Skiing the Sixth Continent.
By the time he approached his 60th birthday, Ski & Snowboard Hall of Famer John Egan had taken his skis up and down some of the most obscure slopes on five of the planet's seven continents. But before late 2018, he had never been to Antarctica.
“I've spent my whole life looking for the most remote and wild places, from Greenland to Siberia,” said Egan. “Antarctica was absolutely on the list. It fits right in there, with all the qualifications.
“I love snow and ice, and Antarctica has the most of it,” he said. “I've missed opportunities over the years to go there, just luck of the draw. I knew I'd get there eventually.”
The sole empty spot on Egan's continental dance card was filled when a long-time friend, Doug Stoup of Ice Axe Expeditions, reached out with an offer to join a trip to Antarctica last November.
“There's a mutual respect and work ethic there that we both appreciate in each other,” he said. “He wanted someone else on his team, and he knew it was something that was on my bucket list, so it came together.”
Egan, a Kulkea sponsored athlete and chief recreation officer for Sugarbush Resort in Vermont, was one of 27 guides, along with 100 guests, aboard a 300-foot cruise ship, the Ocean Adventurer, hobnobbing for two weeks among the islands of Antarctica's Palmer Archipelago, just west of the Weddell Sea.
“It's a big operation,” said Egan. “It's a full-on cruise ship. There's no other cruise ship that goes through this much trouble to get people and equipment on Antarctica.”
To prepare, Egan and the other guides gathered at Ushuaia, South America, and the Cerro Castor ski resort on the Martial Glacier (where Egan first skied in 1991) for training. The guests arrived later for a single day of acclimation before boarding the Ocean Adventurer.
“We got down there later than their season this year, so the resort was closed, but it was still great to go up there and look at it,” said Egan. “You're right on the Beagle Channel, way out in the ocean. It's just a beautiful area with some really neat mountains and formations. It's just pretty special.”
So was the opportunity for Egan to guide, and return to his winter roots.
“It brought me back to when I was guiding 10 months a year,” Egan said. “That was my job, and how I made my career. It's really interesting how people know me from the Warren Miller films, but there's a big reason behind the scenes why I was in those films. It's because I was in those remote areas guiding people.
“My brother (Dan) and myself were a little different, where we had a business where we took people out and brought them to remote areas,” he said. “One of my clients in Antarctica with me, I started guiding with her 26 years ago.”
With his long history of backcountry skiing, often going to places where no one had skied before, Egan developed a keen sense of self-sufficiency combined with local knowledge.
“I always relied on local guide information and sought out their advice. They know prevailing winds, how the winter's been, the snow pack,” he said. “They know things I don't know. So guiding is really a collaborative effort. It's one thing I've really prided myself on my whole life, and my whole career.”
That skill set proved valuable when working with Stoup and Andrew McLean, another veteran Ice Axe guide, because the stunning, serrated peaks of the Palmer Archipelago produced almost every ski condition imaginable.
“We got blowing snow and wind and some powder,” Egan said. “We had some glare ice, like skating rink-type quality. We had corn snow, we had wind packed – it's pretty windy down there, with the katabatic winds. So we got just about everything. But generally, they were good conditions. They were all fun to ski in.”
A typical day would start with the guides meeting to detail available options. The guides would then reconnoiter with their clients to discuss those options at breakfast, though the final decision belonged to the guides.
“We were surrounded by islands and the continent,” said Egan. “Usually you're just looking at a vast wilderness that looks so inviting and so cool. We're looking at three or four or maybe five different landings. Sometimes it's right out of the Zodiacs and onto a beach or a glacier. Pretty simple. Sometimes there's an immediate need to climb up and out from the boat."
“There're two guides and eight clients per boat that can go in and land together,” he said. “The two groups don't necessarily stay together, but we do have a good eye on where each other is going, so we know each other's plans. Typically, before lunch, we can climb 2,000 to 3,000 vertical feet, and get a nice ski run in.
“Some mornings, there was a section of the run that was so good, we'd stop and ski it twice, and then we'd ski to the bottom. We'd head back on the Zodiac, and have some lunch. There's no food or anything foreign allowed on Antarctica. It's a pristine environment that cannot be disturbed.”
That pristine environment also presents certain risks. Egan and the other guides took the lead on the climbs, testing the snow cover for any hidden dangers, like crevasses. Everyone was roped together for safety, whether they were skinning or hiking with crampons.
After a hearty lunch, the groups would typically head to another area.
“We didn't have to have the last Zodiac back until 6 at night, so we'd climb another peak, or go to a different landing, so we get a little variety,” said Egan. “Sometimes in the afternoon, some of the group might rather just go out in a Zodiac and just take pictures of wildlife, or they might want to sea kayak that afternoon. So the clients really have a choice of what they want to do each day. As a guide, I offer the skiing every day, all day. If the whole group would rather go to a penguin rookery and not ski the afternoon, then that's what we'd do.”
With such small groups, clients could tailor each day's agenda.
“There were several groups where their goal was to get the highest peaks, and they got to points where they had to take off their skis and don their crampons and ice climb with an ice axe all the way up,” he said. “From the top, they couldn't ski down, but they did make the peak. So, really, it was up to the clients and the guide to decide what their goals were for the day. We offered everything from let's take a mellow run to let's go climb that peak to everything in between.”
And, like any trip with more than 125 people, there were bound to be misadventures. Following one long hike, after skinning more than 2,000 vertical feet, one client forgot a crucial lesson. In the “transition area,” where skiers remove their skis and skins and reset their bindings to downhill mode, the client lost a ski.
“The ski left the transition area, of its own volition,” Egan said with his trademark grin. “It went straight downhill, past hours of climbing, and flew right off the edge of the glacier. It was probably a 200-, 250-foot drop to the ocean.
“The guide handled it very well. He looked at the client and said, 'You might want to think about those ski straps I gave you,'” he said. “It's something I made sure all my clients had, because you want to maintain all your equipment.”
While the client shuffled down the 2,000-foot slope, with only a single ski, the guide radioed the Zodiac driver. Equipped with binoculars, the driver aimed straight for the group as they made their way to the edge of the glacier.
“They actually found the ski on what's called a growler,” said Egan. “A growler is a small iceberg, about the size of your living room. It had been snowing a lot recently, and most of these icebergs had a good foot of snow. And this ski was stuck into the top of this iceberg like an arrow.
“The client was so lucky. It could have landed on a rocky beach, or in the water, never to be seen again. “
For the most part, though, Egan said the trip was surprisingly free of drama or mishaps. Making the adventure even more special was that Egan was joined by his wife, Barbara Friedsam.
“I wouldn't have wanted it any other way. It was really pretty cool, that we've come together in our lives and now we get to share these great moments that made us who we are,” he said. “For her to see me at work, doing what I love to do at a remote location, I'm sure was great for her. And to have her as part of my team out there, and someone I could trust, was just an unbelievable experience.”
The family connection didn't end there. Asked if there was any particular moment that stood out to him, Egan replied there was “one that hit me like a brick.”
“My dad just passed away last November, and we were there on his birthday,” he said. “It was just one of the most special ski days. We saw so much wildlife that day. It was so special, and I knew I was supposed to be there for that.”
While it may have taken Egan 60 years before he took his inaugural trip to Antarctica, he expects to return in the not-too-distant future now that he's had a taste of the Great White Desert.
“Oh yeah. I'm going back, for sure,” he said. “I'm sure it'll happen again soon.”
Photo Credit: Tyler Wilkinson Ray
More with John Egan:
Video: Reflections of a Ski Legend.
Aging to the Extreme.