The Polar Ski Guide: Todd Offenbacher
What I Do:
Todd Offenbacher has been leading ski trips to Antarctica and Svalbard Island in the Arctic Sea for Ice Axe Expeditions for years, taking ice-breakers and steel-hulled sailboats out to some of the most unforgiving regions of the planet. As such, Offenbacher daily checklist on an expedition is downright militant: "I get up early every morning, check the weather, and then go out in a Zodiac to scout ski lines. We load clients into the Zodiac with their skis and packs and ice axes and all their avalanche safety gear and ferry them to safe landing zones. We also bring a survival barrel full of food and shelter in case we get trapped on land by weather or drifting sea ice. Then I lead the way up through the glaciers onto the mountainsides that we ski down."
An Arctic ski guide's resume needs to have equal parts skiing experience, climbing experience, and first-aid survival know-how. "I’ve climbed El Capitan 20 times, including twice with disabled friends, and I’ve done first ascents all over the world. I’m also certified in avalanche safety and as a Wilderness First Responder." It also helps to be a people person: "The real reason I get invited back," says Offenbacher, "is that I love people."
"Last year in Svalbard, I had clients on top of a cornice about to jump off, and I wanted to make sure the slope wouldn’t release into an avalanche. So I told them to wait while I jumped first and landed hard and then ski cut to one side, to try to make it release. When I landed, the snow was so hard it tore my ACL and fractured my tibia. I skied a bunch more days with swelling and pain, and then one day I had to lead everybody up a glacier. I stopped at one point to rope everybody up and I happened to notice that it was a beautiful blue-bird day with the water all glassy behind us, so I took ten careful steps to one side, on the glacier ice, to get a picture of this kid coming up behind me. Then it was like a trap door fell out from under me and I fell into a crevasse. I’ve taken big falls before, but [this time] I kept falling and falling, and I had time to think, 'Shit this is how I die.' I was facing upward as a I fell, almost like floating on my back, with my skis on and a huge pack with a rifle because of the polar bear threat. Then I landed on my backpack, and the instant I hit, I thought, 'I’m alive.' Then all this snow came down on me and I’m clawing for air, and now I’m sitting on a snow bridge fifty or sixty feet down into this hole and I looked over my shoulder and it was bottomless below me. It was really dark and cold, too. I got on the radio and called another guide and said, 'I need a rope as soon as possible, I am not safe. I was missing one ski at that point. He threw a rope down, and once I clipped into it, I knew I was going to live. Not a day goes by that I don’t think about that." -Daniel Duane