Almost a third of the planet’s land is covered by snow, but one continent above all boasts an untapped stash. Finnish photographer Tero Repo set sail for snowboarding’s last frontier with Lucas Debari and Xavier de le Rue.
In November 2009, Xavier de le Rue and Jeremy Jones took a cruise ship to the Antarctic Peninsula during filming for Deeper. With just six days in the area they were barely able to scratch the surface, but it was clear that the riding potential was limitless. So, a couple of years later, Xavier decided to head back to this frozen paradise.
The first challenge, of course, was to raise the necessary budget. Antarctica is one of the most remote and expensive places on the planet to reach, but thankfully Xavier’s sponsors at The North Face stepped up to make it possible. This time, instead of a cruise ship, it was decided that a sailboat would be much better option, and after searching for the best vessel, Xavier found the Golden Fleece and its captain Jerome Poncet – one of the most experienced mariners in the southern seas. There was just one flaw with the plan: no one had thought about the reality of rough seas and seasickness...
And so, in November 2012, Xavier, Lucas Debari and rest of the crew jumped aboard a flight to the Falkland Islands, where the Golden Fleece was waiting to set sail on its dream journey of snowboarding discovery.
24th November – Saturday
Took my first seasickness pills of the trip at 6 am at Santiago airport. 30 minutes later I feel like shit. My head is spinning and my hands are shaking – it feels like a hangover without the alcohol. In the afternoon we arrive at Port Stanley in the Falkand Islands. Due to a storm in the Drake Passage, we stay in the harbour.
25th November – Sunday
After dinner we hoist the sails and start our journey to Antarctica. It seems like we’re in for a rough ride.
26th November – Monday
The seasickness has started to kick in. Xavier is feeling it worst of all. Personally I feel OK when I’m lying down, but my balance is gone. Even going to the toilet is a mission.
27th November – Tuesday
We are moving super slowly as the swell is big. Our cruising speed is only 2-3 knots because the waves are close to ten metres. I thought I would be scared but instead I just feel useless and tiny in the middle of this big storm. I am also starting to get bored of lying down, which is still the only way I can feel comfortable. My body is aching. I don’t know if it’s the pills or the situation, but questions are racing through my head: Are we going to get good weather in Antarctica? Is the snow going to be OK for riding? Is it all worth it?
28th November – Wednesday
The swell has dropped off and our cruising speed is now 8-9 knots. It seems like everyone is feeling a little better. Today is the first time for a few days that I’ve eaten a small meal – up to now all I’ve managed is an occasional banana or slice of bread. I still can’t stand up or sit down for too long. Being in the bed remains the best option.
There’s only two more nights until we reach the Shetland Islands. Definitely light at the end of the tunnel. Crossing the Drake Passage in a sailing boat has been lot harder than I expected.
29th November – Thursday
I feel a lot better. Just had a proper breakfast with ham, cheese and toast. I haven’t had a poo for four-and-a-half days. I think today might be the day. The captain says that we’re less than two days from the Antarctic Peninsula.
30th November – Friday
I have a massive headache. I’m hoping that two pain killers and a sick sickness pill will make it go away. Aside from that, I’m starting to get my strength back. I must have lost 2-3 kg’s over the last few days, now it’s time to eat and get those love handles back!
We can see the Shetland Islands in the distance. It’s great to see some land and mountains, and it’s tempting to stay here for a while and ride some lines. We decide to push on for the Antarctic Peninsula however, where the real mountains await.
1st December – Saturday
From the Shetlands to Antarctica, the sea is fairly rough again. I am so over being seasick. We finally reach the Peninsula and I feel massively relieved. No more lying in bed getting bounced around. The view is just stunning. Countless small icebergs float around outside the ship, and behind them are these huge mountains where we can already see some ridiculously steep lines. It’s all quite surreal; the icebergs are so blue and the water so clear. Antarctica is definitely the most mind-blowing terrain I have ever seen.
Lucas and Xavier take the zodiac to a small island to ride couple of mini lines. I am so excited to take my first photos of the trip. We finish the day riding and shooting on an iceberg.
2nd December – Sunday
After a promising sunny morning, the clouds rolled in. We decide to give it a go anyway and skin up to a small face, where we wait for two hours before deciding to pull the plug because of the stubborn flat light. Later in the afternoon it starts to clear up again, so we go back up for a successful evening session – the first proper lines of the trip. Hell yeah the beer tastes good after.
We beach the boat in a shallow bay. It’s really uncomfortable moving around in a boat that is now tilted 30 degrees.
3rd December – Monday
Christophe, the paraglide pilot, has cut his hand open. There are no doctors around so Tony, the guide, stitched his hand. A few hours later we have another accident: we beach the boat in a shallow bay. There’s no exit as it is low tide. Nothing for it but to wait for high tide. It’s really uncomfortable moving around in a boat that is now tilted 30 degrees.
While waiting, the boys slay an exposed line followed by some smaller but equally gnarly faces overlooking the sea. It’s yet another sunny day in Antarctica.
4th December – Tuesday
No wind and blue skies. We are living the dream in the most beautiful place in the world. We have major plans for later on, when the sun starts to melt the hardpack. For lunch, we have a BBQ on the deck.
Early in the afternoon, Xavier and Lucas start hiking a steep face. You would not want to fall here: a 400-metre, 55-degree slope that drops right into the frozen ocean. As the snow is still hard the riding is super slow, but impressive nonetheless. We are basically isolated with no chance of rescue, so it is better not to take any crazy risks. Safety first. It’s the biggest day so far though, and Xavier steps it up further, finishing with a 60-degree face called Santo’s Peak.
5th December – Wednesday
We don’t have an exact plan; we’re just sailing around. After a good start to the trip, everyone seems tired, and people have different ideas about how things should be rolling. The atmosphere amongst the crew is tense. Even the captain is getting bit restless because there is not a proper plan. No riding or filming today.
6th December – Thursday - Finnish Independence Day
We are cruising back to a zone we saw a couple of days ago. It is sunny again – we have been more than lucky with the weather.
We anchor the boat to an ice shelf surrounded by massive glaciers. I shoot some scenics from the paraglider. It is amazing to have a bird’s eye view and bring some contrast to the photos and film.
The riders and a filmer climb up a sketchy ice face from sea level. We get some great action shots of them riding back down the same slope. Stoked!
7th December – Friday
I just woke up. Can’t believe I slept almost 12 hours. It is a bit milky outside so we are taking it super easy. Coffee pot is on and there is no rush. Seems like everyone is starting to get bit more relaxed and satisfied after the stress of the first week.
8th December – Saturday
I have had one shower so far. Hopefully tonight there will be some hot water to have one. I feel home sick for the first time. I am starting to count the days until I see my family again. 16 more and I will be celebrating Christmas with my wife and kids.
Lucas went for an unscheduled swim while trying to cross 50-metre bay with his snowboard. Xavier had better luck and didn’t get wet. Got some quality shots again – more close-up style this time, from on the slope.
9th December – Sunday
The most perfect day so far. No wind and bluebird. Lucas hurt his wrist hitting a small face in the morning though, and it seems almost impossible to find good snow. Not much has happened since. I just had a beer on the deck. We are planning to go for a little evening session if Christophe, the paraglide pilot, manages to fix the wing he broke earlier today.
Antarctic Exploration Vehicles
Xavier de le Rue and friends chose the traditional boat for their trip to the southern continent, but history is replete with more interesting vehicular options. Click the names to see them in their full glory!
The Snow Cruiser – USA
Also known as ‘The Penguin’, the yankee offering is reminiscent of the space marines’ tank in Aliens, only it proved to be far shitter. It eventually became buried under the ice, briefly surfacing during a thaw in 1958, and its current whereabouts are not known.
The Kharkovchanka – Russia
The Karkovchanka was a 35-ton beast replete with caterpillar tracks and accommodation for 10 scientists; it could climb 30-degree inclines with its 510 horsepower engine.
Armed only with a modified English tractor Sir Edmund Hillary laid one half of the route all the way to the pole. Meanwhile, Dr Vivian Fuchs set off from the other side of the continent in a Tucker Sno-Cat, meeting Hillary in the middle before claiming the glory strokes and subsequent knighthood. Hurrah!
10th December – Monday
I just had a shower. It feels amazing to have clean hair again. After last night’s successful session I think I have enough great shots from the trip. It’s hard to find the motivation to go for another mission this morning. I think tomorrow we will go for a little sail in search of humpback whales and some potential waves to surf.
11th December – Tuesday
I am crying like a baby. Cathy, the cook, just cut some onions for the tart we will have for lunch. The food has been amazing on this trip – we’re eating quality meat and fancy soups every day. We also have endless stacks of wine and beer on board.
It is snowing outside. A perfect day to edit and organize the 3000 photos I have taken so far. WOW!!! We just saw a minke whale playing around the boat. Very impressive.
12th December – Wednesday
We are slowly heading north. The journey towards Drake Passage has started, which means we are going home. The plan is to stop in the Shetland Islands for a couple of days, maybe one more day of riding over there, but otherwise I think we have nailed this trip as well as we could.
13th December – Thursday
The sea is flat, no wind at all. I just had my first swim on this trip. I feel great now – blood circulation is fast.
It seems like everyone is just waiting to get back to the Falklands. After shooting a narrow, steep couloir in shitty snow, it’s clear there’s not much left worth riding. The captain thinks we will start back in two days as the winds are against us at the moment.
In the afternoon we try to find some waves. Our filmer, Guido Perrini, was desperate to jump in the water as he has skied and surfed every continent but Antarctica. Unfortunately the surf wasn’t up – it’s only big enough waves for the penguins, who play in the white water.
14th December – Friday
It’s my son’s ice hockey practice today. I miss doing daily stuff with my family. It sucks that I won’t have time to do any Christmas shopping, since we’ll arrive back in Europe on Christmas Eve. The jet lag will be also be a problem, even though the time difference is only four hours – the sun doesn’t really set in Antarctica so we haven’t been in bed before midnight, which means 4 or 5 am in Europe.
The captain is looking at the options for heading to the Falklands. Looks like we might leave tonight. Super uber stoked.
15th December – Saturday
Drake Passage is flat. Cathy takes the wheel while the captain and first mate take a nap. The swell is still swinging the boat a little bit, which makes reading and editing difficult. Watching movies seems like the best option. If the next four days stay this calm I will consider myself a lucky man. 16th December – Sunday
The ride is getting little shakier. Everyone is feeling little sick. Again. I think about opening a beer to see if that helps, but choose to watch five movies instead. My back is hurting from lying down on the bed. Monday and Tuesday look like they will bring a moderate swell, nothing huge. Luckily Xavier has lot of films to watch.
19th December – Wednesday
I am sooo happy when I wake up. Today we will finally arrive back in the Falkland Islands. It is only 7 am but I’m too excited to sleep. I run to the deck, and I can actually see some land. The weather is miserable but everyone is smiling, there is even a beer open on the table. Today is party time for sure.
20th December – Thursday
A hangover is kicking in but to avoid it we go check the local surf beach. A couple of beers, snacks and laughs are enough to get rid of the headache. Xavier is even able to catch a few waves.
Even though this has been the best trip ever, and I have great friends around me, I feel a bit sad. I really miss my family and I’m ready to go home. Until the next time.
Antarctica is definitely the most mind-blowing terrain I have ever seen