It’s been a dream of mine for as long as I can remember to reach the South Pole. I’ve led climbing expeditions to Antarctica for the last 10 years, including 10 to Mount Vinson, the highest peak on the continent, but never ventured to 90 degrees South.
My team and I set out at the beginning of 2017 to ‘Ski the Last Degree” to the South Pole and then climb the highest peak on the continent, Mount Vinson. We flew from the Chilean city of Punta Arenas, at the tip of South America, to a blue ice runway called Union Glacier. The aircraft we flew on was a giant Ilyushin 76, a massive jet that can carry as much as 40 tons. From here we flew out to 89 degrees South in a DC 3, and began skiing. It took us 8 days to ski the 60 nautical miles (66 miles or 111 km) to the South Pole. We would ski about 8 hours per day, hauling sleds that contained our equipment such as tents, stoves, food, fuel, and extra clothing, etc. During this time of year there is 24 hours of daylight in Antarctica, an interesting phenomenon to experience round the clock bright sunlight, especially when reflected off the surrounding landscape of snow.
When we reach the South Pole, we ventured into the United States Amundsen – Scott station, which is located on the high plateau of Antarctica at over 9,300 feet, and named for the first men to reach the South Pole just over 100 years ago. The station is continuously inhabited by US scientists, who are currently conducting 3 astrophysics experiments at the South Pole. The IceCube experiment may provide insight into our understanding of the universe.
After hanging out with a few of the scientists and checking out their station (including a greenhouse where they grow all of the vegetables they consume), we boarded a Twin Otter aircraft and flew over to the Ellsworth mountains in Antarctica, where the highest peak is located. Mount Vinson was first climbed in 1963 by a team of American climbers and scientists. The mountain is heavily glaciated, so we climbed in rope teams while hauling sleds from our base camp to our camp 1. To reach our camp 2 we climbed a steep ridge line of about 40 degrees. Our summit day involved climbing more glaciated slopes and then traversing an exposed ridge to the highest point in Antarctica.
We were very fortunate to have great weather throughout our journey, as January is the middle of the Antarctic summer and generally it is calm and also warm, if -40° feels warm. The coldest temperature ever recorded in Antarctica is -95° C or -136° F, during the winter season in July – August.
Antarctica is magical place. The only continent on Earth that is not owned by anyone, and contains 90% of the planet’s fresh water supply in the form of 6.4 cubic miles of ice! If all the ice in Antarctica were to melt, along with that in Greenland and other mountain glaciers, the sea level would rise by 230 feet! This would cover ALL coastal cities in the world! Imagine that! For now Antarctica is governed by the Antarctic Treaty, signed in 1959 by 12 nations. The main purpose of the treaty is to ensure, “in the interest of all mankind that Antarctica shall continue for ever to be used exclusively for peaceful purposes and shall not become the scene or object of international discord.” This essentially prevents commercial activities in Antarctica. The most valuable resources of Antarctica lie offshore, namely the oil and natural gas fields found in the Ross Sea in 1973. Exploitation of all mineral resources by signatory states is banned until 2048 by the Protocol on Environmental Protection to the Antarctic Treaty.