First Ascent Ski Guide Kent McBride checks in from a recent ski-guide trip in Antarctica.
Story and photos by Kent McBride
Our two days in the port town of Ushuaia, Argentina, provided time to check out the town, inspect our clients’ equipment, collect delayed people and bags, ski tour off jet lag and celebrate our new adventure to the seventh continent.
Crossing the Drake Passage was friendly; there were three-meter rolling waves on the stern, which helped us cross in two, quick days.
Once we reached our destination, the Antarctic Peninsula, we maneuvered for cover among the chain of intertwined islands. Maneuvering around seems straightforward, except for the floating spring ice moving with the wind and tides; these can trap a ship for weeks and damage the haul like a grinding rock pile. To avoiding being trapped, the ship often cruised laps up and down the channel rather than anchoring while we were out skiing.
We saw firsthand the challenge of staying ahead of potential ice blockages during one of our ski days, when we were told to hurry back to the ship because it was rapidly being surrounded by ice. It wasn’t easy to quickly retrace our ascent, as our ski route into steep, rocky terrain required us to rope down. Then the clouds became so thick that the GPS was needed to navigate back to the landing.
Ice walls and ice floes formed barricades that blocked access to peaks we wanted to ski. Finding landings for the Zodiacs proved to be one of the bigger challenges of the trip. Oftentimes, when an easy landing was located, it was crowded with penguins, seals and birds. An interesting and amazing thing about Antarctica is that there are no land predators, so you can walk within five meters of creatures and they will not feel threatened. Not only is Antarctica a peace park for the whole world, but it is also a place of few threats for all animals—once they reach the land.
What about the skiing? Well, because Antarctica has such harsh weather and the snow is very delicate, we didn’t experience any deep Utah-style blower, but we did find corn, technical, carve-able ice and lots of 20-plus centimeters of powder. The conditions could be described as classic European spring touring with a low avalanche hazard. We typically started out with skins, added ski crampons and then strapped them onto our packs and continued to climb with an ice axe, whippet and crampons to the top.
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