Trip To The South Pole
Describing my trip to the South Pole could be made to sound routine but to me, this opportunity may not come again. Even the crews who fly routinely to the South Pole rarely get to go into any of the facilities. Most people who work in Antarctica never see the actual South Pole. I had the pleasure of meeting several of the South Pole people. Some have come to work only during the Antarctic summer (opposite our North American summer months) months when the temperature may rise to as high as 5 degrees Fahrenheit. Those who have come to live in the darkness for the long winter night may experience temperatures of -120° and colder. They have come knowing that they cannot leave the station once the last flight of the season leaves (around the end of February). Once the temperature on the ground reaches -50° F the workhorse planes, C-130 Hercules aircraft, can no longer risk landing at the South Pole. Severe illness or serious accident must be managed on-site. The physician who remains with the 60 or so people at South Pole Station renders aid, comfort, and provides confidence that their health needs will be met.
I have seen snow and I have seen mountains before. From that perspective, the flight to the Pole was no different. But these mountains and this snow are far from the usual. As we flew over the trans-Antarctic mountains I couldn’t help but think of the men who attempted this journey to the Pole by pulling sleds or following dog sleds. The vast distances, cold, emptiness, and lack of visible life here made those journeys to be true epics in human discovery. These men did not know the distance to the pole. They were unaware of the topography, no man had ever seen it. More was known about the surface of Mars 100 years ago than was known about the lay of the land in Antarctica. So when I looked out from the flight deck of my warm C-130 to the unforgiving glaciers and mountains I was very much in awe of the explorers who have gone before.
Even the technology needed to affix skis to this versatile airplane is mind-boggling. This plane has to be able to land with wheeled landing gear and skis possibly in the same flight. The hydraulics and engineering are beyond me. As we took off from Williams Field on the permanent Ross Ice Shelf we wheeled around to the South toward the Pole. We passed White Island and Black Island (one with snow one with little snow, duh). Mount Discovery (named for Scott’s ship) was on the right. These islands are visible across the shelf from McMurdo Station. Mt Erebus rising over 12,000 feet was behind us still steaming from its active lava lake. The air was as clear as it can be and there were no clouds to obscure the view all the way to the Pole.
The greatest physical obstacle between McMurdo and the Pole is the Trans-Antarctic Mountains. When Richard E. Byrd and his men made their successful attempt to fly over the pole in 1929 they knew this would be their greatest challenge. Climbing up over the ridge to the Polar plateau was a risky undertaking. Their plane was specially designed but still had severe limitations. They cleared the ridge by less than a thousand feet and were able to reach the point where they knew the pole to be. We were able to look at the same area but from a much higher perspective. I can see how it would have been anxiety provoking. There are high mountain peaks on either side of the great Beardmore Glacier leaving no choice but to continue on if one wants to reach the Pole.
Looking down at the Beardmore Glacier it is clear that this ice is on the move. Even from 25,000 feet, the huge pressure ridges can be seen lining up like ripples in a pond. They bend as waves pointing in the direction of travel. At one point two separate glaciers meet just
from the high plateau. Ice falls (waterfalls made of ice that has never been liquid) are prominent along the forbidding cliffs. Soft-appearing marsh-mallow-like snow appears on many mountainsides. It is a sight to make a snowboarder drool. However, the snow is years old.
This is a desert with only a few inches of snow per winter. When it blows it piles into huge drifts but little new snow actually falls. This snow has accumulated and built up unchecked by the summer melts seen in every other continent. This pristine beautiful snow is pure white appears to go on forever.
There is additional evidence of moving ice. Whole “beaches” appear along cliff faces or at the base of large ice falls. These beaches appear to be land but are actually the results of erosion. The ice moves so much material into a valley that it looks like land with regular “waves” of ice breaking on the shore. The early explorers had to navigate around these waves because they could be dozens of feet high and were rife with hidden crevasses.
There are no animals down there. There are no trees or bushes. There are no men or women trekking through the mountain valleys. On such a beautiful day as today, it is inviting to think of sledding or skiing these lonesome mountain sides but this is the least populated and driest continent on earth. It has the highest average elevation of all the continents too. Even the best-prepared adventurer would find conditions extreme if trying to reach the South Pole.
One amazing fact is that much of the high elevation is a result of ice with depths up to 15,000 feet. Though it now receives little moisture the ice has thickened gradually over time to what seems to be impossible depths. At the Pole, there are approximately 8000 feet of ice beneath the building structures. Even at the Pole, the ice is moving. The exact location of the South Pole doesn’t change but the location at the surface of the ice does. This is about 33 feet per year. It is marked by a succession of South Pole Marker – Poles.
Once the Trans-Antarctic Mountains have been bested, the vast South Pole plateau stretches on into the distance. Even from our high vantage point, there were no landmarks. Just like flying over the ocean once land falls away to the rear only the curve of the earth breaks up the otherwise solid color. Here in Antarctica, no distinct horizon could be seen. Whether a refractive property of light or just haze caused by fine ice crystals there is no way to tell where the ice and snow stops and the sky starts. Compasses are useless. I watched as the compass on-board our aircraft continuously spun through 360°. The flight path is constant but as we drew near the pole the crew donned their helmets to drown out extraneous noise and lights and for protection. They used their oxygen hook-ups and the Navigator began to call out coordinates. He directed the pilot so that even if we entered a thin cloud of ice crystals he would not misjudge the landing. These thin layers are completely transparent when viewed from below or above but once inside the layer visibility can fall to zero horizontally. Our skilled crew had no such difficulty and the landing was very smooth even with skis instead of wheels.