The South Pole is getting ready to get a lot of foot traffic..
When the British explorer Robert Falcon Scott arrived at the South Pole only to find that he had been beaten there by Roald Amundsen and his team of Norwegians, he was despondent. “Great God! This is an awful place,” he lamented in his diary.
Awful as it may be, it is about to get a lot of foot traffic. Hundreds of people — tourists, adventurers and history buffs — are lining up to visit the South Pole in honour of the 100th anniversaries of Amundsen's arrival (on December 14, 1911) and Scott's (January 17, 1912). The preparations are already speeding along.
Some people intend to ski the exact routes of Amundsen and Scott, reading the explorers' diaries daily and blogging about the experience. Others will drive to the pole by truck. For those seeking less exertion, there will be catered flights to the pole, including several that will let passengers off a few miles away so they can ski the remaining stretch and feel the thrill of victory.
One of the many tour operators trying to cash in on the fervour is Polar Explorers, a company in suburban Chicago that is charging $40,500 for a flight to the pole on either anniversary (weather permitting). People who want to be dropped off a degree or two away so they can ski in will pay up to $57,500.
“We're going to have lots of Champagne toasts and take a lot of pictures, and you can call home to your loved ones from the pole,” said Annie Aggens of Polar Explorers. “It's super exciting just to walk in the footsteps of these early explorers.”
Needless to say, people will not want to replicate Scott's entire expedition. He and his men died in a blizzard during the 800-mile trek back from the pole, huddled in a tent that was, famously, just 11 miles from a vital cache of supplies.
Instead, many people plan to ski to the pole, then fly back. Davis Nelsen, who is 52 and runs a steel manufacturing company in Chicago, will have a less stressful trip. He plans to be on one of the Amundsen flights run by Polar Explorers, in honour of his Norwegian heritage. This will be his second polar adventure: in 2009, he flew to the North Pole to mark the centenary of Robert Peary's expedition.
In polar travel, “you have to be prepared to be uncomfortable,” said Mr. Nelsen, who plans to ski the last 30 or so miles.
The crowds going to the South Pole are not expected to amount to more than a blip in overall tourism numbers to Antarctica, which peaked at 46,000 in the 2007-08 season and have dropped off because of the global recession. But because most people who visit Antarctica go by cruise ship and do not venture beyond the coast, a spike in tourism to the pole itself is expected.
The National Science Foundation, which runs the Amundsen-Scott research station at the South Pole, is not amused. It has a message for all these potential visitors: do not expect a warm welcome.
“Those people who do arrive, we don't really have a process for them other than letting them know that they are at the pole, that this is a U.S. station, and we're not able to provide them with any amenities,” said Peter West of the National Science Foundation's Office of Polar Programs.
Yes, there is a small gift shop — make that, “commissary” — where people can buy T-shirts and the like, and visitors can drop off letters that will get a South Pole postmark. But the research station is “really not set up for tourism,” said Evan Bloom of the State Department. “We want other governments to get the word out that people should not simply show up at the South Pole.”
Most of the time, visitors will be spread across Antarctica. The biggest ski race, the one set up by Extreme World Races, will take place far away from the routes taken by Scott and Amundsen, approaching from the opposite side of the continent. Fifty-one competitors, in teams of three, will ski to the pole, said Tony Martin, founder of the company. Training for the race, which includes jumping into ice holes and learning to negotiate crevasses, will take place at a camp in Norway; space is still available.
“We don't give cash prizes or cars,” said Mr. Martin, in an interview by satellite phone from Antarctica, where he was in a truck setting a course for the race. He described his clients as “just ordinary people” who wanted to “push themselves psychologically and physically.” Each will wear a GPS device, and aeroplanes will be on call in case someone needs to be evacuated.
Among other adventure travellers, Henry Worsley, a lieutenant colonel in the British Army, may have the best historical pedigree. He is distantly related to Frank Worsley, the captain of Ernest Shackleton's ship, the Endurance. He is staging his own race to the pole in two teams of three men. “The intention is to rerun the Scott-Amundsen race from the two start points,” he said. “I'm leading the Norwegian route up the Axel Heiberg glacier from the Bay of Whales, and a friend of mine is going to do the Scott route, which I did a few years ago.”
Some people are trying to play down the competitive angle and play up the historical one. Jan-Gunnar Winther, director of the Norwegian Polar Institute, plans to be at the pole the day Amundsen reached it, part of a four-man team that will re-enact Amundsen's journey then fly home in time for Christmas. On the British side, Ben Saunders, a 33-year-old London resident, who is a long-distance skier and motivational speaker, plans to follow in the footsteps of Scott — and to complete the return trip that Scott could not finish.
David Wilson, a great-nephew of Edward Wilson, the naturalist and sketch artist who marched to the pole with Scott and died beside him, will join other descendants of Scott's polar party in Antarctica next January 17 in the vicinity of the tent, where they will hold a memorial service.
He echoes the Scott party line: that the British expedition went to Antarctica to do science, not to race to the pole. The people planning competitions are “completely misunderstanding what happened 100 years ago,” Dr. Wilson said.
Despite the potential circus atmosphere, some veterans insist that Antarctica is not for novices.
“It's a place that wants you dead,” said Robert Swan, an environmentalist who walked Scott's route to the South Pole in 1985. “Scott found that out 100 years ago.”— © New York Times News Service