Ranger Bucket List: Antartica


Ranger Bucket List: Antartica

After 30 years of chasing the Endless Winter, I had checked off almost every ski destination on my bucket list except one: Antarctica.

Words by Sven Brunso; Photos by Liam Doran

I received an invitation to join photographer Liam Doran and Backcountry Magazine editor Adam Howard on an expedition with Ice Axe Expeditions, and the adventure of a lifetime was in motion. A couple of days of travel landed me in Ushuaia, Patagonia, where we spent a few days skiing in Tierra del Fuego while getting our ski legs.

A skier looks at glaciers from a ship

After an amazing few days skiing in Ushuaia, we boarded the Ocean Albatross, a 350-foot (106-meter) luxury ship, and headed through the Beagle Channel and into the Drake Passage. This is considered the roughest stretch of open water in the world. Those who travel the passage say it has two distinct personalities: The Drake Lake, when the water is calm and the journey is uneventful; and the Drake Shake, where Mother Nature shows her power and tosses large boats like bathtub toys.

Our initial passage to the White Continent was met with the lake persona, but on the way back to Ushuaia, we experienced the full fury of the open seas, giving us a newfound appreciation for polar explorers like Shackleton. After all, they traveled these waters without the benefit of weather maps, GPS navigation, hot tubs, saunas, and gourmet meals.

After two full days of sailing on the open ocean, we finally arrived at the Antarctic Peninsula. This far south, patience is a virtue as there is a lot of preparation needed before we can reach the shore. After the ship drops anchor, the Zodiacs (motorized rubber rafts) must be launched into the water. Guide teams then search for suitable ramps where skiers can exit the boats and start skiing toward their objectives. Access points for skiing are limited due to the massive ice shelf at the water's edge.

The sheer size of the terrain in Antarctica is hard to comprehend, and without trees for reference, there is no scale. A peak that looks to be 1,000 feet (300 meters) might actually be 6,000 feet (1,000 meters). We took in the breathtaking scenery while waiting to get on land, but we were eager to start skiing. Finally, the guides announced over the radio that it was time to get started, and we gathered our gear and headed out in the boats. Our skiing adventure in the White Continent was about to begin!

Day two of skiing delivered us to Charlotte Bay, where we skied one zone in the morning and then returned to the boat for caloric replenishment. While enjoying tomato bisque and shrimp cocktail, the boat was repositioned for our afternoon ski session. We skinned through a huge basin beneath glorious sunshine and gained a rugged ridge where we enjoyed a bit of spicy exposure before dropping into a steep face that held creamy sun-kissed snow. Without a wisp of wind, it felt like a perfect day of spring skiing back home, but looking down at massive icebergs and seeing seals basking in the sun on the shoreline reminded us we weren’t in Colorado anymore.

Skier makes a powder turn above the ocean

Antarctica is technically a desert because it receives very little precipitation annually. On the peninsula, there is slightly more snow than the interior, but the average is still under 20 inches (50 cm) per year. This trip found us in the right place at the right time, however, as an intense low-pressure system hit and delivered almost two feet (0.5 meters) of snow in less than 24 hours. It was snowing so heavily that we could see the sea surface thickening before our eyes. When we took the Zodiacs to Nansen Island in the morning, we could navigate the icebergs and sea ice easily. But when we returned to the Albatross less than four hours later, the sea had turned into a Slurpee, and the Zodiacs had to toil to break through the newly formed slush and make forward progress.

By the time we reached the ship, ice had already formed around the hull and we realized how quickly sea ice can form in these conditions. It was a visual reminder of how challenging Antarctic exploration was for early adventurers like Shackleton and the Endurance crew.

Skiers touring uphill in ankle-deep snow

The guides from Ice Axe Expeditions had experienced heavy snowfall in Antarctica on previous trips, however, those snowstorms were usually accompanied by high winds which blew the new snow away before they ever got a chance to ski the blank canvas. On the fourth morning of our trip, we woke up to find the Ocean Albatross anchored just off Weincke Island beneath the towering Jabet Peak. With a perfectly sloped ramp stretching from the summit to the sea, Jabet was calling out to us like a Siren's song. We roped up to our guide and started the ascent to the top, which we did in a non-stop, calf-burning push.

Coming from Colorado - where we had been legally blood doping simply by living at a high elevation - these sea-level hikes made Liam and me feel like kids again. We kept expecting to come to a place where the wind had scoured away the snow, but to our surprise, the deep powder had remained exactly where it fell. There was no doubt we were in for ski day for the books.

The lower ramp of Jabet Peak leads straight to the sea, where the floating palace of the Albatross awaits our safe return. The snow conditions were so exceptional that we couldn't bear to leave. As the saying goes, "You never leave good snow to go in search of good snow," so we happily stayed put, lapping untracked powder all day long. It was an incredible stroke of luck to be skiing in such high-quality blower powder with views unlike anywhere else on earth.

Ski tracks descending to the ocean with a ship floating

Beyond the anchored ship, Mount Francais is the peak across the water, towering 9,000 feet (2,750 meters) above the sea. The only way to scale that peak is to realize that the ice shelf dropping into the sea below the peak is more than 300 feet (100 meters) thick.

A skier looks at a group of penguins

The experience of skiing through deep powder snow in Antarctica is made even better when you get to finish your day by skiing past a colony of thousands of penguins on your way back to the Zodiac. It was, without a doubt, the best ski day of my life. Skiing in an exotic location with good friends, while surrounded by penguins, is pretty hard to beat. If you have yet to visit Antarctica and it's on your ski bucket list, I highly recommend you move it to the top and book a trip with Ice Axe Expeditions. It was truly the trip of a lifetime, and I can't imagine a better one, but just to be sure, I think I'll go again next year so I can compare. Hope to see you on the ship!

Ice Axe Expeditions runs an annual Ski Cruise to Antarctica, usually in late October. There is skiing suitable for strong intermediate skiers all the way up to seasoned pros. Bring an adventurous spirit and prepare to have your mind blown. Learn more at: https://antarctica.iceaxe.tv