There are two ways to get to Antarctica: pay or be paid. To merely linger on the fringe of the seventh continent for a few hours, the cost might put you back about $4,000. To delve to the depth of the continent, to reach the South Pole, get ready to shell out $35,000 or more. Little effort is required. They fly you down, let you wander around some and fly you back â€“ weather depending.
Actually getting to the South Pole was relatively easy. Mine may well have been one of the fastest trips to the South Pole, even by modern standards. Amundsen, who led the first party to reach the South Pole ever in 1911, took 15 months and 9 days from Norway via ship and dog sled. Byrd got to the South Pole by ship and by plane in 15 months and 3 days - he shipped his plane to the Antarctic coast from New York and, like most, dealt with weather delays.
Just as these explorers piggy-backed on the transportation technologies of their day, I did, too. My trip from the US to the South Pole made use of the most modern of aircraft and took me 69 hours - not quite three days.
After the first month of snow shoveling, the tasks of my job working for the National Science Foundation (NSF) started to expand out to other aspects of the station, but I would never hang my shovel up for good. The major project underway at the Pole is finishing up the construction of the new elevated station. An army of carpenters, plumbers, elections and other construction personnel were working around the clock (and why not? The sun was up 24 hours a day!) to finish up the new station.
After walking through the deep freeze cooler doors that served as the front doors of the station, we had all the amenities of a modern building anywhere in the developed world. There are offices and office cubicles, a computer lab with occasional internet access, a full galley (kitchen/dining hall â€“ South Pole Station has a history with the US Navy so some related nomenclature remains), a basketball court, a gym, plush sofas in the lounges, a big screen TV (no TV stations however â€“ only DVDâ€™s and VHS tapes), pool & ping-pong tables and an array of laboratories and workspace for the scientists.
When I first landed at the South Pole, it was -50?C. The wind of 10 knots brought the chill factor down to -65?C. That was the coldest I had ever experienced, but I had braced myself expecting it to feel even colder. It would seem to some that temperatures of such an extreme would be too great for the human body to tolerate.
It did eventually warm up. While an extra 20 degrees warmer, bringing the temperature to -30?C doesnâ€™t seem like much of an improvement, it is very noticeable. When it was that warm, without any wind, I would easily overheat and have to strip down to my undershirt while shoveling or doing any sort of outdoor labor. Most days the sky was clear and the sunbeams felt glorious.
For fun, we would go exploring. In 1973 a LC-130 Hercules cargo aircraft, tail number 5917 â€“ aka 917 â€“ crash landed at South Pole. Instead of dismantling it and flying it out of there, they hauled it past the approach end of the skiway and have been using 917 as a landing radar beacon ever since. But in those 30 years, the snow drift accumulation has consumed and buried the aircraft. While that doesnâ€™t affect the radar return, visitors to the aircraft have kept an access tunnel in the snow to the emergency hatch in the cockpit. In 2006, the access tunnel was filled in and 917 is now completely buried and off limits.
It was an eerie experience to climb down the 5-meter snow chute and into the snow filled cockpit. All the avionics â€“ altimeter, horizon indicator, gages, yokes and throttles â€“ had been removed leaving a series of holes, some with wires dangling from them. I couldnâ€™t stay down there very long. My breath started to fog the whole place up, but mostly because it was about 60 below and there wasnâ€™t any room to move around to stay warm. Getting back up the surface, I had to jump and dance around to get my blood circulating again to warm my numbed feet and hands.
We also went camping. Once the weather had warmed to a balmy -20?C a winter camping and polar survival expert flew up from McMurdo Station on the Antarctic coast and took a small group of us out on the polar plateau for a night. We had a classroom session at the station before departing where we learned about the physics and biology of staying warm, winter camping techniques, as well as some basic camping skills.
We learned about building snow walls to act as a wind break and some even put the effort into building a small igloo. With 24 hours of sunlight, we didnâ€™t realize how late it was, but after playing some Frisbee we were exhausted from running around and jumping. Once in my sleeping bag, I fell asleep before I was even completely undressed.
I spent nearly four months down at the South Pole, living and working, and I got paid to do it. I didnâ€™t get paid much, but I had a great time and as far as Iâ€™m concerned I came out ahead by having not paid $35K to only spend four hours at the southern axis on which the earth spins.
Travel tips: Be honest about your health and fitness level.
Must see/do at this place: Work in the hydroponic greenhouse
You should avoid here: Frostbite. Cover up!
Other helpful information: www.offyonder.com/pages/spole.lasso