Southern Passage: Skiing the Antartic Peninsula

With only a short four-day window to complete our mission to climb and ski the highest mountain on the Antarctic Peninsula, we knew it was a long shot—but somehow we had done it. If we had failed, we would have felt foolish for trying, but now, 3,000 meters below us, sat the “Spirit of Sydney,” the expedition yacht on which we’d sailed 800 kilometers from Argentina across the Drake Passage to Antarctica.

Three weeks earlier, I had stood on the jetty looking over the 20-meter yacht. Photographs I had seen of the Drake’s monstrous waves, reaching 10 meters in height, and the sight of this tiny vessel made me anxiously rethink my intentions. The Drake Passage is the roughest stretch of ocean in the world, and I was no sailor.

Anticipating the worst, we made sure half of our first aid kit consisted of an assortment of motion sickness medicine, which included tablets, patches, suppositories and injections. It also contained intravenous fluid to keep us from dehydrating. We had practiced inserting the catheter needle into each other’s veins with mixed results before the trip. I still sported a bruise on my hand, a painful reminder of the failed attempt to find a vein. 

Before the crossing, shelter was sought behind Herschel Island at the bottom tip of Chile. The weather map showed a series of low pressure systems all converging on the Drake, and the southwesterly winds which would have sent us in the opposite direction.

After two slow days, a forecasted clearance signaled a break in the inclement weather. We produced a note we had written with our intentions “to climb and ski some first descents” and signed by all of the Australian and New Zealand members of the expedition. We placed it in a bottle and hurled it overboard at Cape Horn. As it bobbed off over the waves, I noticed the brave faces that masked our apprehension about the Drake.

On the voyage, our time was broken up by two-hour shifts of watch on deck and four hours sleeping in our bunks. On watch, there were three of us at all times; one steering, another telling stories and the third braving the swaying galley to make some food we could stomach, usually only toast.

The main responsibility on watch was to keep the yacht sailing on the correct bearing, which was made difficult by the ever-changing wind direction and current. A sail change would have us scurrying around, usually following orders to pull in ropes or let them off.

I had no concept of time during the crossing. One day morphed into the next as we sailed further south and the daylight hours became longer. For a week, the views were of the never-ending expanse of ocean.

Sometimes humpback whales on their own lonely voyage would swim around us, as if they were happy for our company. Other than the whales, albatrosses soared around the yacht. It is believed in old sailing mythology they were the souls of lost sailors.

At times the sea was flat—nicknamed the “Drake Lake”—and at other times it was the “Drake Shake.” On one occasion, I woke in horror to a wildly rocking boat to find my seasickness patch on my pillow. I frantically slapped it back behind my ear, pushing and prodding in an effort to prevent it from falling off again.

Suddenly the yacht keeled over on its side as a huge wave crashed down on us. Calls to those on watch went unanswered for a few moments. Then there was a spluttering of “We’re okay!” to our sighs of relief. Harnesses attached to the deck had prevented them from being washed overboard.

One of the happiest moments of my life was seeing land, the wonderful sight of Smith Island which loomed out of the water. Sailing further down the Peninsula, we marveled at the sight of 2,000-meter peaks towering over the boat on either side, glaciers feeding in to the ocean, sometimes calving off, sending rushing waves of broken blue ice.

Navigation became interesting as we tried to avoid the maze of icebergs of various sizes, from huge “tabular” ’bergs to smaller floating pink, blue and black “growlers,” the size of small cars.

The Peninsula then became our oyster. From the yacht, we would see a peak that looked good to ski, and then we’d be transported by small boat to a favorable drop-off point from where we would start climbing. A cache with a week’s worth of food always accompanied us, in case the flowing ice sealed us in and prevented us from being picked up.

On an island called Delaite, we were forced to delve into the stores when our pickup was late due to rough seas. Delight it was not. We reluctantly chose to camp the night under a rock caked in penguin guano, fearing the gale force winds would be too much for our tent. We were kept awake by the raucous squawking of penguins voicing their apparent discomfort of our presence nearby.

Mt. Francais was to be our last trip skiing. The weather specialist at Vernadsky, the Ukrainian Base, had said the Peninsula receives more than 300 overcast days of a year and thought it too bold a mission in the short time we had left. We didn’t heed his advice.

On the first day, the clouds shrouded possible ascent routes, and the only maps of the area were sea charts limited in their detail of the mountain topography. The best source of information was an aerial photo of the mountain we had seen at Vernadsky, and we figured there was a ramp on the western side of Bull Ridge. We waited and debated the best line.

The clearance came on the second day and revealed the immense relief of the peak. Once we started climbing, the clouds descended again and blanketed the landscape, leaving us to grope on in the murk.
The silence of the mountain was sometimes interrupted by the roar of an avalanche and, not knowing from where it was coming down, we looked up with anxiety each time. At 1,000 meters, we came out of the cloud with great relief. By the time we set up camp, it was totally clear.

The next morning, we awoke to watch the orange hue of the early hours give way to the bright light of day. We were ecstatic to hear the news that the good weather would continue. Guided by one of our team in the yacht and a sizeable camera lens, we navigated successfully up through icefalls and over crevasses.

Six hours later, we had reached the summit, and there we stood at the highest point of the Antarctic Peninsula, the pinnacle of our lives’ experience. We were treated to sweeping views from Stewart Island in the north to Lemaire Channel in the south, the stretch of Peninsula we had sailed. After taking it all in, we prepared to go down. What followed was the finest ski descent of my life, 3,000 vertical meters down to the ocean.