Friday, November 27, 2009

Buenos Aires and Uruguay

After returning from the antarctic I had some time to travel around Buenos Aires and the coast of Uruguay. Big city, cheap, great food in BA and some wild sand dune towns to the east in Uruguay. I was able to meet some great people along the way that felt sorry for my terrible spanish. Ha! well more or less.. the pictures tell most of the story.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Skiing with Penguins, Antarctica

When in the mountains it is easy to let the fast pace world pass by, one day blends to the next and personal priorities become very simple. Snow covered mountains see no effect from wars on the other side of the world or even with domestic or personal issues for that matter. It doesn’t matter what day of the week it is, Mother Nature has no agenda.

I was excited to go to Antarctica for I knew it was a place that I may have not been able to easily reach otherwise in my lifetime. It was an amazing opportunity to go and I was excited about going skiing in a new place that was as far away as you can get from most anywhere else on the planet. I wasn’t however going there because I expected great skiing and this fact was a tricky one for me. Lying on the beach in Western Samoa on a short reprieve from a particularly dreary then dry late season in New Zealand, at the conclusion of my eighth back to back season between hemispheres, the idea of travelling for several days to a relative alpine wasteland left me with some mental issues. It seemed like I might be punishing myself….again!
Five days after leaving Samoa I was on skis again, for the first time in South America, skiing powder in Tierra del Fuego. The terrain, the snow, the immediate company and the local culture all combined were about as much as I could process and I began to have a really good feeling for what was to come.
Growing up on the coast has left me with an affinity for the water. Seemingly limitless and all consuming we can enjoy the oceans just as we can enjoy the mountains, under specific terms. We were going skiing in the mountains in a far removed ocean off of a boat, a ship for that matter, but it might as well have been just a boat for how unique and potentially precarious what we were doing really was.
Late in the evening and underway as the final glimpses of sunlight faded past the horizon the boat began to roll as we faced the open ocean, south of the final guarding pieces of South America. Sixty hours after departure, some passengers still writhing with seasickness, we caught our first glimpses of the white continent. It was exactly what I planned on seeing: steep, broken and white mountain sides rolling into the horizon with ice everywhere, a land devoid of most everything. I began to realize that it was theses obvious facts about Antarctica make it such an incredible place.
Perhaps the greatest difficulty of skiing from a boat in Antarctica is actually getting ashore. Being that the continent is primarily covered with glacial ice cap, ice headwalls of varying height line the shoreline. Many of the areas which provide some sort of reasonable access onto the ice cap were also noted by native wildlife. Consequently we had to jockey for space among the thousands of penguins which decided to make some of these landings their rookeries. Not incredibly afraid of humans Gentu and Chinstrap penguins would approach us and walk casually past us for whatever their purpose. Many of these same landings which the penguins were so fond of have also been used as locations for remote bases, some more elaborate than others, from countries around the world.
The Antarctic Peninsula juts out to the north into the brunt of the furious Southern Ocean. Weather conditions are normally poor with high winds, limited visibility and rain and snow occurring in a near perpetual manor. Hours of direct annual sunshine are measured in hours. As far as the weather goes, for whatever reason the cards were on our side. Of the week we had in Antarctic waters the majority of every day was spent in sunshine, with calm winds. We even had a shot of a few inches of new snow overnight after our second day skiing.
We started on the Northern portion of the peninsula and travelled south down the Gurlache straight and into the Lamar channel where the impressive Mt. Francois falls precipitously for over 9000 feet into the water. The terrain on the peninsula is a ski mountaineer’s heaven. Steep rock, ice and snow faces rise on all sides of the horizon with no features to reference size except more snow, rock and ice. Straight from sea level you are in the alpine, there are few approaches to terrain as that is what the boat is used for. It was sort of like a hut to hut ski tour except the boat was doing all the work shuttling supplies and overnight gear.
Under bright blue, calm skies we landed on Wiencke Island to start a day of touring. There was a wide variety of terrain and on a far corner of the earth life seemed pretty limitless. Over 600 miles from advanced medical care the best treatment for an injury was to not have one at all, but part way into the day one skier did. A lower leg injury was enough cause for an evacuation. Eighteen hours later under fair skies a Brazilian aircraft aided in the transport effort from a rendezvous point in the South Shetland Island, 200 miles north of the accident site.
Antarctica patiently waits at the end of the earth is without bias. It is a land without a parent governing it as no country possesses it. No towns exist for children to learn the unique politics which drive the course of the modern world. There is no industry for people to make money off of here but only a reserve for research. It doesn’t matter what day of the week it is in Antarctica, it doesn’t even matter what year it is, nor does it matter what religion you are or the religion of your neighbor. It is a virgin landscape seen like nowhere else on earth and a reprieve from the rest of the world.
We steered toward Livingston Island, a nearby island in the South Shetlands for some more skiing. As we entered the flat calm bay on the east side of the island, we quickly became surrounded with alps, covered with new snow and glistening under bright blue skies in fading afternoon light. No one was around other than us. I can honestly say that I have never been as jaw dropped as I was when I came onto the top deck for a look at where we were. As a skier, it was heaven. The following day we climbed several objectives and skied powder.
The journey to and isolation of Antarctica was much of my experience there. With no planes jet-setting the skies above it is a removed land like no other. Just as negative space in a paining outlines the emphasis of the positive; Antarctica is a haven which allows all humans a place to reflect on the rest of the world without actually leaving it. And yes there is good skiing there too.