Aurora Expeditions, the leaders in polar adventures, is expanding its portfolio of Antarctic activities for the 2017/18 season with the introduction of Ski Touring and Snowshoeing across the pristine landscapes of the White Continent.
Fuelled by a passion for thrilling new wilderness experiences, these unique skiing and snowshoeing activities will take intrepid travellers to sights of unimaginable beauty in the most exhilarating way possible.
We spoke with guide Tarn Pilkington about the new experiences and his own in the industry.
Tell us a little about your experience as a guide?
I drifted into guiding after finishing university in Christchurch as I was looking for something different to do outside of my prospective career. I started working as a Glacier Guide in 1988 on the Fox and Franz Josef Glaciers and soon realised that guiding was my new path in life. I never used my university training again!
My first taste of ski guiding was in Queenstown in 1991 working as an On-Call Heli-ski Guide on my days off from ski patrolling. This was a great combination to keep me skiing and out in the mountains so I kept that up for the next 13 years. I entered the guides training pathway and qualified in 2000 as an IFMGA Mountain and Ski Guide. In 2005, I was hired as the Chief Guide at Southern Lakes Heliski and this is where I still work and have just started preparing for this coming winter.
You’re from NZ, so you’ve probably had snow experience on some of the best alps in the world – what’s your favourite thing about snow sports and why?
Skiing and ski touring has always been a passion having started at the age of four. Guiding and travelling has seen me travel all around the world to places such as India, Japan, Canada, Iceland and North and South America, and Antarctica! All of these places have provided me with unique and wonderful experiences. Skiing in new places combines my passions for the outdoors, exploration and adventure. My favourite aspect of skiing and ski touring is just being out there moving through the terrain – going up and down gets you into a flow and state of mind that’s focused on where you are and what you are doing. There are risks to manage and lines to pick so it is often very challenging and at times physically demanding. And, of course, great powder and a mate or two makes for a pretty good day in any skier’s book!
What is about Antarctica that keeps you going back?
I have done around 15 trips to the Antarctic Peninsula. What keeps me going back is the chance to see and explore new places where very few – or even zero – people have been before. The Peninsula is vast even though it really is just a corner of the continent. It would take a lifetime to get around all the bays and islands and climb a fraction of the peaks and ski back down them.
I also think that on every expedition there is an experience that makes it special or unique. It’s those unexpected moments that come along and you get to think “that’s just incredible”. Most of the time this involves the wildlife and I can think of some incredible evening cruises down the Bransfield Strait with the evening light on the surrounding peaks and Humpback whales breaching all around!
What were your first impression of Antarctica when you visited in 1994? And has anything there changed much in the years since?
My first experience in Antarctica was in 1994 in the Ross Sea region working as a Field Assistant and Field Trainer. The whole place on arrival just floors you – the vast scale of the sea ice and the huge distances to the Transantarctic Mountains. It was minus 33 degrees when I stood outside of the aircraft and we had just landed on two metres of sea ice! I could see Mt Erebus off in the distance and I remember thinking as my nostril hairs froze instantly “this is it, I’m really here!”
The Antarctic Peninsula is very different in comparison with the Ross Sea. The mountains are right there in front of you stretching out of the sea and bays and the ship gets you in real close. Over the last 13 years there has been a growth in tourist numbers and ships to the Peninsula so you might see one or two extra vessels on each trip. But this is usually from a distance passing in the wider straits – it still feels very remote and isolated.
What’s the most exciting thing about the new skiing and snowshoeing tours in Antarctica, and why did you sign up to lead them?
Skiing and snowshoeing gets people up to some pretty amazing vantage points allowing a different perspective of the landscape. Because we often use the same landings as the other guests we get the added bonus of seeing the wildlife as well. The exercise gets the blood pumping and helps work off that delicious ship food. And skiing or walking down into a beautiful bay full of ice bergs and sea ice with penguins dotted around is an exceptional experience. As a guide, it’s an experience that sells itself – we are there to make the most of every opportunity and allow people to access areas that require specialist skills. Sharing the experience is of course a real thrill.
Tell us a bit about the tours themselves? What’s the best part, toughest part, easiest part?
Every day is different, and as a guide working on Aurora Expeditions unique environment, I also work with a team of other staff to make sure everyone on board gets a great outing ashore. We are often changing or refining plans to ensure that we get the most out of each landing. We try to get our skiers and snowshoers ashore first and this allows us to get up to a view point or up a peak for a view and perhaps a ski descent or two.
There are plenty of highlights in each day starting with the Zodiac ride ashore and the transition at the shoreline when we often move past a penguin colony or tow. Getting to the top of a peak or high point is always rewarding as the views are always astoundingly good.
The toughest part is the dealing with the weather that can at times be very changeable. But that’s all part of it – even the most marginal days can end in an excellent adventure!
And why do you recommend people go on these tours?
I believe anyone who enjoys walking or skiing can join us on a ski or snowshoe adventure. These activities add another dimension to the Antarctic experience where guests get to venture further into the environment. The rewards are in moving around the terrain, getting to a high point and in feeling that remoteness. Of course, the exercise is a bonus and energizes everyone for the next landing or the next well-earned meal.
Finally, what’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever been given (or ever heard or read) when it comes to living a life filled with adventure?
Most guides are very happy with their lot in life. After all, most of us have turned our passion for recreation and adventure into a profession and making a living along the way. I think adventure is an attitude that should be applied across your life – not just in the mountains or oceans. As far as quotes go, I like this one; “The bad news is time flies. The good news is you’re the pilot.”