I have never scrawled out a bucket list, but if I did, no doubt Antarctica would be there — now with a checkmark. I recently had the good fortune of taking part in an Antarctic ski trip with a group of long-time friends. A two hour flight from Punta Arenas, Chile landed us on King George Island where we met our chartered sailboat which would become a floating basecamp for the next two weeks. All in all we sailed 200 miles south through channels, bays and islands along the west coast of Antarctica, anchoring at a new ski location most days.
As mountain regions go, and I’ve experienced many, Antarctica is different. Appearing to float, suspended above water in complete stillness, the place invokes an ethereal sense of wonder. The scale is immense and the landscape of glaciated mountains spilling into the sea where icebergs abound is other-worldly. All the while, everywhere you look, teeming with wildlife. Skiing is almost an afterthought but of course never out of mind.
It would take ten lifetimes to ski all of the lines I saw in my brief glimpse of the 7th continent. Let alone all of the unseen lines lurking somewhat farther inland — or half a continent away.
Truth be told, for the most part we did not have great skiing. Supposedly the best months for skiing in Antarctica are November and December rather than the last two weeks of January when we were there. A grey sky hung low over the water trapping moist air and creating an eerie silence. Daytime temps ranged between 20-40F, busting the perception of barely survivable, frigid Antarctic temperatures. With rare exception, nighttime temps only created a thin, frozen crust that come morning was not fully supportable.
(Of course, night takes on a different meaning during the middle of summer in Antarctica. It never really gets full-on dark. Instead there is an extended period of dusk. Now I know why the Scandinavians are such crazy party folks during the arctic sunlight months, as one doesn’t feel the need to go to bed unless you make a concerted effort.)
When we finally got a clear night the ensuing deep freeze set us up for perfect corn under bluebird skies. It was glorious and majestic, with ridgelines of peaks stacked one on top of another and the sea extending as far as the eye could see. Jumbled glaciers tumbled in all directions. It felt good to be able to tour with a visible destination rather than engulfed in clouds. We were finally skiing as we had all envisioned. Skiing was clearly not an afterthought.
One of the first questions many people have asked is did I see any penguins? Yes. I never tired of the many penguins. They are every bit as funny and cute as we have imagined from animated movies, and far more interesting in the wild than at a zoo. They were often on shore to greet us as we unloaded our Zodiac to begin the day’s skiing, waddling up and down the slopes on well trodden penguin paths or hanging out in colonies. What I didn’t realize is that penguins are also prolific swimmers mimicking the same motions as dolphins and porpoises. Often we would encounter them swimming along side our boat quite far from shore.
Seals, on the other hand, lead a very different life. They don’t move around much at all, seeming to pick out a plot and stake their claim for the duration. This might be on the snow, laying amongst the rocks in shallow water or best when turning a flat iceberg into a floating lounge. Their reaction, if any, might be to roll their head slightly in slow motion just barely acknowledging your existence.
At first we didn’t see any whales and I began to wonder if I would ever see one. My feelings for this were particularly strong since I had never seen a whale before. Yes, I did see whales. These majestic animals are to the ocean as lions are to the Serengeti. Awe inspiring with a commanding presence, their power and strength contained until nature demands otherwise. Often they announced themselves with the unmistakable sound of air and water spraying upward through their blowhole. With seemingly little effort they propel themselves through the water over great distances. You never know if they are going to glide along, submerge or arch themselves nose down with their huge tails rising up in the air. It was always a guessing game as to how long the whales would stay under water and where they might surface again. Any time a whale or whales came into view, all activity ceased to watch in wonder and amazement.
Our host was every bit the sailor as skier and one of his goals was to sail back across the famed Drake Passage to Ushuaia, Argentina. Eventually we needed to turn our attention to the five day open ocean crossing to coincide with our scheduled departure back to the States. One of my friends in Aspen, an avid sailor who spent a year at sea with his family, called the Drake Passage “the Everest of sailing.” I can now say with certainty I am a landlubber, and Mount Everest is tough.
The Drake crossing required all of us to participate in scheduled three hour watches on a 24/7 basis. Your watch might come at a civil time or it could be 3am-6am. I found one sure way to get out of that duty by spending two solid days bunk ridden, so seasick I didn’t touch a drop of water or any food for 48 hours. I emerged feeling surprisingly good but was more than happy at the first sight of land on the fifth day. Entering the Beagle Channel was like a new world with lush vegetation and trees seemingly close enough to reach out and touch. The weather encouraged everyone to hang out on deck, and remove some of the many layers of fleece and down that we had lived in for two weeks. The sighs of relief were audible.
We landed in Ushuaia, Argentina, a small town sitting on a bay in the Beagle Channel with beautiful mountains rising behind the city. There were more spectacular mountains both across and further up the Channel including the Darwin Range. There is a small ski area outside of town that a few years ago hosted Interski, the annual gathering of the national ski instructor demo teams from skiing nations all around the world. It has also become somewhat of a new location for the ski mountaineering incrowd during our summer months.
More importantly, after two weeks aboard a cramped sailboat we luxuriated in a 5 star hotel that from the outside resembled a fortress on a hill straight out of “The Guns of Naverone.” Once inside it was nothing like a bunker and rivaled any luxury hotel I had ever experienced. I got over any guilt at such extravagance as soon as I lingered in my first hot shower in weeks and my head hit the mountain of down pillows.
Best of all, just down the access road from the hotel was a trailhead for some hikes into the nearby mountains. I felt out of place hiking summer trails in January when all I have ever known in mid-winter is snow and skiing — but it was great to be active again after five days cooped up in “sail jail.”
There is little I love more than exploring new mountain realms and I could have stayed on far longer but the pull of home and family was stronger still. As soon as I reached civilization I was able to talk to my wife and daughter for the first time in two weeks. As our call was ending my daughter said, “Daddy, keep talking to me, I’m holding you.” Antarctica is a beautiful, wondrous place and was a grand adventure that left an indelible imprint on my life, but right then and there I knew it was time to come home.