If you have a love to ride the backcountry, then you have most likely dreamt of going to some pretty far-flung places. When an opportunity opened up to guide a group of snowboarders in Antarctica, my definition of far-flung went off the map and into the realms of ‘other worldly’. You might be thinking it is too far, too gnar, too much coin, and after all that, is there real boarding in Antarctica? Yes, and it is more accessible than you may think.
The idea of a commercial ski and splitboard trip to Antarctica was the dream of polar explorer Doug Stoup, owner of Ice Axe Expeditions. Doug has been leading trips to the far reaches of our planet for over a decade and in 2009 he brought the first Ice Axe trip to the shores of Antarctica. Prior to that, Doug and friends chartered their own expeditions to the frozen continent, mapping areas and crafting the dream of the Antarctic trip we know today. The trip is dialed in, well appointed, and satisfies the craving for both wild adventure and world-class comfort. The 330 ft MV Ocean Adventurer, with spacious accommodations for about 100 guests, brings together travelers from all over the world. By the time the trip is done you will hardly believe you went there at all because Antartica is incomparable to any place you have ever been.
The adventure gains momentum when you reach the southernmost city of Ushuaia, Argentina, a riding destination in its own right. A 10-minute taxi ride out of town accesses the Martial glacier and is the quickest way into some incredible touring terrain. The place feels massive with the Martial Mountains rising directly out of the sea and dwarfing the small city they surround. Peaks like Cinco Hermanos and Mt Olivia clock in with 4 thousand feet of vertical relief. Tierra del Fuego National park borders Ushuaia and Cerro Castor ski resort. There is far more terrain available than time to ride as most travelers pull off the trip to Antarctica in under 3 weeks door to door.
Traveling to Antarctica from the tip of South America requires crossing a 500-mile stretch of water, the infamous Drake Passage. With a long and storied maritime history in the Southern Ocean, this crossing can make people a little apprehensive, especially if you are a land lover like myself. The modern vessel navigates the Drake in 50 hours and bears no resemblance to the expeditions of the Heroic Age. One element that united the ghost ships of the past to the current chapter being written across the Drake is a captain’s wager on the wind and swell. When we crossed in 2014, the anemometer broke after hitting 120 knots and 40-foot swells pummeled the boat, a 12 out of 12 on the Beaufort scale. Surrender to the sea and you will have passed your first Antarctic lesson of letting go of expectation and fear. Luck was on our side in the fall of 2017 as we experienced mildly rough (6 of 12) on the way down to Antarctica, and Drake Lake (calm and glassy) on the way back up. 1/3rd of the population is susceptible to motion sickness and I rank somewhere in that category. For those who like it a little rough, 12 of 12 is akin to front row seats to your favorite rock show, head banging and all. Regardless of conditions on the Drake, once in the shelter of the Peninsula, the waters are protected and calm. The first morning waking up in Antarctica is an unforgettable memory, eyes wide open and each breath deeply drinking the sweet and salty sea air.
Behind the scenes, and into the early hours of the morning, Doug Stoup is up in the bridge working closely with the captain and his expedition team to map out the days adventure. An impressive orchestration unfolds as each journey adapts to the ever-changing Antarctic environment. Icebergs, sea ice, wind, tide, swell, and wildlife guard access to the far reaches that are now at the boat’s doorstep. Ice Axe is often the 1st group southbound as spring begins to unfold in the southern hemisphere, and with an open Bridge policy it’s a real treat to stand in and bear witness to the process as we weave through icebergs toward our riding objective of the day.
In 2017 we experienced some of the best snow and weather conditions a rider could ask for on the frozen continent. Unconsolidated polar powder under snowy skies for the first 2 days followed by 4 days of sunny skies which provided a bumper corn harvest finale. Steep panels with edge-able snow conditions are a rarity in Antarctica, so our gift was not unnoticed or underappreciated. If that wasn’t enough for good omens, I was also guiding a 100% splitboard group comprised of Seth and Allison Lightcap of Truckee,
California and Kurt Williams, who is the logistics manager at Ice Axe Expeditions. Seth and Allison are good friends and world-class rippers who finished the final chapter of a decade long story to make turns on all 7 continents. Kurt is making his own history by quickly ticking off far reaching shred destinations through Ice Axe. This was his first trip to Antarctica and he is the point man at Ice Axe for your next adventure. I couldn’t have asked for a more powerful, talented, and fun group to ride with.
After a generous breakfast it is time to head out for the day. The Ocean Adventurer parks just offshore of your objective and out come the zodiacs. The ultimate approach vehicle in Antarctica, the zodiac, is an ultra strong lightweight vessel that will ferry your group from the big boat to the shore.
Once on land we are in glacier country. On the ascent our group is roped together as we weave through crevassed terrain. Teamwork is key and an all day pace allows for the opportunity to study the terrain and take it all in. Once at the top, your guide packs up the rope and it’s time to ride some truly mind-blowing terrain. Stack as many laps as your legs can handle and a day usually ends around 5pm. The zodiacs come in for the swoop, and it’s back to the big boat for a beverage and a five star meal. The energy on the boat is wildly contagious with good vibes and excitement. Sunsets seem to last for hours as alpenglow colors of ruby and gold light up the Antarctic sky.
The Antarctic environment is massive in every way. Making turns in this isolated, glaciated, and wildly raw wilderness is beyond compare. Put it high on the bucket list for the journey inspired rider. The trip doesn’t stop there though and offers sea kayaking, stops at penguin rookeries, science bases, and snow shoe hikes on the glacier for the extended family. Many people work together to make this trip possible. A big thank you to Seth and Allison, Kurt and Doug at Ice Axe, Captain Alexey Nazarov and all the staff at Quark Expeditions to name a few. Ice Axe has chartered the MV Ocean Adventurer again in November 2nd-14th 2018 and we invite you to come experience this amazing place with us. Check out the details here.
About the author:
Jules Hanna is an AMGA certified splitboard guide. This was his 7th expediton to Antarctica. He guides full time in the Sierra, and does select trips all over the world. Japan and Alaska are some of his favorite snowboarding spots. Reach out to him direct on Instagram or through email: email@example.com