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The last half degree

“O, how glorious would it be to set my heel upon the Pole and turn myself 360° in a second!”

- Joseph Banks botanist on James Cook’s voyage, 1769-71

Happy New Year from London and also from the tents in Antarctica! On New Year’s Eve the guys were just 63 kms from the Pole, at 89 and a half degrees south. Every time I’m asked about their estimated arrival time at the Pole – which is a lot – I dress it up with ‘depends on the weather’ and a bit of a lecture about sticky snow and thin atmosphere, but at their current pace, Daragh, Doug, Jeremy, Luc and Eric are hoping to reach the Pole on Saturday 3rd January.

The average distance they are able to cover in a day has fallen for several reasons. They are crossing the vast and featureless Polar Plateau, ‘the heart of Antarctica’ and also the coldest! The snow is drier, colder and stickier, and has no glide for the skis or sleds, making each step a huge effort. The US-owned Amundsen-Scott station at the Pole can be seen from about 24 kms away; unless you’re in a white-out of course. So in clear conditions the last few days of travel can seem the longest.

Luc is suffering physical fatigue, Doug has ankle problems and Daragh is taking painkillers in an attempt to ignore his left hip and what he thinks is an injured hamstring. Add these to the previous ailments, the ever-present blisters etc, which won’t really have chance to heal until they finish, and with the weather and snow conditions you can see why progress is fairly painful!

So for two days after Christmas the team traveled for 4 hours per day instead of the usual 8. All are said to be “doing good” though and they are redistributing the weight in the sleds as needed. 

On the 28th there was another complete white-out and the coldest temperatures experienced so far. Another white-out from lunch time on 30th, which was still in place when I received a phone call on the evening of the 31st, are adding to their difficulties. Base camp at Patriot Hills has been unable to send out any aircraft for a couple of weeks, due to white-out and wind conditions there.

The Geographic South Pole is where all 360 lines of longitude meet, the most southerly point on Earth. The coordinates are usually given simply as 90 degrees south: its longitude being zero. There are no native animals or plants at the Pole, only the very occasional off-course skua bird, which look roughly like large brown seagulls but are obviously an awful lot tougher.

There are two actual poles at the Pole (following that?). The Geographic South Pole is indicated by a simple metal rod – rather like a large nail – which has to be moved each year, on New Year’s Day, to compensate for the fact that the ice shifts about 10 metres per annum. There is also a sign recording the dates that Amundsen and Scott reached the South Pole: Amundsen on 14 December 1911 and Scott a month later.

Nearer the station there is also a ceremonial red and white pole, topped by a metallic sphere on a plinth, and surrounded by the state flags of signatories to the Antarctic Treaty. This is around 300 meters from the Geographic Pole. The ceremonial pole is shifted every two to three years to keep it within a short walking distance of the other.

Quick note on Jeremy’s plans. He has the logistics in place to kite a return journey from the Pole back to the coast, using the katabatic winds that are currently blowing against them. He would be doing this in the company of a Norwegian who has made the trip before – I imagine one of very few people! Jeremy can decide whether to go ahead with this when he arrives at the Pole (the others will be flying out). Yesterday he was fully intending to go ahead though, which is massively impressive! If he is able to make the journey it should take him around 10 days to complete.

 - AH