by Paul Clites - 10 months, 3 weeks ago
I flew out of Houston, TX, USA on Christmas evening to arrive the next day at Punta Arenas (PA) Chile with the required 48 hours before scheduled departure for Antarctica. The early arrival is to allow an expedition company representative to check each person for all required clothing and gear in case something needs to be purchased in PA, and to allow flexibility for possible early departure for the weather-dependent flight schedule to Antarctica. PA is a delightful city itself.
Our South Pole travel group consisted of me and three other solo travelers (Germany, India, Poland), and a separate group of 14 from China. On schedule on Dec 29 the 18 of us plus around 20 other people who were on their way to climb Mt. Vinson (highest summit in Antarctica) took off from PA in a chartered Russian Ilyushin 76-TD cargo aircraft operated by Air Almaty. We landed at Union Glacier Blue Ice Runway near the Ellsworth Mountains, which is about a third of the way inland Antarctica. This would be our home for five days.
The base camp was set up with unheated two-person tents with cots for guests, porta-potties (separated for urine vs. ummm... non-urine, as both have to be hauled out on the return flight, along with any other form of trash, no exceptions), a heated dining/meeting tent, a shower room (each person gets one 5-gallon shower each 3 days, and yes the shower water is hauled out), a meteorology station, and a separate snow runway for ski-equipped planes.
It was all actually quite comfortable. The 24-hour sunlight kept the two-layer tents 50-60 degrees F inside even though outside was in the 20’s. The food was very good cafeteria style, and the camaraderie was amazing. The expedition company had three world-class expedition leaders (all polar explorers) who lectured and entertained us, and at least one of which was with us any time we were outside the camp’s flagged boundary. The weather was as good as it gets in Antarctica, and was actually sunny with little wind all but one day when it got a bit windy with light snow. Sunscreen is a must at all times, as are dark sunglasses.
On our second day at base camp the weather at both the base camp and South Pole was outstanding, so this was chosen as our day to go to the Pole. The four solo travelers and our expedition leader were flown in a ski-equipped De Havilland Twin Otter airplane (operated by Kenn Borek Air of Canada). The group of 14 Chinese were flown in a ski-equipped Basler (refitted DC-3) airplane. Flight times were staggered so the two groups were separate at the Pole.
Midway to the Pole we landed to refuel at a depot consisting of around 100 fuel drums and two one-man tents for the depot staff. The pilot explained that the plane didn’t carry enough fuel for the entire round trip, and that fuel at the depot was only $5,000/barrel, whereas it was $9,000/barrel at the Pole. A British Antarctic Survey plane and crew were also using the fuel depot as a base station at the time for research work they were doing. They pitched their own tents.
Upon landing near the South Pole, we first were given a tour of the Amundsen-Scott Research Station (US National Science Foundation). Tours are only given if someone on the staff has time and interest in giving a tour upon visitor’s arrival, and some travel groups don’t get a tour. Fortunately the Communications Officer had time and gave us a great two-hour tour. There were several laboratories that we weren’t allowed in, but we saw all the crew facilities for 150 people maximum (4-month summer) or 50 (wintering over). They had a basketball court, libraries, movie theatre, gym, cafeteria, dormitory-style rooms, music room, clinic with doctor, US Post Office, laundry room, and all the other facilities you need. Overall it looked amazingly comfortable, which I guess if you are there for all those dark winter months it would need to be.
In the post office we all got South Pole stamps in our passports. I asked to mail a letter to myself but the guide said no, the mail service was only for staff. My suggestion is to take a pre-addressed stamped letter with you and when the guide isn’t looking slip it in the mail slot. It is a US APO (military) post office so regular US stamps will send a letter to a US address. I’ll bet you will receive your letter with a cancelled stamp and no one will care.
After touring the research station, we put all our warm layers back on and went out to the pole. Actually there are three poles within walking distance. First, there is the Ceremonial Pole. This is the one you see in pictures, with candy-stripe pole with a reflecting globe on top and the flags of all the countries that signed the Antarctic Treaty on poles in a semi-circle around it. It really is a great photo op. Wear your mittens. It was about minus 20 degrees F when we were there, which is about the warmest it gets at the pole.
Then there is the Geographic South Pole a little ways away which is a slender rod with a decorative ornament on top. Each year the station’s winter-over team has a design competition for the next year’s ornament, and the maintenance shop makes it out of solid brass. The new ornament is placed each January 1, and the old one is retired to a trophy case in the station. There is a sign beside the Geographic Pole proclaiming it, with quotes from Roald Amundsen and Robert Scott, and stating the elevation of 9,301 feet (around 7,000 of which is ice).
The pole is situated on moving ice that shifts about 30 feet per year (northward of course, LOL). So every day the Geographic Pole marker gets out of position a little bit more, but they don’t reset it until the following January 1 when the new ornament is put on. So in addition there is a third pole, which is nothing more than a green pennant on a stick that someone at the station repositions every few days to keep up with the movement. Since I was there on New Years Eve, December 31, the green pennant was about 30 feet from the brass Geographic Pole marker that had been set the prior January 1. Our expedition leader had a high-end GPS unit, and upon checking with it he said the green pennant was about one foot off since it was last reset.
I walked around the Geographic South Pole and green pennant (and got it on video) so that I can now say I have visited all terretorial claims that meet at the pole.
After flying back to the base camp, we had three additional days there and took expeditions (6-wheel drive vans) to Elephant Head, Wind Scoop and Drake Glacier. These were in and of themselves great experiences as well.
We then flew back to PA on the Ilyushin as scheduled on January 4. The base camp manager said we were the first group in two years to both arrive and depart on schedule with no weather delay.
This was truly a once in a lifetime experience, both because of the amazing experience itself and the cost. I am very happy that I didn’t let intimidation stop me from going. I am 63 years old, so if I can do it, you can do it. And if you would like someone to take you there, I am ready and eager to do it!!! Even if you don’t need me to go along, feel free to contact me for more logistical and practical information. Paul Clites