Bill Barker: on skiing with penguins and leopard seals in Antarctica

From ski patrol director to northern hemisphere back country guide, to one of the most photographed skiers in the country, Bill Barker is undoubtedly one of Australia’s most respected and recognisable skiers.

In the Australian summer, Bill runs big mountain adventures to Kashmir on the border of India and Pakistan, and – amazingly – the northern tip of Antarctica. Yep. Skiing in Antarctica is actually a thing!

While we’d heard of Kashmir, we were astonished to learn that you can actually do guided ski and snowboard tours in the great southern land; something Bill has been doing now for three years.

BillBarker
Bill (pictured right) in his element

As soon as we heard, we just had to find out more. When we caught up with Bill, he was nestling back into life in his home on the South Coast of NSW, where he was busy preparing to return to Mt Hotham, his winter home for the past 30 winters, 10 of which as head ski patroller.

We started by asking Bill about the inspiration for his Antarctic trips:

SRA: Bill, we saw the images from your recent trip in your newsletter. It looks spectacular. How did the trips first come about and how do you get there?

I heard about the trips through a couple of guides I work with in Gulmarg (in Kashmir); both had been doing the trip for several years. Needless to say I was impressed and surprised, when I heard about the ease of logistics and the favourable weather down there – I was expecting lots of down days and extreme conditions, but I was wrong; the place is very accessible; the skiing ranges from easy to more difficult and the scenery and experience, is well, just breathtaking…and I’m not just saying that – it truly is.

SRA Editors comment: we agree, check out some of the images below.

Doug King George Is

Ocean Adventurer

Antarctic reflection

Bill continues: To get there, we partner with an experienced company that every year charters a specialist cruise ship. The ship is an ocean going ice-breaker that specialises in Arctic and Antarctic adventure tours. The one we do is snow sports specific and it accommodates about 70 riders and 20 guides, making for a very favourable skier to guide ratio.

The real inspiration I guess was Antarctica itself; it is truly a spectacular environment which offers way more than just skiing or boarding alone. The charter company employs biologists, who are great at explaining the behaviour and biology of the local wild life from penguins, to leopard seals to orcas (killer whales). So the trip is as educational as it is exhilarating, which is a bonus for the guests.

Kev and Chin Strips

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SRA: Obviously it’s pretty remote down there. How do you get there and how long does it take?

The charter ship leaves from the southern tip of Argentina and the commute to the first skiing destination takes about a day and a half. The voyage transects a line through the Suth Shetland Islands to the Antarctic peninsula, a strip of land jutting out from the Antarctic continent. Unlike the Antarctic continent proper, the area is an extension of the Andes mountains, so it’s quite mountainous; with some peaks reaching 3,000 meters! Most of Antarctic continent is flat and dry (editors note: Antarctica is actually the driest continent on the planet) but the peninsula’s position and topography means it gets a lot of precipitation, most in the form of snow. It’s also relative warm (5 to -5 degrees C), because the temperature is moderated by the surrounding oceans – so it’s quite different to the middle of Antarctica. We encourage guests to climb some of the easier peaks and look back over the ship – the views are just amazing.

sth shetland

Such an extreme environment must demand very strong riding skills. What kind of rider is the trip suited to? Advanced to expert?

No, not at all. I also run trip to Gulmarg in the Kashmiri mountains on the borders of India and Pakistan, and compared to Gulmarg, the terrain is quite moderate. I was actually surprised how accessible it was for most skiers. Much of the terrain is “shades of blue”, and very suitable for skiers of intermediate ability. Otherwise, there is a range of terrain from gentle slopes on the lower parts of the mountains, to steeper couloirs for the more adventurous (but only if the conditions are right) – but mostly ‘blue’ to ‘dark blue’ in difficulty.

There is actually a huge amount of flexibility. With 70 skiers and 20 guides, there’s a lot of scope to match people of similar riding ability and make sure they feel comfortable. There are heaps of skiing options, so we can easily cater for differing abilities and fitness levels.

Stephan ski track

Blue iceberg cave

What about touring skis and equipment?

Most people bring their own gear, but I also have also have a bunch of gear for hire: ice axes, touring skis and harnesses. It’s easy enough to pick up and guests usually learn the touring stuff out there. If it works out I also offer a bit of training in the Australian resorts before we go, or if not there are also a couple of ski hills out the back of the port town in Argentina. We always spend a couple of days at those resorts anyway, so training is part of journey and people are wrapped because they get to ski not only Antarctica, but Argentina too – so two continents in the one trip.

SRA: What does an average day look like?

The trip is very flexible. In total, we get about 7 full days on the snow. But it feels longer than that because at that time of year the days are getting longer. It gets light about 4 am and dark about 10 pm, so there’s plenty of daylight. Having a ship allows us to cruise around and find the best weather at the time based on weather forecast. With all the Islands and bays, the options are endless.

Bill King George Is

Zodiak cruise
Marine Biologists give you the low down on Antarctica’s biology

While we get our fair share of powder days, we otherwise go looking for good corn snow. At that time of year you get freeze and melt conditions, so the conditions are very forgiving. Any later in the season, it gets too warm and the snow turns ‘rotten’. So, the timing is carefully orchestrated.

We typically ski two destinations each day. We do a morning session and then head back too the ship for a big lunch. Then the ship ‘ups’ anchor, and moves to another bay or island for the afternoon. We do multiple destinations each day but guests have a choice; they can either go hard or take a wildlife tour. Guests can go snow shoeing, sea kayaking, or take a zodiac to the penguin colonies. There’s also plenty of other wildlife around including leopard seals, and whales including orcas, humpbacks and fin whales.

Loading zodiac

SRA: What about the weather. Such an extreme environment must experience lots of down days due to unfavourable weather?

The weather is consistently good. We go in the 1st few weeks of November. Any earlier and you can’t access the area because of the ice pack. We are the first trip down each season, and we get the best of the conditions. Later in season, with the snow so close to shore it doesn’t freeze at night and becomes rotten.

I was actually surprised by the weather. In the 3 yrs we’ve been going, so about 20 days of skiing, we’ve only had one down day due to weather. Actually, even before I started going, the rest of the crew have now done about 10 years, and in that time have only lost one day. There is weather, don’t get me wrong, but the advantage we have is the islands and bays allows us to pick and choose where we go, so we can nearly always find shelter.

Enterprise powder

Natasha King George

SRA: You must have had some incredible interactions with wild life. Have you had any David Attenborough moments of note?

If I had to pick one it would be from the trip just gone. We’d had an amazing powder day and on our way back, as we approached a small penguin colony, the water just off the shore started to turn white; it was like rapids as hundreds if not thousands of penguins started barreling out of the water – like torpedoes. They’d been out at sea and were arriving for the first time that season to begin mating. They were popping out of the waters just meters away from where we were standing, 1000’s of penguins. It was a David Attenborough moment for sure.

You can also get pretty close to the animals. They’ve rarely if even seen humans so they have no fear, and some come right up to you. There are also the whales, orcas, humpbacks and fin whales at that time of year. But the penguins are my favourite; full of personality. It’s always fun to watch the adolescent penguins trying things on, like the little gap jumps between ice chunks. Sometimes they make it, sometimes they don’t. From time to time we also see Leopard seals from the zodiac. We can get in pretty close when it’s safe enough to do so; we just advise guests to keep their hands out of the water (*laughs*).

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SRA: So what’s the bottom line? How much does such an incredible trip set you back?

The trip is about US$12K per person for the cheapest berths, or a little higher at about $US18K for the more luxurious suites. That includes the Argentinean leg and everything on ship except grog. Flights are about AUD$2 K out of Melbourne or Sydney. So all in all, the costs are comparable to a week of heli-skiing in Alaska, but I think better value, as with heli-skiing you get a lot of down time, and with us there is also the fact you’re in Antarctica. You know, you can go heli-skiing in Alaska, but some trips you don’t fly at all the whole time you are there. Others get lucky of course. Even though we lost one day on one of our trips, the day actually ended up being one of the best so far, as we spent the day in a zodiac exploring the wildlife and taking in the scenery. So much of it is about where you are more than the skiing.

For more information visit www.billstrips.com, or contact Bill at bill@billstrips.com

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