AGM Talk 11th October 201, Pole to Pole Skiing Adventures in Greenland and Antarctica


Speaker: Phil Wickens

Reporter: Andrew Walker

The talk at this year’s AGM was by Phil Wickens, a veteran of many Arctic and Antarctic expeditions.

According to his website Phil studied biology at Imperial College, and after completing his PhD in plant pathology he worked for two winters and three summers as a field guide for the British Antarctic Survey, combining his passion for natural science with that of mountain exploration and photography. He's also a local lad, living in New Mills.

In his talk Phil took a top down approach (at least as far as cartographers are concerned), starting in the Arctic and concluding in Antarctica. The main focus was on skiing but there was a strong sense of the scientific and exploratory aspects of the expeditions.

It’s a nigh on impossible task to try to encapsulate Phil’s talk into a few paragraphs, much less provide any detailed information about places and mountains, so I’m not going to try very hard. What did come across was the extent and range of his travels.

The first part of the talk was about Greenland, and an expedition to explore more or less uncharted territory, coming in from the east coast, and ski it. It’s a far cry from the groomed pistes of the Alps, but what you get in exchange is a wilderness as complete and remote as it is beautiful. I like to stray away from the pistes and feel like I’m pushing the boundaries a bit, but that’s not much compared to the locations Phil has explored, and his photos and stories told of a more unbounded approach to skiing.

Greenland, however, seemed almost parochial compared to his expedition to Graham Land, which is the northern part of the Antarctic Peninsula. Phil and his team were tracing the footsteps of Wally Herbert, a British Polar explorer, who had completed a navigation of this strip of land.

Around 1956-57 Wally and three companions went down the spine of Graham Land from Hope Bay to Portal Point, and Phil and his team repeated that journey. This is no mean feat; for a start it’s about 160 miles, give or take, as the crow flies, and it’s not signposted. There isn’t an abundance of routes and at times their route options were very limited. They had to carry all their own provisions, including fuel, food and tents.

Yes, Phil and his team may have had the advantages of GPS and better weather- forecasting but the fact remains that this was by any normal standards a pioneering trip. And at 27 days in duration, with (I guess) little or no prospect of rescue if things went wrong, this was quite a feat of planning, route-finding and endurance. Just look it up on a map and you’ll see what I mean.

Phil has also conducted many skiing trips in the Antarctic Peninsula. The plan seems to be (although I’m sure there’s a bit more to it than that) that you sail to a likely-looking spot, disembark and head for the best-looking slopes and mountains. This obviously necessitates some serious ascents, but judging by the descents it looks well worth the effort. Oddly, the skiing season in Antarctica is quite short at around a month. That is, if you want the best snow. Even down there the snow quality is dependent on weather conditions and seasonal factors.

They found one peak in Antarctica, the height of which they thought had been seriously understated on British Antarctic Survey maps by several hundred metres. Having eventually summited the peak they reported the correct height to the BAS, which has now corrected its maps.

I don’t think I’m cut out for a multi-week exploration ski trip because I’m a bit too fond of home comforts, but the shorter trips look very tempting, especially with the undoubted bragging rights of having gone about as far off the beaten track as it’s reasonably possible to get. Not everybody will relish two trips across the Drake Passage in a small boat, but the results do look worth putting up with some discomfort. Oh, and don’t forget that the weather can be pretty grim and you can’t just retreat into the nearest mountain restaurant when the going gets a bit tough.

Phil’s photos and videos gave a vivid impression of the utterly jaw-dropping scenery of the Polar regions, both north and south. Maybe one day I shall give Antarctic skiing a go…

Anyone who wants to know more about Phil’s trips, or is interested in joining one of his expeditions, should head to his website at http://www.philwickens.co.uk/, where you can find many more photos and descriptions.