Discovering Antarctica

icebergs in Antarctica on a Quark Expedition cruise
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It may seem insane, but the first time I put on a pair of skis was on the continent of Antarctica.

I will never forget the feeling of landing on the rocky shore of Dee Island, taking in the untouched white powder laid out before our small group of ten, strapping onto my skis and immediately losing my balance, only to end up inches from the cliff line and immediately face planting into the afore mentioned white powder. I was off to a complicated start, to say the least. My only saving grace was there was someone on this shore excursion that was somehow even more inept than myself in skis. God bless that poor soul.

But let’s back up and talk about how I got here.

Last November, I was given the opportunity by Quark Expeditions to sail with them on the Ocean Endeavour from Ushuaia, Argentina to what many consider to be the last frontier of continental exploration: Antarctica. My husband and I had long dreamed of visiting all seven continents together, all before turning 30, so when the opportunity came to cross the Drake Passage into what is still largely unknown waters, we jumped at the chance. A big reason we decided to travel in November was that this is the perfect time of year for all kinds of activities in Antarctica. Like many cruise lines, Quark Expeditions offers several options for more adventurous shore excursions including camping, mountaineering, snowshoeing, kayaking and, yes, of course, cross country skiing.

Prior to departure I asked as many people as I could find who had been to Antarctica what the best activity would be in such a place, and the resounding answer was: anything where you can go on land and explore the landscape by foot. And exploring by foot sounded wonderful to me! I love to hike and I couldn’t imagine how much we could see from the peaks of mountains or shore lines in such a mysterious place. Where you lost me was when my husband decided that we should attach our perfectly good feet to a set of skis. To me skiing was the fast track to a torn knee (at the least) or the quickest way to get off the continent in an evac helicopter, at the worst.

Our fearless group leader Pete, was an eager Kiwi who summited Everest just three years ago. Suffice it to say he was fearless as we ebbed and flowed up and down the mountains, while I spent most of the three hours ski bargaining with a higher power to spare my life and not punish me for my naiveté.

After pulling myself up out of the snow, and learning that somehow going up a hill was in fact easier than going down, our group took off over the rolling hills of Dee Island, which is just off the coast of the main continent of Antarctica. That first day was a steep learning curve, literally. Every time I took a turn or negotiated anything beyond a straight line, I was back in the snow. That day the ski lasted only two short hours, and when I wasn’t getting up and down, in and out of a snow bank, the beauty of this untouched continent captivated me. It struck me as we looked onto the bays dotted with whales surrounding the island, that we were among such a small percentage of people on earth who would ever lay eyes on this place. My obsession with the unknown and explorer spirit has always called me to Antarctica, and it was truly love at first sight.

We wrapped up our ski that day and I felt great having accomplished something I never thought possible. I had skied on the 7th continent! I was ready to simultaneously celebrate and weep from joy that I had made it out unharmed and full of new images forever etched in my mind. A bucket list item I didn’t know I had was complete! However, my joy was short lived as I learned on the zodiac ride back to the ship, that we would be skiing the next two days and that today was the easy version. Of course, all shore excursions are optional and I could have dropped out there and then, but I knew I would never forgive myself if I sat on the warm ship while others explored, so it was back in the skis I went!

Fortunately, the next day we came upon many Orca whales while sailing, and our savvy Quark expedition leader cancelled all shore excursions for the afternoon so that we could observe these magnificent creatures. Never did I imagine seeing a killer whale not two feet from the ship, but that is exactly what happened.

On the 7th and last exploration day in Antarctica, before we made our way back through the Drake Passage, our group leader announced that we would be going out for one last ski near Deception island.

As we pulled in, the mountain peaks poked out from the clouds and I did my best not to let my fear of heights, the cold, and going too fast down a steep hill take over my otherwise unparalleled joy.

Thankfully, the gods of the mountains were with me and as I put my skis on that day, I instantly felt like I had done this before. We made our way around the island, up the 

maintains, through the valleys and around to a beach where we picked up a chinstrap penguin friend. Penguins are naturally curious and this particular penguin seemed a bit lonely. He joined us for our ski up the last hill and alternated between a perfect waddle and a belly slide.

When people ask me my favorite thing about Antarctica, I talk about this moment. My husband and I skiing side by side with the vast colors of only blue, black and white before us, with a tiny adorable penguin by our side. The feeling of being this imbedded in nature, as far away from our normal lives as we could ever be is something that changes you. It makes the world seem so vast and wonderful and infinite, that no picture or anecdote could harness it.

People laugh when I tell them I learned to ski in Antarctica where no gondolas exist and ski school is a Kiwi guide telling you to keep your head up on the down hills, but it’s true that on the stretch of ice and snow at the end of the earth, I feel in love with a sport I had never tried in a place I am forever grateful to have seen.

Rebekah Doran