It has been a long, strange year for the outdoor adventure and exploration community. Early in 2020, the coronavirus pandemic spread across the globe, putting a halt to the spring climbing season in the Himalaya—including Mt. Everest—and causing a nearly complete shutdown of the international travel industry. As the weeks rolled past, we saw the summer climbing season in Pakistan also reduced to next to nothing, and envy now the fall looks pretty grim for Nepal and Tibet too.
Yesterday, another domino in the annual adventure calendar fell when Antarctic Expeditions and Logistics (ALE)—the company that handles most of the skiers and climbers that travel to the frozen continent—announced that it had cancelled the 2020-2021 season as well. This deals another dramatic blow to adventuring guiding companies from across the globe and delays an entire group of adventurers for at least a year. It also means that we’ll have a dearth of things to talk about from November through January, which is typically the prime season for Antarctic travel.
In a message posted to its website, ALE says that it has made this decision after very careful deliberation. The memo points to a rising number of COVID cases in Chile as a whole, and Punta Arenas in particular, as a reason to call things off. The city serves as the HQ for the expedition organizer and a launching pad for the majority of South Pole skiers, not to mention climbers heading to Vinson. Operating in an environment where the virus is highly active—and rapidly rising in numbers—makes things extremely uncertain for everyone involved. It also puts ALE’s clients and staff at risk. That, coupled with likely fewer clients than normal due to current economic and health conditions, helped to make the decision one that was clear, even if it wasn’t easy to make.
For those who were signed up to go to the Antarctic this year, ALE says that there will be a variety of options as to how to proceed. Those options include full refunds or the opportunity to carry-over any deposits or payments that have already been bade to the 2021-2022 season. By then we all hope the world will be getting back to some kind of normalcy, but until a vaccine is available things will remain uncertain to say the least. A revised schedule for next year will be released in a few weeks to help with the preparation and planning for future expeditions, including those extending into 2022.
As mentioned, ALE is responsible for handling the logistics of the vast majority of the private individuals who visit Antarctica on an annual basis. But as ExWeb points out, there are some expedition organizers who operate out of Cape Town in South Africa rather than Punta Arenas. These guide services may continue operations this year, taking clients to the bottom of the world along an alternate route. That does happen nearly every year, but we just don’t hear as much about those expeditions specifically.
It is also possible that we could still see an independent expedition or two making their way to Antarctica as well. Although these types of undertakings are fairly rare, they do happen from time to time. For instance, back in 2017 Mike Horn sailed his own ship to the edge of the continent, disembarked and skied solo and unsupported across it. Meanwhile, his crew brought the ship around to the other side, picking him up after he was finished. There aren’t many individuals or teams who have the resources to pull something like that off, but it could be a possibility.
Right now however, unlike in years past, it appears that there will be very few Antarctic explorers to track this year, if any at all. That includes adventure travel companies taking well-heeled travelers on ‘last-degree” journeys to the South Pole. Keep in mind, Antarctica remains the only continent where COVID-19 has yet to appear and the staff at the research and exploration stations down there would like to keep it that way. That becomes a much more realistic goal if the tourists are kept from reaching the ice. As you would expect, any new personnel being sent to those stations will have to undergo a quarantine before they arrive.
Show of hands, who is ready for 2020 to be over?