Story and photos by Doug Workman
The first time I saw an iceberg I was standing on the bridge of the Sea Adventurer expedition ship, binoculars in hand. We had just successfully crossed the Drake Passage between the southern tip of South America and Antarctica’s South Shetland Islands.
Still weary from two days of seasickness, I squinted in an effort to catch a glimpse of land. Just off the horizon sat a little known secret that Doug Stoup, owner of Ice Axe Expeditions, was about to unveil to 100 eager skiers from all walks of life. Weaving past gargantuan icebergs, the Sea Adventurer slowed to a crawl, smaller ‘bergs slamming into the iron clad vessel as land came into sight. What lay before us was an adventure skier’s paradise.
Stoup began running guided ski trips to the Antarctic Peninsula in 2008 after visiting the region 13 times with the likes of renowned ski mountaineers Kris Erikson and Andrew McLean. During those earlier expeditions, the crew attempted to ski Bull Ridge on Mount Francis, one of the peninsula’s crowning mountains, but were pinned down by inclement weather. The Bull Ridge is a crevasse-ridden line that skis from summit to sea in nearly 9,000 feet.
We are not here to attempt such feats. This mission is much more civilized – instead of tents, sleeping bags, and Ramen noodles, we have suites, turned down sheets, and chicken cordon bleu. Each morning at 6:30 a.m., we awake to the gentle cooing of Laurie Dexter, our Scottish expedition leader.
Despite the comforts of the Sea Adventurer, we’re here to ski steep slopes above the ice-choked ocean. So after coffee and croissants, we clamber into rubber Zodiac boats and depart for shore. Penguins and seals abound, creating detours en route to our ski objective. We have seen leopard seals devour chinstrap penguins, and orcas feast on crabeater seals.
The peninsula is known for its burly storms, so we beeline for shore knowing our weather window could be short. Making land, we transition from rubber boots and foul-weather gear to Dynafit bindings and Gore-Tex, and begin skinning toward our objective: the north ridge of an unclimbed, unnamed peak – one of many surrounding us.
After winding our way through crevasses, our group begins climbing, but as the ridge steepens the skinning becomes more difficult. The wind howls. We stop to sip tea and regroup with our teammates. The ridge offers ski mountaineering at best; frozen, wind-hammered sastrugi at worst. We bail and begin our descent, wrapping around the corner of the peak to a bowl – in plain sight of the Sea Adventurer – and out of the wind. While plumes hammer the peak above, we ski a foot of untouched powder by the sea. We skin, and ski, and do it again. And again.
This story was first published in the winter 2015 issue of Mountain Outlaw magazine.
Ice Axe Expeditions
What: Ice Axe Expeditions specializes in North and South Pole ski adventures. Contact Doug Workman at email@example.com for details.
When: Trips depart Ushuaia, Argentina in early November to take advantage of spring conditions on the Antarctic Peninsula after the ice breaks up. Ice Axe also offers a late May ski trip to the Svalbard archipelago in the Arctic Ocean.
Ability: Services all skiing levels from professionals with film crews to first-time alpine touring groups, and has guided skiers with ages ranging from 13-73.
Conditions: November is springtime in Antarctica. Past conditions range from light, cold powder skiing to corn skiing. Temperatures range from single digits to mid-30s, and it can be quite warm in the sun. Svalbard’s average high in late May is approximately 33 F.