Search This Blog

Saturday, February 12, 2011

How do you get to the South Pole?

Several of my friends have been asking me, so, with the "tourist" season now officially over, I figured I would answer with a blog.  The short answer is that there are several ways, but none of them is easy, each requiring lots of time, or lots of money, or both.

The way I came here requires no money, but lots of time - almost two years, to be exact.  You have to apply for a job, go through interviews, then go through medical, dental, and psychological exams (yes, they check that you are a little crazy to be wanting to do this, but not too much, just the right balance), then you have to go through several weeks of training, and finally you get to fly to the South Pole.  This is also the only way to experience a winter at the South Pole.  The nice thing is that all is provided free of charge (from airfare to top-of-the-line clothing, to recreational equipment, to food and lodging), and you get paid on top of that: a great deal if you can leave a house, or a family, or a job, all at the same time, for the 13-month deployment.

Everyone else who shows up at the South Pole, either as part of an organized tour, or as an adventurer whose stories end up in magazines and books, is called a "tourist".  This year we had about 200 of them.
Most of them came with an organized trip.  There are two tour operators that fly to the South Pole: The Antarctic Company (TAC) flies out of Cape Town in South Africa to the Russian station at Novo, at the edge of Antarctica, using a Russian-built jet plane, then on to the South Pole with a Basler DC-3; Adventure Network International (ANI) flies out of Punta Arenas in Chile to Union Glacier in Antarctica and on to the South Pole using Twin Otter airplanes.
The most popular tour, for about $40,000, is a 1-week trip to Antarctica with a 4-hour stop at the South Pole.  55 people chose this option this year.  Most of them are wealthy entrepreneurs and their families.  Some of them, besides being wealthy, have personal goals to reach unusual destinations.  In this group of people some had already been at the North Pole, and were now stamping their passports with the South Pole emblem.  We also had the youngest person ever to attain both the North and the South Pole (an 11-yr old, if you can believe it).  One drawback of these trips, in my opinion, is that they are short.  There is no time to acclimatize to the 10,000 ft of physiological altitude of the pole, and, because airplanes will only fly in good weather, the people who choose this option will not be able to experience the harshest conditions of strong winds and whiteouts that make the Pole such an extreme environment.  But if you do not have a lot of time, or do not want to be exposed to the elements, and want to have a photo at the South Pole and see Antarctica, this is a great way to do it, and everyone who came seemed to have a great time.

I was giving a tour of the station to a group of 12 tourists on Jan 3, when I heard someone speak Italian.  It turned out to be a father and son from my native city of Rome: Mauro and Alex Sentinelli.  We exchanged email and, who knows, maybe we'll be able to get together again in more temperate climates.  Here we are enjoying cookies and soft drinks in the station lounge before the welcome message from the station manager.  Even the tourists who show up at the pole for just 4 hours may get a 90-minute tour of the station, if they pre-arrange their visit.

The next most popular tour option, for $50,000, is to ski the last degree.  An airplane drops you off at 89 degrees of latitude,  and you have one week to ski to the Pole dragging a sled and camping along the way, before being picked up again at the Pole.  I think this is a great way to explore the South Pole, because you will experience the cold, the wind, the whiteout, but you do not need to be a superathlete or experienced adventurer.  38 people this year chose this route.
A smaller version of the last degree option is the 1/4 degree option, offered by TAC, which maintains a fuel cache 17 miles from the South Pole.  The airplane will drop you off at the fuel cache and you have one day to ski the last 17 miles to the Pole.  21 people chose this option this year.
12 people this year chose to camp at the Pole for 24 hours.  They arrived, camped out, and flew out the next day.
The highest tier of "tourism" is to ski all the way from the coast to the South Pole.  11 people this year accomplished this feat.  8 of them were a group of Indian militaries, with 1 additional person joining them, and two of them went solo.  Nobody this year did the crossing of the continent or the roundtrip from the coast to the pole and back, although one of the solo skiers attempted the coast-to-coast trip, but ran out of time.  He will try again next year.  I did not see anyone this year skiing with the aid of sails, a technique pioneered by Reinhold Messner and Arved Fuchs in their 1989 crossing of the continent, although several people travelling by vehicles brought sails along and were practicing at the South Pole.

A group of three skiers celebrates their arrival at the South Pole on Dec 15 after skiing the last degree.  I was coming back to the station after my morning run when I saw them coming in the distance, so I extended my run to go meet them and welcome them to the South Pole.  Here they are, with their sleds in the background, setting up their tent at the campground that we prepare for the tourists every year, about a half mile away from the station.  They would enjoy the South Pole for a whole day before the ANI airplane would pick them up the next day.

A completely different way to reach the Pole is by vehicle.  This is probably the most expensive way of doing it, and there are no commercial outfitters that will organize such exploits.  Five groups this year came by vehicle, for a total of about 60 people.  They came in Toyota trucks, Ford Econolines, solar-powered electric snowmobile, and home made experimental vehicles.  I already blogged on the Indian Traverse and on the reality TV show about the German/Austrian ski race.  There was also another expedition from the Kazakhstan National Geographic Society that arrived by Toyota Arctic Trucks on Dec 10 and stayed less than a day before driving back to Novo, where they had come from.  The other two quite unique vehicle expeditions were the Moon-Regan expedition and the Park-Yeong-Seok expedition.
The Moon Regan takes its name from the expedition leaders: Andrew Moon and Andrew Regan.  They had two unique objectives: the first was to cross the continent from coast to coast in two modified Ford Econoline vehicles; the second was to drive an experimental biodiesel vehicle  from the coast to the Pole. 

The two modified Ford Econoline vehicles made it to the Pole from Union Glacier on Dec 4.  They would then drive another 600 km to the edge of the continent on the Ross Ice Shelf before coming back to the Pole to pick up the mystery bug and drive all the way back to Union Glacier.

At the station we called this the Mystery Bug.  It came with the Moon Regan expedition.  It is propelled like an airplane, it uses biodiesel, and slides on the snow on skis.  It was supposed to be the fastest land vehicle at the South Pole.  We were hoping to see it break a world record, and some of us were hoping that we would be able to take it for a test ride, but we never saw it moving on its own power.  It stayed with us for several days while the Moon Regan expedition went to the Ross Ice shelf and back.  We never figured out the real deal: did it make it to the South Pole on its own, or did it break down and had to be towed?

The Park Yeong-Seok expedition had as an objective to drive solar-powered snowmobiles from the coast to the South Pole.  They made it in 60 days.  They could only travel two hours before their batteries would need recharging, and it would tale 10 hours of sunshine to recharge.  They were stopped for extended periods of time in overcast conditions.  This was a very noble and successful efforts, although not a zero-carbon trip, when you account for all the logistics involved, with lots of room left for improvement.

The Park Yeong-Seok expedition camping at the tourist campground with their electric snowmobile, charging their batteries in the pale sun of Jan 29.  To compensate for the low solar irradiance at these high latitudes, they used the most efficient solar panels on the market, from SunPower.  The station can be seen in the far background.

So, there are many ways to get to the South Pole, given enough money or enough time.  But why get here in the first place?  As Reinhold Messner wrote in his book "Antarctica Both Heaven and Hell", getting to the South Pole is not like climbing a mountain.  The top of a mountain is a unique feature on the landscape, very different from the surrounding terrain; but when one reaches the South Pole, there is nothing to indicate that it is a special place.  All the meridians converge here, but you cannot see them.  You can stand on the axis of rotation of the earth, but you can't tell that anything is moving.  You could be standing a few miles away from the South Pole and you could not tell the difference, except for the station buildings.  Everything is absolutely flat.  There is only the white ice and the blue sky.  Nothing else.  If the weather is bad you cannot even tell the difference between the ice and the sky, and you feel like you are inside a ping pong ball.  So why spend all this time and money to get here?  I can't tell you why.  All I can say is that this is the purest and most wonderful place on earth.  I just hope that if you decide to swing by you can spend as much time as possible, because it gets better every day.

1 comment:

  1. Wow Marco!! Fantastic photos. I told Mike this was on my bucket list. Thanks for the info! When you thaw out we'd love to hear all about it....
    Kari Kirk