Antarctic Peninsular

The Seventh Continent

“Antoine, you’re the skipper, you outline the boats safety features to our guests.” Hesitantly, the young man accompanied by his even younger looking girlfriend, Julie, briefed us in broken English on the emergency procedures needed to sail across the infamous Drake Passage. We all paid close attention. Though skiing was the main focus of our Antarctica adventure we first had to get there – and it’s by sail or not at all.

Antoine’s infectious smile half relaxed me but the other half of me felt unusually out of my comfort zone. I looked around my fellow “guests” quizzically wondering what similar thoughts were going through everyone’s minds. Of the eight of us ‘crew’ only Laurence had previous sailing experience. How did we end up on board the Spirit of Sydney contemplating five days of stomach churning sailing through the notorious Southern Ocean with such a ‘jeune’ couple skippering us?

The answer… the draw of Antarctica (arguably the last great region of wilderness on Earth) and our common thread of our love of adventurous travel, especially in mountains. The ‘crew’ was made up of Andrew (49) a successful Manchester businessman who masterminded the project also a veteran of two Patagonia ski adventures; Stephanie (40) his fiancé, a stunt woman who crashes cars for a living; Sheffield engineers Kevin (52) and his fiancé Issie (53) – they got engaged 23 years ago while cycling round the world and are still waiting to tie the know; Lawrence (53), a brain surgeon and his pathologist partner Cath (57), both from Glasgow and keen off piste skiers; Steve (56) from Calgary, our token Canadian and a Himalayan ski veteran and of course, me a person unable to refuse invites of this nature.

Our fears quickly dissolved as it became abundantly clear that despite Antoine and Julie’s combined ages being less than our average age this adventurous French couple had already crammed more into their slender years than many do in a lifetime. Antoine (24) started sailing dinghies aged 12. At 14 he persuaded his parents to send him to “fisherman school” as he calls it. By 16, with his seasons wage packet from scallop fishing, he had purchased his first yacht, an 18 foot ketch. This became his permanent home for the next three years as he notched up the hours and skills to pass his skipper exams. Julie (23) on leaving school became a sailing instructor in France before deciding that was too tame and at 20 signed up as crew for a season in Greenlandic seas. Since then she has crossed the Pacific twice and spent two seasons in Antarctica. Between the two of them they had crossed the Drake Passage twenty four times! As they were to demonstrate repeatedly over the following month, youth is no barrier to talent.

Our adventure started in Ushuaia. This rapidly expanding Argentine port is the world’s most southerly city. It still retains a distinctly frontier feel and is the stepping off point for 99% of all Antarctic tourists. After 24 hours travelling via Paris, Buenos Aires and dropping my bags at our guest house I joined my companions in a coffee bar on the Main Street of Ushuaia. Our excitement was palpable but there were concerns. Andrew and Steph’s Australian sheep dog Sammy had fallen gravely ill forty eight hours before their departure almost scuppering their trip. Packing had been squeezed in between vet visits and as a result they’d left their sporks at home! We trawled Ushuaia’s plentiful and superbly well stocked outdoor shops but to no avail. Sporks have yet to reach the tip of South America. Furthermore Issy and Kevin arrived with horrendous colds and to top it all, I managed to leave my debit card in a cash machine necessitating frustrating late night calls to NatWest!

The Spirit of Sydney was to become our floating ‘holiday home’ for the next 4 weeks. Originally launched to sail solo round the World in the 1986 BOC Challenge Race, this 60-foot exploration vessel, registered in Australia, was built of aluminium in an era when sailing performance was tempered by respect for the ocean. Life on SoS could be best described as cosy and functional. Privacy was limited to say the least. Visits to the heads (which also doubled as a shower) were the only place of sanctuary. Though unfortunately, as the pipework passed by my head in my ‘hobbit hole’ berth, even daily ablutions were rather public. I was amazed how much stuff can be stored in such a small space. Somehow on top of the sailing gear, we squirreled away ten bodies with all their ski, climbing and camping equipment plus four sea kayaks, food and fuel for two months AND not forgetting enormous quantities of beer, wine and spirits. Forty eight hours later, booze was the furthest thing on my mind as time and time again the motion of the high seas sent me retching into the nearest bucket.

Sailing from Ushuaia to Antarctica commences with a journey down the Beagle Channel (so named after Darwin’s vessel from his voyage in 1835) to Puerto Williams in Chile. Here formalities for sailing to Antarctica were completed with the Chilean authorities. We moored alongside a French owned vessel Podorange also carrying a contingent of ski alpinistes. Sailing, like skiing, is a notoriously social sport so we couldn’t resist a pisco sour to settle our stomachs in the cosy Micalvi Yacht Club Bar. Housed in a sunken naval supply vessel, she has settled at such an angle that every person inside tends towards the bar.

Next stop on the journey is Cape Horn and the Drake Passage – the legends surrounding these waters hold a fascination for sailors all over the world. The shores are littered with the wrecks of ships and the mountainous seas, which build up as the waters squeeze between South America and Antarctica, are infamous. Infamous enough that all but the mega foolhardy wait for a suitable “weather window” before setting sail. For us this meant a windy two night stop over at the very remote fishing village of Puerto Torro, enough time for our Chilean fisherman hosts to challenge (and thrash) the Europeans at a 5-aside soccer match in the village hall.

The winds subsided and the call was made, Antarctica here we come! We shouted a challenge to race our French friends there, and into a rolling sea we unfurled the sails.

The following 80 hours was a blur to me. At some point we slid past Cape Horn, thereafter 600 kms at 7-9 knots at temperatures close to freezing was, and felt like, a long way. We were arranged in pairs for 3-hour watches twice a day. Steve and I were given 9am -12am and 9pm – midnight. Being steered by autopilot our ‘watching’ job consisted initially of keeping an eye out for other vessels and later on spotting rogue ice bergs. Occasional activity occurred when sails were put up or reefed, but largely the hours were spent staring blankly across the inky water into not very much. To begin the wind blew a steady 30knots occasionally gusting 40 and from the south west which wasn’t particularly comfortable. All of us felt unwell to varying degrees, though no-one fared badly enough to retreat to their bunk for the voyage. We all agreed a horizontal position was the most comfortable – indeed the worst part was getting from your bunk to the greenhouse cockpit. The combination of motion of the boat and the warmth of the saloon cabin meant a grab for the bucket on more than one occasion. Waiting in Puerto Torro we had lengthy discussions about sea sickness remedies. The Doctors had patches, Andrew and Steph decided one should take drugs the other not and to compare notes, most tried bands on their wrists. By the end of the sea passage, the jury was still out, none of us sure what did or didn’t work and all none the wiser for the journey home.

Day four at sea dawned with great excitement – an iceberg had been spotted! Perhaps this mythical land did exist after all. However our initial enthusiasm soon waned as it became clear the sea ice was an impenetrable barrier to the course we intended to take west of Anvers Island and landfall at Port Lockroy. After many hours and attempts to break through and despite hearing that Podorange had previously broken through, Antoine decided a route further east was our best bet. Depressingly we turned about and for 12 hours drifted gently north east until we were beyond the ice-line and once again able to head south. Though 24 hours were lost, excitement was mounting. We saw our first penguins, snow petrels and finally a sighting of Brabant Island! At last, Antarctica. With calming seas and queasiness soon forgotten it was all hands on deck to witness the spectacle of peaks and glaciers emerging on the horizon.

Our entry route couldn’t have been more impressive. I’ve witnessed many mountain regions around the world yet nothing prepared me for the sheer uniqueness of Antarctica. Not just the 2500 metre peaks rising from the sea, I’d seen that recently in Spring in East Greenland. No, it was more the quantity of ice that covers everything, like a thick layer of icing sugar hundreds of metres thick. At sea level the cliffs almost entirely enshroud the land mass. It was abundantly clear from our first glimpses that just getting onto Antarctica was to be a mission in itself. That though is just the start. Closer inspection showed clearly that the icing sugar cliffs at sea level extend at all levels as bands of hanging seracs. Glancing upwards from the deck of SoS as we sailed into the Gerlache Strait, I couldn’t help feeling that tackling these mountains was not going to be as straightforward as I’d initially hoped.

My initial concerns soon waned though as our stunning arrival only got better the closer in we came. And to top it off, the clouds peeled away for a perfect sunset to welcome us ashore at Port Lockroy. Fittingly Port Lockroy is a British base, built in the 1944 to counter possible German influence in the region. As it is, the Germans never turned up and today it is maintained as a museum by the Antarctic Heritage Trust and best known as Antarctica’s only souvenir shop where it does a roaring trade in penguin related memorabilia at outrageous prices for the cruise ships that make compulsory shopping visits most days of the season.

That perfect sunset was significant as it heralded the arrival of a high pressure system which was to bless us with perfect weather for our entire two week stay. Antarctica is not well known for good weather, in fact usually the opposite, incessant wind and precipitation is more common but sometimes Antarctic anticyclones dominate the weather systems giving clear blue skies and light winds. In time you may just get lucky and this time we certainly did! We moored alongside Podorange, gracefully conceding defeat. Their Skipper, Bryce, had managed to break through the iceline and arrive 12 hours ahead of us. Strangely I felt a unique sense of satisfaction stepping onto my seventh continent. I slept well that night, no doubt dreaming about what surprises the continent may hold for me.

Essentially Antarctica is a continent in the grip of an ice-age, however the Peninsular, where we were, is currently warming at a rate faster than any other part of our planet. It was here in 1984 that scientists from the British Antarctic Survey first discovered the hole in the ozone layer. Linked with the beautiful weather we were experiencing, this affected us in two major ways; sun burn and snow conditions. Constant protection from the sun’s harmful rays was a given yet lips, nostrils and hands all suffered. In the main however, snow conditions for us were outstandingly good. Heavy, late winter snowfalls preceding our arrival meant snow cover was excellent. This meant in general the crevasses were well covered and given that we had good visibility at all times glacial navigation was relatively straightforward. I judged it was safe to travel unroped throughout out trip. However the intense solar radiation for up to 20 hours per day on some aspects meant that snow conditions deteriorated markedly over the fortnight. North facing slopes were transforming so rapidly that towards the end of our stay by midday they were collapsing. Although no natural avalanches were recorded this made for poor skiing on these aspects and I was certain snow bridges were weakening alarmingly.

Our arrival by boat in Antarctica was appropriate for two reasons. Firstly we were following in the footsteps of the earliest explorers (Antarctica was first discovered in 1820), and secondly because small boats are able to easily navigate the narrow channels and countless islands and with their accompanying zodiacs, drop skiers on the rocky shores. We were warned that getting on and off shore could be a time consuming and dangerous part of the trip. In fact as it turned out this was generally not the case for us. More difficult was locating places where we could access the high mountains. From my observation 99% of the coastline is ringed by impenetrable 100 metre plus high ice cliffs. This fact, more than any other, inhibits what mountains can or cannot be easily attempted.

Port Lockroy presents no such problems and for skiers looking for a straightforward introduction to Antarctica Jebel Peak at 550m provides the perfect opportunity. Traversing the southerly approach slope proved quite icy in the morning and benefitted from ski crampons. The actual summit is a short, airy boot crampon. Our two descents gave excellent spring snow and the unique experience of skiing to the ocean’s edge. The sheltered harbour was also a good place to sea kayak though perhaps not a good place to try your first seal launch! Multi-sports enthusiasts would struggle to beat a sea kayak excursion amongst penguins and icebergs in the morning followed by summit-to-sea ski runs in the afternoon, topped off with cold beer on deck as the sun slips over the yardarm…FANTARCTICA!

It was time to adventure further afield and the plan was to attempt peaks in the southern part of Anvers Island. The map marks an “access point” at the southern tip, 20km east of the US base Palmer Station. Fortunately it was free of ice and we were nearly all able to easily disembark with our camping gear for four nights on the island. Nearly all …except Kevin, who suffered an agonising lower back injury as he lifted a pack off the deck. This seemingly innocuous event was to have a big impact on group dynamics over the subsequent days as in one fell swoop it removed one of the most experienced and capable mountaineers in the party. Although he was able to stagger ashore, he very frustratingly could only watch as the rest of us enjoyed ourselves.

Plan ‘B’ swung into operation with a decision to camp by the access point and explore nearby Mt Hindson 825 m, the southernmost peak of the island. This proved a worthwhile objective for the party and over the subsequent three days multiple ascents and descents were made by both its south and north-west flanks, the later from the Dorian Gap at PD+.

On the third day, accompanied by Steve, I made an attempt on Mount William, with no prior information and only a google earth imagery on my iPhone. We crossed the ice shelf, ascended the heavily crevassed north-west face and topped out of the face at 1325metres at a col on the east ridge. We were probably 200metres off the fine looking summit, and I estimated the ridge would go relatively easily (PD+) depending on the stability of the impressive snow mushrooms. This was a fine high alpine ski tour in a superbly remote and committing setting…… highly recommended. The round trip was seven hours. We broke camp along with the rest of the team and rejoined the Spirit of Sydney and a further night in the safe harbour of Port Lockroy.

It was time for new objectives but initially we stuck to the well stated ‘holiday plan’ of having time to commune with the locals (wildlife) and given that the weather wasn’t deteriorating any day soon, we spent a day motoring gently southwards through the dramatic Lemaire, aka Kodak, Channel to the Ukranian base of Verdansky. This base was set up originally by the British, called Faraday and it was here that the hole in the Ozone was discovered and it is where the Ukranians continue to monitor it daily. For the first time on the trip whales were spotted and we spent a very enjoyable hour clapping a pair of Minkies as they surfaced and dived around the boat.

Mooring at Verdansky proved awkward but worth it for the social whirl that ensued. First on board the French yacht Paradise, owned and skippered by Arnaud Boissieres, now in their 7th season in Antarctic waters. This visit had our eyes on stalks, private double berths and a stand up shower… (I got Arnaud’s card!). Later we were warmly welcomed by the Ukranians. Following a short tour of the base we were offered the customary “homemade” vodka and were highly entertained by a magic show. The all male base had clearly been away from home far too long!

Our stated next objective was to be Mount Shackleton which we knew to be accessible via the Wiggins Glacier. The Ukranians indicated a straightforward shore access by the Rasmussen hut, a well kept four berth shed, stocked to the rafters mainly with old BAS ration boxes dated 1979. With camping equipment and two days of rations we used our dry bag pulks for the first time. Though neither heavily laden or extensively tested they were easy to pull and ski with. Some thought needs to be applied to the harness system, a cut off in case of a crevasse fall might be advisable at times. Access onto the Wiggens was straightforward but its scale was overwhelming. I was concerned, some members of our party had neither sufficient experience or the inclination to put themselves six hours inland. Moreover they weren’t going to gain anything from flogging up the glacier when more achievable and enjoyable options were immediately accessible to the south of the Wiggens. I suggested a plan ‘B’ and we set about locating a base camp on the col that separates the Wiggens from the ….. Glacier. A stunning position with sea and mountain views, not sheltered in a blow but with no wind forecast, it was idyllic.

Tents up, we turned our attention to the unnamed peak east of the col via it’s NNW face. We skinned comfortably up approximately 400metres, weaving between well filled crevasses – though one hole necessitated removing skis before climbing easily across. Sadly, 150 metres higher up proceedings ground to a halt as the rimaye, leading out to a col and the only way up and off the face, proved too tricky for the group on account of steep, heavily transformed snow. I managed to get up it after 20 minutes of exhausting post holing and quickly scouted a route on the other side which looked like it would work and returned to the team, pleased with my exploratory efforts. In descent we all enjoyed some fabulous spring snow and entertainment at the crevasse when telemark bindings demonstrated their limitations and first aid skills were required to bandage Lawrence’s bloodied nose! Supper was vegetable soup followed by sweet and sour chicken with rice, washed down with filter coffee while listening to the Radio Four’s Friday night comedy show the News Quiz and watching the sunset. What a great day.

From my explorations of the previous day, (though without certainty as I’d been unable to view the full line) I felt confident it was worth attempting the unnamed peak from its southern flank. Sadly three of the team opted for an easy day, breaking camp and descending to Rasmussen leaving Andrew, Steph and me to climb the peak. It proved to be a totally fulfilling ski tour, one of my best days on skis ever. The line up the 750 metre glaciated south face weaved aesthetically round enormous but non threatening crevasses, by passing my high point of yesterday before reaching a small col. Whilst the others cramponed the last 200 metres from here I was able to skin to the summit. Whether or not this was a first ascent I don’t know but whatever I felt compelled to dedicate my ascent to my lost friends, Rupert, Rémy and Roger. I called it Point Norr 1082m, and will discuss the name verification with Phil Wickens in Ushuaia.

Inexplicably my trusty Lumix camera, which lived round my neck most of the time, chose this moment to simply disappear. I searched my pack a few times to no avail and became convinced it had either slipped down the mountain when my back was turned(?) or I’d left it at our lunch spot. Its apparent loss dulled an otherwise superb powder descent, in fact the best of the trip. However just as I was considering the insurance implications it turned up in my pack… Ha! Fortunately we got some summit shots on Andrew’s camera. We retraced our skin, though in hindsight one could probably link up the west ridge/NW face route of the previous day. This would give a fantastic round trip, which incidentally could be done comfortably as a full day trip 8-10 hours from Rasmussen. We decamped and skied back to Rasmussen, picking out the tracks of our friends who had skied the un-named peak NE of Rasmussen.

It was time now to start heading North and our chosen destination was Paradise Harbour, 4 hours motoring, with almost no wind, the sails staying furled. A wonderful surprise awaited us en route – for an hour we become the focus of attention for a large pod, maybe 30, of Minkie whales. I will never forget the sight of these enormous creatures swimming just feet from the deck. Unbelievably my GoPro camera battery had died! Paradise Harbour was aptly named by whalers in the 19th century, hardened souls not known for their eloquent place names but even they recognised the outstanding scenic perfection of this natural harbour in a land full of scenic wonders. Mooring for us though was an issue. Julie and Antoine struggled into the early hours to secure us, and I have to admit to leaving them to it well before then as tiredness overcame me after such an outstanding day. When it comes to my life review, I’ll be surprised if this day doesn’t make the + top 10 (despite camera deficits).

The following morning was bright again and we hatched a plan to ski a couple of the small peaks surrounding the harbour. Steve and I selected Mount Banck, which we knew has a popular 700 metre tour on its South face. The others, including Kevin, whose back was still very poor, were heading up to the summit of Bruce. First I went out sea kayaking on my own for an hour. It was stunning out there amongst the ice, flanked on all sides by mountains and more ice cliffs. I felt at one with the wilderness if slightly vulnerable out there alone. Antoine certainly thought so as he was particularly pissed off I’d gone without a radio. I quickly changed into my ski kit and Steve and I were dropped off at the foot of Banck. It was 11.30am and for the first time on this trip I was concerned about the snow conditions. The daily transformation was taking place incredibly fast, descending steep slopes could be more interesting than we’d enjoy….important to keep moving.

From the descriptions I’d read I was confident that other parties ascended the south face direct to the summit but the snow above the rimaye looked totally unconsolidated and given my experience on Norr two days earlier I eyed up the East ridge as a better bet. Sure enough other than a few airy, steep kick turns that Steve distinctly disliked, and a careful line to avoid the cornices over the NE flank, both up and down was easy going. I radioed Antoine from the summit and he asked me to try to make a pick up on the west side. So at high speed we rode the corn, avoiding crevasses and steep slopes. A two and half hour round trip, perfect day so far, skis on sea-to-summit-to-sea. Our friends enjoyed their time on Bruce Island and Kevin also successfully summitted.

Julie and Antoine had selected Cuverville Island as our next anchorage but too much ice and the previous nights exertions put them off and we motored onto Enterprise Island. Safe anchorages in the Northern and Eastern part of the Peninsular are few and far between. In total we motored 8 hours from Bruce Island to Enterprise, but at 7mph that’s only 50miles and we were distracted by more Minkies and Crabeater seals. We moored alongside the rusting wreck of a 19th century Norwegian whaling boat, the Governor. On 14 January 1913 she was scuttled with 86 men onboard, following a devastating fire, it probably wasn’t Greenpeace in action, but she had already killed 890 whales that season… quite an eerie feeling. We spent our last two full days in Antarctica here and everyone was definitely winding down. For the first time clouds filled the sky and outdoor activities shifted to sea kayaking for the more intrepid which also doubled as a recce for a way up onto Nansen Island.

Nansen is not a big island and has a ridgeback mountain running down its centre. For our last ski outing in Antarctica we were dropped off by zodiac beneath a snow ramp, which whilst imposing, was actually an easy angle however the frozen two inch crust with rotten snow beneath required mastering a delicate crawling technique. Although the weather wasn’t bad, the light was a little flat so the first time I elected to lead with a rope on. We made a very gentle rising traverse up the east flank of the mountain reaching a small top on the ridge line at 407m. Access to the main summit looked possible by following the East ridge, it looked like a fine outing of approx 500m distance probably at about alpine AD+/D across a heavily corniced ridge with at least one steep pitch on snow between rocks… one for another day. We descended our ascent route using our GPS or in my case, my fantastic ViewRanger ap on my iPhone, for the first ‘real’ time to pinpoint the exit slope.

The time came to make the Spirit of Sydney ready for the return journey across the Drake Passage. Kayaks were strapped down, skis stowed in their bags in the stern, everything loose put away. As it turned out, this was all rather unnecessary, at least the first two days, as we motored across Drake Lake. The wind did pick up a little beyond the Antarctic convergence but nothing like on our outward passage, though still enough for me to make a grab for the bucket, or was it the diesel in the sandwich I ate!

Time seems to stop still crossing the Drake. One hundred hours of reading, sleeping and not very much else with only one’s ‘watch’ to break things up. Steve and I were expecting a middle of the night watch but we drew cards and ended up with plum slot 6 o’clock to 9 o’clock both morning and night! Puerto Williams was reached shortly after 1300 on our 5th day though rather frustratingly we had to wait for a ‘lost’ whale to exit the anchorage and more annoyingly a French boat to leave before we could walk on firm land once more. Chilean formalities dealt with, I just had time to locate an excellent new museum and free Internet before our final sail up the Beagle to Ushuaia. Surprisingly I had a moment or two staring at the keyboard, thinking how refreshing it had been not having email, Skype, google etc running my life for a month. Back to the real world? No we left that in Antarctica…

Antoine, smile still there as always, expertly maneuvered the Spirit of Sydney alongside Podorange. Julie, gloved hands, jumped gazelle like across the decks securing our lines… our skippers never stopped. Thanks to this young couple my Southern Ocean ‘comfort zone’ is considerably wider than it was.