Close

Member Login

Logging In
Invalid username or password.
Incorrect Login. Please try again.

not a member? sign-up now!

Signing up could earn you gear and it helps to keep offensive content off of our site.

PRINT DIGITAL

Antarctica: Terra Incognita

Adventure
posted: 01/11/2001

Welcome aboard the good ship Shuleykin. Destination: the Antarctic Peninsula. Sauna? Check. Seasick tabs? Check. Trail maps? Um, no.

A lot of skiers spend their lives looking for the ultimate ski expedition. Two years ago, I thought I'd found it.

In October 1999, I flew to Asia to attempt to climb and ski Shishapangma, an 8,000-meter peak in Tibet. I went with several good friends: Kris Erickson, Andrew McLean, Alex Lowe, Mark Holbrook, Dave Bridges, and Conrad Anker. We were to climb one of the world's 14 highest peaks and then bag a bold, 50-degree first descent. It would be the trip of a lifetime. But then a massive avalanche struck, killing Lowe and Bridges. I went home and thought about burning my skis.

But just a few months later, in January, Doug Stoup, owner of an adventure-film production company called Ice Axe, called me up and shook me out of the doldrums: He was putting together a trip to explore the Antarctic Peninsula, and would I like to come along?

I hesitated. I'd been through this before: First descents, trip of a lifetime.

Antarctica.

The ultimate ski expedition, it seemed, was looking for me.

The 1,200-mile long Antarctic Peninsula and its accompanying islands jut from the Antarctic continent like the tail of a comet, arcing north toward South America. The Drake Passage, which routinely sees 50-foot waves that can turn small ships into driftwood, separates Argentina from Antarctica by more than 600 miles. While 99.6 percent of Antarctica's surface is ice, the more northerly maritime climate of the Antarctic Peninsula supports a diverse ecosystem filled with everything from humpback whales to sooty shearwaters. More important for skiers, the wet weather coats the peninsula's many couloirs and ice faces with healthy layers of Alaska-style powder. Almost nothing has been skied.

Looking to shoot a ski movie, Stoup had assembled a team of accomplished big-mountain riders -- including Kris Erickson, Rick Armstrong, Stephen Koch, and Rick Hunt -- and bought tickets aboard the Akademik Shuleykin,a 71-meter icebreaker that had been rented from the Russian government by an adventure-travel company, Adventure Network International (ANI), for a two-week nature-watching cruise. The ship, which came complete with sauna, full crew, and a five-star chef, would sail half way down the west side of the Antarctic Peninsula to the Argentine Islands and back, some 2,200 miles roundtrip. Along the way, we'd be able to scour every island and bay for first descents without even having to break out a camp stove. It sounded like the perfect cure for the Shishapangma blues. I accepted.

February 11, the day of embarkation, finds us in Patty's Pub aboard the Shuleykin,moored in the harbor outside Ushuaia, Tierra del Fuego, Argentina. We dine on sushi and champagne with one hand while putting on Scopolamine patches -- medicine for seasickness -- with the other. Generally speaking, you shouldn't mix alcohol and Scopolamine, but a small window of opportunity exists before the patches kick in. So we mingle in the bar with gleaming white circles behind our ears, looking like happy androids from some Star Trekepisode.

We weigh anchor that evening. As we pass Cape Horn, leaving the shelter of the South American continent behind, and enter the Drake Passage, the seas begin to rock violently, sending the boat swaying. Armstrong and Koch head for their beds to stop their brains from spinning. As we eat dinner that first night, I can barely hold on to my glass as the ship tilts back and forth, but I notice that our Russian server, Olga -- who bares an uncanny resemblance to Bette Midler -- scoots about effortlessly on high heels carrying large trays of teriyaki pork salads and carafes of ice water. A Russian sailor enters and declares that this is the calmest crossing he has seen in 20 years. "Drake Lake," he scoffs. I am told that the waves are only eight feet high. I c't begin to imagine a 50-footer.

Forty-eight hours pass. The Shuleykinsails to within an hour of the South Shetland Islands, which lie to the northwest of the Antarctic Peninsula proper and are our first hint of land. Everyone stands on the upper deck, scanning the horizon. Erickson, our team's still photographer (who has been shooting photos of the open sea for much too long now), yells excitedly, "Land ho!" and all heads swivel to see a few sunlit icebergs floating in the distance. Dave German, ANI's wildlife specialist, announces on the intercom, "Notice the penguins porpoising alongside the boat," and our heads again swivel to see a swarm of tiny gentoos, the most avid swimmers of Antarctic penguins, skimming along like miniature dolphins.

The Shuleykinweaves its way through house-sized icebergs, and we soon catch our first sight of land. It is flat and covered with green moss -- which surprises me -- and boy, does it smell. "That smell is penguin guano," blasts German's voice over the intercom. Penguins line the beaches and cliffs like fans waiting for a rock concert; I'm glad that the boat supplies rubber Wellington boots for our landings. I notice Erickson and Armstrong playing air guitar and raising their arms in victory at the front of the ship. Clearly, they're happy to be through the infamous Drake. But we haven't seen any mountains yet.

We sail to the south side of the Shetlands, then northeast a bit to Admiralty Bay. Morning finds us moored off King George Island, still to the northwest of the Antarctic Peninsula itself. With binoculars we scope a 1,500-foot rounded mountain on the island and find a reasonable ski line, but it looks a bit rickety from the boat. The first hundred feet of slope is dirt and rock, and a distinct patch of gray ice lies right in the middle of the 40-degree upper slope. The small mountain understates our expedition a bit, but we are all jazzed. We rip the patches from behind our ears and head to our rooms to suit up.

To get to shore, we use Zodiacs, beefy rubber rafts able to withstand the sharp, icy glacial debris that abounds in the ocean. Sometimes we find ourselves surrounded by thousands of tiny ice shards and have to push our way through the spiny mass. Occasionally, the motor sounds a loud, unnerving thwack as it bangs into a piece of ice. As the ice melts in the salty water, releasing little pockets of air that have been dormant for thousands of years, it sounds like we're in a giant bowl of popping Rice Krispies.

Though our shore landings will prove tricky throughout the trip -- most of the region's mountains are guarded by large, unstable glacial seracs -- at King George Island we find an easy landing on a gently sloped, rocky beach. The ride over from the ship, however, has soaked us to the bone, and a light rain ensures that we are completely waterlogged. Skiing the Antarctic Peninsula, we realize, is going to be a wet affair.

After an hour of hiking, we stand above the 1,500-foot, 40-degree slope, looking down at boilerplate snow. Hunt, our cinematographer, has opted out of his camera duties because of the soggy weather; he goes first, and I can see by his turns that he hasn't wasted his time in Jackson Hole. I quickly follow, skiing straight through the gray ice patch that we have both -- of course -- forgotten about, and I slide for 30 feet before I can set an edge. I stop, then turn and watch Stoup, a former professional soccer player, charge athletically down. He blows his second turn, does a somersault, and careens headfirst toward the ice. At the last moment, he swings his feet around and stands up, grinning ear to ear. I smile, too, but I cringe inside. The thought of losing another friend in the mountains is too much.

We dub the run Honey Bowl because it's Valentine's Day and we all feel a touch lonely without our honeys. Later, as I sit next to my naked, sweaty comrades in the sauna listening to Hunt and Koch talk about the possibility of shooting a ski-porn movie, that loneliness really sets in.

The Shuleykinworks its way south, passing through the Gerlache Straits. Along the way, I get into a chess match with Hunt, who has taken to the game so passionately that he seems ready to abandon his film gig with Teton Gravity Research to get a tournament rating. But he brings out his queen too early, and that does not bode well for him. I like to play by simple rules: Don't pin your knights on the side of the board, avoid backward pawns, and don't bring out your queen too early. It's effective, and it's much like the I way I try to ski -- following basic principles like tune your skis, don't move beyond your limits, and pick conditions wisely.

The next afternoon, after the ship drops anchor off the Arctowski Peninsula and after another wet crossing to shore, I find myself staring down a gruesome chute that's 60 degrees at the top, less than 200 centimeters wide in the choke, and icier than a skating rink. Of course, I'm on a six-year-old pair of Völkls that I haven't tuned in two years. "So much for the carefully thought-out rules of the mountains," I think.

I kindly offer Armstrong first tracks and am relieved when he accepts. He skis the first hundred feet in classic Armstrong style, a low crouch with arms outstretched, but then hesitates. He asks for a Whippet, one of McLean's ice-axe ski poles especially designed for ski mountaineering. "Rick," I respond, "your axe is on your pack." Clearly, the chute has ruffled Armstrong's feathers a bit -- not to be taken lightly, as Armstrong has skied some of the steepest lines in the world. But after a minute of sideslipping and sketchy turns, he blasts out the bottom of the couloir in long, smooth arcs.

I'm next. I realize right away that my edges aren't biting. Ten feet later, I'm propping up my downhill ski with my pole. My tips are on rock, my tails are on some sort of frozen algae, and the whole chute sways back and forth as if I'm still aboard the Shuleykin.If I peel here, I'm looking at a 1,000-foot slide into the icy ocean. I wish for a moment that I were back in Bozeman, playing chess, a slice of Colombo's pizza in hand. I take a deep breath and work my way through the crux. Above me, Koch must be wondering at my remedial technique, but he quickly finds out that the top of our line, which we later dub Zeiss's Needle, can't be laughed at. He's snowboarded the highest peaks on five continents, but this 1,000-foot needle sends him hopping toe-side in with his ice axe firmly hitched to the snow, like a crab clinging to the side of a slimy ocean stone. The three of us survive the horror-show descent together, and after much talk over a barbecue steak dinner, our selective brains decide that the run was fun after all.

Not all of our skiing is hairy. On February 17, after spending a day sailing through the Lemaire Channel in a complete fog-out, we arrive at the Argentine Islands. We peer through the clouds with binoculars, and on a peak called De Marie, we manage to spot a 2,000-foot face that looks like it could be a cruiser fun run. And it is: Never steeper than 40 degrees, great corn snow -- and we even spot a pod of whales as we make our way down. As we ski back to the beach, the dreamy landscape of icebergs and glaciers reminds me of a Salvador Dalí painting.

As we skim across the water back to the Shuleykin,Stoup yells that he has spotted a whale's tail. German, our boat operator for the day, smiles, thinking that Stoup just wants another beer, the standard reward for a whale spotting. Seconds later, I hear a blast of ocean breath, and a single humpback whale starts breaching repeatedly around the boat. He dives just feet below the Zodiac, flashing his white belly. It will occur to me later that night that he could have capsized the boat, but in the moment we all cheer and howl along with the whale's every dive. We call the face we've just skied, which splits into twof shooting a ski-porn movie, that loneliness really sets in.

The Shuleykinworks its way south, passing through the Gerlache Straits. Along the way, I get into a chess match with Hunt, who has taken to the game so passionately that he seems ready to abandon his film gig with Teton Gravity Research to get a tournament rating. But he brings out his queen too early, and that does not bode well for him. I like to play by simple rules: Don't pin your knights on the side of the board, avoid backward pawns, and don't bring out your queen too early. It's effective, and it's much like the I way I try to ski -- following basic principles like tune your skis, don't move beyond your limits, and pick conditions wisely.

The next afternoon, after the ship drops anchor off the Arctowski Peninsula and after another wet crossing to shore, I find myself staring down a gruesome chute that's 60 degrees at the top, less than 200 centimeters wide in the choke, and icier than a skating rink. Of course, I'm on a six-year-old pair of Völkls that I haven't tuned in two years. "So much for the carefully thought-out rules of the mountains," I think.

I kindly offer Armstrong first tracks and am relieved when he accepts. He skis the first hundred feet in classic Armstrong style, a low crouch with arms outstretched, but then hesitates. He asks for a Whippet, one of McLean's ice-axe ski poles especially designed for ski mountaineering. "Rick," I respond, "your axe is on your pack." Clearly, the chute has ruffled Armstrong's feathers a bit -- not to be taken lightly, as Armstrong has skied some of the steepest lines in the world. But after a minute of sideslipping and sketchy turns, he blasts out the bottom of the couloir in long, smooth arcs.

I'm next. I realize right away that my edges aren't biting. Ten feet later, I'm propping up my downhill ski with my pole. My tips are on rock, my tails are on some sort of frozen algae, and the whole chute sways back and forth as if I'm still aboard the Shuleykin.If I peel here, I'm looking at a 1,000-foot slide into the icy ocean. I wish for a moment that I were back in Bozeman, playing chess, a slice of Colombo's pizza in hand. I take a deep breath and work my way through the crux. Above me, Koch must be wondering at my remedial technique, but he quickly finds out that the top of our line, which we later dub Zeiss's Needle, can't be laughed at. He's snowboarded the highest peaks on five continents, but this 1,000-foot needle sends him hopping toe-side in with his ice axe firmly hitched to the snow, like a crab clinging to the side of a slimy ocean stone. The three of us survive the horror-show descent together, and after much talk over a barbecue steak dinner, our selective brains decide that the run was fun after all.

Not all of our skiing is hairy. On February 17, after spending a day sailing through the Lemaire Channel in a complete fog-out, we arrive at the Argentine Islands. We peer through the clouds with binoculars, and on a peak called De Marie, we manage to spot a 2,000-foot face that looks like it could be a cruiser fun run. And it is: Never steeper than 40 degrees, great corn snow -- and we even spot a pod of whales as we make our way down. As we ski back to the beach, the dreamy landscape of icebergs and glaciers reminds me of a Salvador Dalí painting.

As we skim across the water back to the Shuleykin,Stoup yells that he has spotted a whale's tail. German, our boat operator for the day, smiles, thinking that Stoup just wants another beer, the standard reward for a whale spotting. Seconds later, I hear a blast of ocean breath, and a single humpback whale starts breaching repeatedly around the boat. He dives just feet below the Zodiac, flashing his white belly. It will occur to me later that night that he could have capsized the boat, but in the moment we all cheer and howl along with the whale's every dive. We call the face we've just skied, which splits into two wide swaths halfway up, the Whale's Tail.

Koch does a bit of his own breaching later that evening. Climbing all the way to the Shuleykin's upper deck, some 70 feet above the ocean, he launches himself in a perfect swan dive into the icy water below. He smiles back from the ocean, and I can only imagine the will it must take to do that with your testicles hiding somewhere in your lower abdomen. Erickson follows suit with a flip -- quite a stunt for a photographer. Before I can be pressured into this craziness, I head for the sauna.

The Argentine Islands are the farthest point south on our journey. After spending three days here, we begin the trip back up the coast of the Antarctic Peninsula. We pass back through the Lemaire Channel, this time with visibility, and I notice that its 2,000-foot walls are etched with a lifetime's worth of couloirs.

Farther north, we ski an aesthetic, 55-degree prow on Rongé Island, and with the captain's permission we name it Shuleykin. On the peninsula proper, we name a twin set of chutes the Lost Friend Couloirs in honor of Alex Lowe. These are smooth, 50-degree chutes of blue ice that are covered with a foot of wet powder. Our skis float just above the ice as we gently schuss our way down. Back on the beach, Erickson and I both smile. Together, we have skied first descents in North and South America, Asia, and now Antarctica. We can almost hear Alex saying, "Way to get after it."

We sail just south to our final destination, Paradise Bay. February 22 breaks crystal blue -- the first bluebird day we've had on the entire trip. We land the Zodiac at the south end of the bay at the base of Sunshine Daydream, a 2,000-foot, 45-degree face of perfect corn skiing. Penguins hop about the beach like malfunctioning robots, and a couple of elephant seals, 1,000-pound blubber machines, sun themselves on a rock. As we start up the face, we almost step on a Weddell seal that has worked his way up onto the snow. His bulging eyes, accustomed to the filtered light of the deep sea, stare at us as if to ask, "What kind of penguin are you?" Ice shards litter the beach, sparkling in the sun like diamonds. Life is good, and so is the skiing: fast arcs, and a casual, five-foot bergschrund jump at the bottom. As we zoom back to the Shuleykin,we scoop 1,000-year-old chunks of black ice from the ocean with our bare hands. We'll put them in our champagne glasses later that night as we toast farewell to the magical Antarctic Peninsula.

Later, privately, I will also toast farewell to Shishapangma. Mission accomplished.

Back in Ushuaia, we spend what little money we have left eating prime Argentinean steaks and drinking $10 beers. Down to pennies, Armstrong pulls out a guitar and begins a song, ¿Donde Esta Mi Dinero?

But the adventure isn't over yet. Our Lan Chile flight comes into L.A. hot and heavy, and we bounce and skid our way to a stop, a Hail Mary landing. Koch begins clapping, which rouses the entire plane into applause. "Welcome to America!" he yells in a Mediterranean accent, and everyone yells with him. two wide swaths halfway up, the Whale's Tail.

Koch does a bit of his own breaching later that evening. Climbing all the way to the Shuleykin's upper deck, some 70 feet above the ocean, he launches himself in a perfect swan dive into the icy water below. He smiles back from the ocean, and I can only imagine the will it must take to do that with your testicles hiding somewhere in your lower abdomen. Erickson follows suit with a flip -- quite a stunt for a photographer. Before I can be pressured into this craziness, I head for the sauna.

The Argentine Islands are the farthest point south on our journey. After spending three days here, we begin the trip back up the coast of the Antarctic Peninsula. We pass back through the Lemaire Channel, this time with visibility, and I notice that its 2,000-foot walls are etched with a lifetime's worth of couloirs.

Farther north, we ski an aesthetic, 55-deggree prow on Rongé Island, and with the captain's permission we name it Shuleykin. On the peninsula proper, we name a twin set of chutes the Lost Friend Couloirs in honor of Alex Lowe. These are smooth, 50-degree chutes of blue ice that are covered with a foot of wet powder. Our skis float just above the ice as we gently schuss our way down. Back on the beach, Erickson and I both smile. Together, we have skied first descents in North and South America, Asia, and now Antarctica. We can almost hear Alex saying, "Way to get after it."

We sail just south to our final destination, Paradise Bay. February 22 breaks crystal blue -- the first bluebird day we've had on the entire trip. We land the Zodiac at the south end of the bay at the base of Sunshine Daydream, a 2,000-foot, 45-degree face of perfect corn skiing. Penguins hop about the beach like malfunctioning robots, and a couple of elephant seals, 1,000-pound blubber machines, sun themselves on a rock. As we start up the face, we almost step on a Weddell seal that has worked his way up onto the snow. His bulging eyes, accustomed to the filtered light of the deep sea, stare at us as if to ask, "What kind of penguin are you?" Ice shards litter the beach, sparkling in the sun like diamonds. Life is good, and so is the skiing: fast arcs, and a casual, five-foot bergschrund jump at the bottom. As we zoom back to the Shuleykin,we scoop 1,000-year-old chunks of black ice from the ocean with our bare hands. We'll put them in our champagne glasses later that night as we toast farewell to the magical Antarctic Peninsula.

Later, privately, I will also toast farewell to Shishapangma. Mission accomplished.

Back in Ushuaia, we spend what little money we have left eating prime Argentinean steaks and drinking $10 beers. Down to pennies, Armstrong pulls out a guitar and begins a song, ¿Donde Esta Mi Dinero?

But the adventure isn't over yet. Our Lan Chile flight comes into L.A. hot and heavy, and we bounce and skid our way to a stop, a Hail Mary landing. Koch begins clapping, which rouses the entire plane into applause. "Welcome to America!" he yells in a Mediterranean accent, and everyone yells with him.

The content of this field is kept private and will not be shown publicly.
  • No HTML tags allowed

More information about formatting options

Type the characters you see in this picture. (verify using audio)
Type the characters you see in the picture above; if you can't read them, submit the form and a new image will be generated. Not case sensitive.
All submitted comments are subject to the license terms set forth in our Privacy Policy and Terms of Use