Sunday, January 9, 2000

The pull of the Pole

Published in the Antarctic Sun

At South Pole Station, in the middle of the polar plateau, people keep showing up. While most fly here on LC-130s, there are a growing number who can say they got here by land.

Just the other day, seven men in bright orange jackets appeared outside the station. They were Argentinians who had driven snowmobiles from Belgrano Station near the Weddell Sea, at the same latitude as McMurdo. It had taken them 38 days.

The previous day, nine skiers had arrived from the Weddell Sea coast. Among that group were the first British women to travel overland to the pole, the first married couple to do so and the first Australian to visit both poles.

A significant spot in an otherwise featureless landscape, the South Pole is an appealing goal for Antarctic adventurers traveling on the frozen plateau.

Mike Thornewill, of the multinational expedition, said he has been trying to get here for 30 years.

“I couldn’t get a plane so I had to walk,” he said. His wife Fiona, one of the first British women to get to the pole on skis, was equally pleased.

“It’s such a privilege to be here,” she said.

The expedition was a fundraiser for the Marie Curie Cancer Care charity. They have already raised $150,000. It’s part of their effort to involve large numbers of people in the endeavor, which saw them travel 730 miles in 61 days, each pulling a 200-pound sledge.

“If you’re going to take money from the community to do something, you should give something back,” Mike Thornewill said.

But the effort is also for the individuals on the team.

“We have a dream and an earnest desire to make our dream come true,” Thornewill said.

For the Argentinians it was different.

They were on a scientific traverse and intended to camp near the pole for a couple of days before returning to their station, said expedition doctor Nicolas Bernardi.

Other expeditions to arrive at the pole, or to declare it as a destination, included several groups hoping to celebrate New Year’s at the end of the Earth. Four Singaporeans and four British arrived on skis in time, while nine others flew in from Patriot Hills just to spend midnight at the pole.

The conditions continental traverses face today are very similar to those the early explorers endured. Clothing and shelter are of better materials, but hauling sledges across sastrugi isn’t much easier.

Food requirements are the same, if not higher, now. Safety margins are larger, requiring more supplies “just in case.”

Living conditions are still quite spare, the Thornewills agreed.

“I’d forgotten what a clean cup looked like,” Mike said.

Even in these tough conditions, though, it could be worse.

“It’s kinder here than in the Arctic,” said Grahame Murphy, the first Australian to visit both poles. He went to the North Pole in 1994, and would gladly trade the Arctic sea ice for sastrugi on the southern polar plateau.

The desire for primacy in arriving at the pole results in detailed descriptions involving nationality, gender, level of support, method of transportation and the route traveled. For example, Catharine Hartley and Fiona Thornewill were the first British women to arrive at the pole on skis from the coast.

When expeditions arrive at the pole, they are welcomed by station staff, who usually have had some warning of the arrival. They’re treated to hot drinks in the galley, and are often shown around the station’s science and support facilities.

It’s a welcome quite different from the one Scott saw, with a Norwegian flag flying atop an empty tent in the middle of the white desert.