Story and Photos By Seth Lightcap
For the adventurous year round rider, November can be a tricky month. There are not many snowboarding destinations that have consistently good snow conditions in November. The Southern Hemi snowpack is usually on it’s last legs and the Northern Hemi winter has only just begun. One of the few places in the world where November is actually the prime time to go shred is Antarctica.
I know, funny joke right? Snowboarding in Antarctica. How the heck does one get to go ride in Antarctica? Turns out it’s not as difficult as you might think. Every November, the polar logistics and travel company Ice Axe Expeditions charters a boat out of Ushuaia, Argentina and offers a one-of-a-kind "Ski Cruise" to the Antarctic Peninsula. The cruise allows 100 some skiers and riders the seemingly preposterous opportunity to live in a floating palace and shred lines in Antarctica like they were in your backyard. Is the trip expensive? Yes. Do you have to fly half way around the globe to get there? Also yes. But is the trip worth every penny, plus every minute crammed in a middle seat? Absolutely, unequivocally, yes.
Antarctica is the purest expression of winter wilderness you might ever see in your life. The raw natural beauty of the icebergs, mountains, ocean and wildlife is beyond description. The snowboarding potential in Antarctica is also on another level. Not necessarily for how radical every run is, but for the fact that you glide so effortlessly through a landscape that has traditionally been the harshest landscape for human exploration on the planet. At any given moment, whether in the skin track weaving around crevasses, riding pow past a penguin, or sipping cocktails watching icebergs, you’re simultaneously thinking to yourself, "This is the most spectacular place i’ve ever seen!" and "How the [email protected]#k are we pulling this off so casually?!" The honor of simply bearing witness to such a land, let alone living in the lap of luxury riding your snowboard on it, will never be lost on you so long as you live. The impression of every view and every turn is staggering, truly mind blowing.
My partner Allison and I have been dreaming of going on this trip for years. It was a huge commitment of time and money, but we would do it all again in a heart beat. Between the setting, the snowboarding, the people and the boat life, the Ski Cruise was undoubtedly the most amazing experience of our lives. Ice Axe Expeditions has already announced the dates for the 2018 Antarctica Ski Cruise, November 2-14. The value of experiencing snowboarding in Antarctica is priceless, but the costs of the trip are real. Starting now, you’ve got almost a year to stack the chips to make it happen. Here’s some inspiration from our 2017 cruise to stoke your fire.
The magnificent MV Ocean Adventurer, a 330 foot long, 200+ capacity cruise ship is the golden key that unlocks this adventure. Ice Axe Expeditions’ charters the boat from Quark Expeditions who operate the vessel year round in both Antarctica and the Arctic. The Ski Cruise is the only Quark Antarctica trip each year that allows skiing or riding. It takes two days for the Ocean Adventurer to motor 500 miles across the infamous Drake Passage and enter the calmer waters of the Gerlach Strait. Our Drake crossing was burly on the way down (Beaufort 7) and thankfully, calm on the way back. Once you’ve arrived at the Antarctic Peninsula you have six days to explore the continent before starting the cruise back to Argentina.
Oh yeah, it’s all about boats on boats. Every morning you hop in a zodiac boat to get to shore. The stoke is real as you load the zodiac knowing the next 6-8 hours of your life will be a stunning shred fantasy.
Once on land, you rope up with your group and start skinning toward a riding objective. You’ll skin right past a ton of unrideable, glaciated terrain, but there are plenty of safe, moderate lines to be found amongst the icy gnar. On ascent you are always roped up as your traveling across glaciers. The crevasse danger is beyond real. Gaping holes lurk everywhere, seen and many unseen. On descent you ride unroped obviously, but with careful communication with your guide where to ride.
So what’s the snow like? Typically it’s on the firm side and likely wind whipped, but we got really lucky. We scored boot top pow the day we rode in Paradise Bay and every other day we found super rippable conditions ranging from smooth chalk to five-star corn snow. Here’s Allison crushing dream pow in Paradise Bay.
Jones Ambassador Guide Jules Hanna was our guide on the trip. Jules is a great friend, a ripping rider and an incredible guide who also guides in Tahoe, Japan and Alaska. Here’s Jules slashing steeper than it looks wind buff right down to the shore on Ronge Island.
Breathtaking transition spot right? We could have lingered here for hours, but our motivated crew was pinned on charging more lines. Ice Axe Expedition logistics manager Kurt Williams rounded out our posse of four splitboarders. Kurt is the man to talk to about getting your spot on the boat in 2018 or beyond.
Depending on the weather, the schedule and your group, you can stay on shore each day until around 5pm. Once back on the boat, it’s all about hanging out on the upper deck, cold brew in hand, gazing off at the icebergs until dinner is served.
One afternoon they reeled us in from shredding a couple hours early for a trip to a Gentoo penguin rookery on Cuverville Island. The penguins had just arrived in the last week and were getting in the swing of mating. The penguins that look like there squawking at each other are actually starting the first moves of a mating dance.
The MV Ocean Adventurer is an "ice capable" vessel, but not an "ice breaker". It can deal with pushing through thin, broken up sea ice, but it can not withstand direct impact from an iceberg. Every evening at twilight the captain and crew moved the boat to a new location. As we cruised to the next day’s destination, the captain and his first mates would slalom the boat through a maze of icebergs like they were ski racing gates. The captain kept the bridge open to visitors so you could watch them steer the boat using a palm-sized joystick that resembled an old Atari Tennis Paddle controller.
The last two days of the trip were spent in the South Shetland Islands, an archipelago just north of the Antarctic Peninsula. The slightly higher latitude was noticeable as there were more seabirds and the ice along the shore was not quite as gnarly. The views were stunning looking out at the other islands and we scored more cold pow runs. These shots are from our first day touring in the South Shetlands on Livingston Island.
Our last day of shredding we were blessed with a bluebird day on King George Island. They parked the boat in Admiralty Bay and opened up landing sites on both sides of the boat. We spent the morning exploring a new zone that Ice Axe had never skied before, and the afternoon ripping steep couloirs in perfect corn. The first image shows our afternoon zone on the right and the second image is me rolling into a crazy funnel that guarded the entrance of the chute on the second peak back.
In six days, we got to shore at 11 different landing sites. Three of the days we got a mid-day zodiac bump to another zone. There were also two opportunities to go to shore to visit penguin rookeries and a visit to a Polish research station manned with resident scientists. Each day the boat staff would update this map showing our course throughout the trip. The value of the access to so many remote zones is worth the sticker price alone. Throw in guiding, three gourmet meals a day and impeccable boat hotel service and this trip is an incredible value.
The best way to describe Antarctica is that it feels like another planet. An unspoiled planet still frozen in time that humans have not really had their way with thus far. Down at the bigger research stations on the main part of the continent i’m sure the scene is a little different, but from our experience on the Antarctic Peninsula, the natural environment felt as raw and untouched as it gets. The mountains belonged only to the birds and the wind. We humans are but humble visitors to Antarctica who barely scratch the surface of this most spectacular land of undescribable beauty and adventure potential.
Huge thanks to Doug Stoup from Ice Axe Expeditions, Quark Expeditions, Jules, Kurt and all of the other guides, guests and boat staff for making this fantasy a reality for Allison and I. We’ve dedicated our lives to seeing the world on our snowboards and this trip was truly mind altering. I implore you to work extra hours, buy lotto tickets, sell a kidney, do whatever you have to do to visit Antarctica in your lifetime. The Great White Continent is not to be missed.
If you want to make it happen, start planning now. Check out Ice Axe Expedition’s website for more info.