Antarctica: the coldest, most windswept and desolate of all the world’s continents. This is a place like no other, where the coldest temperature on our planet was recorded (-79˚C) and where winds can gust up to 150mph. 98% of the Antarctic land mass is covered by moving ice in places up to 3000m thick. Unsurprisingly, Antarctica has no indigenous population. Nonetheless, it maintains a small community of mad scientists; a smaller group of even madder folk go there on holiday!
This would prove to be an entirely different experience from the ‘last degree’ trips I had already completed to the North Pole. The two polar environments, as I was to discover, offer entirely different wilderness experiences.
The author acclimatising to the freezer: goggles are not optional here.
My journey ‘heading south’ to ski the last two degrees (220km) to the South Pole started in Chile. I arrived straight there following a two month expedition leading a group of young people in the Falkland Islands and South Georgia. This provided good acclimatisation for the much colder and windier conditions of the Antarctic interior.
Punta Arenas, at the southern tip of Patagonia, has been a renowned meeting point for explorers from all over the world for centuries. It was here that our international team first assembled for this trip, organised and led by the Norwegian Borge Ousland, arguably the most accomplished polar explorer alive.
One of our first days in Punta Arenas involved attending a briefing meeting, given by Antarctic Logistics & Expeditions (ALE), the only organisation offering expedition support and flights to the interior of Antarctica. Basic survival in the frozen south is not straightforward, and neither is booking your place on a flight to the interior.
The ALE staff arrived at our hotel on January 3rd, the day before the planned departure date, to weigh and load our pulks (sledges). This would be the last we would see of our equipment until we boarded the Ilyushin 76 plane which would take us to Patriot Hills, the ALE basecamp, and our first destination on Antarctica.
It is difficult to imagine Antarctica. In the landscape of our dreams it might look like this: a vast, cold, sub-zero desert of wind-sculpted snow. The strangest thing about arriving there is the discovery of this same landscape, stretching the horizon's limit in every direction.
Here we had to wait for the all-important weather window: the next few days involved a rather frustrating time, patiently waiting at our hotel for the phone call from ALE, which would inform us whether or not the winds would allow us to fly that day. When this happens for the third day in a row, you start to realise that this is a place with no true comparison.
Some of my fellow explorers were content to read their books and rest, whilst others explored the shipwrecks along the Chilean coastline, visited the local penguin colonies, and hiked into the hills behind Punta Arenas. Some even climbed trees, no doubt in an attempt to get a better view south, where we hoped we were heading soon!
The edge of Antartica seen from above: a sight sure to get any wilderness lover's heart racing
Late into the evening of January 6th, the call finally confirming our departure. After a four and a half hour flight over Cape Horn and the Drake Strait, we landed at Patriot Hills. The blue ice runway here has been formed naturally by the winds which have swept down from the surrounding mountains over thousands of years. It is an exciting place to touch down in the middle of the night - stepping out on the polished ice into dry crisp air at around -10˚C, under a cloudless sky and sunshine, although it was the middle of the night. At this latitude, the sun never sinks below the horizon throughout the austral summer months.
The Antarctic Interior: what does it take for a human being to survive and function in such a place?
After a brief welcome to Patriot Hills, it was time to catch as much sleep as possible before our departure a few hours later to 88˚ south. Unfortunately our acclimatisation time had already disappeared with the flight delay, and would have far-reaching consequences. Most groups spend a few days at Patriot Hills, acclimatising to the altitude and the cold, allowing time for a final run-through of routines before heading off to the Vinson Massif and other destinations towards the South Pole.
A strong environmental ethic underpins ALE’s Antarctic operations at Patriot Hills. It maintains an impressive carry-in carry-out policy regarding the removal of all rubbish and human waste. There is no other landmass on earth that belongs to everyone but at the same time is owned by no individual state. It is governed by the Antarctic Treaty, which prohibits military and mining activities, reserving the entire continent for peaceful scientific research.
En route to the Thiel Mountains and Patriot Hills
Later that morning, we continued further south in two Twin Otter planes. We landed briefly at Thiel Mountains to refuel, and then continued on to 88˚ south. The altitude here is about 2500 metres, but the air pressure at the Poles is lower due to the lesser centrifugal force of the earth, and some of us suffered the effects of acute mountain sickness (AMS) even at these comparatively low altitude. Borge Ousland had warned us that the altitude would make us feel weaker at the beginning, but the symptoms would gradually disappear. It was just my luck that it seemed to take me longer to adjust.
Anyone for tennis? A glimpse of camp life in the Antarctic
Life in a tent is considerably more pleasant at the South Pole than at the North. The air is much drier here than in the north – due to the fact that Antarctica is a continent and not an enormous sheet of ice. It was possible to use down (as opposed to synthetic) sleeping bags in Antarctica, and clothing could be aired on lines strung across the inside of the tents. Interestingly, the fuel consumption by our life-supporting MSR stoves (used for countless hours of snow melting each day) was considerably less than at the North Pole.
Journeying in the Antarctic: team members alternate between towing single and twin pulks
The terrain we travelled through was simply awe-inspiring. The sky seemed to fill the world beyond the horizon in this vast icy desert. We were lucky with the weather and only experienced a few days of white-out, where the loose snow blew around like fine sand, creating a low level spindrift haze. Some members of our group suffered frostbite, and others took longer to acclimatise. The group split after six days of skiing, so those who were well adapted could proceed at a faster pace. The rest of the group then constructed an ice runway to enable the plane to return to evacuate one frostbitten team member.
The Antarctic service jet Ilyusion lands on the ice runway at 89-degrees south
At this point, we realised that we wouldn’t have the time to ski the full two degrees, and would need to be airlifted closer to the Pole to complete our own journey. Our half of the team had skied from 88 to 89˚ south, and time had run out for us to complete our original planned journey. But at least we had the opportunity to learn the ancient art of building an igloo, which I slept in at 89˚south, before we were collected by the Twin Otter and taken closer to the Pole.
The author enjoying a cosy night in the Team igloo at 89-degrees south
Helen with the mirror ball at the South Pole
At the actual South Pole itself is the famous mirror ball, surrounded by the flags of nations who are signatories of the Antarctic Treaty. The Amundsen-Scott American Research Station is located there, but it is international territory, and we pitched our tents within a snow-ball’s throw of where Amundsen and Scott would have placed their flags almost 100 years ago. The South Pole is a busy place these days, very unlike its northern counterpart. Hercules cargo planes fly in and out several times a day from the McMurdo base, and vehicles move constantly between the buildings and various research projects which lie scattered around the Station.
No race for the pole this time: British and Norwegian flags cross at the end of our expedition, almost a century since Amundsen and Scott ventured into the Antarctic interior.
And what of the all-important weather window for our return to Chile? Our flight out from Patriot Hills was delayed again by three days: this time it didn’t matter, as I was in no rush to leave this extraordinary continent. And what about the unfinished business of skiing to the South Pole? I’m returning next season, as I have been selected to join the Commonwealth Women’s Antarctic Expedition team next November 2009 (www.commonwealthexpedition.com) ....watch this space!
The Geographic South Pole: in the heart of generations of polar adventurers.