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Destination Antarctica: Heading Home

Destination Antarctica: Heading Home

[ November 18, 2009 - 12:50pm ]

On location with WME cinematographer Tom Day near
Livingston I

The last day of skiing, a rager on board the ship, and crossing back over the Drake Passage.

We’ve had a highly unusual stretch of weather since leaving Ushuaia at the trip’s outset. It has been sunny and blue for most, if not all, of every day we’ve been on snow. Temperatures have been in the 25-55 range—quite warm. In fact, the only prolonged overcast stretch I can remember is the one no-ski day we had while steaming from Weincke Island to Eduardo Frei base in Maxwell Harbor on King George Island to offload the injured guy. Laurie Dexter, our Scottish-born Canadian expedition leader, who has around 200 Drake Passage crossings under his belt, assured us that this has been the nicest bit of weather he’s ever seen.

There was a party on board last night—a real rager complete with scantily clad Finns abusing one another in public in unspeakable ways—and folks had gotten off to a slow start. A morning-long Zodiac trip to an island rumored to host elephant seals was proposed, and most of the ship opted for it. All except Glen Poulsen’s group and a handful of others who really wanted to ski. Again, I shouldered my way into Glen’s posse. I didn’t want to deal with the self-loathing that would surely accompany spending the day not skiing, hungover, and then crossing the Drake and probably getting seasick.

We motored toward a small volcano-looking peak coated with bulges of rime-ice. The skin to the base was deceptively long and the slow skin up revealed a face of slick ice with occasional patches of wind-deposited chalky snow. North from the broad summit, hundreds of small, spiny islands dotted the sparkling waters between Greenwich and Roberts Island. Guide Glen Poulsen picked his way through ice cliffs on the steeper side, but radioed up to us not to follow. When he squeaked between rime-ice mushrooms and dropped onto the steep face below, a small avalanche ripped away, revealing hard blue ice. The best way down was the way we came up and so I skied a nice band of chalk back to the glacier below.

The ship was to weigh anchor by 5:00 and head north into the Drake, and we were told to be physically at our pickup point by 4:00, so we raced across the water in the Zodiac to the ship for a bathroom break and to look for Thomas, who we had lost to the morning’s elephant-seal tour.

When Scott and I found Thomas in the dining hall in civilian garb, just sitting down with a large plate of Asian food, we knew we had no hope of pulling him along on our afternoon mission, so we left the crowded dining hall before too many of our hungover shipmates saw us in ski boots and got jealous. Brushing by the buffet, Scott grabbed a slice of chocolate layer cake and I stuffed my cheeks full of sesame chicken dumplings. In 30 seconds, we were back on the Zodiac with Doug Stoup at the helm, zooming toward another Chilean base.

As we pulled alongside a landing craft that was unloading containers from a Chilean resupply ship anchored nearby, a Zodiac carrying our shipmate Jeremy Jones, big-mountain snowboarding icon, and his film crew pulled away.

“It’s all about the corn,” Jeremy said, as we eyed our very last ski objective—a double-summit peak above the Chilean base. He and French snowboarding stud Xavier Delacroix had spent the morning playing on a steep rollover near the water, but we aimed to go higher, up to the peak. In front of us lay a 45-minute skin, 1000 feet of sun-softened corn, and two hours to play with. It was at least 50 degrees on this shore, and I stripped down to my T-shirt for the climb. We climbed around the back of the highest peak, from the top of which a giant Chilean flag flapped in the breeze. After clicking in, we wove through some cliffy rocks and dropped into a sunny col. Before us lay a steep, soft ramp of snow. We skied it one by one, milking each turn down to a bluff where the Chileans, too (like the Peruvians the day before) had planted a cross.

We had 40 minutes left before our pickup, enough time to boot and ski a small couloir to skier’s right of the ramp we had just skied. When we finally gathered again after that run, we had 15 minutes till pickup. We busted up the mountain’s flank, trying to get as high as we could get by 4:55. Every few steps up meant one more turn in Antarctica. At 4:55, we were just shy of the cliff below the peak. We were about to put skis on when guide Glen yeled from behind, “Let’s get up there. We can’t just ski off the side of this thing!” So we pushed on for five more minutes, clicked in, and soul-skied all the way down to the pack ice, double-poled passed some lounging Weddell seals, and returned to the landing craft where Chilean resupply ship crewmen were still offloading pallets of cement and lumber.

As I was changing in my cabin, I heard the anchor chain being pulled over the bow and I hustled to the top deck. We steamed north with the ebbing tide down a train of enormous standing waves between Greenwich and Roberts islands and were off, into the Drake.  —Sam Bass

Skiing Magazine Senior Editor Sam Bass is in Antaractica for an 18-day ski-mountaineering trip. You can follow his journey—and watch a video interview of him before he took off at

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