A hundred years ago this month, the first humans to ever set foot at the South Pole planted their flag in that supremely inhospitable place.
Today, hundreds of people from around the globe are returning to that flat, white expanse of Antarctic ice to commemorate the centennial anniversary, including about 30 adventurous souls who are either skiing or flying to the pole with Wilmette-based PolarExplorers.
The company is leading six expeditions during this Antarctic summer, which is the most it has done in a season. The first two groups arrived at the South Pole in time to mark the Dec. 14 anniversary of Norwegian Roald Amundsen’s arrival at that spot 100 years earlier.
One group of six flew to the pole. Another group of 12 flew in but skied the “last degree,” roughly 12 miles, to the geographic South Pole, explained Annie Aggens, the company’s director of polar expeditions.
You can read blog entries and hear short video clips from the two groups on PolarExplorers’ South Pole expedition blog. Not surprisingly, the clips feature a disproportionate amount of discussion about weather (in the -30 Fahrenheit range) and food (particularly chocolate).
Additionally, a group of six skiers is en route to the pole, making the full 700-plus-mile trip from the continent’s edge, Aggens said. Another pair of groups — one flying the whole way and another skiing the last degree — hopes to be there for the anniversary of British Navy Captain Robert Falcon’s Scott’s arrival at the pole on Jan. 17. In total, PolarExpeditions’ guides are bringing 29 or 30 people there this season.
History looms large
Amundsen and Scott were battling one another for the title of first man to the South Pole in 1911 when they set off from different spots along the Antarctic coast. Amundsen and his men proved better prepared and beat Scott by more than a month.
Scott, who famously wrote, “Great God! This is an awful place,” upon his arrival, was despondent to find the Norwegian flag already there. The sadness turned to tragedy when he and his crew died on their return trip.
Today, the South Pole is occupied by the Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station, an American scientific base that houses about 250 people in the summer and a skeleton crew of about 50 in the winter. That includes scientists who do research, such as using giant telescopes to peer into the depths of the universe or working on a neutrino detector buried in the ice that looks for the miniscule, nearly massless subatomic particles. There are also all the support staff needed to keep the station running, such as cooks, equipment drivers and construction teams.
That summer population is being eclipsed by the 300 or so tourists expected over the course of the season, the bulk of whom were there for the Amundsen anniversary and another large wave that’s coming for Scott’s centennial.
Aggens said the increased bookings for South Pole trips this year were due in large part to the anniversary.
“There’s a general interest in history and excitement of being down there for this celebration,” she said.
Aggens, who has been to the South Pole once before, sat out this year because she had a baby in May. (That likely won’t keep her sidelined for long — she brought her older child on a trip to the Arctic, when she was 18 months old.)
Aggens still feels the tug of history from her office in Wilmette.
“Scott and Amundsen were two exceptional explorers,” she said. “These were magnificent feats of exploration in every sense of the word. … It’s hard to imagine what it would be like today to embark on such an expedition without the comfort of global communications.”
A trip of a lifetime
PolarExplorers charges between $40,000 and $65,000 for its South Pole trips. It was gearing up for extra interest this year, due in part to its experience with increased bookings two years ago for the anniversary of American Robert Peary’s arrival at the North Pole.
“It was a natural for us to have another centennial year season down south,” Aggens said.
About half the company’s clients are American; the rest hail from all over the world. Two are locals — one is from Evanston and one from Barrington.
“All those Chicago winters should hopefully help out,” Aggens joked.