Arctic and Antarctica by boot, ski, mountain, and sea
If you ever find yourself lost in snowy, ice-clutched, thoroughly inhospitable country like in the latest wilderness survival movie, don’t pine for the likes of Robert Redford, Anthony Hopkins, or Mads Mikkelson – nice as their company would be.
Rather, pray Phil Wickens is with you.
Sure, he’ll put your outdoors skills to shame. Sure, he’ll make your ability to hike in the snow somewhat resemble Bambi learning how to walk. But when you’re a veteran expedition leader, ski mountaineer, and hiking tour guide, you can be forgiven for making most of us look as natural in the wilds as a digital parking meter.
We spent some time talking to Wickens to learn how he does this, and more importantly how he makes it look so infuriatingly easy.
Please tell us it took a long time to get a job as cool as yours.
Well, sort of.
Then we’re only sort of jealous. How long have you been a ski guide for expedition cruises to the Arctic and Antarctica?
I’ve been leading tours since I was 18, and I now feel very privileged to be leading not just ski-touring and hiking voyages for Oceanwide, but ski-touring and hiking trips on their historic sailing ships, the Noorderlicht and Rembrandt van Rijn.
Has it always been about ski mountaineering for you, or did you start out in some other capacity?
As many people know, my biggest passion is ski mountaineering.
After completing my PhD in Biology, I was employed as a field guide by the British Antarctic Survey. I already had a lot of experience leading mountaineering expeditions to remote parts of the Himalayas, and I’d completed the first ski traverse of the Caucasus.
So guiding scientists in the glacial vastness of Antarctica was the perfect combination of science and adventure.
When did OEX come into the picture?
I started with Oceanwide at the request of a Chinese student group. I had worked with this group in the past for another operator, and they requested me as their expedition leader. It was a program I really believed in.
It was not without its challenges, of course, but it was immensely rewarding. And the kids benefited hugely from both the cultural and educational aspects of their journey.
After all these years, does even polar skiing get routine?
Every day that I put skis on and head out is my favorite day!
When I’m leading groups, my focus is very much on their experience and their safety, so if we get back to the ship and everyone is buzzing and tired, then I’ve achieved my goal.
Between the Arctic and Antarctica, any favorite ski spots?
If I were to pick a personal favorite area in Svalbard, it has got to be the inner reaches of Krossfjord. The mountains there are steep and alpine, the glaciers very dramatic, and it tends to have some of the best snow I have ever skied in the Arctic.
In Antarctica, I have many favorites – I have summited over 100 mountains there, so there’s a lot to choose from. But high on my list is Mt. Francais, because it gives a ski descent of over 2000 meters (6,500 feet) and amazing views.
I also love the mountains above Cierva Cove, because of the number of peaks and the beauty of the range lines.
What’s great and not-so-great about ski mountaineering?
I like when people experience and appreciate what it is I love about the mountains of the polar regions, when people stop to look at a view and can’t find the words to describe it.
In other words, the “wow” moments.
Once, however, I had to share a cabin with an Icelandic guide who slept with dried fish under his pillow. I thought there was something wrong with his feet!
That could be understood when your job is to hike and ski.
Understood, yes. Ignored, no.
Definitely enough to give you nightmares. Can we assume all that skiing allows you to overlook such twists of fate - or foot?
What makes skiing and climbing in the Arctic and Antarctica so different is the combination of skiing from the sea and being in a truly remote wilderness devoid of any trees. There’s a special feeling of timelessness and space that seems unique to the polar regions.
In addition, skiing and climbing in Antarctica is incredibly dramatic.
It’s like skiing at 7,000 meters (23,000 feet) in the Himalayas, but without the effects of altitude, and with penguins everywhere!
What have been the stand-out moments in your years of skiing the Arctic and Antarctica?
I plan and prepare my excursions down to the last detail, so that minimizes the unexpected. But we still have wildlife encounters that can never be planned.
Being surrounded by half a dozen male ptarmigans at the end of a lunch break (because I was tapping snow out of a plastic cup, which sounded to them like a territorial male ptarmigan), was one for the books.
And being surrounded by 200 beluga whales after a super day of skiing was another one.
And sharing a hike with a male polar bear who showed enough interest in us that I had to encourage him to go elsewhere, that was certainly a stand-out moment!
He probably just wanted to join in the fun.
You could be right, though something tells me we all got along better going our own way. Not that I don’t understand his interest.