It's the ultimate boy's own adventure. A boat trip to travel and ski in the Antarctic.
Adventure seeker skier, Tim Wheeler, set sail with Ice Axe Expeditions, experiencing the stunning scenery, epic ski touring, stimulating fellow travellers and a force 12 hurricane on the return journey to Argentina across the Southern Ocean.
So what made you decide to go to Antarctica?
I'd heard about the trip with Ice Axe Expeditions from Per As, one of the mountain guides I know well and who I was climbing with in August. He'd done the trip for the first time last year and was going again as one of the official guides and, he told me, there was still space on the next voyage. I always had an interest in that part of the world from being a young boy and reading stories about Amundsen, Scott, Shackleton. I thought if I don't do it now I never will.
What was your first impression of Antarctica?
When we got to Ushuaia in Argentina, which is the most southerly town in the world, I was a bit surprised that it was more like the Norwegian fjords or the West coast of Scotland. There was a glacial area inland where we went for a warm up day. But I rather expected it to be more like Tierra del Fuego on the Chilean side where I'd seen photos of the glaciers coming down into the sea.
However, nothing had prepared me for when we first got to the Antarctic peninsula. I'd seen photos, I'd seen videos, I'd listened to people. But it's simply the scale of the place. You can't get you head around how dramatic it is, how much water there is, how much floating ice there is and how steep the terrain can be straight out of the sea.
Was the trip just for skiers and snowboarders?
This boat does about 10 trips during the season. We were the first and I expected it to be more of a mix of snowshoe trekkers, wild life observers and skiers. But, in truth, there were only about 10 snowshoe trekkers; no one specifically there just to go bird/animal watching and a total of around 100 paying guests. So the rest were all skiers or boarders. November when we went is early for the general tourists who go in late December into January when the weather is at its best. So we didn't see any signs of human life, no ships, nothing (except when we visited one manned Polish Scientific base) for the 11 days we were out there.
How many snowboarders were there?
Probably about 10, I think, all on splitboards.
And how many women were on the trip?
Not so many women. A number of couples were there. So probably 3: 1 ratio. A number of the women were there more for the experience of the trip than to ski.
What were the nationalities?
Predominately American. Doug Stoup, who runs Ice Axe Expeditions and hired the Quark ship, tends to concentrate more on the US market and so the majority were American guides and clients. There was one party of Austrians, one Russian group, a good number of Swedes, Norwegians,and Finns, a couple of Italians, some Canadians and four Brits.
What was the average age?
Middle aged and upwards. The guides and one or two pro climber types were younger but mostly they were 40 to late 70s.
And what were the experience and fitness levels?
Everyone was fit. It's not the kind of thing people would do without having done quite a bit of that stuff before. It wasn't the place to learn how to ski tour or use unfamiliar equipment. But the guests were matched in groups to others of the same ability in a ratio of four people to each guide.
So what kit did you take?
I kept it to the minimum because of course I was flying and didn't have the usual luxury of the van driving to the Alps. I took two pairs of skis: my aged Volkl Mantras (as spares) and Volkl Nunataqs with Dynafit bindings. One pair of boots, no ABS bag, ski and boot crampons, harness, skins, an extra old waterproof jacket and trousers for wearing in the Zodiac inflatable over my skiing/climbing kit for the trips from the Sea Adventurer ship to the various landing spots chosen amongst the expanse of the Antarctic Peninsula to stop getting wet from sea spray. Also, Paramo jacket and trousers and lots of merino.
How gnarly were the climbs?
We were doing short climbs from sea level so you didn't need endless stamina. Technically it just became trickier when the weather got worse. When the wind was strong, the snow was getting hard packed. It was ski crampons almost all the time in our group, more than I've ever used them in the Alps, always roped in because of the crevasse risk. Also, ice axes and boot crampons were used in those groups that wanted to bag a peak.
What was the average climb?
Generally the climbs were 400-600m and we probably did three or four a day. It wasn't very strenuous but technically you just had to have your wits about you. And be able to ski to order on the way down.
How tricky was it skiing down?
As somebody said, 'this is not the place to practice any new tricks' or, indeed, try to outrun anyone – especially the guide on the descent. It's not the place to take risks. Because you are 600 miles from anywhere else, you have limited back up or medical facilities so if anything goes wrong, you're in trouble. Basically, your approach is going to be cautious and couched around safety.
So did you ever feel in danger?
The guides are there to minimise the obvious dangers particularly of climbing and skiing predominantly crevassed snow and ice fields. Each is also responsible for route planning for a party of four. Per and his group worked with the renowned American climber, ski mountaineer and photographer, Kris Erickson who led my four. They were both superb. Having said this, there was a traverse above a particular crevasse that you wouldn't have wanted to fall in to and it was difficult not to think for a moment, 'What the fuck happens if one of us has a freak fall here?' Accidents do happen and people do fall in strange places. My heart rate probably did go up once or twice from fear, yes, Such as climbing up certain faces where you know if you did slip you would cause the rest of the group some problems as you are all hanging off the same rope.
It was more daunting climbing up than skiing coming down?.
Yes, climbing up in places was trickier than the route down. But you were always attached to a rope and the guide on the way up.
Did you need to have mountaineering experience?
Not really, though I think it would help to have climbed before, but not imperative. You learn quite quickly. So long as you've ski toured before and be prepared to be on a rope. Because that's a little different. When you ski tour some people want to go at a different pace. For those who always want to be the first up, it isn't going to work on a rope. Everyone has to go at the same pace. And, coming down, you shouldn't race. You tend to have to go one at a time in most places. You just have to be a bit cooler about it.
Was anyone injured?
There was a lady walking around with a sling after the first day. I'm not sure what she did. But she wasn't badly injured. One of the problems is not necessarily injury through skiing. Major illnesses, appendicitis or even a heart attack would interrupt the trip as the boat would have to divert. Yes, there was a medic on board but, I guess, it's limited as to what they can do if serious medical attention is needed.
Did you have to sign away liabilities, responsibility for death, etc?
Oh, yes, you sign your life away. Especially as it's an American operation; they're keen on that sort of thing. It's entirely at your own risk. So you need to take out insurance. I couldn't get covered at all in the UK. So I got insurance in America. For around £400. Which sounds quite a lot but considering the risk and cost there is of evacuation and rescue it's not very much money at all.
So what would happen?
The boat would have to go where there is an airstrip and there is one further north on an island, a day's sail away. And then they'd have to hire a plane to come out and get you. It's too far for a helicopter.
What was the best moment on the trip?
I think we were very lucky on the way out in that the weather was perfect. And someone said that in seven years it had never been as calm. So when we finally arrived there after three days at sea, it was a bluebird day. And we were the first Zodiac onto the peninsula in perfect conditions. That was probably one of the highlights.
How did you manage to be in the first Zodiac?
Going in groups of eight with two guides on the Zodiacs was on a rotation basis. But we were just lucky enough to be the first out on the first day.
So what was the travelling like?
It's a flight to Buenos Aires, then a four hour flight to Ushuaia (Argentina) Then three days to get there and three days back on the ship. Because of the various connections you want to build in a bit of margin to make sure your kit's arrived.. So there were around nine days of travelling. You are away for 16/17 days for a six day ski.
What prep did you have to do before embarking? Visas? Fitness? Seasick pills?
There are no visas needed if you are British for Argentina and none required for Antarctica as no single country has jurisdiction. And fitness wise I just kept doing what I normally do - go to the gym four or five days a week and cycle most days in London. Only thing I did in preparation was buy a new pair of warmer ski gloves!
And the weather for skiing?
We had one day of brilliant weather, one day when we couldn't do anything, and the other days were mixed. Part of the day would be bad, part would be good. But we could get out.
Could you ski late, in the evenings as it's light?
You could do, but logistically the boat had to move on in the evening to the next place. We tended to be back on the boat by 6pm.
And snow conditions? Perfect powder? Spring?
Varied. Some powder, corn and a lot of windblown. Generally pretty good skiing. There were tricky moments; one slope that was pretty hard packed as we skied down to the ocean.
What profile of ski did most people choose to ride?
A variety. Though in the main people were on slightly narrower skis than you would expect to see ski tourers using in Chamonix or La Grave. So probably 90-100mm. Most on Dynafit bindings or derivatives. I was on my Volkl Nunataqs, which are a massive improvement on what I toured on before, because they are a bit more substantial but light.
What clothing worked best for you?
My Paramo Explorer jacket and trousers over one layer of merino wool. One day, a puffa inside. Waterproofs over on the Zodiac.
Is there anything that you wish you had brought?
The only thing that I thought was quite a good invention, and never bothered with before, are lighter weight boot crampons for touring because mine are for mountaineering which do have the advantage of also working on rock.
So you've skied in some quite far flung places around the globe? Arctic Norway, Chile, New Zealand, Japan. How does the Antarctic compare?
It's just very different. Certainly less ski lifts! It's just more of an adventure. Even in Lyngen in Norway, there are always people around. But Antarctica is just so remote. There's no one there. As an experience there's nowhere like it. Other places are better for pure skiing. Japan, for powder; Colorado or the Alps for scale, for instance. And if you're a gnarly rockstar wanting to ride fast down couloirs, it's not the place to be. There were a lot of very good skiers but they were there for the experience over the skiing.
So is it as much about the adventure? Getting there? And back?
Well, I've always done a lot of sailing and been interested in boats so it was the whole thing about going down The Beagle Channel, Drakes Passage and across the Southern Ocean.
Coming back in a Force 12 hurricane, choosing to stand up on the deck, hanging on as water is splashing around you and the boat is pitching in 40 ft waves, was all massively exciting. The anemometer broke at 108 kn and the wind gusted to 120 kn..
My only criticism is that it does take a long time to get there. But the ship was comfortable and truly seaworthy and , yes, if it was easy to get there, everyone would be doing it.
What about getting seasick?
I never suffered much from seasickness, I just wear a wristband, eat ginger biscuits and drink tea, take some over the counter motion tablets and, once, had a lie down for an hour. Those who thought they would get seasick had been to their doctor to get appropriate drugs and a number of people found it best to take to their beds.
If you're single,you're sharing a cabin with someone you don't know, it's pot luck as to whether they're seasick or not. In my case I was lucky.
What were the conditions like on the boat?
Very comfortable. And the food was stupendous as they're used to running it as a tourist operation. There were also interesting lectures from historians, ornithologists, natural history experts and we had the benefit of some world renowned climbers and skiers who also gave talks.
And the apres? As in bar? What else was there to do on board?
Well, the Swedes, Norwegians, Finns and the Brits tended to be at the bar the most. But that's inevitable. Dinner was always around 7.30/8pm You could sit anywhere. I didn't ever not have a stimulating conversation. Everyone had a story. This trip is what you do after you've already done quite a lot in your life. So I met many interesting people.
There was one official party, a black and white ball. And a Norwegian couple in our group spontaneously got married by the Russian captain, under maritime law, with one of the other guests and a guide as the official witnesses. That was quite a party.
Also, one day, we took the Polar Plunge, with some of the guides deciding to jump off the top deck, about 40 feet into the sea. Yes, just in boardshorts. It wasn't as cold as you would have thought - sea water freezes in the Antarctic at around 0.3C but we didn't hang around for long in the water.
So what was the wild life like? The animals and birds, that is, rather than the apres?
I was mildly disappointed in terms of what we saw. But we weren't there specifically for the wild life. We saw 40 or so humpback whales which was impressive. We probably saw three or four different breeds of penguin. You're not allowed within five metres but they just come up to you. Various seals. The birds: petrels, cormorants and albatross. I was expecting a little bit more but it wasn't a cold weather safari holiday.
Memorable photos? How many did you take?
Around 800. I always carry my Olympus Tough tucked in the belt pocket of my rucksack. There was the night we went out to the Lemaire Channel to try and break through the ice. We got further south than they had in eight years but the sensible decision was to turn back. The narrowing of the seaway and the scale of the mountains around as the sun was setting was amazing. And the first day when we arrived, set foot on land for our first ski and had a beautiful blue sky day. Various people in our group shared photos and, indeed, a download of all the guests' who wanted to get involved was produced by the crew.
So what was the total cost?
The cost of the package was just under $10,000 and the flights about £2000.
Was it worth it?
Yes. Just to be one of only, probably, around 1000 skiers to have skied there as I think there's only been one boat every winter with 100 skiers for the past 10 years. I know people who spend that much money in Courcheval for a week.
Would you do it again? And if not where next?
Definitely. I like the idea of boat to ski. I'm going to Alta in Norway in May. And hoping to go to Greenland in a sailing boat the following year. Iceland and Svalbad, also, come highly recommended.
On a practical basis, though, carry your ski boots as hand luggage as getting specialist kit in Ushuaia is difficult. Sort out your seasickness requirements and make sure you're familiar with your kit and any new camera.
Read more about skiing in the Antarctic from mountain guide, Per As in As Cool As It Gets.