Visit to the South Pole December 2011
This page contains a hyperlinked version with photos of the 4-page article that I wrote for the Circumnavigators Log
(Page 1, Page 2,
Page 3, Page 4)
to share my trip experiences to the South Pole with my fellow Circumnavigators.
100 Circumnavigations on the 100 Anniversary
Donald M. Parrish, Jr.
The Circumnavigators Club was born during the Heroic Age of Antarctic Exploration. As a Life Member of the Circumnavigators, I went to the South Pole to celebrate the 100th anniversary of Roald Amundsen’s discovery of the South Pole on December 14, 1911. So what better way to celebrate this achievement for a Circumnavigator than to make 100 circumnavigations around the South Pole on December 14, 2011?
Historical Background on Antarctic Exploration
Antarctica is the 5th largest continent. It is equal in area to the continental USA and Mexico combined or twice the size of Australia. No human societies have existed on this continent because of its extreme climate (coldest, driest and windiest) and remote location. About 98% of it is covered by ice that averages over 1 mile (1.6 kilometers) thick. The first sighting of Antarctica occurred by a Russian expedition in 1820.
In 1902, British explorer Robert Falcon Scott reached 82 degrees 16 minutes south with Ernest Shackleton and one other man. On January 9, 1909, Shackleton and 3 others got within 180 kilometers of the South Pole before the weather forced them back. Then in 1911, the unofficial race was on between Robert Scott, representing the British Empire, then at its peak governing a quarter of the land area and population of the world, and Roald Amundsen, representing Norway, a fledgling country that had gained its independence from Sweden in 1905.
Amundsen had a focused mission to reach the South Pole. His approach involved careful planning of all details and copying the clothing and other techniques from the native peoples in the arctic including dogs to pull the sledges. Scott’s plans included a number of scientists and a photographer. He used Siberian ponies, a few dogs and human muscle to transport the sledges of supplies. Scott followed Shackleton’s 1909 route, and Amundsen pioneered a new route that was 100 kilometers shorter. Given the lack of communications, neither was aware what the other was doing or what their detailed plans were. The South Pole was, in many ways, the final prize in terrestrial exploration.
Amundsen and 4 others reached the South Pole on December 14, 1911. They left a tent, a Norwegian flag and a letter to the King of Norway in case they failed to survive the trip home. Scott arrived just 33 days later. Ironically, Scott’s diary entries and photos proved that Amundsen was first. Tragically near the end of his return trip and just 18 kilometers from a supply depot, Scott and his remaining men, Wilson & Bowers, were trapped in a storm and froze to death.
The United States Station at the South Pole, established in 1956 and continuously staffed since then, is named Amundsen-Scott to honor these intrepid explorers.
How did I get to Antarctica?
I booked my trip with ANI (Adventure Networks International), a company with 25 years of experience in the Antarctic, and I wired them a deposit. Then I filled out an extensive medical questionnaire. Because of my age it was routine for their doctor in London to consult with my doctor. I passed the medical screening with no problems. ANI gave me a list of clothing and equipment to buy. I was thrilled that I was going on the 100th anniversary trip, but then learned that I would need to spend 3 nights in an unheated tent at the South Pole.
After I read a couple of the recommended books, I became concerned about my lack of experience camping in such extreme cold. I flew to ANI's Salt Lake City office and had an extensive review of what I had purchased and asked dozens of questions. This convinced me that I was prepared. Salt Lake City is a picturesque place.
ANI's parent company is ALE, Antarctic Logistics & Expeditions. ALE has a base camp at Union Glacier, 1000 kilometers (600 miles) from the South Pole and a field camp at the Pole. I flew by regular commercial jets from Chicago to Atlanta to Punta Arenas, Chile, the largest city near Antarctica. My hotel room looked directly on the Straits of Magellan, named for their discoverer whose team completed the first circumnavigation of our planet. It was very windy in Punta Arenas when I arrived on December 6th, and it was easy to imagine how many ships had been sunk in these stormy Straits.
ANI conducted a detailed gear check in my hotel room that day to ensure that I had purchased all of the required clothing and other items. The following day at the ANI office, I picked up my rental parka, Baffin boots and wind pants. I saw the amazing, newly purchased, double thick sleeping bag. The other participants were from 12 countries (Norway, India, Ukraine, Hong Kong, Australia, Iceland, Japan, Brazil, United Kingdom, Germany, Italy and Turkey). All of them were people with a story who had self selected themselves into this adventure.
The following day, ANI held an informative briefing to explain our air transport arrangements, how to avoid frostbite, camp operations, and the necessity of patience with the weather. All 38 travelers were excited by the centennial trip, and looked forward to test themselves against the elements and get a taste of the hardships faced by the pioneers. The Polar Explorers company’s sub group constituted half of the ANI group. They skied the final 20 kilometers to the South Pole including one night camping on the ice.
The weather cooperated. Our leased Air Almaty Ilyushin 76-TD left Punta Arenas for Union Glacier on December 9th, a 4-hour plus flight. This was the strangest plane that any of us had experienced because it was configured for cargo and troops. There were essentially no windows, with an almost 4-meter ceiling equipped with metal tracks and motors to move heavy equipment. Our cargo was in plain slight. Toilet facilities were primitive. There was one room with a camping-type chemical toilet. There was a stick to push items through a hole to the holding tank. We were admonished to close the door slowly; otherwise the noise irritated the Russian pilot.
Forty minutes before landing, the heaters were cut off to get us used to the cold, and we proceed to find our boots, parkas and wind pants. Since many of us had rented the same type of equipment, I nearly panicked in the confusion to find my gear. Finally, we were all suited up ready to face the Antarctic "summer" of 24-hour sun. Check Union Glacier's weather.
It is strange to land without any windows, and even more so to land on a blue glacier. The air "strip" was located in a windy place so the natural strong winds would keep the glacier free of snow. Reverse thrusters in the engines stopped the plane after a long minute. We taxied for almost 10 minutes to a tiny "terminal". The first impression outside was of beautiful mountains, snow and wind. We were driven in all-wheel vehicles 20 minutes to the Union Glacier camp.
Life at Union Glacier Base Camp
We were assigned to 2-person tents, and I was matched up with Dr. Jagannathan Srinivasaraghavan. He was ranked #33 on MostTraveledPeople.com (MTP), and he was very familiar with my ranking at #4. He had given me a call about 3 years earlier to introduce himself so we were not total strangers when we met in person. Dr. Van, as we called him, is a knowledgeable traveler with many entertaining stories to tell.
All client tents were named after polar explorers (we were assigned "Hillary" for Sir Edmund Hillary), and had double walls and wooden floors. It was sunny with little wind at the camp when we arrived so the sun heated the tents to a reasonable temperature. The sun was above the horizon the entire time I was in the Antarctic. I slept with a sleeping mask and was toasty in the large double thick sleeping bags; even my feet were warm. Frequently we were too warm! Men slept with their pee bottles so no need to get out of those bags when nature called and trudge 150 meters to a toilet.
Because all human waste has to be removed from Antarctica, our toilets had a novel arrangement that required new skills. Pee and poo went into separate toilets because there were different processing techniques for them. Sometimes I had to shuffle back and forth during a visit. Toilets were unheated, but we were getting toughened up so the temperatures seemed tolerable.
The dining tent was heated, as was a similar tent where we saw old films of Amundsen and Scott or episodes of a new BBC series on the Polar Regions. We sanitized our hands, grabbed our plates and lined up to be served by the cooks. Food was not fancy, but it was tasty, plentiful and nutritious. And the cooks even brought us desert!
The new part of the dining experience was the weather report before or after. As the trip progressed, we really learned how much our flights depended on the weather. So we all paid strict attention to these reports and questioned various alternatives they implied. Quickly we discovered that it took a hat trick of good weather at Union Glacier (weather report), Thiel Mountains refueling stop (weather report) and the South Pole (weather report) before we could take off.
There were small group tours of the camp. Just a short walk from the center of our camp is the air strip where the 3 planes taking us to the South Pole are based. More interesting was the behind the scenes look at how our food in stored 4 meters deep in the ice. There was a basket elevator to allow easy storage and retrieval of the food.
Our tents with wooden floors were like a 5 star hotel compared to the staff tents on ice. Carolyn who gave the tour was kind enough to show us her tent which gave us an idea of what we would be facing at the South Pole. We also saw the communications hut where the weather forecasts were developed and where we were able to call home. It cost just $35.00 for 30 minutes on an Iridium satellite phone to call the USA.
Activities at Union Glacier Base Camp
There were a variety of both structured and unstructured activities at the Union Glacier camp.
I maintained my 8 kilometer average per day walking while in Antarctica. Walking toward the glacier landing strip, I investigated the artificial tree seen the day of arrival. In camp, I talked to Ivan Finotti and João Wainer, two Brazilian men, as they adjusted their equipment before their initial attempt to ski with sledges. I took pictures for Avantika & Puneet Dalmia with Camp Director Steve Jones and Carolyn, the assistant Director while holding an Indian flag.
Another discovery was a unique 4-wheel drive vehicle loaded with electronics which planned to set a new land speed record from Union Glacier to the South Pole. I talked the members of the team. Bottom line: they achieved their goal and set a new world overland record by smashing the old one. See http://expeditiontothesouthpole.com.
Håvard Tømmerås, a Norwegian man asked me to help him erect a replica of Amundsen’s tent. It was a privilege! The tent maker had spent over 300 hours to create an efficient tent of modern material faithful to the 1911 aerodynamic design. I suggested Håvard try a dress rehearsal before he re-created the famous Amundsen photo at the South Pole.
We made a half a day trip to Elephant Head, a windy place with rocks to climb on, that got us used to our gear, the weather, and the wonders of Antarctica vastness. This was an enjoyable dress rehearsal where we could cover up completely looking like Darth Vader or apply sunscreen to avoid burning our faces.
A few of us took a half a day trip to Peak 942 which gave us a distant view of the Union Glacier base came. It was a 30 minute trip in a Tucker Terra to get to the base of Peak 942. The vast beauty of Antarctica is experiential to see first-hand. There were also a few scientific experiments and some thousand year old lichen to observe.
The most significant feature of the Union Glacier Base Camp is Mount Rossman (1450 meters - 4785 feet) which towers over it. Because of the clean, dry air in Antarctica, you underestimate distances. So Mount Rossman which seems like a short walk is actually many kilometers away. Since there are crevasses, we could not hike over to it. However, because of its stunning beauty, I took many photos of it from many perspectives. When viewing these 5 photos, remember the sun up 24 hours a day and the constantly changing cloud patterns are very expressive.
Trip to the South Pole
The weather prevented us from leaving on December 11th to fly to the Pole except for the Polar Explorers sub-group whose plane did not require refueling. We required good weather at 3 places: Union Glacier (weather report), Thiel Mountains refueling stop (weather report) and the South Pole (weather report) before we could be cleared to fly. The weather cleared on December 12th and we set out in two Twin Otters fitted with skis. Each plane was packed with 10 people and their gear. I was in the second Otter; however, an hour after leaving the first plane developed a leak and returned. As soon as it landed, our Twin Otter departed.
Two hours and 20 minutes later, we landed at Thiel Mountain. Then in 44 minutes refueled from green drums stored in the middle of a snow plain, and took off for another 2 hours and 15 minutes to reach the South Pole. In 5 plus hours, we had gone 1000 kilometers from about 80 degrees south to 90 degrees south. This was a trip of staggering beauty, but we had no heat and no toilet on our flight.
The Polar Explorers company’s sub group flew in a ski-equipped DC-3 Basler from the Union Glacier base camp and landed in the vast plain. They spent one night in tents in the middle of nowhere and skied the final 20 kilometers to the South Pole dragging sledges -- like Antarctic explorers. I especially admired two Brazilians, writer Ivan Finotti (Read his informative published trip report) and photographer João Wainer (www.joaowainer.com), who despite a complete lack of experience with ice, cold, and snow skiing, completed all 20 kilometers. They were exhausted, but proud.
Life at the South Pole Camp
We were warned in the medical briefing to take it very easy the first day. The South Pole is 2,800 meters (9,300 feet) high, but is the equivalent of 3,300 meters (11,000 feet) on your body. It is much colder than Union Glacier because of the altitude, the weaker sun and the wind. I generally wore 3 completely different layers of clothing at the South Pole, where it was usually -30 degrees Celsius, than at Union Glacier.
The dining tent was much more modest than Union Glacier, but it was the center of activity for groups and individuals. Probably every visitor for the 100th anniversary dropped by. One cook, Malin, a hard-working woman from Norway, handled all the cooking and kitchen cleaning. Early each morning she would shovel snow from the outside into a cooking pot to melt it so we had hot water for coffee and tea. In spite of the cold, the door was left ajar to because it took many trips to get enough snow.
Malin, like everyone I met at the South Pole, is a real traveler. She and her boyfriend created a delightful website.
The wall of the tent had banners of various expeditions.
Sleeping tents were small so you had to get dressed lying down because they were only a meter or so high. Tents were directly on the ice with a pad under your sleeping bag, but once again these sleeping bags kept you warm.
The unheated toilets had the same pee and poo separation approach, but they had a packed snow floor and were colder than the ones at Union Glacier. There is something that is very wrong about a toilet with an ice floor!
Our camp was located, next to our planes, one kilometer from the South Pole. The US government decided not to allow tours in its magnificent building completed in 2008 for $150 million, but built a modest display hut and gift hut for visitors to keep its scientists undisturbed during the centennial observances.
Life at the South Pole is very strange because the sun rises only once a year in September and sets once a year in March. There are 200 employees at the US South Pole Station in the summer & 50 during the 6 months of darkness.
My 100 circumnavigations
Next to the US Station are 3 South Pole markers! One is the symbolic South Pole with candy cane strips and flags of the countries that claim territory in Antarctica. The second is the geographical South Pole as calculated on January 1, 2011. This marker is relocated each January 1st because Antarctica is covered by a giant sheet of ice that is flowing like a glacier due to gravity. The South Pole moves about 10 meters a year.
The third marker, a wooden stake with a red ribbon, was hand labeled “December 14th”. This marked the exact position of the South Pole on the hundredth anniversary of its discovery. Eureka! My plan to make 100 circumnavigations required knowing exactly where the South Pole was on the 100th Anniversary of its Discovery.
After taking photos to recognize the Circumnavigators Club, the Travelers Century Club and a friend, Jason Latimer, with a December 14th birthday, I took photos to honor another great pioneer, Steve Jobs. My new iPhone 4 S was kept warm day and night in a money pouch around my neck. Although I could not call, nor access the Internet, my iPhone contained my family tree in nice diagrams. It pleased the Norwegians to see that my grandfather, Carl Anderson, was born in Norway, and he married a woman, Clara Victoria Peterson, born in Kansas of Swedish immigrants.
I made circles around the wooden peg marking the exact South Pole maintaining a distance of 3 to 5 meters. After each 10 circumnavigations, I paused to rest briefly while logging my time and the number of steps from my pedometer. I had to use a pencil because it was too cold for ballpoint pens. The following day I learned that my circles in the snow amused the US Station employees eating lunch. It took me about 2 hours to make my 100 circumnavigations plus an insurance group of 10 more – I must have inherited a bit of the “Amundsen” careful planning gene.
It was a pleasure to make these circumnavigations and to think about explorers, pioneers and discoverers who have changed our world and reshaped our perceptions of it. I thought about my 5 traditional circumnavigations, in 1971, 1987, 1994, August 2011 and September 2011. I recalled the night in 1989 when I got my Circumnavigators membership certificate. I had it autographed by our speaker, Apollo 8 & 13 Astronaut James Lovell. He wrote: “You have 421 times to go!” Instead of his challenge, I made 100 circumnavigations to celebrate Amundsen and his historic discovery.
South Pole Celebrations
Less than 200 people journeyed to the South Pole to celebrate its 100th anniversary. Perhaps half came from Norway. Some Norwegians skied part or all of the way to the South Pole to celebrate Amundsen’s achievement.
Four Norwegian men planned to ski Amundsen’s 1700 kilometer route and on his timetable, but they got a late start due to bad weather. Nearing the South Pole just 48 hours before the deadline, 2 elected to be airlifted to the Pole to ski in with the Norwegian Prime Minister the last several kilometers. The other 2 men, three-times Olympic gold medal winner Vegard Ulvang and Harald Dag Jølle skied the entire route and achieved the historic December 14th date with 10 minutes to spare.
One man, Jann Pettersen, a spry 78, skied the final 110 kilometers from 89 degrees South to the Pole with a group that included legendary polar explorer, Børge Ousland. Jann’s grandfather, Jørgen Stubberud, was one of the men in Amundsen’s team although he did not get to the Pole. Jann showed me the watch Amundsen had taken to the Pole. Amundsen gave this watch to his grandfather. Jann let me hold it.
I asked Jann if he had ever shaken his grandfather's hand. "Many times!", he said with emphasis. I asked him to shake my hand which he did. He smiled broadly when I explained that my link to Amundsen was now a link of 2 men: he and his grandfather. What a special feeling to be directly connected to Amundsen and to the discovery of the South Pole.
Jann had many funny stories. He explained is name is "Jann" because his father stuttered at his baptism when he pronounced the name of his son and the minister wrote down what he heard "Jann" instead of the traditional "Jan".
Norwegian Prime Minister
The only country that dispatched an official to the celebration of the 100th anniversary of the discovery of the South Pole was Norway. Norway sent, Jens Stoltenberg, its Prime Minister. For Norway, its discovery of the South Pole is analogous in achievement to the United States landing a man on the moon. It is a tremendous source of national pride.
The high-spirited audience was instructed not to move their feet. Boots on snow make a lot of noise – bad for TV.
An employee of the US Station, Zondra Skertich, played the national hymn of Norway on a flute. I was disappointed that the Norwegians did not sing their national hymn, but they did later at a private party held in the US Station.
The Norwegian Prime Minister spoke in English, thanked the US Government and made gracious comments about Scott. His theme was international cooperation. He received hardy applause, but people clapping in mittens don’t make a lot of noise. Then he unveiled an ice sculpture of Amundsen, a splendid sight in the full sun.
There were a few other speeches by people who worked in the US Station. In this cold, we appreciated short speeches and a short program. After the program, I spoke to the Prime Minister, mentioned that my grandfather was born in Møsjoen, Norway, and requested a photo. He was very accommodating to me and everyone who wanted a photo.
The ice sculpture of Amundsen was brilliant in the full sunlight which faded to clouds fairly quickly. I also got a photo with legendary Børge Ousland.
The next day, there was another almost private celebration on the exact moment that Amundsen arrived at the Pole one century earlier. Børge Ousland gave a touching speech focused on Amundsen and his achievement. There was no TV.
Leaving the South Pole and Returning to Union Glacier
When the weather turned bad – freezing fog - and we were unable to leave as planned, I realized that Amundsen’s achievement wasn’t getting to the South Pole, but returning from it safely. The Polar Explorers sub-group was able to get out during the bad weather because they didn't need to refuel. However, their DC-3 was frozen to the ground, and revving the engines several times did not free the plane. So there was a short delay as they had to exit the plane while it was unstuck, then they re-boarded and took off without incident. The revving engines did create enough air blast to damage one tent. My tent had a small "snow fall" inside the tent when the blast of air from the DC-3 caused shook the frost from the inner tent wall onto the sleeping bags.
Since I had mentally prepared myself in case we became trapped at the Pole for an extra 2 weeks, I and the rest of the ANI group were relieved when we were able to board our two Twin Otters and leave the following day. We had spent 3 nights at the South Pole in unheated tents and were eager to get back to the comparative comforts of Union Glacier.
Landing at Thiel Mountain, we knew the drill as our pilots got out the pump and hose to refuel from the drums stored on the snow and ice in the middle of nowhere.
Returning to the Union Glacier camp, we appreciated the relative warmth, tents where you could stand up and other creature comforts like toilets with wooden floors and being able to clean our hands with soap and water instead of just the hand sanitizers in the dining tent and toilets.
The next day we had ideal weather conditions for an hour or so. A couple of us took advantage of the bright sunshine and almost zero wind conditions. Kamil Emre Erciyas, a man from Turkey, did some writing in his journal like he was at a ski resort. I demonstrated the lack of wind with the Circumnavigators Club flag while covering up my senior citizen body. Then I immediately got dressed!
Getting back to Union Glacier was also a chance to compare notes with people on their experiences at the South Pole.
I had talked to Daniel Peña, Sr. and Sally Hall, of the Polar Explorers sub-group, several times at Union Glacier before we flew to the South Pole. There they made history. They were the first non-government employees to be married at the South Pole. It will be easy for Dan to remember their wedding anniversary because its the 100th anniversary of the South Pole's discovery.
I also talked to Norwegian adventurers Gaute Grindhaug and Agnar Berg about their expedition. Gaute works as a graduate engineer for Statoil and Agnar was the expedition photographer. The third member and expedition leader, Asle T. Johansen, re-created Amundsen's clothing for the three of them. They spent 46 days skiing 550 kilometers to the South Pole in replicated Amundsen clothing and equipment. Unfortunately, they could not use dogs since they are no longer allowed in Antarctica. Gaute got frostbite on his toes and Agnar had frostbite on his nose. Gaute was really looking forward to getting to Punta Arenas for his first shower since he arrived in Antarctica.
Håvard Tømmerås was very pleased. He had his photo at the Symbolic South Pole with his replica of Amundsen's tent to recreate the iconic photo. Amundsen took only 2 photos on his expedition. The red and white stripped Symbolic South Pole is framed by the Norwegian and US flags. Håvard used members from the ANI group: From left to right two men from Norway, Jan Liberg and Håvard, then Peter Liu from Hong Kong and Florian Schindler from Germany.
Leaving Union Glacier and Returning Home
The weather delayed us another day before we boarded our Russian-built Ilyushin 76-TD for the flight to Punta Arenas. It was over 4 hours in the air.
We arrived at 3:35 am. We were all very tired from out from our incredible experience.
My priority was to get to the hotel for a bath. It was the first time in 8 days to get fully clean. Soaking in warm water was a true luxury! Then a quick nap, lunch and back to the airport.
Later the same day I took a two-stop flight to Santiago to connect with the all night 9-hour flight to Atlanta, and then on to Chicago, home and normal life.
The memories of this unique expedition will continue to reverberate in my mind for the rest of my life.
Related Trip Reports
Håvard Tømmerås visited historic sites in Hobart, Tasmania, and met with Tim Bowden, the grandson of the telegraph manager entrusted by Amundsen to send the telegram to the King of Norway announcing that he was the first to the South Pole beating the English. There are photos and commentary on how Amundsen send telegrams to others, a translation of his letter to the King of Norway, etc. There are two reports with text and photos.
Florian Schindler from Germany, one of the men along with Håvard Tømmerås in the recreated iconic Amundsen photo, wrote a report on our South Pole trip. Here is his report written in English for the Degree Confluence Project.