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Freeriding in der Antarktis

Johannes Aitzetmüller

No Man’s Land - The Icy Frontier

In a new film, two Austrian freeride skiers tackle the steep, icy slopes on Antarctica.

By Chris Cummins

Twenty minutes into the new freeride film No Man’s Land, starring Austrian skiers Matthias “Hauni” Haunholder and Matthias Mayr, it’s hard not to feel a sick knot of tension in your stomach.

This is a trip into the unknown. Adventurers had travelled to the southern ice continent to trek, climb or even ride bicycles, but skiing down the steep-faced, icy southern mountains is an untested dream. Seasoned polar experts have told the duo that their dream is foolish; the the snow is too hard and, in such conditions, the slopes, sometimes over 60 degrees in steepness, are too extreme.

But the siren-song of pioneering adventure has lured them in. They just have to try it. „We didn’t let the doubters put us off,“ says Hauni, „and we’re so glad we didn’t.“

Too Dangerous?

So, with bated breath, we watch Hauni stands at the top of a ridge, waiting to drop in for his first turn on Antarctic snow.

He and Mayr have made just a short cross country-ski trek to a low isolated foothill of the Ellsworth Mountains that lies not far from the Antarctic adventurer’s base camp. It’s time to test the snow on the slopes of the world’s coldest but also driest continent. Antarctica is basically a frozen desert, so the snow is anything but fresh. Will it be too hard to ski?

After 15 months of planning, it seems that the naysayers might have been right after all. The snow doesn’t seemed to be well bound.

The slightest test pressure has triggered a slope-wide avalanche.

Thousands of Miles from Rescue

After further tests, the Tyrolean is determined to drop-in anyway. If anything goes wrong there will be no rescue helicopter. The next hospital is thousands of miles away on the windy southern tip of Chile. What goes through your head at a moment like that?

“I try to clear my head of all those thoughts that might be swirling around,” says the father of a young family. “I try to concentrate on what I’m doing, concentrate on the skills I have, do the thing I’m good at.”

On the way up and at the top the athletes are seasoned risk-assessors, using all their experience to gauge that balance beteen pushing boundaries and staying safe. When the decision has been made to drop in, they are just skiers, nothing else.

Freeriding in der Antarktis

Johannes Aitzetmüller

„The most fascinating place I ever skied“

In the end, the test goes well. At the bottom, there is primordial shriek of joy. The pair don’t just get down the Antarctic slope but can really ski down with some aesthetic looking turns for cameraman Johannes Aitzetmüller’s swirling drone.

The project is up and running.

“It certainly wasn’t the easiest snow on,” confides Mayr, “it is very dry and very aggressive but it is the most fascinating place I have ever skied.”

The Death Zone

The first hurdle overcome, the pair, along with cameraman Aitzetmüller, lash their equipment to sleds and set off towards Ellsworth Mountains to try higher, longer, steeper slopes. It’s a multi-day trek. They have back-ups for most their equipment because any technical malfunctions or losses could prove fatal. If your tent blows away, you’ll freeze.

“The real Antarctica wants you dead,” barks Sir Robert Swan to the film cameras, the first person in history to walk to both the North and South Poles. “If you forget that you die.”

The gruff Yorkshireman may be blunt, but he has decades of experience. His warning is worth heeding.

Veterans of the Cold

Of course, Haunholder and Mayr are no strangers to cold and treacherous conditions. Previous ski adventures have taken them to the uninhabited volcanic island of Onekotan, which is part of a very inhospitable and windy archipelago in the icy Pacific between Russia and Japan and to northeastern Siberia, the coldest inhabited region on earth.

But this is a new level of natural hostility. The wind whips around, the clear visibility makes distances almost impossible to estimate. The two skiers are taken to their physical and mental limits.

Freeriding in der Antarktis

Johannes Aitzetmüller

A Sense of Jeopardy

No Man’s Land, which will celebrate its Austrian cinema premier in Salzburg tonight, is a skiers’ ski film. The build-up is paced just right so the tension and danger are palpable even to the armchair fan at home. Unlikely the glossy ski porn that is so often dished out, here you always feel the effort and the nail-biting sense of jeopardy. Every turn feels like it means something.

It’s like the scariest and most rewarding ski tour you ever took, then amplified to 100. The scenery is, of course, mesmerizing.

So much SUV

Any criticism? Perhaps more of the early scenes in Spain could have landed on the editing room floor. This prelude to the real adventure, involving, ultimately ill-fated, attempts to learn kite-surfing as a method of travelling across Antarctica, seem an overly long prologue. Meanwhile the catalogue of exterior driving scenes are left in no doubt which SUV producing firm has stumped up the money for this film.

Adventures have to be financed, and so you need a sponsor, but does this sponsoring have to be so in your face? A film about the pristine Antarctic heavily featuring a firm engulfed in the emissions scandal, feels a little uneasy to say the least.

It’s No Playground

Then of course, in this day of the IPCC climate change report, we have to address the elephant in the room? Should be there at all – adventuring? Or does Antarctica belong only to climate scientists and penguins?

“You can say that about all our films at first glance,” admits Mayr candidly. “We didn’t need to go to an uninhabited island in the Pacific or to Siberia. These films are our only chance to go to these amazing places and although we are aware of the carbon footprint of us flying there, we hope that by showing how beautiful our planet is, we will encourage people to want to protect it.”

Austrian Premier: Wednesday 10.10.2018, 7:30pm. Salzburg, OVAL - Die Bühne im EUROPARK

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