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Destination Antarctica: Mini-Golf on King George Island

Destination Antarctica: Mini-Golf on King George Island

[ November 17, 2009 - 12:54pm ]
Climbing to Ski in Antarctica
Steep couloirs, lap after lap of skiing, and a white-tablecloth lunch of fish and chips. Sam Bass gives us a ski report from Antarctica.

Here’s the thing about tagging along with a Warren Miller shoot. If you’re there to observe how it works, you don’t get to ski very much. Don’t get me wrong. Watching Tom and Colin work is fun. These guys work extremely hard. And the athletes are skiing a lot of cinematically beautiful shots over and over, but with all of the setting up of shots and waiting for the right lighting, there isn’t much time left over for a longer climb and ski or multiple yo-yo laps. So after Thursday’s shoot, I decided I had better remember that a big part of my assignment down here was to ski—and ski all I possibly could. After all, I work for Skiing Magazine and that’s what we do.

After yesterday’s shoot on Livingston Island, the boat steamed overnight to Admiralty Bay on King George Island, a large bay with multiple arms just north of the base where we dropped off an injured guy a few days earlier—the Chilean station of Eduardo Frei in Maxwell Bay on King George.

I put ashore with Glen Poulsen’s group (Glen, Steve Romeo, Scott Fennell, Kelly Okonek, and Thomas Laakso) next to a Peruvian base called Machu Picchu. A peak just above Machu Picchu, adorned by a wooden cross, offered a steep, Y-shaped couloir on its water-facing side. A great advantage to skiing with this group is that its skiers have one thing in mind: skiing. They transition from ski mode to climb mode and vice versa very quickly, and end up squeezing more vertical into most days than many other groups managed to do, which is why I glommed on to these guys. We gained the summit after a gentle skin up the backside ridge and dropped into the couloir in full view of groups still assembling on shore at the Zodiac drop-off point. The snow had already corned up to a creamy, easy-to-edge state and our turns were gloriously smooth. As we bottomed out, several groups had begun a sweaty boot-pack up the steep chute, unaware of the easy ascent just around the peaks’s shoulder.

We grabbed three more runs that morning around the flanks of this peak— a series of short, quick, fun runs known as mini-golfing in backcountry parlance. At one point, we could see the Warren Miller crew filming on a long, steep ramp that dropped over an ice cliff directly into the water. Not a good place to fall! I learned later that they landed at low tide and were able to offload equipment onto the beach, attain the ramp with crampons and axes and begin climbing up their steep run. When they ended the morning, the tide had come in and the water was lapping at the snow. Fortunately, they had fixed ropes over the precipice before the run and were able to rappel directly into the Zodiac when they came back.

And it if it hadn’t already, the surreality of this voyage set in during lunch back aboard the boat. After four corn-snow runs in 50-degree, bluebird weather, we sat down, sweaty and salt-encrusted, to a white-tablecloth lunch of fish and chips and Patagonian microbrews while the boat steamed to a different arm of Admiralty Bay for the afternoon’s skiing.

When the anchor chain dropped, we lay tucked between the walls of a narrow fjord with a stegosaurus-back island in its center. Soon we were climbing the backside of another set of knife-slash couloirs that dropped directly to water’s edge shedding the lethargy brought on by the fried fish and brew. This run was fantastic, another corned-up steep couloir punctuated by one rock island. Our next run took us up an adjacent valley. By the time we gained the ridge and prepared to drop in, the light had become flat, the snow heavy, and the legs quite tired. I fought my way down through another narrow, steep gulley, gathered with my group, and headed back to the ship.

Another day down. Tomorrow is our last ski day, and overnight, the ship is headed to the north side of Greenwich Island. Stay tuned.  —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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