I walked around the world and back in two seconds on a Tuesday, but getting to the Geographic South Pole required significantly more effort than circling it.
An intrepid explorer on land, my nerve often stops cold at the keyboard.
My journey started by asking Google in earnest, “How to visit Antarctica?” I’ve dreamed of going to there forever, but no sooner would the thousands of search results load than I’d feel overwhelmed and anxious by the myriad choices, and abandon trying to parse them.
Indecision wasn’t the only cause of my 20-years-plus delay heading due south. I’ve maintained an enduring and sincere belief that at some point, sometime, I read something, somewhere, about a company that flies regular people – not researchers and scientists – to someplace in Antarctica… and it let them sleep there, on land, instead of on a ship.
Throughout the years, I’ve asked anyone who’s ever mentioned Antarctica if they’ve ever heard of such a company or such a place, but the answer has always been a resounding “no.” The mythical “Lost City of A” became my go-to excuse: until I could sleep on Antarctica, there would be no Antarctica.
Then a few months ago, I stumbled upon a blurb online about White Desert, a high-end expedition company that each season flies small groups from Cape Town to Antarctica, where guests stay for eight-or-so days in a temporary camp, weather permitting.
I’d found Xanadu at last! One click to their website delivered even better news: the next expedition was leaving in three weeks! I emailed the company immediately to announce I was in. Several rounds of email and a lengthy Skype call later, I learned I was in… but not for a couple of seasons, since expeditions are booked years in advance.
I’d won the lottery, then lost the ticket.
Two weeks later, though, I received an email from White Desert inquiring how much notice I might need were a spot were to open. “Zero,” I replied, pretending I had no responsibilities and money to burn, two critical ingredients for the self-deception required to travel as often as I do.
I was told not to get my hopes up. The next morning, I received an email asking whether I could leave in five days.
Four days later, I was on my way to Cape Town with nothing but underwear and pajamas (my winter clothes were in storage across the country, an unfortunate result of being in-between houses). After spending three days in Cape Town getting my gear and visiting penguins, I joined the small team boarding a private Gulfstream and took off Wednesday, December 6 at 11 p.m.
We arrived at 4 a.m. to daylight.
As we approached the Antarctic continent, I noticed the Southern Ocean’s waves weren’t moving, but rather were frozen into pack ice built up against the continent, creating massive ice shelves the size of countries. After landing on an ice runway named after the nearby Wolf’s Fang mountains, we changed into our gear on board, and deplaned.
The hue of the night sunlight and that first blast of Antarctic air, coupled with a particularly shiny, sparkling color of white that went on in every direction, and sharp, jagged, leather-brown mountain peaks jutting up through the snow in the near distance made it feel like we’d landed on another planet, or were viewing earth from deep space.
As the ground team hurriedly off-loaded and reloaded the Gulfstream and the DC-3 Basler that was waiting for us, we snapped photos of one another and tried to take it all in. Since everyone was covered from head to toe, including goggles, it was difficult to distinguish them, so I kept introducing myself to the same people.
After a few minutes, we boarded the DC-3, which was nearly barren inside save for basic seats, our gear, and supplies. We flew at altitude in the unpressurized cabin for about an hour to the Novolazarevskaya ice runway, where specially converted 8×8 trucks would take us the final half-hour to Whichaway Camp, our home for the week.
It was during this drive that I realized I might not actually be where I’d planned to go. Which shouldn’t be a surprise, since I never research a place before going, and Antarctica was no different.
Most, if not all, visitors to Antarctica go to its peninsula. I didn’t even know there was an Antarctic Peninsula. I didn’t know that the Princess Astrid Coast region of Queen Maud Land, where I had just landed, was thousands of kilometers away, and a world of difference from the Peninsula.
Queen Maud Land is a barren plateau in eastern Antarctica. The region was discovered by a Norwegian expedition in 1930 and remains a dependency of that nation. Its 2.7 million square kilometers (a million square miles) comprise about one-fifth of the total area of the continent, and are covered by the Antarctic ice sheet, which is up to 2.4 kilometers thick. Almost the entire coastline is a wall of ice 20 to 30 meters high. Further in from the coast are the mountain ranges I’d seen when landing, each with stark, rocky peaks that violently pierce the ice cap and look unlike any others.
There is nearly no life on Queen Maud Land like there is on the peninsula – no inflatable boats filled with tourists, no land or sea teeming wildlife, not even any plants or insects. Save for two species of birds that sometimes breed there, and the two 20- to 40-person research stations, the Indians (Maitri) and the Russians (Novolazarevskaya) that were a short drive from our camp, there was nothing, and no one, around for thousands of kilometers. During my entire trip, I saw four birds and a smidgen of moss.
Camp Whichaway (70° 45° 49° S, 11° 36° 59° E) is located on the Schirmacher Oasis – so called because the plateau it’s on is ice-free – next to a 60-meter ice fall and a frozen lake. It’s set up and taken down each season, and consists of six sleeping pods; four communal pods that house a kitchen, dining room, living area, and showers/bathroom; staff sleeping tents; and two extra guest tents, one of which was mine – late to the party, I was pod-less.
In many ways, being in Queen Maud Land reminded me of being in the Sahara Desert in Chad, which I guess isn’t surprising considering Antarctica itself is a giant desert, yet another thing I didn’t know. Unlike the North Pole, which is not land, but rather sea ice covering the Arctic Ocean, Antarctica is a massive landmass covered in ice. I expected snow and icy rain, but like the Sahara, Antarctica is dry, and most of its snow is ancient. When it “snows” here, it’s really just old snow being blown around by tremendous katabatic winds that menace the continent during storms. On the Schrimacher Oasis, the katabatic winds have cleared the glaciers of much of their snow, revealing the Earth’s ancient bedrock and leaving blue ice behind.
Being on the world’s most remote continent, like being in the Sahara, is an exercise in describing what’s not there. It’s isolated, barren, silent, and white for as far as the eye can see, save for the occasional nunatak – an exposed peak jutting out of the ice or snow, some of which are as big as mountains or islands themselves – with the enormous, heavy blue sky dropping down to meet it.
It’s impossible to gain any perspective. Distances of hundreds of kilometers are easily mistaken for short walks, and only after climbing a substantial way up a glacier or a mountain was I ever able to gauge any sense of how large or far anything actually was – and even then, my perspective was constantly shifting.
Enormity of this scale induces a certain type of situational awareness of where I sit in the universe. I understand in a profound way that I don’t just live in city, or a country, but on a planet. One of a trillion planets in the galaxy. It’s life-affirming and completely disorienting at the same time – the ultimate paradox.
From the top of the highest glaciers and mountains, we could see the sea ice pack in the distance, which stretches off to the north for over 100 kilometers. Closer to the coast, the wind and sea push the ice into the continent, where it buckles and refreezes into surreal, undulating, enormous mountains of ice tens of meters high that looked like a violent, stormy ocean frozen in time. We spent a day hiking to, and then climbing up and through them, where we saw jagged peaks and ice caves in every shade of blue, crevasses, small lakes, and streams, and farther away, open sea.
From Whichaway Camp, we flew over 2,300 kilometers to the South Pole to visit the Amundsen-Scott research station, as well as the Ceremonial and Geographic South Poles. After five-and-a-half hours of flying, our DC-3 stopped to refuel at Fuel Depot 83° South, aka FD83, which is at, or very near, the Southern Pole of Inaccessibility.
Each continent has a pole of inaccessibility – a point that’s furthest from access by ocean or other geographical feature. The Antarctic Pole of Inaccessibility is considered the most remote and hardest-to-reach place on the continent, even more so than the South Pole, which is 878 kilometers away. It has the world’s coldest year-round average temperature of -72.8 degrees Fahrenheit, but luckily it was closer to 20 below when we arrived.
FD83 is basically a makeshift seasonal gas station. There is nothing there except an ice runway, a cache of fuel barrels parachuted in by a Russian transport plane, a handful of tents and vehicles, and the five men who spent 90 days traveling 1,900 kilometers at the start of the summer to be on hand should the occasional plane, like ours, need to refuel en route to the South Pole or another remote corner of the continent.
Our team had the unique privilege of spending the night at FD83 on our way home from the South Pole. We slept in tents that kept us remarkably warm, ate dehydrated food prepared with melted ice, and I tried my hardest to avoid the long, freezing-cold, middle-of-night walk to the outhouse tent. My tiny bladder prevailed but given the extraordinary feats of exploration and modern-day logistics that had been overcome to allow me to trudge through the ice on that cold day-night and use a portable toilet in the most remote place on earth made it A-okay.
Landing at the South Pole is an extraordinary moment – being somewhere so few have ever reached, yet landing so easily – and it takes a moment to process. It’s also very, very cold, blindingly bright, and at over 9,200 feet above sea level, shockingly high. Because the atmosphere thins out at the poles, the air pressure feels more like 11,000 feet, so between that and the nine or so layers of clothing I was wearing, it was not easy to move. I felt like the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man, or Ralphie in “A Christmas Story.”
Nevertheless, I managed to walk from the runway to Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station, the U.S. scientific research station, which is the southernmost habitation on Earth; 150 people live and work there during summer, but less than 40 remain during winter. It’s the only landmass on Earth where the sun is up continuously for six months then down for the next six, meaning each year, the station experiences one extremely long “day” and one extremely long “night.”
The station’s resident doctor gave our group a full tour, which felt like a cross between a high school, a college campus, a science and computer lab, and a bunker, and included a fully hydroponic greenhouse (hydroponic because importing soil is forbidden by the Antarctic Treaty). Though not large, it was nevertheless amazing considering it’s in the middle of the coldest and driest desert on the planet.
The Ceremonial South Pole, a metal sphere on a red and white pole, is partially surrounded by the flags of the signatories of the Antarctic Treaty. It’s about 300 meters from the actual Geographic South Pole, the southern endpoint of the Earth’s axis, where the latitude is 90° S, longitude N/A. A simple rod with brass head marks lowest point on the planet, and from here, there is no east, west, or south… north is the only direction.
Everything in Antarctica is extreme. Explorers and alpinists continue to test the limits of the human psyche and body, and researchers and scientists continue to unlock the secrets of Earth and the universe. Though the logistics of daily life are mind-boggling, there is something so alluring about this place that it’s difficult to leave. Perhaps I need to find a company that will allow visitors to “winter over” for a season. That’s one Google search I know won’t come easily.
To view photos from my trip, click Galleries/Antarctica.