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Taking adventure to the limits: an expedition to Antarctica

5 min reading time

For them, the ultimate high is a mountain on top of which no other human being has ever stood. The story of how BMW Mountains athletes Matthias Mayr und Matthias Haunholder kept their cool as they completed their most extreme journey yet: a freeride expedition to Antarctica.

The cold grabs you like an invisible hand, and it never lets go.
Matthias Haunholder

Freerider

Frigid air floods into the tent from outside. It’s the kind of cold that feels like a slap in the face. And at six in the morning in Antarctica, that’s exactly how it feels. But there are worse ways to be roused from your slumbers. Matthias Mayr and Matthias Haunholder stare out at the vast, frozen horizon – then cast their eyes heavenwards. Clear blue skies. Sunshine. And not a breath of wind. Once again.

The pair keep their disappointment to themselves and strike camp. It’s day six of the expedition, and they fasten their equipment adeptly to the sledges. With around 100 kilos in tow. They move on. Step by step on skis towards their goal: the unknown mountains of the continent’s interior.

It’s nothing new for freeriders and mountaineers to seek out true isolation and the wild, unspoilt side of the mountains. But Antarctica, of all places? This wild? This unspoilt? This isolated? It’s summer at the South Pole, which translates to temperatures of around minus 20º Celsius. And when it gets stormy, “summer” can also mean minus 50º Celsius and force ten winds. “No Man’s Land” is the name the two freeride professionals have given to their expedition. And even a century after the first expeditions to Antarctica, a no man’s land is precisely what it remains. It is arguably a ‘no-go area’ for adventurers who fail to realize what they are letting themselves in for or to prepare meticulously. Any minor detail that doesn’t go to plan can prove life-threatening, as can a sudden change in the weather – especially here, on the continental ice sheet, where the summits can reach almost 5.000 metres.    

Just getting to Antarctica is a mission in itself

Just getting to Antarctica is a mission in itself. After flying to Buenos Aires from their home in Austria, they drove the 2884 kilometres to the southernmost tip of South America in a BMW X3. From there, they took a special flight to Antarctica. “As soon as the doors of the plane open,” says Haunholder, “you’re met head-on by the bleak inhospitableness of the continent.” They find themselves on a gigantic sheet of ice 700 metres thick, and they set off. The very first night, they realise: “The temperatures are not a problem – as long as you keep moving. On breaks and at night, the cold is like an invisible hand that reaches out, grabs you by the scruff of the neck and never lets go again.” 

For 15 months, they fine-tuned the details for the No Man’s Land expedition. They calculated the exact amount of food they would need, and in the BMW cold test chamber they subjected every piece of equipment to a resilience test. The two mountaineers even went to southern Spain to learn how to kitesurf. And now it’s showtime. The endless expanse surrounding them is interrupted only by steep mountains rising dramatically from the ice. “It’s completely different from anything we’ve ever seen,” says Haunholder. “The dry air is so clear that visibility is exceptional in all directions. You feel as if you can reach out and touch the mountain summits, but it takes an eternity to get closer to them. It’s little wonder that this is where other explorers come to get ready for expeditions to Mars.”

For a week, the weather remains their biggest problem. It’s too good. If there was a wind blowing, they could use their kites to cover three or four times the distance. “On an expedition, it’s absolutely essential to see the positive side of every situation. There was no wind, so we hoped that the snow in the mountains would be soft and not too icy.”

On day eight of the expedition, they have finally made it. They are standing in front of the first foothills of one of Antarctica’s mountain ranges. They park their sledges and exchange their ski sticks for ice axes so they can make their way up the steep mountain faces. They soon realise that, given the good snow conditions, they have far fewer problems with crevasses than they had anticipated. But there is a new danger: avalanches. “Even on our first run, a whole slope came down and we had to be extremely careful.”

The most exciting part of the journey was also the most hazardous. While a fall in the Alps can result in broken bones and a complicated rescue, an injury in Antarctica poses is a major problem. “When you’re on an expedition, you’re actually in permanent survival mode. Hyperalert, so as not to overlook any danger, but also in order to pace yourself and use your energy efficiently.”

The most exciting part of the journey was also the most hazardous

All of their efforts are soon forgotten when they hit the first slope. The snow is absolutely perfect, the run unforgettable. “The mountains down there are infinitely fascinating. A lot of people think of Antarctica as being a vast featureless expanse of ice – and yet the highest mountain stands taller than Mont Blanc. And apart from finding skiing conditions that were verging on borderline, there was also some of the best snow I’ve ever skied on,” enthuses Mayr. They have proved that it’s possible to ski at the highest level on these inhospitable slopes. Where most experienced extreme skiers see little chance of good skiing, because the really steep faces are either too icy or just too extreme, they find unexpected powder and a wealth of opportunities for spectacular runs. And they come back with enough raw footage to create a new movie on this journey to Antarctica. “It’s an incredible feeling to ski a line previously considered impossible in  Antarctica interior, to ski a mountain face at the ends of the earth with gradients that in places exceed 60 degrees,” says Mayr. Freeriding not far from the South Pole, pushing freeriding to the limit – far from home. “Standing on an unnamed peak, looking out over the polar ice cap and endless glaciers, is absolutely surreal. You can’t really put it into words.”    

Arctic surfing, creative climbing or mountain biking over the abyss: Freddie Meadows, Fatima Gil and Martin Söderström seek adventures in harmony with nature.

Background:
Matthias Mayr, born in 1981, and Matthias “Hauni“ Haunholder, born in 1979, are Austrian freeride professionals and BMW Mountains athletes who have made a name for themselves with spectacular skiing expeditions to the remotest mountain regions on the planet. They were accompanied on their trip to Antarctica by cameraman Johannes Aitzetmüller, with whom they previously worked on films such as “The White Maze” and “Auf den Spuren der Ersten (Following in the Footsteps of the Pioneers)”. The film “No Man’s Land” will reach cinemas in autumn 2018.    

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