Rebecca McWatters, Queen’s University & Johan Mets, Plant Operator
On a fine Saturday afternoon, when the Casey summering expeditioners had only just settled into their bunks on station, a Nordic ski lesson was offered to those keen to learn the art of gliding on skis. The instructors Johan Mets, the Swede (and Tasmanian), and Bec the Canuck (Canadian), both boast a history of ski seasons since childhood and had already spent last season offering informal ski lessons at Casey. This made the Ski School an easy pitch to the 14 participants who had never donned a set of skinny skis or set their feet in a line of parallel tracks.
The lesson started with a briefing on the ski’s grip and glide zones, and how to adjust bindings and proper pole placement, but mostly it was about experimenting with balance, fumbling, gliding and slipping on snow. Skiing back and forth in front of the Red Shed eventually progressed into relay races where people started to forget they were learning. Competition broke out with loud cheers, laughter and graceful falls as teams raced in front of a station crowd using a variety of skiing techniques: classic, double poling and even skate skiing with no poles. Most people, being a little bit clumsy (competitive instructors included), laughed their way through it. Learning progressed quickly and those fleeting moments of the perfect glide, once foreign and far between, slowly became a regular rhythm.
After an hour, it was time to move to the dedicated Nordic trail on station. A handful of beginners impressed the instructors by completing the 2km track while still on their first lesson. The following day a handful more rocked up to for another few laps, and still they are out there circling the loop.
On Friday the beginners were able to test their skills on the open snow roads. The station bus, loaded with 13 eager skiers, drove up the moraine towards the skiway, 6km from station. They strapped on skis, tightened poles and slowly slipped back to station followed by the bus. The stunning view was certainly a distraction, but everyone stayed upright. After the hour-long haul we were all ripe for a rewarding dinner.
More ski sessions will be held on coming weekends, including carrying or towing a survival pack and sled in anticipation of skiing to field huts. Skiing is a great mode of transport for jollies, especially during the busy times when vehicles are in short supply and during the summer melt when skiing is the most reliable and easiest mode of transport (if you are keen to sweat). Last season many skiers new to the sport earned their dinners by skiing to field huts 6, 10, even 15km away on a Saturday afternoon, and then trudged out the same distance home on Sunday.
Casey has a dedicated Nordic trail that makes it easy to get outdoors and get in a workout, either before breakfast or after work. It’s also a great avenue for learning to ski, being on station and not requiring a bulky survival pack on your back. There are times the track feels groomed to perfect corduroy, where edges leave scissor cuts through the snow. At other times, the frustrating crystalline snow and icy terrain don’t make it simple to glide. One might be trucking along at a good pace and suddenly hit hard-packed, wind-blown ridges where upon all momentum is lost.
On a personal note, Antarctica lacks some of the essence we associate with Nordic skiing in our Northern background: the smell of slipping past the snow-covered boughs of pine trees, the shadow and shelter of the forest, the sound of chickadees and the eternal pursuit of fresh powder. Here at Casey, with few exposed rocks flanking the open trails, the views seem to extend forever past the ice cliffs, the moraine, the bergs. The barren scenery, a stark beauty of nothing and so much all at once, magnifies the silence, but the spirit of Nordic skiing remains the same. It is an inclusive sport for all fitness levels, with perfect technique or specialised gear not required. The relaxed atmosphere of the people who return to it each winter fits well with the laid-back Australian culture. Sounds of poles planting cleanly into the snow, bodies huffing and puffing, and that cold brisk wind on your cheeks as you float over snow still feels the same, still burns and reminds you that you are alive.
The new skiers can now claim that they are part of an exclusive club, of those who ski and those who have learned to ski in Antarctica. We might have a Casey Ski Loppet (friendly ski race) yet, or instigate the inaugural Casey Ski Marathon. Stay tuned.