About 850 miles due south of McMurdo Sound is the South Pole–the object of exploratory fascination 100 years ago, and indeed, today. I am lucky enough to be the only passenger on a Pole-bound LC-130 ski plane and therefore get to ride in the cockpit. There are 10 such ski equipped C-130s in the fleet. The take-off (on tires) is smooth off our ice-runway and after several slow bounces, the nose of this huge beast lifts skyward. The scenery from this point onward to the Pole is nothing short of spectacular. About half way into our three hour journey, we cross the Beardmore Glacier, the pioneering route to the pole on skis used by Shackleton and Scott 100 years ago. Pictured here is the upper portion where it merges into the Mill Glacier which leads directly to the polar ice plateau:
The polar plateau is immense with the Amundsen-Scott Station another one hours flight away (a month on skis). The elevation at the South Pole is 9300′ however due to the unique polar conditions the barometric altitude is actually 11,200′. Seven hundred fifty miles to our right lies Vostok, the Russian base at an altitude of 11,200/13,500+, where the coldest temperatures on earth were recorded in 1983 at -128.6F. A grey smudge is visible out the front cockpit window which, upon closer approach, is a cluster of buildings and an ice runway. We land smoothly on skis and “combat dump” the cargo (jettison while taxiing) as it’s too cold to stop. The engines contrail at polar temperatures making it hazardous for crew and forklifts to approach the aircraft. I’m next and I grab my two orange USAP bags and carefully climb down the stairs onto a flat white vista. It’s minus 61.6F–and these are spring temperatures!
A snow machine brings outgoing bags to the plane and exchanges them for mine. In the distance are two waving red parkas who guide me into the new Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station. After work, I discover a piano in the Sky Lab section above the original 50 meter dome built in 1975, about four flights of stairs above my “meat locker” apartment. Combine this with 13 flights of stairs in the new building’s “beer can” stairwell, and the “rabbit warren” of tunnels under 50 years of snow accumulation, I meet my daily exercise goals.
The sun now circles about 20 degrees above the horizon as it climbs to 23.5 degrees at the summer solstice. Three pm affords the perfect photo opportunity on the geographic south pole. We walk around the “earth” three or four times (note the “doughnut” path around the pole), then pose for pictures and hurry back into a warm building. I return in the Austral autumn for another week–and I can’t wait! (Next week, we’ll tour the largest hut: Scott Hut at Cape Evans)