As South as it Gets: Snowboarding in Antarctica and the Making of “Endurance II”

March 13, 2024

Jessa Gilbert found the snowboard community alive and well in the southernmost continent of the world.

As South as it Gets: Snowboarding in Antarctica and the Making of “Endurance II”

Finding the snowboard community alive and well in the southernmost continent of the world.

By Jessa Gilbert

There are a few things that come to mind when the word “Antarctica” is voiced. I think of wind, cold, wildlife, and a general feeling of remoteness—the southernmost continent in the world with a wide berth of sea and weather to cross before stepping foot upon its coastline. If you’ve read the book “Endurance” about Ernest Shackleton’s voyage in 1914 then the picture is likely painted in your mind about just how adverse the conditions can become, and just how remote you truly are at this parallel. What a wild place to put down a skin track.

I got the call late Summer from Austin Smith inquiring if I was available to be the mountain guide for him, Curtis Ciszek, Jake Price, and Alex Pashley in Antarctica for a film project, and what sounded like a fun exploration of snowboarders in an arena of mostly skinny skis. As a soft-booting splitboarder myself, it’s a real treat to have a sideways standing crew with you. Bags were packed, flights were booked, and the journey began from Vancouver to Denver, Houston, Buenos Aires, and finally Ushuaia, Argentina where we would depart on our ship, the Ocean Albatros, to Antarctica.

What I learned the previous year when I was in Ushuaia was the terrain around that city is full of potential. Stunning couloirs right above the city, glaciers, and a small yet passionate crew of local splitboarders. I arrived a few days early to get my feet on Argentinian snow and to explore the local Martial Glacier above Ushuaia. I connected with a local named Alfonso Lavado the day before getting on the ship to Antarctica for some turns on solid ground. He told me about the rich community of dedicated splitboarders, his own guiding pursuits, and his unmistakable love for the country and its natural terrain. Joined by his dog, Nica, we walked our way up the glacier, enjoyed some blustery views of the city below, and harvested playful corn all the way down to the taxi loop we had started from. These were my first turns of my season, and his (maybe) final ones marking the end of his. We couldn’t be further apart, me living in British Columbia, Canada, and he in Ushuaia, Argentina, separated by time zones and opposite hemispheres—but this thing we strapped onto our feet to adventure into the mountains solidified our connection. This is my favorite part of traveling with my splitboard: the connections made that cross over languages, locations, and points of view all due to the shared love of this playful pastime in the mountains.

The next day I boarded the Ocean Albatros ship with my American compadres and Ice Axe Expeditions, the mountain guide outfit for our trip. We were expecting two days sailing across the Drake Passage before arriving at our first destination, Desolation Island.

Desolation is a horseshoe-shaped island that formed from the remnants of a volcano, and became a coveted cove for whaling until about the 1930s. Large steel structures still stand on the shores, damaged from an eruption in the late 1960s, showing the history and legacy of this area. The snow panels alongside these monuments were our first objective, and realistically an opportunity to get the team on a glacier rope to practice our collective movements. This is where the fun really began for our group, as it became apparent some creative problem solving would be needed to access the glaciated terrain. I’m not usually one for mixing snow shoe-ers and splitboarders on the same rope; generally, I prefer to put like with like as they say. However, for reasons you’ll have to ask Curtis about, we were down a splitboard and so began our real effort that would set the foundation for their film, aptly titled, “Endurance II.” We would laugh about the heroic effort of Shackleton to keep his crew alive on land with mere rations, wool jackets, and leather boots, while our crew attempted to stay alive with a stiff mix of banter and verts.

I will say that the first day on snow with our crew felt like a test of my mountain skills, having to really consider what tools would be best for the specific variables at play. How do you safely move two vert-walking snowboarders and two splitboarders through glaciated terrain in the middle of nowhere? We adjusted our pace, tied extra knots between each other, and thoughtfully chose our terrain while moving away from the ocean and into the mountains. What became clear right away was that Mount Bachelor, their home mountain, had trained them to expertly find transitions and natural features. This opened up a wide berth of opportunity to walk less and play more.

Our days in Antarctica provided a variety of conditions, from sun and light winds to socked-in storm days where fresh snow blanketed the terrain. It was inspiring to watch Jake pull out his old film camera in the heavy snow squalls, shooting either on slope or from the zodiac.

We moved our location every day as we sailed further south along the shoreline choosing different objectives over the course of a few days. The wildlife was abundant, often being flanked by whales, visited by a variety of seabirds, or passing some seals perched on ice, throwing up little waves as we went by.

One particular day we arrived at Damoy Point on the Western side of Wienecke Island to a sunny sky, 50 cm of fresh snow, and a few gentoo penguins that had made their way there from the Arctic to begin to lay eggs and hunker down for their Summer. As we made our way onto the shore, so did hundreds more penguins! We found ourselves surrounded by these little tuxedos, trying to share the skin track with those migrating birds. Their little wings marked their own boot pack as the boys used their verts to stomp in a cheese wedge on a panel above the ocean.

I like to think those little penguins stopped what they were doing to take in the sights of our crew—these other strange birds who took flight off the mound of snow shaped on the slope above their colony. Perhaps that’s what the honking and noise from the penguins was for, as they pointed their orange beaks straight to the sky to cheer on the stomps and bails from our crew, waving their little arms about in excitement.

We had a few days of fun before the weather turned violent, sending the seas up to 40+ foot swells which turned the sea turbid and obscured the sky. We spent the next two days at sea in the Drake Passage reminiscing about time on land, applying anti-nausea packs, and trying to keep our stomachs in our bodies as we looked to the horizon for land.

After two days along the Drake passage we arrived back in Ushuaia to blue skies and a quiet harbor. It had snowed a bit since we were gone, and I decided to head back into the mountains of Argentina for some more splitboarding while the boys packed their bags and boarded their flights back home. I met up with another Argentinian man named Tom Castelli who was keen to bootpack up a couple couloirs above the city of Ushuaia. We chatted along our bootpack in the sunshine, cresting to the top of our line in the sun before noon. What a beautiful place to set foot, looking down on a city surrounded by mountains and ocean front. In many ways it reminded me of my home in the Sea to Sky corridor in Canada, with Howe Sound lapping the shores below the Coast Mountains.

Despite all the differences between us, there were a few main parallels that made it easier to overcome language barriers and settle into a shared affinity. I’m so grateful for the ways in which the splitboard can connect us all back to the land and with each other. We high fived, pointed our boards down the couloir, and took that playful scenic route back to town just in time to throw my wet boots into my board bag and catch my own flight back to Canada.

A few months later, Jake, Austin, Curtis, and Alex finished the film “Endurance II” and projected it onto an actual sail in Bend, OR during the Dirksen Derby. Accompanied by a self-playing piano that scored the film, and a graininess only 16mm can provide, they shared a story of this fun, lighthearted adventure with their local community. Safe to say the snowboard community, whether near or far, is alive and well.

Jessa Gilbert is a BCA ambassador and snowboard guide based in British Columbia. She solidifies her memories in the mountains through public art, including murals around the world.