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Rarefied Air

Ariel view of fiberglass pods at White Desert Antarctica

The base camp at White Desert’s site in Antarctica.

Guest visiting the inside of a naturally forming ice tunnel in Antarctica

A naturally forming ice tunnel

By Nick Remsen

For ultra-adventurous—and deep-pocketed travelers, there are, really, two frontiers that glint as the jewels in wanderlust’s crown. Space is one of them. The other is Antarctica, the seventh continent, an unforgiving but unfathomably beautiful five-million-square-mile expanse that’s covered almost entirely by ice.

Most visit this faraway place by boat. One company, however, gets you there via a privately hired Airbus or Gulfstream, which lands on a blue-ice runway that’s more than one kilometer thick. From there, you are ushered to champagne caves, five-star dining from within a fiberglass “pod” (replete with oysters and Champagne), glamping-plush accommodations including extra soft mattresses and minimal-chic design, and once-in-a-lifetime adventures. Say hello to White Desert.

Privately hired Gulfstream on ice runway in Antarctica

A chartered Gulfstream transports guests to Antarctica from Cape Town, South Africa

I traveled as a guest of the White Desert tour operators last December on a six-night trip to Antarctica. Said bluntly and with- out hesitation: White Desert delivers an “awe experience” unlike anything I’ve ever seen, from their attentive on-the-ground service in Cape Town, South Africa—from where guests depart—to your last breath of lung-shocking frozen air before returning. The company is founded and run by polar explorers—there’s no artifice. And while the surrounding amenities are quite luxurious, you’re also in for the realest of deals, and subject to the same unpredictable chaos and conditions as the (comparatively few) pioneers, scientists, and sailors who have come before you. It’s the rarest place to visit on planet Earth. And White Desert brings you where most will never go: The Antarctic interior, with its camps located many miles from shore.

A barrel sauna at Whichaway, one of White Desert’s camps, overlooks a perma-frozen lake and glacier

A barrel sauna at Whichaway, one of White Desert’s camps, overlooks a perma-frozen lake and glacier

When you book a White Desert itinerary, the plans are only approximate. My trip was delayed by a day, given blizzarding conditions at White Desert’s Wolf’s Fang airstrip, which is located in the long shadow of a mountain called Ulvetanna Peak in Norway’s Antarctic territory. There is no WiFi, no cellular service, and no connection at all, really, to the mainland world (unless there’s an emergency). You have to be ready to move—or stay—at a moment’s notice: The day after I arrived, we were all suited up to fly, this time on a seasonally chartered DC-3, to an Emperor penguin colony, only to be told the plans had to be scrapped, due to visibility issues. (Luckily, the weather permitted us to see the birds on our final day.) The winds swell up and relentlessly batter your down jacket. Your crampons groan with violent-sounding crunches as you trek across frozen lakes. You never really know what time it is because the sun never sets; it only dims, from brightest burn to chilled yellow ember. Your fingertips and feet turn white.

And yet, for the extremity of Antarctica’s harshness—physical, environmental, internal—the uniqueness of its sights outweighs any hardships you might face.

Guests biking down an icy pack to view the Ulvetanna Peak, Antarctica

Ulvetanna Peak can be seen to the far right of the icy bike path

In my short time there, I was able to witness and wedge through naturally formed ice grooves that glowed the most pure of blues, which caught and diffused the sun’s harsh rays. I saw ice floes tens of meters high, hanging eerily (and creaking audibly) in the frigid wind. I climbed ice walls, mottled and dappled like the surface of a golf ball. I met regal Emperor penguins—adults and chicks, thou- sands of them—who were unafraid of humans, because they’ve experienced so little of us. I rappelled down a wind-hollowed rock cliff, the sun rolling around the lenses of my protective mountaineering glasses as the breeze spun my suspended form as lightly as a coin being tossed. I even hand-chipped glacial ice to include in my Espresso Martini (yes, top-shelf beverages are available through- out the frequent downtimes of the White Desert experience, which are most often enjoyed in a lounge pod—think a crackling fire- place, bingeable TV, board games, and attentive servers on call to prepare a snack or tell a story.

A signpost showing points on the continent

A signpost showing points on the continent

But in the end, all the attendant trappings of luxury travel wind up feeling beside the point. What you get with White Desert isn’t just something awe-inducing. You get something profoundly introspective, too: a true break from the online entropy of terra firma. Your jaw drops, but you’re also forced, after experiencing it all, to then find the time to close your mouth, your ears, and your eyes, and really feel what it means to escape. That alone is worth everything.

All images ©White Desert Antarctica

 

What To Pack:

Before you take off on your Antarctic adventure, head to Moncler’s brand-new two-level boutique for all of the essentials. Ok, maybe it’s not all essential, but you’ll look as good as you feel ticking off that bucket list!



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