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The world’s southernmost continent is also its most mysterious. With a permanent population of only 1,000 people, Antarctica serves as a final frontier in terms of terrestrial exploration.
Governed by the Antarctic Treaty System, military and industrial activities are banned on the continent, leaving its glaciers, mountains and seas in pristine condition. Simply put, it is the cleanest air, water and land on Earth.
For a short window of time – from December to February – the continent briefly becomes accessible for only the hardiest of adventure tourists. Most of these visitors will head to the Antarctic Peninsula, the northernmost point of Antarctica, located on the west of the continent.
The Antarctic Peninsula is home to the continent’s tallest mountains and is the most easily accessible part of it. Most visitors opt to come to this part of Antarctica to climb Mount Vinson (4,898 meters/16,069 feet), one of the world’s Seven Summits.
However, there is a whole lot more to see than the popular peninsula. Dixie Dansercoer is a renowned Belgian polar explorer. The 57-year-old leads numerous expeditions all over the Arctic and Antarctic.
In an already niche industry, he has carved out a particular reputation for taking visitors to the most remote parts of the continent, to ski unexplored territory or reach the South Pole.
Few people know more about Antarctica than Dixie, who recently took some time out of his busy schedule to share his thoughts and experiences about exploring the continent with Explore & Share.
Sprawling over 14 million square kilometers (5.4 million square miles), Antarctica is slightly smaller than Russia and about 1.5 times the size of Canada.
The continent is asymmetrically centered around the South Pole and about 98 percent of its surface area is permanently covered by the Antarctic Ice Sheet, which is the largest in the world and also the largest reservoir of freshwater anywhere on Earth.
While there are no permanent settlements on Antarctica, seven countries have territorial claims on the continent (Argentina, Australia, Chile, France, New Zealand, Norway, and the United Kingdom) and two others reserve the right to make territorial claims (Russia and the United States).
The continent is divided into two sections by the Transantarctic Mountains: East Antarctica and West Antarctica. The former is the larger of the two and is home to both the geographic and magnetic south poles, while the latter is home to Mount Vinson and some of the tallest mountains on the continent.
East Antarctica is entirely covered by the Antarctic Ice Sheet and is composed of mountains and high plateaus. East Antarctica also contains Queen Maud Land, a dependency of Norway, which is a popular area for ski tourers seeking out the most remote peaks of the continent.
The eastern half of the continent is a far harsher environment than the west and is practically inhospitable, with very few plants and animals able to survive. Only lichens and some invertebrates can live on the interior of the continent. Various seals and birds head to the coastline to breed and feed in the spring and summer.
Meanwhile, West Antarctica is home to the continent’s largest ice shelves and the Antarctic Peninsula. The latter is the most popular point for all Antarctic expeditions as it is located only 1,600 kilometers (1,000 miles) from South America.
The mountains on the peninsula are the highest on the continent and the climate tends to be a bit less extreme. In fact, the ice melts on some parts of West Antarctica in the summer, allowing lichens and moss to briefly grow.
Underneath the massive ice sheets, Antarctica is mostly made up of old igneous and metamorphic rock, belched out of the center of the earth millions of years ago. The western end of the continent is home to some active volcanoes and sits at the southern edge of the Pacific Ring of Fire.
The first mention of Antarctica comers in the second century CE from a Greek geographer and cartographer, Marinus of Tyre. He and others had long theorized the existence of a large landmass at the bottom of the earth.
However, it would not be until 1820, when Russian explorers Fabian Gottlieb von Bellingshausen and Mikhail Lazarev became the first people to see Antarctica. They would closely be followed by British and American expeditions to other points on the coast of the continent.
Over the course of the next two decades, numerous expeditions landed on the continent’s coast for brief explorations. Although, it was not until 1898 that the first people would travel over the continent, exploring the Ross Ice shelf and Cape Adare, in the northeast.
Just three years later, the landmark Discovery Expedition saw the first people climb the mountains of western Antarctica and by 1907 the race to the South Pole had begun in earnest. On December 14, 1911, Ronald Amundsen would win that race, after 33 days of grueling travel by sled over the largely uncharted interior of the continent.
Today, exploration of Antarctica continues. In 2012, Dixie and Sam Deltour, another Belgian explorer, would set the record for the longest non-motorized polar expedition without outside help.
The pair covered more than 5,000 kilometers (3,100 miles) in 74 days and Dixie recorded 50 hours of footage en route. Using kites and prevailing wind patterns, the pair were able to pull themselves and their heavy supply sleds an average of 68 kilometers (42 miles) each day.
“This way people can do 60, 70 kilometers (37, 44miles) a day, which was unheard of in the days of Amundsen,” Dixie said upon his triumphant return to Belgium.
Previously, he had skied crossed Antarctica and to this day, he guides ski touring trips to the lesser-traveled eastern end of the continent.
Along with skiing, mountaineering, kayaking and kite skiing are also popular activities for avid outdoor adventurers in Antarctica.
Several of the mountains on the Antarctic Peninsula reach 4,000 meters (13,100 feet) or more in elevation, making them popular targets for climbing enthusiasts.
For those seeking to enjoy Antarctica’s wildlife, kayaking in one of the many bays is a popular way to see birds, seals and other animals that make their part-time home on the forbidding continent.
Situated in East Antarctica, Queen Maud Land is one of the most mountainous and least explored regions of the continent.
Its rugged coastline, composed of tall cliffs of ice, makes disembarking from a ship nearly impossible, making the only way to get to Queen Maud Land by plane.
About five kilometers (three miles) away from one of the few airstrips on the interior of the continent is one of Dixie’s base camps for ski touring expeditions.
“From that spot, the surroundings lend themselves to expedition-style skiing, with each participant pulling his or her own sledge,” he says. “This destination is so unique that we can guarantee you that we will go where no one else has set foot!”
Dixie frequently brings experienced ski tourers from the camp out toward the Mühlig Hofmann mountains and takes them to the summit of Ulvetanna peak (2,930 meters/9,612 feet). Views from the top are truly unbeatable and there is no feeling like going out and exploring the true unknown.
However, exploring these remote reaches of Antarctica is not easy. It requires a lot of physical and mental training, not to mention a high competency for skiing on difficult terrains.
For those seeking to explore this remote place, but without the necessary skills to become too immersed on the continent, Dixie also offers tours to less extreme parts of Queen Maud Land, such as the Schirmacher Oasis mountains.
“There, we witness the impressive collision between the land-fast ice and the Antarctic continent, making for ice-waves that are very much ‘alive’, ice caves sculpted by meltwater and for the wildlife enthusiasts, we can dedicate a flight to the majestic Emperor Penguins,” he says.
Since Amundsen arrived at the bottom of the world just 109 years ago, reaching the South Pole is an accomplishment few have achieved but many have strived to do.
The expedition begins with a flight to the 89th degree. From here, the geographic South Pole is just 111 kilometers (69 miles) away.
“In typical expedition-style, we will ski approximately six to eight hours a day, keeping the routine of breaking up the tent around 9:00 in the morning and putting up camp in the early evening to rest up, eat and sleep,” Dixie says.
It is important to keep a routine as at this time of year in Antarctica the sun never sets.
“On average, it will take the group around six days to reach 90 degrees South,” Dixie says. “The satisfaction to see in the far distance that little tiny spot that is the bottom of the Earth and knowing that you can soon ‘hang from the bottom of the world’ is simply amazing.”
Along the way, adventurers will ski across vast elevated plains of endless white, which sit at about 2,800 meters (9,200 feet) in elevation. The feeling is quite surreal.
Upon reaching the bottom of the world, there will also be options to head to some of the nearby elevated summits.
“The shortest route to reach Antarctica in adventurous style is crossing the infamous Drake Passage from Ushuaia (Argentina) to the Antarctic Peninsula by sailboat,” Dixie says.
After completing the five to six-day journey, which can be quite difficult depending on the seafaring conditions, ski tourers are able to head out onto the coast and explore the mountains.
Skinning up to the summit of some of these peaks provides stunning panoramic views over the Antarctic Peninsula followed by thrilling rides on unspoiled powder back to the sailboat.
“The beauty of the many islands, straits, and bays is mind-boggling,” Dixie says. “Countless icebergs of all shapes and colours will surround our floating base camp. The freedom of sailing to destinations only determined by what we want to do and where we want to go as well as being cut-off from our overly-busy lives could be more freeing.”
Sailing and skiing is perfect for both intermediate and advanced ski tourers. Dixie offers options for all types of adventurers that range from skiing different mountains around the peninsula each day to heading out into the backcountry and camping on the continent.
“For the adventurous souls, we offer unique skiing, snowboarding and kiteboarding opportunities,” he says. “We can scale snowy mountains, camp out on the snow and imagine how the pioneers from long-forgotten times managed to return home alive and well.”
Needless to say, any trip to Antarctica requires thorough preparation. Prior to allowing any clients to book his trips at the bottom of the world, Dixie requires that they participate in a two-day introductory arctic/antarctic skills course in either Belgium or Switzerland.
Having the right techniques beforehand is important to keep you and the rest of the team with whom you are traveling safe in a place where few or no emergency services exist.
Aside from having the right techniques and background knowledge for a trip, it is imperative to be physically fit. Kite skiing or ski touring across Antarctica is physically challenging.
Guides recommend undertaking an endurance training regimen prior to the trip and doing some hiking or skiing at higher altitudes. Upper body and core strength are also important as Antarctic expeditions will require you to haul your own gear on sleds.
Along with physical training, bringing the correct equipment is also important. On all of his trips, Dixie provides participants with all of the technical and camping gear. He recommends you bring the following on any Antarctic expedition:
BAGS AND STORAGE
– A large solid travel bag or backpack of 60 to 70 liters. This luggage must be waterproof (possibly use a slipcover).
– A small backpack of about 35 liters for your personal belongings. It will also serve you as hand luggage and cabin during flight.
– Waterproof jacket like Gore-Tex®
– Waterproof over-trousers like Gore-Tex®
– Thick fleece jacket
– Sweatshirt or thinner micro-fleece jacket
– Fleece pants
– Four long sleeve thermal t-shirts
– Two pairs of thermal tights
– Two pairs of thin thermal socks
– Three pairs of warm socks
– Thermal balaclava
– Fleece balaclava
– Fleece neck scarf
– Three pairs of thermal gloves
– Three pairs of fleece gloves
– Thick wool mittens
– Fur-lined mittens
PERSONAL EQUIPMENT & SHOES
– “Baffin” Polar Boots – Shackleton (possible to borrow for 250 euros)
– Polarized sunglasses for the glacier
– Waterproof tent booties for inside the tent
– Waterproof shoes for outside the tent
– Regular walking shoes for prior to and after the expedition
SMALL AND MISCELLANEOUS EQUIPMENT
– Isothermal water bottle of 1,5 L (provided by Dixie)
– A pocket knife
– Three lighters
– Headlamp like Petzl® + spare batteries
– A pair of polarized sunglasses for the glacier
– Sunscreen (high index) + lip balm
– Four to five waterproof bags of different sizes to compartmentalize your belongings in your bag, which is handy
– Travel case for personal toiletries (toothbrush, toothpaste, etc.)
– A small bath towel which dries quickly
– Two toilet paper rolls
– Biodegradable wipes and paper handkerchiefs like Kleenex®
– A sewing kit with needles, son, buttons, safety pins, etc.
PERSONAL MEDICAL SUPPLIES
– Pain, fever: Ibuprofen
– Antibiotics: Pristinamycin (Pyostacine® 500 mg) (2 boxes per 1 treatment 8d), Amoxicillin + clavulanic acid (Augmentin®) 1g
– Analgesics: Paracetamol 500mg
– Corticosteroids: Solupred 20mg
– Antidiarrhoeals: Smecta (prepare a dozen bags), Intetrix (treatment of amoebiasis), Imodium
– Antiemetic, gastric dressings: Volagène®, Phosphalugel®/Ulcar®, Domperidone, prinperan
– Antihistamines (for bites, skin rashes…): Zyrtec®, Clarytine®, Phenergan®, Polaramine®
– Antiseptics: Betadine, Biseptine
– Ointments: Niflugel®, Voltarene® (Anti-inflammatory), Arnigel (bruises)
– Powder Antimycotics (feet): Econazole, powder and ointment
– Eye Drops: Antibiotics, Anti-Irritation
– Set of adhesive bandages and some sterile gauze pads
– “Double skin” dressings for bulbs
– Elastic adhesive tape (like Elastoplast)
Trips to West Antarctica generally begin with a flight into Presidente Carlos Ibáñez del Campo International Airport (PUQ) in Punta Arenas, Chile. From here, guides will charter seaplanes to land off the coast of the continent. Most travel around this part of Antarctica is done on sailboat.
Trips to East Antarctica tend to leave from Cape Town, South Africa. From here, it is a 5.5 hour flight to the airstrips on the remote eastern coastline. Travel to the interior of the continent is generally done by traveling on small planes, although kite skiing is also possible.
Antarctica is the world’s coldest, driest, most remote and pristine continent. Heading on any type of trip here is a real privilege and the most should be made of it. Hiring an experienced polar explorer, such as Dixie, is the best way to maximize your safety and enjoyment in this sublime part of the world.
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