Antarctica!

Since the Andes Trail bike tour ended in Ushuaia, where many Antarctica cruises start, it seemed natural to go there rather than just head straight home after finishing biking. Grace came down to Ushuaia too. She didn’t go with me on my exciting unicycle Antarctica trip back in 2011. This time we went with G Adventures, mainly due to the perfect schedule, matching the Andes Trail bike tour end. But also partly due to my friend Ira, who works as their photographer and recommended the trip highly. I met him on my previous trip in 2011. Getting back together with Grace was great – and it was better for us to be away from the distractions of home to re-unite. Real communication was difficult while we were separated for so long, in different time zones, with me having unreliable cell service. And phones just suck compared to being with someone.

As for great insights attained by riding 10,500 km across South America…I am not so sure. I found out that I really like biking after so many years on one wheel. I learned that many people are way tougher than me in terms of what they physically and mentally can put up with. I think I had it pretty easy, relatively, on the biking trip. One last thing I did is make a slide show of all the riders, over 50 people total, who participated in the 2019 version of the Andes Trail.

Here’s my whole Andes Trail ride, from Strava – look close and you can see where I was sick in Peru twice

Back to Antarctica. After a few days in Ushuaia, we moved to a hotel where everyone on the cruise stayed one night. On the afternoon of the 23rd we boarded a bus for the short drive onto the pier and to our ship, called the Expedition. It was pretty exciting boarding and finding our cabin.

The Expedition is a bit more upscale than the ship I took last time. We had a very comfortable cabin with non-bunk beds and our own bathroom. It’s also a bit bigger, 126 passengers instead of fewer than 80. We explored the ship, hung out on the top deck, and then watched the pier disappear as we headed out the Beagle Channel.

Crossing the infamous Drake Passage takes about two days and can be quite bumpy. At the briefing that first evening, our expedition leader estimated it would be about a 3 on a scale of 1 to 10 (1 is smooth sailing and 10 is you wish you were dead). Everyone cheered. We had a fancy dinner and it was great eating with Ira and chatting about the many many trips he’s done since ours together nine years ago. After more time on deck, loving the late night sun shine, and trying out our new G Adventures parkas, we settled down to sleep, the seas still calm in the channel.

In the morning, we had breakfast – the chefs and staff are really amazing on this ship. We met more of our fellow passengers, attended lectures, and Grace had to take some medication for the rolling. The ship is stabilized but even a “3” crossing is a bit bumpy. We saw our first iceberg – there was a contest to guess when that would be.

We crossed the Antarctic Convergence – the line where cold water meets warm. Conditions were good, with a tailwind, so we looked to be ahead of schedule. We were told we could probably even do a landing the second afternoon which is unusual.

On Dec 24, we were in sight of various of the South Shetland Islands in the morning already. After lunch, we tried a landing but had to abort due to high winds. The ship moved over to Halfmoon Island and we were able to launch zodiacs and take a nice hike around the island, seeing penguins, seals and other birds.

The highlight was watching a skua steal a brand new penguin chick out of a nest! I had been on a similar hike here in 2011, on my last day in Antarctica. As before, it was raining but that didn’t ruin anything for anyone. It was great fun walking through the snow and watching the penguins do their thing. The setup for leaving the ship is amazing on the Expedition. There is a giant “mud room” where everyone is assigned a seat on a bench and you can leave your boots, life jacket, outer clothes etc between landings so you don’t have to store anything in your cabin. Super luxurious. They have the whole process of cleaning boots before and after and swiping in and out of the ship down cold – much more organized than I had before.

It was Christmas Eve so dinner was especially decadent and Santa came to the lounge after.

We woke up on Christmas morning further south down the peninsula at Danco Island. After breakfast I tried out riding the stationary bike in the gym. It was funny watching Antarctica outside as I cranked away on the bike, sweating massively. I resolved to ride everyday to try and counteract the amazing food.

There were two “operations”, as they are called, on Christmas, and both involved excellent hikes. First, we hiked to the summit of Danco Island, about 200m up, with amazing views in all directions. We could see the ship from the top, moving away unexpectedly. It turned out some icebergs were threatening so they moved away. Even though it was cloudy and gray, the views were just great in all directions.

At the summit of Danco Island, quickly down to T-shirts for a photo
A more realistic photo – sitting on an Antarctic couch on Danco Island

In the afternoon, we landed on what was called “the big bit”, meaning the Antarctic continent. Grace and I had signed up for an extended hike – we were dropped off at one location, would hike along and over a pass, then slide or hike down to the regular landing zone. I think 32 of us were able to do this, four zodiacs full. We traversed on a kind of steep slope for a while, watching penguins close by and whales below. We got higher and higher and finally the expedition leader, Jonathan, said, “Who wants to go up and climb that peak?” My hand was up in a microsecond. Most of us went up with another guide, Eric, who has climbed Everest recently without oxygen, a true mountaineer. He led us up and it wasn’t difficult but he did give some funny direction at one point, “Don’t fall here”. Yes it was good advice as you would slide a long way, but I don’t think it helped people very much. Anyway, we all got to the top and had a great view down to the bay where the ship was waiting and the kayakers were kayaking. We could see ant-like people (red penguins) more than 200m below at the landing.

Starting the climb
“Don’t fall here”
Summit shot
The view down

What a treat – I never got to do any hikes like this on the last trip. We hiked down to the saddle, then slid/hiked down to the landing.

Back on board it was about dinner time and it was a jolly Christmas dinner for sure. After dinner, everyone who had signed up for camping, took off and set up tents on a nearby flat island. We were in Leith Cove in Paradise Bay. Grace and I stayed on board instead of braving the elements. I did camp out in 2011, with no tent at all!

The 26th was supposed to be an exciting day going south through the narrow Lemaire Channel but the weather didn’t cooperate so we eventually circumvented this route and blasted south through the Nimrod Strait. We basically spent the day on board, attending lectures, sleeping and eating.

We crossed the Antarctic Circle at 4am on the 27th which was the goal of this expedition. We stopped at Horseshoe Island and conditions just kept getting better so it was decided that the “operation” to view the old British Base Y would also include a chance for a Polar Plunge! Grace was hot to take this on and had a great time, wading into the water, then when in enough, falling backwards in. Her feet were numb right after entering the water. It’s 0°C/32°F at this time of year.

I don’t know what the temperature of the air was but it was warm and sunny and nice. After her plunge, we walked around, looked at the restored British base, and took photos – it was a great day.

Back on board, to further take advantage of the weather, it was BBQ night, on deck! We sat outside eating, wearing shorts, it was great. So so scenic and fun.

We slept well below the circle, then on the 28th, tried for a morning “operation” at Stonington Island. Ice blocked the route there so we headed over to Red Rock Ridge where rising winds and high waves caused us to have to bail from leaving the ship, but the consolation prize was getting so far south, to the very bottom of their chart, 68° 18’S. We headed back north after lunch, with good views along the way.

On the 29th, we tried again at navigating the Lemaire Channel only to be shut down again, this time by huge icebergs filling the 1.6km wide opening. So after lunch we redirected to Port Lockroy, run by the UK Antarctic Heritage Trust. I had visited in 2011 and had a passport stamp from their post office. This time, Grace and I sent ourselves a postcard, we bought some souvenirs, and marveled at the old stuff there. We also got to explore nearby Jougla Point, walking around, lots of penguins (with babies) and seals etc. That was great.

The 30th of December was supposed to be an awesome day. We had headed north all night and were now near Antarctic Sound, the entrance to the Weddell Sea that I had dreamed about visiting since reading Shackleton 50 years ago. Initially it looked good for an “operation” at Gourdin Island but in the end, the sound was completely blocked by ice. We redirected to Astrolabe Island, a very rarely visited (landed upon) island. We did manage to land, a first for every crew member, even those that had over a hundred expeditions under their belts. It was fun; we hiked up the slope a ways then just sat down on some rocks for quite a while and watched penguins next to us and kayakers far below. It was cloudy and gloomy and Antarctic looking. In the evening, we had an hour of stories by one of the staff members who has been working in the Antarctic for 48 years!

For New Year’s Eve, we had a good walk around at Portal Point in the morning then headed over to Cierva Cove for a zodiac cruise. This would be one of the highlights of the trip due to the amazing whales. They were right next to the kayaks – it was almost scary.

In the evening there was a fancy dinner, then a talent show in the lounge. Grace had written a poem and told it really well, which earned second place overall. For the next days, so many people complimented her.

Last seconds of Grace’s poem and the crowd reaction
The winning act

After the show, we moved to the Polar Bear Bar, for the last performance of the ship’s band, the Monkey Eating Eagles. After some dancing and fun Grace and I took a short nap with our alarm set for 11:45pm. We got up and rejoined the party, toasting in the new decade out doors on the back deck with everyone REALLY enjoying themselves. By this time the ship was rocking back and forth quite a bit so you have to imagine the whole dance floor full of people moving back and forth – very fun. At one point maybe 60 of us were dancing in a line cruising in and out of the bar, lurching and laughing uncontrollably. So funny. Here’s to 2020!

10pm, The Monkey Eating Eagles
12:01am, it’s 2020 and we’re out on deck in the middle of the Drake Passage

Jan 1, 2020 was out on the Drake Passage, a little rough, and I even got sick in the early evening. We were at the briefing before dinner which is in the lounge at the bow and I got there late so had to sit all the way up front. That got me a little queasy then it was immediately time for dinner. I had signed us up for a special treat: dinner with Eric, our resident mountaineer, who was hosting a special table dedicated to mountaineering. I found that as soon as I concentrated on his face I got seasick. I took some of Grace’s pills but it was too late and I had to go lie down (with a quick heave over the side of the ship on the way). I felt fine laying down and Grace brought dinner for me later. It was the only time I felt bad on the trip.

On the second, we continued the life at sea, lectures, films, eating, working out on the bike machine, etc. In the evening it was calm as we were back in the Beagle Channel and we docked in Ushuaia after dinner. We had one last night aboard, with a fun dinner and many goodbyes, then disembarked early on the 3rd and checked back into the Hotel Ushuaia. We spent three more days, hiking and enjoying the town, then flew home, arriving on the 7th of January, 6 months and 4 days after leaving in July on this crazy adventure.

These maps show the northern part of our expedition
Here’s a chart showing everywhere we went in Antarctica on this expedition

It is great to be home, for sure, and I’m fine without riding all the time. But I have signed up for another big Bike Dreams cycling trip. I’ll be riding from Paris, France to Dakar, Senegal from September 6 to November 18, 2020! More about that later…

5 thoughts on “Antarctica!

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