The 2014 Antarctic expedition season is about to get underway at the bottom of the world, as the austral summer brings relative warmth and stability to the frozen continent. This week, dozens of explorers and adventurers are preparing to strike out for Antarctica, which remains an incredibly challenging and inhospitable place, even in the 21st century.
Most expeditions to the Antarctic begin in either Cape Town, South Africa, or Punta Arenas, Chile, a town that holds the distinction of being the southernmost settlement in the entire world. In the next few days, regular flights out of those locations will begin shuttling teams of explorers and solo adventurers to the ice, where many of them will begin the long, arduous journey to the South Pole, while others will turn their attention on other challenges, such as climbing Mt. Vinson – the highest mountain on the continent.
The full season can last upwards of three months, but in these early days weather often dictates when the first flights can actually depart for the Antarctic. This was something that French explorer Frédéric Dion discovered earlier in the week, much to his frustration. He was scheduled to be on the first flight out of Cape Town to Novo Station, a Russian research base located on the Schirmacher Oasis in Queen Maud Land. That flight was scrubbed however due to a major storm hitting the region. The next flight out is scheduled for Sunday, provided the weather cooperates.
Once he reaches the ice, Dion will begin a solo ski expedition to the South Pole of Inaccessibility, one of the most remote and desolate places on the planet. The POI is defined as the spot on the Antarctic continent that is the furthest from any coastlines. In this case, it is a location that is found at the coordinates of 82°06’S, 54°58’E. That puts it at roughly 1150 miles from the Russian base, and about 546 miles from the Geographic South Pole, which is the goal of most Antarctic travelers.
In order to reach these remote places, most people will ski for hundreds of miles across open ice while pulling a heavy sled filled with gear and supplies behind them. While on the trail, these adventurous men and women face difficult terrain, subzero temperatures, and howling winds which often create whiteout conditions. It can be a test of both their physical and mental endurance.
On a typical day, they’ll burn anywhere from 8000-10,000 calories, which means it is often a struggle just to take in enough food to keep moving. Often, the bulk of the supplies they carry with them are food items, and while some explorers will make the journey without resupply, others will get extra food and fuel delivered as they ski.
A typical journey to the South Pole begins at a place called Hercules Inlet on the coast, and covers approximately 730 miles. It takes most skiers roughly 50-60 days to complete the traverse, with weather, surface conditions, and their level of physical fitness all playing a part in determining the length. Back in 2011, Norwegian Christian Eide set the speed record for the route, crossing the full distance to the Pole in just 24 days, 1 hour, and 13 minutes. While others have since attempted to best that record, no one has come close just yet.
It isn’t necessary to dedicate two months of your time to skiing across the Antarctic continent to reach the South Pole. Some adventure travelers will elect to instead ski the last degree or two of latitude to reach 90°S. That type of expedition requires about two weeks to complete, but can still cost upwards of $40,000 or more. While that is obviously an incredible expensive proposition, it would indeed by a trip of a lifetime.