Winter sports special: skiing’s final frontier
By Xavier De Le Rue
Published: October 8 2010 22:54 | Last updated: October 8 2010 22:54
Jeremy Jones, Xavier De Le Rue’s snowboarding companion, in Antarctica
I’m told we had it fairly easy on the crossing. I’m also told that we passed minke whales, and that for much of the 500-mile, three-day voyage from Ushuaia in Argentina to the Antarctic Peninsula, we were followed by albatross. I couldn’t say myself, as any attempt to get out of my bed made me instantly seasick.
By the time we reached land I had been travelling for almost a week, and it was a beautiful relief to wake up and feel the ship still. I went out on deck to take in my first view of the Antarctic Peninsula under a perfect blue sky, its dramatic fjords crowded with icebergs on which seals basked in the sun.
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There are quicker ways of reaching Antarctica – it’s now possible to fly from Chile to a base camp in the interior and ski from there. And we could have used a helicopter to access our snowboarding, but my companion Jeremy Jones and I knew we didn’t want to go down that route. Showing up among all the wildlife in such an unspoiled place with a noisy, gas-burning machine, then getting ferried to the top of run after run wasn’t our style. We weren’t here just to nail the most amazing descents and to rush to fit in as much boarding as possible. We wanted to treat the place with respect, to work hard for our turns and that way, we hoped, to reap some great rewards.
And so we had come to the White Continent aboard the Clipper Adventurer, a 90m ice-reinforced ship, on the inaugural Antarctic Ski Cruise organised by the US-based Ice Axe Expeditions. It was the first time an entire ship had been chartered for an Antarctic ski trip, and with 105 others on board, we would spend a week touring the fjords of the Antarctic Peninsula, raising anchor every evening and exploring new mountains every day.
It was Antarctica’s spring, November last year, a time when you might normally expect only a couple of days of good weather during the month. We got lucky – for eight straight days we had at least some sunshine and, now and then, temperatures even topped zero.
Where I’m skiing this winter...
Graham Bell, Five-time Olympic skier and presenter of the BBC’s Ski Sunday
“I go to numerous resorts each winter for Ski Sunday, but I’m taking the family to Going, part of the Wilder Kaiser ski area near Söll, in Austria. We’ll be four couples and four children, with very different standards. I have no idea how we’ll all manage to ski together – we’ll probably set up some kind of base camp. I will ski with the adults until they are tired out, then have a go at exhausting the children!”
Everywhere the ship anchored, we were presented with 360-degree panoramas of tempting lines from the peaks and ridges. But with these temptations came dangers. As well as the crevasses, glaciers and avalanche risks we’re used to dealing with in the high mountains, there was the challenge of actually getting from the boat on to the mountainsides in sub-zero water strewn with icebergs. And we knew that if we got hurt, no helicopter would rescue us. Other than our own skills, there was no safety net.
Each day we scoped out access points from a Zodiac inflatable dodging among the icebergs. After finding a place we could safely get on to the snow, we would start the long, slow ascent, laden with ice-climbing and mountaineering kit, to the top of the run we had made our goal. Sometimes we’d be bootpacking (kicking steps into the snow with our feet), other times using splitboards (snowboards which split into two, like skis, so sticky touring skins can be stuck to the underside allowing you to climb uphill).
We didn’t mind the effort. In a place so full of unknowns, these slow, careful climbs were crucial. If you’re paying attention, the mountain feeds you so much information that you start to feel a connection, to be able to read it, its quirks and its dangers.
Timing was another skill we had to learn. Even though there were 21 hours of daylight at that time of year, there was just a six-hour window for riding. Start your run too early and you’d be skating down sheet ice. Leave it too late, and you’d have the same problem – within seconds of direct sunlight leaving the snow, the temperature would instantly drop, freezing it solid again.
The descents were spectacular, and surprisingly varied. Icebergs just off the shore and towers of ice at the water’s edge made the landscapes unlike anything I had seen before, a bizarre and beautiful cross between a coastal and a glacier-strewn high-alpine environment. And it was surreal to be so close to wildlife that has no fear of humans. At the bottom of one run, we had to pick our way through a colony of about 400 penguins. All around us they waddled, squabbled, slid on their fronts – our being there didn’t ruffle them in the least.
And although Antarctica only gets the same amount of precipitation as the Sahara, we found some huge powder stashes. Close to Admiralty Bay, we hiked a five-hour traverse across a glacier to get to a really steep face, racing the last stretch as only 10 minutes of sunlight remained. Surrounded by twisted towers of ice, this perfectly smooth, 60-degree run offered up deep, silky fluff all the way to the sea.
But we didn’t get it all our way. One ascent in Discovery Bay, on the north side of Greenwich Island, looked perfect from the ship, although there was no easy way of getting from the boat on to the mountain. First we considered getting out of the Zodiac on to a little, flat iceberg and accessing the mountain from there. But about 30 seals were taking a nap on the ice, and we decided not to bother them. The only other option was to climb straight out on to the ice cliffs. Putting on crampons and grabbing ice axes, we climbed out of the boat straight on to a vertical ice wall. It was pretty unnerving as, carrying all that kit, we knew we wouldn’t float for a second in the freezing water. I had a little moment when I asked myself if we should turn back. But, no, it was a really beautiful place, really special, and we decided to go for it.
A little further up, we found some flatter ground, roped up and started the hike. We had only been climbing a few minutes when we came across a crevasse running across the mountainside. That made us think that perhaps we were on an island; that the ice we were standing on wasn’t properly attached to land. We felt uncomfortable, knowing the sea was just below. And then, with a huge, splintering sound, a 200m-wide section of the slope sheered off three metres behind us and collapsed into the water, sending icebergs and seals shooting out to sea.
As the way we had come up wasn’t there any more, we ended our day by abseiling, shaken, back down into the Zodiac. It was an experience we discussed at length that evening, as we enjoyed the nightly show of icebergs drifting past the windows in the warm, horizontal sunlight and tucked into generous helpings of Argentinian beef and Malbec wine in the ship’s dining room. Both of us had felt uneasy about the ascent, and were chastened that we had not trusted our instincts. Although for days we’d been lucky enough to see Antarctica in a sunny, mellow mood, that day it sent us home to our warm, cosy ship with an unforgettable reminder of just how hostile it can be.
Xavier De Le Rue is the current Freeride World Champion, the third year in a row he has held the title. His snowboarding trip to Antarctica with fellow professional Jeremy Jones forms the basis of a new film, ‘Lives of the Artists: Follow Me Down’, which can be viewed at www.relentlessenergy.com
Xavier De Le Rue travelled with Ice Axe Expeditions (www.iceaxe.tv). Its next Antarctic expedition is a 23-day trip by yacht, departing on November 13. There are eight places and it costs £11,360pp. The next Ski Cruise on the Clipper Adventurer runs from November 820, 2011 and costs £4,470pp. Several other specialists now offer Antarctic ski trips: Adventure Network International (www.adventure-network.com), Adventure Consultants (www.adventureconsultants.com) and Andescross (www.andescross.com).
More extreme thrills
Skiing 8,000m peaks
For Kenton Cool, Britain’s most celebrated mountain guide, the ski season has already begun, writes Tom Robbins. On September 30, the 38-year-old enjoyed an epic ski descent from the summit of Nepal’s Manaslu, the world’s eighth-highest mountain. It makes him the only Briton to have skied two 8,000m peaks (he skied Cho Oyu, on the Nepal-Tibet border, in 2006 – the first descent of an 8,000m peak by a British skier). And now you can follow in his ski tracks: Dream Guides, the guiding company run by Cool and fellow guide Guy Willett, is running a Manaslu expedition from August 24 2011. You need to be suitably experienced – and have $17,000 to spare. www.dream-guides.com
Heliskiing in Iceland
If you want to claim a first descent of a never-skied-before peak, head to the Troll peninsula of northern Iceland. Commercial heliskiing only arrived here in 2008, and numerous lines remain to be claimed. Elemental Adventure offers a four-night trip for €4,490. www.eaheliskiing.com
Renowned coach Warren Smith is launching “supergroup” courses this winter for private groups of between four and six “who want to be pushed hard”. Five-day courses cost from £495 per person. www.warrensmith-skiacademy.com
Steep skiing in Chamonix
Remy Lecluse is one of the world’s leading extreme skiers, with more than 56 first descents around the world to his name. Even more remarkably, he will take clients with him into extreme terrain and on descents of more than 50 degrees. “People think I’m a nutter,” he admits. The adventure skiing specialist Mountain Tracks has arranged two five-day courses with Lecluse, costing £895, during which he will guide guests on the best Chamonix couloirs. www.mountaintracks.co.uk