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South Pole trek: Skiing to the Nth degree

The South Pole is one of the strangest and most compelling places on the planet--especially when you're skiing to it.
We each pulled a sled weighing 110 pounds, difficult in the powder-dry snow near the Pole. ...
We each pulled a sled weighing 110 pounds, difficult in the powder-dry snow near the Pole. ...Jim Clash
/ Source: Forbes

The Amundsen-Scott Station, a U.S. scientific research base, sits atop the most desolate and frigid patch of snow on earth: the geographic South Pole.

In winter, temperatures at the Pole drop below -100 degrees--so cold that boiling water, if thrown into the air, turns to ice before hitting the ground. Because of this intense cold, the station is completely cut off from the rest of the world between March and November, the winter months at the bottom of the globe. Below -50, nobody can fly in or out; metal landing gear on airplanes snap like twigs, and engine oil turns to jelly.

The American public became aware of this several years ago, when Dr. Jerri Nielsen, while overwintering at the Pole, found a cancerous lump in her breast. Nielsen performed surgery--on herself--as no one could be flown in or out.

I had hankered for the chilly southern climes for decades--tales of the extreme fuel the imaginations of youngsters. In 1970, as a wide-eyed teen, I wrote President Richard Nixon asking if I could visit the South Pole station under the guise of a science fair project. Believe it or not, my query prompted a response: Nixon referred my letter to Dr. Louis Quam in the Department of Interior. I would be hearing from Quam soon, Nixon assured me. I am still waiting.

Last December, I took matters into my own hands, joining a "Ski the Last Degree" expedition organized by Voyage Concepts in England and Geographic Expeditions in the U.S. The plan: Fly to 89 degrees south latitude, then battle Mother Nature for another 70 miles, cross-country skiing to the Pole while hauling all of our equipment, food and personal gear in sleds. The ski part of the trip ranges from six to 12 days, depending on the group's strength and polar snow conditions.

But first, getting there. After five flights south--New York to Lima, Peru; Lima to Santiago, Chile; Santiago to Punta Arenas, Chile, via LAN Airlines (nyse: LFL - news - people ); then to Patriot Hills, Antarctica, via Antarctic Logistics & Expeditions; and finally to 89 South via a Kenn Borek Air Twin Otter--we set out on the polar plateau, where bone-chilling wind is the norm and even birds can't survive. The landscape is flat ice desert as far as the eye can see, and had we not had the aid of a GPS, we would have had no idea in which direction to ski.

Fewer than 300 people have skied to the South Pole; our group added just four to the total. My teammates--William Roberts, a 46-year-old lawyer from Ireland, and David Gibb, 40, a fund manager from South Africa--had each ponied up $41,000 for the exotic experience. We were led by British polar expert Stephen Jones, 39.

It was summer there, but that didn't mean it was easy. Because the plateau is 9,300 feet above sea level, the cold air (rarely above zero) is thin, and the body acclimates to the lack of oxygen grudgingly. I had a headache and nausea for the first few days. Couple that with the fact that we were each hauling 110-pound sled loads--well, you get the exhausting picture.

Our routine was the same each day. We woke at 7 a.m., then fired up stoves to melt snow for a breakfast of oatmeal and hot chocolate. By 10, both tents were dismantled (we slept two per tent) and camp was packed up. Then the real work began: eight grueling hours of skiing.

Day after day, we pushed on for solid 60-minute legs, breaking for 15, then skiing another 60 and so on. Burning about 1,000 calories an hour, we scarfed as much chocolate, dried fruit and nuts as possible during the breaks, washing them down with hot drinks from our thermoses. When the wind kicked up, we quickly donned face masks, since at those temperatures any exposed skin will be frostbitten within minutes.

Was it tough? You bet. Three days into the trip, I leaned over to Gibb and panted, "Of this much I am certain: If there is such a thing as reincarnation, I absolutely do not want to come back as a sled dog."

Despite the struggles, I couldn't help but occasionally admire the view, which was otherworldly and beautiful. One day brought with it "sun dogs," a phenomenon whereby a large rainbow rings the sun, with two false suns appearing on either side. Another day, tiny ice crystals suddenly began falling from a perfectly clear sky.

At 6 p.m. each night, we would set up camp. Then, more snow melting to prepare our freeze-dried dinners. After the meal, we'd hit our sleeping bags, rated -40, for some shut-eye. Even this was difficult, despite our exhaustion. In the height of the Antarctic summer, the sun remains 23 degrees off the horizon and never sets. It just rolls around the edge of the sky. On the bright side (so to speak), the constant light helped heat the tent. Sometimes, at "night," the temperature would rise to above freezing inside, while outside it might be 60 degrees colder.

After six days, the Amundsen-Scott Station appeared, first as a dot on the horizon, then as a small complex of buildings. What relief! It was our first glimpse of life in a week. It took yet another day to reach the pole, but once we arrived we were treated to a hot meal and a tour by the gracious National Science Foundation and Raytheon (nyse: RTN - news - people ) staffs.

Established in 1957 by the U.S. to mark the International Geophysical Year (and rebuilt in 1975), the base houses about 240 people during the summer. They work on science projects and the construction of a new main building (the 1975 dome is slowly being covered by snow). In winter, the number of personnel drops to 60 hearty souls, managed by our hostess Liesl Schernthanner.

Not surprisingly, the base has its own quirky sense of humor. A recent edition of The Antarctic Sun newspaper, available in the cafeteria, featured a piece on "Dumbest questions Pole workers are asked back home." One example: "So, how many seasons have you worked in Alaska?" The dining area also exhibits an upside-down globe with Antarctica--and the South Pole--at the top. Down the hall is a small store for souvenirs (U.S. currency only, no credit cards!) as well as a post office, where we had our passports stamped.

We camped at the Pole for the next three days, touring a new telescope built by the California Institute of Technology to study the origins of the universe, and visiting the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration polar complex, established in 1997 to measure the ozone hole over Antarctica. We posed for photos at the ceremonial Pole marker. Walk around it and you'll have covered 24 time zones in a few seconds!

As we left, the famous polar explorer Victor Boyarsky (his team crossed Antarctica via the Pole in 1989) landed with a group of Russian tourists. I wasn't sure how to feel. Having endured such discomfort on our ski in, I felt I had earned the Pole. But these guys?

Still, I had only skied the last 70 miles. How about adventurers who ski to the Pole from the Antarctic coast--a distance of 700 miles? Or Robert Scott, the British explorer who raced Norwegian Roald Amundsen to the Pole in 1911, only to finish second and die on his return trek. What would these fellows think of us?

I decided not to judge. I was here, finally, at the bottom of the world--and without the help of Dr. Quam.

Video: Visiting The South Pole

Jim Clash's Adventurer column appears in Forbes magazine and online at He is also the author of To the Limits (John Wiley & Sons, 2003).


Cost: $41,000 (excluding round-trip airfare to Punta Arenas, Chile)

Outfitter: Geographic Expeditions ( and Voyage Concepts (

Conditioning: Excellent cardiovascular fitness; leg strength to pull heavy sleds; ability to withstand extreme cold

Flight Option: For $36,000, you can skip the skiing and fly directly to the Pole. ( In a few years, you may even be able to drive to the South Pole. For more, click here.)