yurt trip to Sun Valley, a friend suffering from an excess of salted Mexican beverages managed the slippery, spinning walk to the outhouse in the dead of night for an emergency cleansing of her palate.  Coming up for air and realizing she had her head in the outhouse hole triggered a second round of cleansing.  She skied the next day with her usual smile and it wasn’t until much later that we heard the whole story.  The future is in good hands.

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Andrew McLean

What is the best tip on avalanche safety that has been passed to you that you would pass on to others?

Whumping and shooting cracks are like junkyard dogs – you only get warned once before they eat you.” It might have been Bruce Tremper who said that, but it is very true. Turn around ASAP if you experience either of these

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