‘Just walk normally,’ called our guide, as I tramped in ski boots down a steep snow hill, towards the icy water and the waiting boat. It wasn’t easy. I was lit with adrenalin after skiing a wide, wild descent, the mountain around us glowing gold in the sunset. Our descent fell sharply to a bay noted for its humpback whales. As we were roped together, I was keenly aware of the drop, how remote we were – and how singular this experience was. But then nothing is “normal” in Antarctica.
I had long dreamt of the frozen south, having grown up with stories of Scott and Shackleton’s heroic endeavour, of polar landscapes populated with wandering albatrosses, killer whales and friendly penguins. But I had no interest in watching it through the porthole of a ship.
Happily, I found Aurora Expeditions. Founded by Australian explorer Greg Mortimer, Aurora is all about adventure and getting ashore to experience Antarctica first hand. Head ski tour guide Tarn Pilkington has been coming to Antarctica for 25 years, and is also a heli-ski guide in New Zealand and the Himalayas. After a phone conversation that convinced me I’d be in safe hands, I signed up.
After a good deal of squats and rather more planning and testing of kit, I flew to the Argentinian “end of the world” port, Ushuaia, where I met Tarn as we boarded our boat. Named after Greg Mortimer, it was a new vessel that proved extremely comfortable, carrying 120 passengers on eight decks and complete with observation points, a sauna with floor-to-ceiling windows and a lecture lounge. As we set off on the 620-mile journey south, Pilkington called a briefing in the library for the five passengers who had signed up to ski.
‘We’re going to have a fantastic time,’ he beamed, ‘but prepare yourself for a challenge. You will challenge yourselves, and you will be challenged.’ He drew a picture of a crevasse. I took eager notes, listing the essentials for each outing, which include life jacket, elaborate layers, avalanche equipment and a harness for when we rope ourselves together – or fall into a glacier. ‘All that said,’ Tarn continued in his wide Kiwi burr, ‘most injuries occur on the ship.’
The others echoed my excitement and trepidation. Mengzi, a 32-year-old New York financier, had taken a two-year sabbatical to ski. ‘I had to ski all the continents, that’s why I’m here,’ she told me. The other three, Brazilians Joao, 26, Julia, 28, and her father Sergio, 52, looked ready for anything. ‘We were drawn to do something different,’ Sergio said.
After two days of briefings and lectures at sea, we reached Trinity Island, a series of rocky points and headlands half-covered in snow. We assembled on a lower deck holding our ski boots in silver waterproof dry-bags. The crew stacked our rucksacks on top of our skis in the Zodiac (an inflatable boat), then we slithered in around them. The sky and sea melted together in a leaden grey. As we sped to shore, a dusting of snowflakes caught our goggles and a white snow petrel skimmed overhead.
At our landing point, a lump of ice jutted from the rocks. A female fur seal lay on it, watching us with limpid brown eyes. There are firm rules about staying five metres from wildlife, so we paused – but as we watched, the shelf broke under her. With a grunt she slid into the sea, leaving us free to disembark. Our second guide, Mike, stamped a path in the snow and we clambered up after him and prepared our skis with skins and ski crampons (metal forks that protrude downwards on either side of the ski, to add purchase when touring up ice).
The snow, Tarn told me later, was typically Antarctic. That is to say, variable. We skinned up through patches of sastrugi (where the wind has blown the snow into small ridges), pockets of powder and areas of ice. The weather too was changeable, with the wind fast whipping up against us.
Somehow battling onward behind several layers of buffs felt an appropriate welcome to this coldest and windiest continent. It was marvellous to be moving, to be propelling ourselves upward into the white. Time was short after our deferred landing and safety drills, so after a couple of hours we skied down. It was brief, but still. ‘We did it,’ yelled Mengzi. It was thrilling simply to have skied in this pristine place.
Here amid the ice, however, thoughts of climate change were never far away. ‘Is it right to come here as tourists?’ I asked Mortimer, as we sat down to lunch on the boat. ‘We’re not yet at a point where Antarctic travel is having an impact,’ he said, ‘but we need to be vigilant and very deliberate in educating passengers about the value of these places.’
I put the same question to Dr Heather Lynch, professor of ecology and evolution at Stony Brook University, New York, whose research focuses on surveying Antarctic wildlife with a view to its conservation. ‘I would be the first to jump in and say so if I thought tourism was having a negative impact on the ground,’ she told me. ‘Everything suggests that the rules put in place by IAATO [the International Association of Antarctic Tour Operators] are doing a good job. But there is a bigger question, which is about the carbon footprint – but this goes for all travel everywhere. I hope that visiting Antarctica crystallises concerns about climate change in people’s minds, and leaves them with a heightened sense of responsibility to our planet.’
Being shown how fast some glaciers had receded (research on five of them – not the ones we saw – found the rate of ice loss had doubled in six years and was five times faster than in the Nineties) and hearing from the on-board naturalists about the decline of species around us (in some gentoo penguin colonies, the number of chicks is down by 60 per cent) was a robust reminder of how precarious the Antarctic is, and how precious. Aurora’s new ship is designed to have one of the lightest possible ecological footprints. With an upturned ‘X-bow’, it cuts more efficiently through the waves and was estimated to have used half the fuel an older vessel would have done, while carrying twice the number of people.
It has the option to ‘virtual anchor’ where appropriate, using GPS to maintain its position rather than dropping a metal anchor to the sea floor. Waste is kept on board, plastics are almost entirely phased out and Aurora is working its way towards the goal of being carbon neutral.
On leaving Trinity Island, we navigated through the Gerlache Strait. I was settling down to a chocolate eclair when the Tannoy announced that seven killer whales were breaching alongside us. Barely was I back to my excellent pudding when it was time to ski again, this time at Portal Point, an area used by British dog teams in the Fifties because of a snow slope that leads from sea level toward the Peninsula Plateau. ‘This is crevasse territory,’ Tarn announced. ‘We don’t need ropes, but leave at least five metres between you, as you don’t want to have two people on the snow bridge [over a crevasse] at the same time.’ The soft snow made touring hard work. ‘It’s a pleasure to be here,’ said Julia, with bruises coming out on her shins, ‘but also very painful.’
‘Snow quality: two out of 10,’ Tarn radioed to the captain on the ship’s bridge. ‘You won’t be seeing any pretty skiing.’ In fact we barely skied at all. We traversed cautiously across the slope, kick turning at either edge. Joao had a go at some turns. ‘I must have fallen eight times,’ he panted.
I paused half way down, my ankles tangled in a rusty kick turn. Out in the bay a cormorant soared, and as if on cue a minke whale curved out of the water and spouted.
The next few days were blue and brilliant. We didn’t go particularly high – generally between 300 and 500m – but each place had its own sensibility: on Doumer Island we skinned up a broad field of glinting white rising to a ridge, our crampons crunching at each step. As we toured up, the sunlight softened the surface, gifting us a joyous race down.
The tour up Deception Island to the rim of a live volcanic caldera brought views across to the surrounding islands, and even some desirably chalky snow.
Neko Harbour was a lesson in perseverance. The bay was full of icebergs, and in the Zodiac we dodged our way around them for six miles to a point Tarn was excited to investigate. ‘Each time we come, I scan with a map and binoculars to find fresh places to explore.’ He keeps a list of potential spots, including more challenging options (steeper, or full-day touring) for highly experienced guests. However, when we arrived, Tarn frowned. The wind was blowing brash ice on to the rocks, and could easily block the passage for a Zodiac coming back to collect us. Time for Plan B.
As we scudded back across the harbour, the winds stirred up the waves. Our new destination was the beach at Neko, a gentoo penguin rookery. Three penguins porpoised out of the water alongside us, then popped vertically upwards out on to the rocks. They had scant regard for our 5m rule, craning close and quizzical as we made a pile of our equipment. ‘Don’t ski through any penguin poo,’ warned Tarn.
Around us, the ice rose into an amphitheatre of glaciers ending in great blue bluffs and seracs (ice columns). One fell off into the sea, a boom echoed around us, and a cloud of spray hung over the water. We gleefully chased down, threading our way round the pink spatters of guano.
Our sunset ski at Wilhelmina Bay was one of those perfect moments. A sundog hung a rainbow over the sun. The water was studded with icebergs turned pink in the light. The mountain, the world, felt ours.
‘This was my favourite ever ski touring,’ said Mengzi. ‘To be the only person skiing for thousands of miles, the only sound being that of your skis, is incredible.’
Antarctic skiing will not give you thigh-deep powder, and the apres is somewhat limited. It will give you some serious bragging rights – but forget that: it’s a wilderness experience seared to your soul.