We had seen God in His splendors, heard the text that Nature renders. We had reached the naked soul of man. — Ernest Shackleton
By Kim Havell
Photos and captions by Jim Harris
"Guides meeting in five minutes on the top deck." It was Doug Stoup's voice over the boat's PA system, and our international crew of 23 guides immediately assembled on top of the 320-foot Clipper Adventurer to survey the glaciated mountains before us and discuss the day's ski objectives.
Earlier this month, the Ice Axe Expeditions team gathered 120 people at the Southern-most point of Argentina in the seaside, edge-of-the-mountains town of Ushuaia to embark on a two-week ski adventure in Antarctica.
As one of the best last ski frontiers on our planet, Antarctica is a remote ski destination. Slowly exiting the Beagle channel on Nov. 9, it took us two days to cross the infamous Drake Passage to reach the shelter of the South Shetland Islands, a chain that buffers the Antarctic Peninsula from the big seas. The islands also offer a first glimpse at some spectacular and easily accessible ski terrain.
We arrived to a place with no one else, with endless descents and up to 9,000-foot peaks straight up from the ocean. This is a backcountry skier's dream realm, but it also comes with some harsh realities—Antarctica is a moving target.
With endless route possibilities, Antarctica also puts forth challenging obstacles that have to be carefully navigated: abrupt weather changes, tricky small boat—Zodiac—landings, pack ice movement that can trap a ship, lurking crevasses in the glacier, and other objective hazards.
We averaged two to three guide meetings per day. The frequent gatherings were necessary as conditions, weather, and other variables consistently changed hour to hour. All decisions required continual reassessment. But, with a 1-to-4 guide-to-client ratio, Ice Axe kept the group sizes well within safe limits.
With two earlier ski trips to the area, Doug Stoup and Karyn Stanley of Ice Axe Expeditions—masterminds of this adventure, too—dubbed the journey "The Antarctic Ski Cruise." It is a great feat to coordinate the logistics of an expedition of this magnitude. It is also a rare time when some of the world's best ski guides can be simultaneously assembled for an expedition. Most importantly, it takes the right leaders. In our case, Expedition Leader Doug Stoup and Lead Guide Kevin Quinn, owner of Points North Heli, inspired and piloted our journey.
With guides, athletes, and characters like Doug Workman, Walter Laserer, Kristoffer Erickson, Kent McBride, Chris Davenport, Andrew McLean and Seth Westcott and many more of the best of the best, all the skiers thrived and excelled in the new terrain and rigorous environs. When you mix these pros with some of the most enthusiastic recreational skiers out there, put them on a boat together and release them to the wild and untouched mountains, lives are changed forever and lifelong friendships are forged.
Seeking new routes, aesthetic peaks and good conditions, we moved up and down the coastline of both the peninsula and the islands. Flexibility was key as locations and objectives shifted daily with our observations. Our entire team was able to ski first descents and witness wildlife in the form of penguins, seals, birds, and Orkas, at times, all within mere inches of us.
In addition to daily ski exploration, there was a "Polar Plunge" swim and some speed wing ski flights, with Ice Axe Guide Kevin Bibby possibly being the first ever to speed wing in Antarctica. More good times were had with a ship barbeque, a mock music video filming session (Powderwhore Production's 2012 film), and we wrapped it up with the notorious Black & White Party that left little to the imagination and had many hiking slowly the next morning.
The guests on the ship proved to be as eccentric and extraordinary as the handpicked guide staff. Marty and Scott, two geoscientists who live for skiing, decided to ski all seven continents in 10 days, with the kick-off in Antarctica. Check out their progress here.
Because our crew of intrepid adventurers literally asked for it, we capped off our ski days in the Antarctic with a rough return voyage. Over a 12-hour period, the Clipper Adventurer withstood a Drake "Shake-Down," or 12 out of 12 on the Beaufort rating system with hurricane level conditions, eight meter swells, 30-degree plus tilts, and 100-knot plus winds. (Check out guide CJ Ware's video here.) During these hours, we embraced the legacy of Shackleton, who once said, "Difficulties are just things to overcome, after all."
Still, once safely back on shore, the resounding response of participants was, "Trip of a lifetime."
The Antarctic Ski Cruise will be setting sail once again in November 2013. Check out: www.iceaxe.tv