Phil Wickens Pro Polar Explorer & Photographer

Many climbers and mountaineers dream of summitting unclimbed peaks. Making 8 first ascents might seem like an unattainable feat, but for Polar explorer Phil Wickens this was accomplished on just one expedition!

A skier on a mountain on the Antarctic Peninsula
Photocredit: Phil Wickens

In January 2012 Phil led a small team of mountaineers and skiers to climb 13 peaks located in the Antarctic Peninsula. Travelling between islands by yacht, the summits were achieved in multi-day and single day tours. Rising straight out of the sea, the mountains range from 500 – 2600 m in height and are heavily glaciated, even during the Antarctic summer. Due to uncertainty over the thickness and conditions of the sea ice, choosing which mountains to summit in advance is not always possible. This adds an extra dimension to the adventure which must include contingency plans in case thick sea ice makes sailing in some places impossible.

During our sail in to Paradise Harbour we had spotted a good ski route up the peak on Bruce Island, which had no previous record of ascent. We therefore landed here as we left Paradise Harbour en route to Cierva Cove. The tricky landing was in a small and steep-sided inlet on the northern tip of the island, and the only spot that was sufficiently sheltered to land. After landing on a small rocky platform we hoisted the inflatable boat up the 45° snow-slope above and headed up to easier ground to put on skis. Phil Wickens.

The snow covered mountains protruding along the length of the peninsula make stunning landscapes. The scenery provided Phil with many opportunities to take photographs which capture the dramatic beauty of these remote regions. Some of Phil’s pictures are included in this post, but we recommend visiting his website and viewing his latest images. The photos also capture dangerous crevasses, and exhilaration of the skiing which was a major part of the expedition.

More crevasses were crossed at the edge of the glacier, followed by gentle slopes to reach a steep and icy slope that gave a safe route between two icefalls. This slope was ascended on ski and using ski crampons to reach the upper bowl. From here we made a rising traverse leftwards until we could follow the north ridge to the summit. Beyond the summit we could see that a sharp ridge dropped about 200m before rising to another subsidiary summit, which was connected to the Detroit Plateau by easier snow slopes above.
From the summit we enjoyed a long ski descent down often steepish
(30°) slopes on firm snow and in perfect weather. Phil Wickens.

A skier looks into a deep crevase
Photocredit: Phil Wickens

Interview with Phil Wickens

As a freelance photographer, expedition leader and polar guide, Phil Wickens has travelled to many remote parts of the world. He has led skiing and climbing expeditions to Antarctica, East Greenland, The Himalayas, The Caucasus, Canada and Peru. He is secretary to the Mountaineering Commission of the UIAA and was Vice President of the Alpine Club in 2006-7. Phil is also a naturalist and lecturer in expeditions, polar geology and history.

We asked Phil to tell us about himself, his recent Antarctic Expedition and his passion for photography…

CheapTents: What inspired you to become a polar explorer?

Phil Wickens: From a very young age I was interested in adventure and exploration of both mountains and the polar regions. I think that this interest was further fuelled by both watching Blue Peter and being in the Cub Scouts.

CheapTents: You worked as a field guide for British Antarctic Survey. What did this posting involve?

Phil Wickens: I spent two winters and three summers in Antarctica. The summers involved looking after and guiding scientists in tented camps as they conducted their work, often in the mountains or on the glaciers. This took me to some amazing places, such as 3 months on the Evans Ice Stream conducting seismic work, 3 months collecting fossils from mountains bordering the Ronne Ice Shelf, and biological experiments on Alexander Island. The winters were spent servicing field equipment, making preparations for the coming field season, and taking the other base personnel on their 10-day winter holidays (usually camping, and combining snowmobile travel with skiing or easy climbing).

CheapTents: What were the highlights of your recent the expedition to Antarctica?

Phil Wickens: Skiing light, fluffy powder under a midnight sun after the first ascent of an un-named peak that we nick-named ‘Madonna’s Peaks’. Reaching the summit of a virgin 1700m mountain that wasn’t even marked on the map. Summiting an un-named and unclimbed 2000m summit from where we could look across and along the spine of the Antarctic Peninsula, and the ensuing ski descent of a 50 degree slope in thick cloud.

CheapTents: What were the greatest dangers that you faced during your expedition?

Phil Wickens: There are many dangers – capsizing the yacht, falling overboard, hitting icebergs, falling into crevasses, being avalanched, being stranded on shore without food or fuel, etc. The secret is managing these dangers, to understand them, to select a suitable team, and to take the steps that are necessary to minimise the chance of having an accident or incident. On this expedition we had no accidents or even near-misses.

CheapTents: When deciding upon which mountains to summit, what were your selection criteria?

Phil Wickens: They needed to be accessible, unclimbed, skiable and objectively safe.

A Skier descends a slope on virgin snow in the Antarctic
Photocredit: Phil Wickens

CheapTents: When exploring Antarctica, are there any special precautions that you must take in order to protect the native plants, wildlife and the ecosystem?

Phil Wickens: There are. These are defined under the terms of the Antarctic Treaty and, as a member of the International Association of Antarctic Tour Operators (IAATO), the owners of the yacht Spirit of Sydney ensure that the IAATO guidelines and Antarctic Treaty are understood and followed by everyone on board. This is something that we take very seriously.

CheapTents: What makes photography in the polar regions so appealing?

Phil Wickens: I could write a whole article on this! The landscape is dramatic and the wildlife is in your face. It is a photographer’s dream!

CheapTents: Do the extreme cold conditions of polar region present any problems when taking photographs?

Phil Wickens: Very rarely in winter, and certainly not in summer, when temperatures are rarely much below freezing at sea level. Even in winter on the Antarctic Peninsula I never experience any problems, other than batteries going flat much quicker, and condensation forming on the camera when you take it into a warm tent (this is avoided by either keeping it in a plastic bag inside the tent, or keeping it outside the tent).

Cross country skiers on expedition in the Antarctic
Photocredit: Phil Wickens

CheapTents: Are there any particular species of animal that are your favourite(s) to photograph and why?

Phil Wickens: It is always a joy to photograph humpback whales since they can be very active and are often quite interactive with people. When they are around you never know whether you are going to see a tail fluke, a slapping pectoral fine, the large gaping mouth as they feed after bubble-netting their food, or a full breach.

Even after 15 years of travelling in the Antarctic I haven’t tired of shooting penguins; there are a number of shots that I have in my mind that I have yet to perfect, such as penguins bursting out from a wave as it crashes on a beach. And the reason? It means that I spend a lot of time watching these animals and noticing other behaviours that might make great photos.

Penguins on the beach at Gold Harbour, South Georgia
Photocredit: Phil Wickens

CheapTents: What are your favourite bits of gear, and why?

Phil Wickens: My skis and my ice axes! Without them I wouldn’t be able to play so hard! My other favourite bits are usually things I’ve made myself that make life easier and that nobody makes, such as my tent boots, my pulk-haling system, my hanging stove setup and my bags for pegging my tent in snow.

CheapTents: Any people or sponsors that you would like thank?

Phil Wickens: I would like to thank the Eagle Ski Club and Alpine Club for providing grants for my last two expeditions, to Cath and Darrel who run Spirit of Sydney, and to the manufacturers of silver duct tape for allowing me to continue using my outdoor clothes, tents and sleeping bags!

CheapTents: Anything else you would like to say?

Phil Wickens: You might like to mention that, together with the yacht owners, we have put together another expedition for this coming season and there are still a couple of spaces available – it would suit adventurous skiers who would like to ski in Antarctica and who are happy skiing off-piste in all snow conditions. Details are on my website under Expeditions > Ski Antarctica 2012. If anyone would like to ask any questions then they can contact me via my website


Many thanks to Phil Wickens for answering our questions and enjoy your forthcoming expedition to Antarctica!

More Exciting Polar Explorer Interviews

If you enjoyed this interview, why not read some of our interviews with other polar explorers?

Photocredits: Phil Wickens @phil_wickens


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.