Skiing in Antarctica
Imagine a world of snow, ice, and mountains coming straight up out of the ocean. Antarctica is this place. Our good friend, Aspen local, and accomplished ski mountaineer, Bob Perlmutter takes us through his recent trip to ski this incredible landscape.
– Images and word by Bob Perlmutter –
I have never made a bucket list but if I did, no doubt Antarctica would be on it. I recently had the good fortune of taking part in an Antarctic ski trip with a group of long time friends. A two-hour flight from Punta Arenas, Chile landed us on King George Island where we met our chartered sailboat that would become a floating basecamp for the next two weeks. All in all we sailed 200 miles south through channels, bays and islands along the west coast of Antarctica anchoring at a new ski location most days. I have traveled to many mountain ranges around the world but Antarctica is different. Floating, suspended above the water in complete stillness took on an ethereal sense of wonder. The scale is immense and the landscape of glaciated mountains spilling into the sea with icebergs abound is otherworldly. All the while, teeming with wildlife, the skiing is almost an afterthought but never out of mind.
It would take ten lifetimes to ski all of the lines I saw in my glimpse of the 7th continent. Let alone all of the unseen lines lurking further in land or half a continent away. Truth be told, for the most part, we did not have great skiing. Supposedly the best months for skiing in Antarctica are November and December rather than during our trip the last two weeks of January.
A grey sky hung low over the water trapping moist air and creating an eerie silence. Daytime temps ranged from the 20’s-40’s busting the perception of barely survivable, frigid Antarctic temps. With rare exception, nighttime temps only created a thin, frozen crust that come morning was not fully supportable. Of course, night takes on a different meaning during the middle of summer in Antarctica. It never really gets full on dark. Instead there is an extended period of dusk. Now I know why the Scandinavians are such crazy partiers, as one doesn’t feel the need to go to bed unless you make a concerted effort.
When we finally got a clear night the ensuing deep freeze set us up for perfect corn under bluebird skies the following morning. It was glorious and majestic with ridge lines of peaks stacked one on top of another and the sea extending as far as the eye could see. Jumbled glaciers tumbled in all directions. It felt good to be able to tour with a visible destination rather than engulfed in clouds. We were finally skiing as we had all envisioned. Apparently, skiing is never really an afterthought.fort.
One of the first questions that many people ask is did I see any penguins. You can’t swing a dead cat in Antarctica without hitting a penguin. That said, I never tired of the many penguins. They are every bit as funny and cute as we have imagined from animated movies and far more interesting in the wild than at a zoo. They were often on shore to greet us as we unloaded our Zodiac to begin the days skiing, waddling up and down the slopes on well-trodden penguin paths or hanging out in colonies. What I didn’t realize is that they are also prolific swimmers mimicking the same motions as dolphins and porpoises. Often we would encounter them swimming along side our boat quite far from shore.
Seals, on the other hand, lead a very different life. They don’t move around much at all, seeming to pick out a plot and stake their claim for the duration. This might be on the snow, laying amongst the rocks in shallow water or best when turning a flat iceberg into a floating lounge. Their reaction, if any, might be to roll their head slightly in slow motion just barely acknowledging your existence.
At first we didn’t see any whales and I began to wonder if I would ever see one. Particularly since I’ve never seen a whale before. Whales are to the ocean as lions are to the Serengeti. Awe inspiring with a commanding presence, their power and strength contained until nature demands otherwise. Often they announced themselves with the unmistakable sound of air and water spraying upward through their blowhole. With seemingly little effort they propel themselves through the water over great distances. You never know if they are going to glide along, submerge or arch themselves nose down with their huge tails rising up in the air. It was always a guessing game as to how long they would stay under water and where they might surface again. Any time a whale or whales came into view, all activity ceased to watch in wonder and amazement.
Our host was every bit sailor as he was a skier and one of his goals was to sail back across the famed Drake Passage to Ushuaia, Argentina. Eventually we needed to turn our attention to the five-day open ocean crossing to coincide with our scheduled departure back to the States. One of my friends in Aspen, an avid sailor who spent a year at sea with his family, called the Drake Passage “the Everest of sailing”. I can now say with certainty I am a landlubber. The crossing required all of us to participate in scheduled 3hr. watches on a 24/7 basis. Your watch might come at a civil time or it could be 3am-6am. I found one sure way to get out of that duty by spending two solid days bunk ridden; so seasick I didn’t touch a drop of water or any food for 48hrs. I emerged feeling surprisingly good but was more than happy at the first sight of land on the fifth day. Entering the Beagle Channel was like a new world with lush vegetation and trees seemingly close enough to reach out and touch. There were signs of civilization and the weather encouraged everyone to hang out on deck, and remove some of the many layers of fleece and down that we had lived in for two weeks and breath a sigh of relief.
We landed in Ushuaia, Argentina, a small town sitting on a bay in the Beagle Channel with beautiful mountains rising right behind the city. There were more spectacular mountains both across and further up the Channel including the Darwin Range. There is a small ski area outside of town that a few years ago hosted Interski, the annual gathering of the national ski instructor demo teams from skiing nations all around the world. It has also become somewhat of a new location for the ski mountaineering in crowd during our summer months. More importantly, after two weeks aboard a cramped sailboat we luxuriated in a 5 star hotel for a few days that from the outside resembled a fortress on a hill straight out of “The Guns of Naverone”. Once inside it was anything like a bunker and rivaled any luxury hotel I had ever experienced. I got over any guilt at such extravagance as soon as I lingered in my first hot shower in weeks and my head hit the many down pillows.
Best of all, just down the access road from the hotel was a trailhead for some hikes into the nearby mountains. I felt out of place hiking summer trails in winter when all I have ever known in January prior is snow and skiing but it was great to be active again after five days cooped up in “sail jail”. There is nothing I love more than exploring new mountain realms and I could have stayed on far longer but the pull of home and family Strong. Antarctica is a beautiful, wondrous place and was a grand adventure that left an indelible imprint on my life but right then and there I knew it was time to come home.