Antarctic Explorer Cruises

Amundsen and Scott Stood Here

We are flying over really magnificent scenery and I am still amazed that there are mountains so far south. I had somehow imagined there were just vast expanses of ice in all directions, yet here there are mountain ridges and valleys, all kinds of shapes and wondrous colours. But above all it’s a glorious, white world and it seems that we are the only ones in it. I look down at the rolling contours and can imagine the tiny teams of intrepid men and women who have striven to cross the Antarctic and find their way to the South Pole. Their courage was and is so immense that it is no wonder so many have dreamed of following in their heroic footsteps, yet so few have actually managed to. More than ever I acknowledge Robert Swan’s tremendous efforts in becoming the first man to walk with his colleagues to both Poles; how supreme of Ranulph Fiennes together with Mike Stroud to walk for hundreds of kilometres across the Antarctic and how much they and the others have achieved.

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Because of the clarity of the air the mountains seem nearer than they are and knowing this, Max has to concentrate all the time to make certain that he doesn’t actually fly too close or in the wrong direction. Inside the plane it’s not apparent how strong the winds are outside and they can gust with such strength that they could certainly force the small plane into the rocks. Needing to concentrate so intently it’s difficult for Max to operate the radio as well as fly. He asks me to radio to Patriot Hills to ask for another weather report. I connect through and ask the operator who is manning the Met tent for the latest weather conditions and what’s it like at the Pole. I hold my breath, almost praying that it won’t be adverse news that could prevent us continuing. I give an almost audible sigh of relief as the answer is positive. I relay the messages but Max heard anyhow.

The minutes tick by and there’s always something wonderful to observe; I’m in a constant pitch of excitement as we get nearer and nearer to our goal. We’ve flown over King Peak and have passed the Thiel Mountains. We’re going to make it. There’s no way we can turn back now. We are nearer the Pole than White Fields and even in any kind of emergency we will have to go on. If the aircraft develops an engine fault and we need to land for any reason the rescue team will have to, no matter how long it takes, come to find us from the Pole Base itself.

We can see it! It looks so tiny. Suddenly out of nowhere there is the completely isolated Amundsen-Scott Base camp. We, by the grace of Max Wenden, have reached it by flying the 500 km from White Fields, some 1,000 km in total from our base camp. A journey that on foot, using sledges, would have taken us up to two months. It’s now about 4.30 p.m., 3 January by New Zealand dating, 2 January by Patriot Hills and United Kingdom dating. What a difference a day makes! Finally I’m arriving at the bottom of the world. My thoughts are immediately transported back to the time of my journey to the North Pole, nearly ten years earlier and the thrill of this moment doubles.

I look over at Max but he is concentrating on the landing. I refrain from shouting out my thanks and disturbing him but Ian taps me on my shoulder and I grasp his hand in solidarity. We are utterly happy to be sharing this unique moment. The ice is approaching fast, the aluminium dome of the camp has suddenly enlarged and it now looks massive. It glints in the reflected sunlight and is like something from a sci-fi comic or a space film. I almost expect to see space-suited people or robots walking stiffly around but at the moment everything outside appears completely deserted. Max, as I’ve learned to expect, makes a perfect landing, a little way from the camp. He then taxis us through to where there is a variety of many different aircraft, larger planes, DC6s, DC9s, Boeing 727 s. He then continues to taxi down the marked runway and parks adroitly in a space, away from the other planes. He wants to make certain that we don’t get hemmed in and can takeoff without needing to ask anyone to help or to move another aircraft. He obviously knows the score around here and is anxious that we are not seen as a nuisance and requiring special treatment. He has to come back on many future occasions and doesn’t want any of the Base managers to think he and future visitors will cause any problems. Once we were travellers of the future but now we are travellers into the past. We are visiting polar history. Max lets Ian and myself off to explore whilst he checks the Cessna and refuels for the return flight. He agrees to look for us and meet us inside the Base building later.

What to do first? There’s no argument; we must stand where Roald Amundsen, the Norwegian stood first on 14 December 1911 and Robert Scott, the Englishman on 17 January 1912.

Although, unlike the North Pole, the South Pole is considered to be fixed at a constant point, set as it is on a solid land mass, in reality there is some slight movement each year. The actual, symbolic South Pole post has to be reset annually as the ice slips very slowly towards the ocean, approximately 10 metres each year. This means that the Amundsen-Scott Station is moving imperceptibly and implacably towards the Pole and for one historic year will be right on top of it. The annual marker has to be hammered into ice, which at the Pole is 2,740 metres thick. Of course a large plaque is sited permanently and exactly at the original place reached by both Amundsen and Scott, commemorating their incredible achievement and the amazing courage of these two men and their teams who battled to reach the Pole. Their stories are so legendary I must stand for several moments in absolute silence in acknowledgement of their bravery. I am convinced that their spirits surely must roam this place which I feel for evermore is theirs. I am incredibly conscious of the mindset that must have driven them beyond the limits of human endurance, to set foot here. These are precious moments and only the intensity of the wind and the cold forces me from my reverie. I must move on.

First, we take photographs of the exact place where Amundsen and Scott arrived all those many years ago. It sends shivers of emotion shooting through me. I try to imagine their very different feelings, one full of joy and triumph, the other of despair and defeat. Both such extraordinary men. Ian and I then photograph each other and the historic Amundsen-Scott plaque inscribed in their honour. Nearby, there is a small post with a mirrored globe on top, allowing the photographer to capture his or her own image in the reflection. It was left there by the first scientific director of the station, Dr Paul Siple. Then we go over to the thin, striped pole which commemorates the actual position of the Pole this year.

Now to enter the base itself. A structural feat of incredible engineering and design, against almost insurmountable odds. As we make our way across to it we pass one or two men or women, it’s very hard to tell which, they are so muffled and overdressed and we wave greetings. They respond but do not stop. Naturally no one spends more time outside than they have to and they are hurrying to do whatever duties they must carry out, before returning inside. Actual time often has little bearing here, particularly when it is mostly permanent daylight. Sometimes though the mists descend and blot everything out of sight. Then only in absolute necessity does anyone venture outside and leave the gigantic mole-like burrow built into the bowels of the ice. It is still early in the morning and most people are in their rooms and probably haven’t wandered out to eat or to deal with whatever their work duties are.

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