The South Pole and the Interior
Most visitors to Antarctica travel by cruise ship. If the ships are Icebreakers, or even ice strengthened, then they are able to penetrate the sea ice in the summer and might get close to the coasts. In the region of the Antarctic Peninsula shore excursions are possible but apart from these, tourists seldom set foot on the continent itself. The interior of the continent is inaccessible but to the very few, largely because travel and survival tends to be very difficult or very expensive or both.
The interior of the continent of Antarctica consists of totally barren rock covered with a massive ice sheet. The ice has an average thickness of over 2000 metres and in places approaches 4500 metres and this makes the altitude of the central part (called 'the Polar Plateau') range between 3000 and 4000 metres. The ice from the plateau slowly moves downwards and coastwards by glacial action producing a heavily crevassed area. There are mountain ranges and their snow covered rocky peaks poke through the ice. In the interior you can only find:
Expeditions crossing the continent by foot or ski and manhauling sleds
Research Staff working on the scientific stations of the interior
Tourists using Patriot Hills as a base
These pictures show the landscape of the interior of Antarctica
A full scale trek from the coast of Antarctica to the South Pole generally takes about 60 days. Trekkers must manhaul a sled containing their tent and all their food, clothes and equipment. The distance is approximately 1200 km (750 miles) which includes travel across crevassed glaciers and the risk of becoming tentbound for days at a time due to hazardous weather (this is what killed Scott and his companions in 1912). To support such expeditions as well as allowing shorter treks (such as 'last degree' treks of just 60 miles) a company called Antarctic Logistics and Expeditions (ALE) creates and maintains a camp in the interior of the continent. This camp is called Patriot Hills. Situated near the Ellsworth Mountains at about 81 degrees latitude this camp is constructed in November each year and is dismantled in the following January. It consists of a number of large heated tents used for dining, communications and a medical facility together with a collection of dormitory tents. It has medical, meterological, and communications staff together with experienced polar guides. It is used by scientific research expeditions, adventure travellers wishing to visit the South Pole and mountaineers attempting to scale Mount Vinson, the highest peak on the continent.
But its very special feature is a 2km blue ice runway on which flights from Punta Areanas in Chile arrive bringing and taking away passengers and supplies. The aircraft used is a Russian military aircraft, the Ilyushin IL76. Approximately 12 flights are made per year. The aircraft is jet powered, the flight takes approximately 5 hours and the landing is a wheeled landing on sheer, solid, blue ice. Patriot Hills also maintains a pair of Twin Otter light aircraft on skis. These are used to take trekkers to 89 degrees for 'Last Degree' treks (about 70 miles), tourists to the South Pole and back, mountaineers to the base of Mount Vinson and to make rescue flights to support expeditions in trouble.
Apart from a few supplies left in a cave buried in the ice over the winter, at the end of January the whole camp is dismantled and taken back to Chile. This includes all waste including human waste. ALE is particularly careful to avoid any damage to the polar environment and nothing is left on the ice (not even waste water). The weather at Patriot Hills is generally fine with 24 hours of sunlight. The temperature ranges between -10C and -20C as it lies in a sheltered spot. Occasionally it might be subjected to fierce catabatic winds (downhill winds) which can be in excess of 100mph and bring blizzards and whiteout conditions.
The South Pole
The Geographical South Pole is situated at the latitude of 90 degrees South and is the place where all longitude lines meet. The sun stays above the horizon for 6 months and a day at the South Pole during the austral summer not only has 24 hours of sunlight but also the unusual phenomenon of the sun remaining at the same level in the sky. At the equinoxes (end of March and September), the sun appears half below the horizon for the entire 24 hours. The temperature at the pole ranges from about -15C in the summer to -70 or lower in the totally dark winter.
When Scott and his companions reached here in January 1912 the pole was just a remote part of the South Polar Plateau but now it is the site of a major research station constructed and maintained by the USA and named 'Amundsen-Scott' after the discoverers of the Pole. The original wooden huts of the 1950s are now deeply buried in the ice and were replaced by a geodesic dome in 1975. Even this dome has now become substantially submerged in the ice and has itself been replaced by a significant modern building specially designed to withstand the accumulation of snow and ice. This has been partly achieved by being built on extensible stilts. This new station, completed in 2007 at a cost of £100,000,000 houses more than 200 staff suring the summer and about 60-70 overwinterers. It is supplied and supported by aircraft from the USA's main Antarctic Station at McMurdo (on the New Zealand side of Antarctica).
Accessing the South Pole from Patriot Hills is achieved by a flight in a Twin Otter light aircraft on skis. The total distance is nearly 700 miles and therefore too far for these aircraft to travel without refuelling. The total flight time is about 5-6 hours and a refuelling stop is made near the Thiel mountains where, early in the season, a dump of fuel had been cached in the ice. After arrival at the Pole the staff at the Amundsen Scott station are welcoming and will offer a tour of the facilities and the opportunity to purchase souvenirs in their shop. However, visitors must be totally self sufficient and if they wish to stay must have their own tents, food, fuel and toilet facilities. We stayed 72 hours (more than planned due to adverse weather conditions at Patriot Hills). We were obliged to restock on food and fuel from a cache left about 2 miles from the Pole by ALE to allow for such eventualties.
The weather at the Pole during our stay (January 2006) was fine and mostly sunny with temperatures of about -28C. The Pole itself (exectly 90 degrees latitude) is marked by a small indicator with a signpost including quotations from Amundsen and Scott. Because of the movement of the ice, the position shifts by about 12 feet per year. There is also a ceremonial pole, surrounded by flags. During my visit I and Harry Otten, my Dutch travelling companion, challenged the USA station to a game of bridge to be played outside at the pole. This game took place with the visitors being triumphant although the game had to be abandoned after playing two hands due to the extreme cold and wind.