Even in the modern era, Antarctica remains one of the most inhospitable, difficult-to-reach places in the world. Really only accessible from November to March, visitors to this Terra Incognita are typically of three flavors: scientists, tourists, and the military.
A small number of tourists and adventurers arrive aboard a modified IL-76 aircraft that departs Punta Arenas. This large Russian jet flies to the edge of the Ellsworth Mountain Range, onto a specially prepared blue-ice runway adjacent to Union Glacier camp. Antarctic Logistics & Expeditions choreographs this incredibly complex Antarctic ballet. The private outfitter has become one of the only ways for non-government sponsored personnel to gain entry to the interior of Antarctica.
I hopped on the IL-76 and arrived in Antarctica four hours later—my fourth trip to the continent but first time to its center. It was a stunning spring day in the Crystal Desert, but I knew better than to let my guard down. The beauty of Antarctica is only matched by her cold, unforgiving judgment.
Glorious 5 a.m. in Antarctica
Union Glacier (UG) camp is located eight kilometers from the blue-ice runway, in the shelter of the Heritage Range. Arriving in camp, I was greeted by a spectacular sight—an incredible 22 degree halo around the sun.
A Lunar Colony @ 79°46'S 82°52'W
Antarctic Logistics & Expeditions (ALE) base camp is located on Union Glacier (UG) in the Southern Ellsworth Range. It's the ultimate place to get away from it all—your nearest neighbors are at the South Pole, more than 600 miles away.
I took this photo from the summit of nearby Brants-Hoeschen plateau. Antarctica is 1.4 times bigger than the United States and has a population of slightly more than 4,000 people in the heart of summer. That number drops to about a thousand in the cold-dark, Antarctic winter.
Base stations are completely reliant on support from green Earth to the North. Our remote outpost reminded me of old popular science illustrations of future moon stations.
Explorers & Climbers
The majority of the visitors to the camp were either explorers or climbers. Here, mountain guide Todd Passey helps climbers Bill Douglas and Angus Caithness prepare for their ascent of Vinson Massif.
Clam Tents at Union Glacier
Our accommodations at camp were relatively spacious Clam tents complete with roommates–a welcome part of the "human powered heat system." When the weather started to take a turn for the worse, we decided to head off to the South Pole immediately.
To the Pole!
Six of us climbed aboard a ski-equipped Twin Otters bound for the South Pole. We were carrying tents, sleeping bags, and food with us in case something went very wrong. We lifted smoothly off the ice and flew 2.5 hours to a fuel depot located near the Thiel Mountains; essentially just 30 or so fuel barrels in the middle of a wind-swept plain.
Our Ken Borek Air pilots jumped out carrying shovels and a small pump. After digging out the fuel drum, they refilled the Twin Otter for our remaining two hours to the Pole.
90º South: There Really is A Pole at the Pole
We arrived at the Southernmost place on Earth. After donning our cold-weather gear (looking like South Park's Kenny), we emerged from the Twin Otter into balmy -30 degree weather onto the Pole's high flat plateau (9,301 feet).
The only thing nearby is Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station—a NASA-esque collection of scientific and living buildings that dot the landscape for a quarter mile or so. Nearby is a circular collection of flags surrounding the ceremonial South Pole. In the distance is nothing. Absolutely nothing.
Stop the Teeth Chattering & Smile!
Photographer Ed Horne takes our "group photo" in front of the ceremonial South Pole. In the yellow jacket is famed BBC cameraman, Doug Allan (Blue Planet, Life in the Freezer, etc). South Pole Station in the background. At its peak in the summer, the station houses 170 residents.
Wait, This is the Real Pole
Located a few hundred feet from the Ceremonial Pole is a small pole in front of a U.S. flag. This is the Geographic Pole. The station (and everything nearby) is on a polar ice sheet that moves about 30 feet per year toward the Weddell Sea. Therefore, the location on the ice of the Geographic Pole is constantly shifting. This marker represents the location of the Geographic Pole— well, since it was last measured over the past year. The only way to be sure you've actually visited the pole is with a GPS!
The Eerie "Dark Sector"
Located a short distance from the main buildings of Amundsen-Scott base is the Dark Sector Laboratory, so named for the absence of light and radio wave interference. This Lab houses the station's ten-meter telescope and other astronomical experiments.
Off to Find Emperors!
After a few hours at the Pole, we retuned to UG for a day of R&R. The following afternoon, we boarded the ALE's DC-3T (the Basler) to visit the Emperor Penguins of Gould Bay, on the northeast corner of Berkner Island in the Weddell Sea.
This is an Island?
If someone said you'd be staying on an island on a remote sea, you probably have the wrong idea about Gould Bay. The Weddell Sea is frozen solid; it's flat except for trapped icebergs. We were 20 miles from the open ocean. Upon arrival, we hauled our gear on sleds to our new tent camp. We were anxious to see the colony.
It's 2 a.m.—But Does Anyone Notice?
The sun never sets during Antarctica's summer. We decided that 2 a.m. would be the best time to photograph the Emperors. Here, Oxford University scientist and penguin expert Tom Hart rests in the cooking tent before trekking the three kilometers to the Emperor colony.
We pulled our camera-laden sleds across the frozen, undulating sea. Our destination was a small black speck in the distance: the Emperor colony. As we approached, the penguins nearest to us came over to check us out. Perhaps we looked a bit like huge penguins. Considering how much gear we were wearing, we certainly walked like them. At 2 a.m., the sun was low on the horizon, creating magnificent shadows.
Reenacting 'March of the Penguins'
Penguins are cute. Very, very cute. They bond with their mates for the year, show affection to each other and their children, and seem very curious about the world around them–including us! Babies are fat, waddle, and often fall over onto their huge bellies. It's hard for these little guys not to touch your heart.
Parent & Child
Penguin parents are incredibly attentive to their young. They often stand just behind them for hours and hours on end—feeding, protecting, and just waiting for the chicks to grow up.
Call of the Wild
A lone emperor calls out in the midnight sun.
Expecting to Fly
Penguins might be awkward on land, but they fly like birds in the water. Here, a group of Emperors have found an opening into the sea. As summer approaches, the sea ice breaks apart, creating channels to open water. Transitioning to and from the water is risky business thanks to their primary predator, the Leopard Seal. This little guy flew out of the lead just inches from my face—surprising both of us!
On our final return to camp, these two Emperors followed us home. When we stopped, they stopped. When we went, they followed. They often came right up to us. There might be other explanations, but I choose to believe they were our friends. With a heavy heart, we packed up our gear and headed back to Union Glacier for our long journey back to civilization.
Goodbye Crystal Desert
"Antarctica left a restless longing in my heart beckoning towards an incomprehensible perfection forever beyond the reach of mortal man. Its overwhelming beauty touches one so deeply that it is like a wound."