On November 23, 2009, ten of us—skiers, filmmakers, writers, photographers, and sailors—set off from Ushuaia, Argentina on a journey to ski the Antarctic Peninsula. Follow along on our journey through Chris Davenport’s journal entries from the boat, originally posted on www.chrisdavenport.com. Images are frame grabs from the movie.
Finally, after 8 months of planning, we are stepping off dry land and onto the Australis for what looks to be a three and half day crossing of the Drake Passage en route to our ski zone on the Antarctic Peninsula. This trip was born from my amazement at the potential I saw last season on my first trip to the Peninsula. Could this be one of the worlds last great unskied and unexplored zones? While there certainly has been ski trips here in the past, they have been few and far between and have figuratively only touched the "tip of the iceberg," so our goal is to seek out the most stunning first descents we can.
The Drake Passage - 11/25/2009
Port Lockroy: Wiencke Island :: Ski Day 1 - 11/30/2009
Today was as good a first day on the Peninsula as we could have asked for. After yesterday’s stormy weather and new snow the dawn broke calm and high overcast. The team was off the Australis at 9:00 a.m. headed for the Harbour Glacier, a floating glacier that connects the Wall Range of steep peaks to Jabet and Needle Peak. Having already skied Jabet last year, I was keen to explore some options on the south and east sides of the mountain. As we toured up the glacier, as steep and direct couloir came into view: 400 meters of climbing that would take us within meters of the summit. We spent the next two hours in nice light shooting climbing and stretching our legs up the vertical egress in the mountain wall. Near the top of the climb the angle pitched up over 60 degrees and the climbing became really difficult. We had set out in the morning hoping for an easy warm-up day, but quickly found ourselves in “the business.” Since none of us had brought double axes, we sent the Viking slayer- Stian Hagen up on lead to fix an anchor on top of the ridge. Stian climbed with confidence… that is to say until his crampon fell off. Stian calmly replaced the lost points, continued up over the lip, and buried a picket on the ridge. The rest of us jugged the last 30feet of the couloir as the sugary snow began to collapse.
Once Jim and Doug were in position on the glacier, and GVD and Scott were in position on the face, it was time to ski. For the first run of the trip in Antarctica we were close to in over our heads. The pitch was 52-54 degrees and the snow variable. We dropped in one by one and actually found some mid-boot powder for 2/3 of the line. For me it was an intense run and a real leg-burner, but also very rewarding to have it in the bag. After Stian and Andrea skied the line, Rob Story, GVD, and Simper made their way down the face, across ‘schrund, and out onto the glacier.
Spirits are very high after an exciting and productive first ski day of the trip. Tomorrow we are going to sail south down through the famous Lemaire Channel (Kodak Alley) to our next ski zone, which includes Mt. Demaria, Mt. Shackleton, Mt. Scott, and perhaps some climbing on the Duseburg Buttress.
Port Lockroy to Waddington Bay - 12/1/2009
Yesterday we had a bit of a leisurely morning as we prepared for the sail south towards some of our principle ski objectives. By nine a.m. we had weighed anchor and were cruising through the Peltier Channel in calm waters and under crystal blue skies. In the distance the notch that makes up the Lemaire Channel beckoned. The Lemaire is also known as “Kodak Alley” and is one of the main objectives of the cruise ships that come to the Antarctic Peninsula. Geographically the channel splits Booth Island with the mainland, forming a deep gorge through which the icy sea passes. From a climbers and skiers point of view it’s a jaw-dropping experience, as everywhere you look amazing rock buttresses and ski lines promise challenge and perhaps glory. One of the highlights of the trip so far was an Orca surfacing right next to the boat and cruising past us, silently plying the waters for food.
After passing the Lemaire we were in more open waters of the Penola Straight, an area full of large, blue icebergs. Past us went Mt. Scott, the Duseburg Buttress, Mt. Shackleton and Mt. Mill. In the distance we could see Mt. Demaria, our objective for the day. After an hour more we were on the slopes of Demaria but at this point it was noon already and the north facing line was getting cooked. Stian, Andrea, and I skinned up a hundred feet or so before determining that the snow was to warm and maybe even unsafe. We called the film crew on the boat and told them to stand down, that we were coming back to the boat. We spent a bit of time discussing option and settled on a south-facing slope on the shoulder of Mt. Mill for some steep skiing and film shots. We spent a couple hours working some really nice steep corn turns above the stunning Waddington Bay. That evening we cruised over the Argentine Islands and the Ukrainian science base Varnadsky. Rob Story, our writer, joined Doug Workman and First Mate Skye at the bar at Vernadsky for some home brewed vodka and hospitality. We all went to bed planning on an early morning mission to Mt. Demaria. Stepping off the Australis next to amazing icebergs... normal fare down here.
This morning (Saturday) I was up at 5:50 checking the weather. Things were a little cloudy but seemed to be trending towards clear so we rallied skipper Ben and headed back down to Waddington Bay and the days objective. Mt. Demaria rises about 2000’ straight out of the sea and has a classic ski ramp on its north face. We hit the shore at 9:00 a.m. and made quick progress up the slope, skinning at first and then switching to crampons when the snow got firm. Two hours later the team was on the summit and setting up various film shots with the ocean framing the views to one side and enormous glacier shrouded peaks framing the other. One of our cameraman Scott Simper posted up out on an island adjacent to the peak for the straight on angle with our big HD cam. As many of you can appreciate, timing in the mountains is everything… too early and the snow is firm, to late and it’s sloppy. Our timing today was perfect, and Stian, Andrea, and I all skied Demaria top to bottom together, laughing along the way and enjoying every minute of it. It’s 10:00 at night right now and we are anchored just south of the Lemaire channel at Hoovgard Island. Tomorrow we hope to summit Mt. Mill. Stay tuned…
Mt. Mill Ski Descent :: Ski Day 4 - 12/3/2009
I’m going to keep this one short as we are gearing up to try and climb Mt. Scott, our biggest objective yet of the trip. The weather continues to be amazing and yesterday we spent a full 8 hours under the solar oven climbing and skiing Mt. Mill. Mill is one of the principal summits on the Danco Coast, weighing in at 9,695 ft. and named after Sir James Mills, who apparently helped tow the expeditions' ship to the peninsula in 1908. I had been eying this line since we were at the Argentine Islands last year. The overwhelming views, 5 star corn snow, and breaching whales in the bay as we descended conspired to overload our scenic senses, and I must say I’m at a loss for words to describe to depth of the beauty that surrounds us here. It truly is the most unique place in the world.
Duseburg Buttress Ski Descent - 12/4/2009
Today was another amazing day in paradise. This place continues to blow our minds with sheer stunning beauty. If you were to combine all of the most scenic places you’ve ever been into one the Antarctic Peninsula has to be it. We have been harvesting the bounty of peaks on the Danco Coast south of the Lamaire Channel, taking advantage of the perfect weather and warm temps.
Yesterday we tried to climb and ski Mt. Scott, but after three hours of climbing and skinning, and only 200 meters from the summit, we got stuck in a cloud. The cloud decided to park itself for the rest of the day, so after a two-hour wait that felt like scuba diving in a bowl of milk we decided to ski down. Skiing in a whiteout is never easy, especially on a glacier ringed with deep cracks. But we made it down to better visibility and worked some film shots on the lower glacier.
Today was perfect. I was up at 6:30 and got the crew moving with many cups of coffee. Blue skies and zero wind greeted us on the decks of the Australis, where tons of ski gear and camera gear were sorted and packed. Stian, Andrea, and I hit the shore at 9:30 and began the steep climb up the south ridge of the Duseburg Buttress. This peak is the last major peak on the coast south of the Lemaire Channel before the huge ice shelf that comes off both sides of Mt. Shackleton. After an hour and a half we hit the summit ridge, with Jim and GVD shooting from across the channel while Scotty and Doug worked their way up about a half hour behind us.
We were hoping things would soften up on the face, and waited two hours on the summit for that to happen. But some afternoon clouds threatened to ruin the visibility and shooting so we decided to give it a go, even though 55 degrees of firm neve is a little disconcerting.
When we got back to the boat we found out we had just missed witnessing a Leopard Seal annihilating a Gentoo Penguin in front of the boat. Fortunately for our wildlife segi the boys with the cameras were poised and ready. Tomorrow we are going to try for Mt. Scott again. The forecast looks good for the next few days.
Mt. Shackleton Descent Attempted - 12/8/2009
A lot has gone on in the last few days and it’s been too busy to get on the computer to write. After our successful descent on Duseberg Buttress on the 3rd we packed our expedition gear and did a long glacier approach to Mt. Shackleton on the 5th. Mt. Shackleton is one of the largest and most prominent peaks on the Peninsula and has no recorded ski descent. The mountain lies pretty deep in from the coast and we needed 5 hours just to get to a base camp. The line itself we were looking at is an abrupt 3000’ ft. tall ridge that is really direct and has plenty of sportiness- that is to say seracs, crevasses and route finding. The weather played games with us all day and through that night, while we slept in our Black Diamond Bombshelter tents hoping for an early morning clearing.
Unfortunately it was not to be. We stuck it out in the tents and on the glacier until 5 p.m. the next evening, and then pulled the plug, making the long descent back to the coast, disappointed, but knowing that we had made the right call. We are not taking any unnecessary risks on this trip. We need to keep conservative because a rescue is almost impossible and any injury can become a big deal fast down here.
First Descent on Mt. Scott: "Skye Couloir" - 12/9/2009
So after a week at Peterman Island we decided to make a move north towards the Arctowsky Peninsula, a zone that includes Paradise Harbour, Ronge Island, and Anvord Bay. But before we could set sail we had one more unfinished piece of business, a huge couloir descending from a ridge on Mt. Scott directly to the sea south of the Lemaire Channel. This sweet looking line was begging to be skied and we spent 5 hours climbing and skiing her beautiful slopes. The film crew worked especially hard with all the angles and setups.
For me the climbing is always one of the more enjoyable parts of ski alpinism- putting one foot in front of the other and working your way up a line. I love the physical aspect of it all, revving up your engine and settling into a pace, much like on the bike. Stian, Andrea and I climbed efficiently up the couloir, even when things got into the mid 50-degree range up top. When we reached the top of the couloir, a steep and crenelated snow arête, we made and anchor and clipped in the rope, because trying to remove your crampons, take your skis off your pack and put them on your feet, and stash your ice tools without dropping something or falling would have been almost impossible without it.
After a short 15-meter rappel through a steep and icy choke we were in the zone and ready to ski. Jim ran the big HD cam from the Australis, which lay silently out in the bay in flat water, drifting towards the Lamaire surrounded by icebergs. Scottie, GVD, and Doug were set up in the couloir itself. We made a fun descent, even if it was a little steep and sketchy at the top.
With that descent in the bag group got together over beers in the spacious salon on Australis and decided to name the couloir the “Skye Couloir” after our amazing First Mate- Skye Marr-Whalen, who has cooked the most amazing meals during the trip for us and generally worked her butt off to make things run smooth on the yacht. So thanks Skye, your rock!
Right now I’m writing this from an anchorage in Paradise Harbour. We ran into a beautiful square-rigger called “Europa” last night. This schooner is almost 100 years old and had a crew on-board from Holland and Denmark. A beautiful ship to be sure.
Dream Line & A Close Call on the Antarctic Sphinx - 12/9/2009
The team departed from Paradise Harbour after Stian and I did a quick Zodiac cruise and determined there weren’t really any great ski or film objectives nearby. Our destination was Anvors Bay and the north side of Ronge Island, a zone I had scoped out last season. As we approached the passage between Ronge and the mainland, a steep face began to reveal herself, and excitement on deck mounted. The closer we got the sicker it looked. Everyone’s heart was racing as we made plans to climb, ski, and film the coolest looking line we have seen in Antarctica so far. We called it the Antarctic Sphinx after a similar looking and equally impressive peak in the Chugach Mountains of AK.
We jumped in the zodiacs, regrouped on shore, and the skiers climbed a steep pitch of crappy sugar snow to reach the base of the route. The film team chose to ascend a different part of the shelf and wallowed in steep sugar before guide Doug Workman fixed a rope for them on top of the critical section. GVD and Scottie were shooting the barbi angle from the boat. Stian, Andrea, and I made good time up the lower half of the face… but it was hot. The sun was coming around on this south facing aspect, and things were heating up. At one rest I actually had to take my shirt off to cool down and dry off!
As we climbed higher the mountain began to speak to us more directly. Small rocks began whizzing down the face, just here and there at first, and then more frequently. Stian elected to bolt across the fall line and up above a rock outcrop, and red-lined it over there while Andrea and I spotted him. By the time he reached a safe spot, which as he found out wasn’t a safe spot, grapefruit-sized blocks were zipping down the face and we collectively realized it was time to get the hell out of this firing range. I really felt as if the mountain was communicating with us as, it was saying, “get off and get off now, or the rocks will get bigger and more frequent!” So we obliged. Ripped off crampons, stowed tools, and stepped into bindings. As the cameras rolled we skied the bottom half of the face in perfect, five-star corn snow. Stian ripped 800’ in exactly 5 turns! Amazing skiing, the best turns of the trip!
We spent last night back at Paradise Harbour. I am busy working on the foundation for a new clothing line with Spyder: a dedicated backcountry skiwear line. Having the crew around me that I do here is a huge asset, these guys live and breath mountains, snow, rock, and steeps. I’m making lots of progress and am super fired up about this opportunity.
Final Antarctica Update - 12/18/2009
Spirits are very high on Australis and there was a concerted effort to “lighten” the boat last night by drinking all the beer and wine on board… an unsucessful mission since the boat is outfitted for a few months of such activities. This trip has been an amazing adventure, meeting or exceeding my expectations on every level. The feature film we are producing about this trip will be out in the fall of 2010, but I’ll have bits of it up on the site, as Jim Surette and I supervise the editing and post-production process.
Right now we are tied up to a sunken whaling ship at Enterprise Island and our photographer GVD claims he is going to finally dawn his dry suit and dive the wreck today. We'll see about that.
A DAVENPORT MOUNTAINSPORT & GRANITE FILMS PRODUCTION
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