"The Pole. Yes, but under very different circumstances from those expected ... Great God! This is an awful place and terrible enough for us to have laboured to it without the reward of priority." - from the journal of R.F. Scott
On January 17th, 1912, Robert F. Scott, Edgar Evans, Lawrence Oates, Henry Bowers, and Dr Edward Wilson stood at the Geographical South Pole.
They were staring, disappointed, at the flag and tent left behind by Norwegians Roald Amundsen, Helmer Hanssen, Sverre Hassel, Oscar Wisting, and Olaf Bjaaland - who had arrived at the pole one month earlier.
One month later (February 17, 1912) Scott's team would all be dead - their last miserable days spent starving and frostbitten, lying in a tent only 11 miles from One-Ton camp - ostensibly their salvation had they made it there.
If you want to read about their journey, you should.
I recommend Apsley Cherry-Garrards' "Worst Journey in the World". It took me four years to read it. I began it in October of 2008, and put it down several weeks later, finding it dry and un-exciting (but still possessing a useful historical summary of Antarctic exploration during the late 19th century and early into the 20th century). I picked it back up again this past October, when I found I could get it for free on my Amazon Kindle. I polished it off in a Herculean effort in the Churchill and Holyoake Ranges this past season: When I wasn't up on a ridge of Cambrian limestone looking for trilobite with Lars Holmer the members of the Swedish Polar Research Secretariat "Hot fossils in a cold land" expedition, I was safely ensconced in a -40° down bag in my Scott Tent, soaking up Cherry-Garrards horrific narrative as fast as I could tap the "next page" button.
The first time I stood at the South Pole was January of 2009. I arrived there in an LC-130 in three and a half hours from McMurdo Station. It was -35°C and the hairs in my nose were frozen within minutes of stepping out of the airplane. We stood at the ceremonial pole for 10 or 15 minutes, taking photos of each other, and of the south pole station, lurking 100m away to... our... North?...
I hardly thought about Scott, Amundsen, or Cherry-Garrard's book that was gathering dust back in my dorm room in McMurdo. I just snapped photos of the pole marker, the stilt-supported station, the decomissioned dome, and lots of hulking yellow heavy equipment pushing snow and cargo around. The steady, loud whine of four turbine engines on a revved up LC-130 was always there in the background to remind me that I only had 30 minutes to take some photos, run up the "Beer Can" enclosed starewell into the station, and buy a T-shirt, bottle of booze, and/or postcard before slowly sprinting (The South Pole is nearly 3000 meters above sea level, so no one sprints that fast) down the stairs and back to the waiting airplane for my three and a half hour return flight to McMurdo.
Our flying route took us down the Beardmore Glacier, the same route used by Ernest Shackleton and his polar party on the Nimrod Expedition of 1907-1909, as well as by R.F. Scott on his ill-fated southern journey in 1911/1912.
Cherry-Garrard described the frightening difficulties of traveling up (and down) the Beardmore glacier with sledges and ancient equipment. My bird's eye view of their route impressed me but certainly did not make me ever wish to attempt a similar feat - especially without todays luxurious equipment and navigational aids like GPS.
Cherry-Gerrard was part of the first "return party" of the Terra Nova expedition. He and three others turned back - per Scott's orders - from the top of the Beardmore Glacier, near Buckley Island. Buckley Island is not far from the Dominion Range, where I spent a couple of days searching for Precambrian basement rocks with Dr John Googe et al - when we were based at the CTAM camp in 2010/2011.
My second trip to the South Pole was only days after the visit to the Dominion Range and I was of course accompanied by Dr John Goodge, Dr Jeff Vervoort, Dr Mark Fanning, Tanya Dreyer, and CTAM camp guru Bija Sass. We actually visited the pole twice that day. The first visit was 20 minutes long (long enough to put 600lbs of jet fuel in a Ken Borek Twin Otter). We spent the day searching for samples near Mt. Howe (the southernmost piece of exposed bed rock in the world). The late John Rees was our pilot, and he returned us to the South Pole in early evening - with just a bit of reserve in the gas tank. We were all tired, so we ate dinner in the South Pole cafeteria. I remember having pasta with shrimp with a side of broccoli and cauliflower, washed town with a tall glass of pulpy orange juice. I was wearing a T-shirt. The windows in the galley offered a good view of the Ceremonial pole (the one surrounded with flags) and the true geographical pole a hundred meter behind. The outside temperature was between -35°C and -40°C. I imagine neither Scott nor Amundsen dined as well as we did when they were each sitting in the same spot. Amundsen probably ate fresh dog. When I finished my dinner, I filled a bowl with three scoops of real ice cream. I washed it down with a cup of hot cocoa, before wandering back outside to the South Pole marker with Bija to get a "hero shot". If you don't know what that is then you'll just have to go down there to find out. When I finally got my boots laced back up and my jacket re-zipped, Bija and I stumbled back to our waiting Twin Otter to join the rest of the crew for a two-hour flight back to CTAM. Our flight route took us past the Dominion Range, Buckley Island, and of course a low pass of the Beardmore Glacier. Isn't it spectacular?
The South Pole station is run by the United States Antarctic Program, and exists to serve and support scientific research. The primary research projects happening at the South Pole are related to atmospheric science (the air is clean and more similar to pre-industrial revolution air than anywhere else in the world), Geomagnetic field research, and astronomy ( in particular - researching Cosmic Microwave background radiation - left over radiation from the Big Bang). Without a doubt, the most impressive, famous, and expensive science effort at the pole is IceCube. IceCube is a gigantic neutrino detector - encompassing a cubic kilometer of polar ice. It is capturing and studying neutrinos released from the galaxy's more catastrophic events (supernovas, collisions, etc...).
Given that the South Pole is an objective to be reached by all of those who follow in Amundsen and Scott's footsteps, tourists frequently arrive at the station by foot or by Twin Otter. ALE (Antarctic Logistics and Expeditions) runs trips to Vinson and the South Pole and elsewhere every year. I imagine this year - the hundredth anniversary - is exceedingly busy. I have mixed feelings about the location of the South Pole Station. Anyone who chooses to arrive at the South Pole outside of the "realm of science" is greeted harshly by the USAP - as in an unwelcome guest. I imagine the stark, austere landscape that Amundsen and Scott each beheld, and now when you stand in that exact same place you are surrounded by semi-permanent buildings, red and green flags, and big yellow vehicles with loud reverse beepers. The location chosen by the USAP is bviously a political. Atmospheric science, geophysics, astronomy, and other forms of research could just as easily be done 15km away - just over the horizon. But alas, the big station, with its' airfield, vehicles, and endless strips of "retro gear" (another term for "trash too expensive to remove right now) will be on the south pole for quite some time: drifting to the north at about 20 feet per year.