WITH ALL THE FIRST ascents, descents, treks, and traverses nabbed in the recent past and planned for the near future in Antarctica, it seems the compass has swung crazily southward. What is it about the bottom of the world that's got so many adventurers so fired up? On the verge of another busy Antarctic exploration season, we've compiled a survey of some of the more notable endeavors and brutal facts.
1. FOR THE LOVE OF UNA
Early in 1999, a German team led by renowned climber Stephen Glowatz completed a four-day rock route to summit the northern spire of the Cape Renard Towers. Theformations, rising 2,500 feet out of the Lemaire Channel, are more commonly known as Una's Tits—a name coined in the 1940s by British surveyors to honor a buxom Falkland Islands resident.
2. SEASIDE SLOPES
Over nine days in February, a team of six skiers and snowboarders led by professional expeditioner Doug Stoup, 36, claimed a string of first descents in the South Shetland Islands and Graham Land, and named a 2,400-foot rise Lowe Peak after their late climbing partner, Alex Lowe. "We sought south-facing slopes to find snow that sticks," said Stoup, a California native. Their bounty: "Fresh powder, 30 inches deep, on runs plunging straight into turquoise water."
3. COOL RUNNING
The fourth, though certainly not the last, Last Marathon is scheduled for February 5, 2001, on King George Island off the Antarctic Peninsula. The 100-plus participants will pay at least $4,000 each (including airfare from New York) to navigate crevasses and a two-mile stretch of glacier as they hobble past the Russian, Chilean, Uruguayan, and Chinese science bases. This year's winner, American Fred Zalokar, finished with a time of 3:45:19.
4. SEVENTH HEAVEN
At 16,860 feet, Vinson Massif is one of the world's Seven Summits, ergo it's one of Antarctica's most popular destinations. (Climber-guide Dave Hahn has reached the top 14 times.) Last December Doug Stoup and Stephen Koch made Vinson's—and the continent's—first snowboard descent. Dozens more will climb up and ski down the peak this season. And late this year, a six-man team including Conrad Anker, Andrew McLean, and Jon Krakauer will begin a north-to-south ski traverse of the Ellsworth Mountains, tackling some of the region's 18 unclimbed peaks as they go. A documentary crew from the PBS series NOVA will tag along, logging evidence of global warming high on the range's rugged peaks.
5. THE ICE RACE
This November, Minneapolis resident Ann Bancroft and Norwegian Liv Arnesen will embark on a 100-day, 2,400-mile coast-to-coast ski crossing of the continent—with a little help from kite sails that the pair will fix to metal steering bars and shackle to body harnesses. The duo hopes to make the first all-women's crossing of Antarctica—unless Canada's Sunniva Sorby and Greenland's Uiloq Slettemark, leaving from Berkner Island on a 1,676-mile route at about the same time with pretty much the same equipment, beat them to it. "We're not adversarial in any way—we're all friends," says Bancroft. "But we still want to be the first."
6. THE FABULOUS FABIOLAS
After they attempt the first ski and snowboard descent of the 55-degree pitches on South Georgia Island's 9,625-foot Mount Paget (just off the top of this map) this November, Doug Stoup and his team of American extreme downhillers (Rick Armstrong, Hans Saari, Doug Coombs, and Kris Erickson) will head to the Queen Fabiolas for more virgin runs. There, they'll hook up with Paul Sitiera, professor of geology at William Raney Harper College, and a group from Washington, D.C.-based Space Adventures for a little meteorite hunting.
7. THE GREAT CROSSING
In 1990, Will Steger and Jean-Louis Etienne led a six-man international team on the longest crossing of the continent. With dogsleds and air-dropped resupplies—"a logistical nightmare," according to Steger—the team traversed 3,800 miles from the Antarctic Peninsula past the South Pole to Russia's Mirnyy Station. The International Transantarctic Expedition was the last major dogsled-supported crossing; the canines were outlawed by the 1991 Madrid Protocol due to their environmental impact—i.e. dog poo.
8. A LIQUID TIME CAPSULE
Buried beneath 2.5 miles of ice and sealed off for millions of years, Lake Vostok holds a whopping 2,900 cubic miles of water—nearly the volume of Lake Superior. Scientists yearn to study this untouched ecosystem, but to do so they have to find a way to reach its surface without pumping the ice barrier full of antifreeze—thus destroying the mysterious primordial soup below.
9. ON THE ROCKS
Though the average thickness of the Antarctic cap is about 6,600 feet, the ice near Wilkes Land measures nearly 15,800 feet deep—about the height of 11 Empire State Buildings—a weight so crushing it has depressed the earth's crust below sea level. Incidentally, should a large meteor impact suddenly defrost the entire ice cap, the world's oceans would rise about 213 feet (say good-bye, Manhattan), and Antarctica, relieved of its burden, would bounce upward like an uncoiling spring about 1,000 vertical feet.
10. HANG ON
With gusts of up to 180 miles per hour, Commonwealth Bay is often the windiest place on earth.
11. HIGH OVER DOWN UNDER
Damien Gildea, author of The Antarctic Mountaineering Chronology, will lead a coed Australian team of six on a first ascent of Mount McClintock in the Darwin Mountains. Since the peak lies within the Australian-Antarctic territory, its 11,520-foot summit is technically the highest in Oz. The team hopes to crest McClintock on New Year's Day, 2001. "We will be greeting the new millennium by gazing across our nation's wildest territory from the summit of its highest mountain," quoth Gildea.
12. CHIP OFF THE OLD BLOCK
On March 18, a 186-mile-long and 25-mile-wide chunk of ice broke free from the Ross Ice Shelf, creating the largest berg on record. At press time, it had drifted about five nautical miles and split in two. Such breaks are not a direct result of global warming—though a hole in the ozone layer bigger than North America, and most severe above the geographic South Pole, doesn't help. Though the ozone layer is thin over the entire continent, it is most depleted in the area within the green line above.
13. SAILING SOUTH
In 1998, Belgian polar explorers Alain Hubert and Dixie Dansercoer completed the continent's longest crossing by foot, ski, and ski-sail (2,354 hellacious miles). The modified 1957-vintage, 69-square-foot NASA kite sails were, according to Hubert, "the key to the journey's success." This November, Hubert will return to Queen Maud Land to attempt a first ascent of the south summit of 8,695-foot Mount Holtanna.
14. NO MAN'S LAND
To really get away from it all head here: the Pole of Inaccessibility. This spot is as inland as it gets, 1,200-miles from the nearest ocean.
15. THE DOTCOM-FREE ZONE
Since the bankruptcy of the Iridium satellite phone company earlier this year, "white beards" south of this, the 80th parallel, can no longer communicate with the rest of the world in real time—a problem for explorers who attempt to secure sponsorship dollars with live reports from the field. Until another satellite-phone operation shows up, distressed adventurers will have to rely on old-fashioned radios that broadcast preestablished messages (such as "Emergency") to ground stations at any of a number of bases, which will forward them on to a satellite.