South Pole Tourist Season

This post is for those of you who have been reading this blog and wondering “I’m not a scientist; how can I get to the South Pole?” For those who want to visit and work in Antarctica for an extended period of time, the United States Antarctic Program (USAP) is currently hiring. (Citizens of other countries should check whether their country has a program in Antarctica; many nations do.) Those interested in the humanities can check out the NSF’s Antarctic Artists and Writers Program. For those fortunate enough to have $50,000 to spare, there are a number of companies that run private expeditions to the South Pole. Some are package tours of Antarctica that include a day trip to the Pole, while others are more adventurous and involve skiing either all the way from the coast (a two month trek) or “skiing the last degree” (getting airlifted to 89 degrees south and skiing the remaining ~70 miles to the South Pole). Wikitravel has a partial list on their South Pole page, along with some of the activities available to tourists. (The main attraction is taking photos at the Pole marker, as all of the buildings housing scientific experiments are off-limits to unauthorized visitors and the main station generally is as well – although some groups are allowed to make carefully chaperoned visits to the gift shop to mail postcards and buy other souvenirs.)


Top: A group of tourists deplanes from their aircraft. Bottom: A busy day at the airport -- two tourist planes parked next to the tiny visitors center. Top: A group of tourists deplanes at the end of the skiway. Bottom: A busy day at the airport — two tourist planes parked next to the visitors center.

During my stay here, I have seen a number of tourist groups come and go. Most of them arrive in small planes, swing by the tiny “visitors center,” take photos at the pole marker, and fly out again. (Many of these “day trippers” don’t seem to know the difference between the ceremonial pole marker and the real one; all of them take photos at the ceremonial pole, but I only saw a few walk the extra few hundred feet over to the official geographic south pole marker! So if you ever get the chance to go, make sure that you walk the last few feet to 90.0 degrees south.) Most of the skiing expeditions don’t arrive until later in the season, although one of the “ski the last degree” groups showed up recently. The tourists are generally kept away from the scientists – all expeditions have to be completely self-sufficient, so those expeditions staying overnight usually camp in tents in an area set aside for tourist use – but some of the guides have been leading trips for years and are friends with old hands on the station, so I got to meet one or two of them. Skiing for 7-9 hours everyday and camping on the ice cap in tents for two weeks is very different from my Antarctic experience of sleeping in a cushy, heated private room and getting three hot, cooked meals per day.

Apart from the Congressional delegation, the most interesting tourist we have had so far this season is Tractor Girl, a Dutch actress who drove a farm tractor over 23,000 miles from the Netherlands to the South Pole and is making a documentary about her experiences. She and her crew camped and filmed at the Pole for a few days, then started the long drive back to the coast. Her visit generated much more excitement than the average tourist excursion; even the galley staff had fun with the novelty of her visit.

Top: Tractor Girl with crew and tractor at the ceremonial Pole, with their camp in the tourist area behind them. Bottom: The galley staff liven up the announcement of the day's dessert.

IMG_1608 Top: Tractor Girl with crew and tractor at the ceremonial Pole, with their camp in the tourist area behind them. Bottom: The galley staff liven up the announcement of the day’s dessert.

Like most of the scientists and USAP employees, the tourists retreat from the South Pole by mid-February, as the sun creeps toward the horizon and the temperatures drop. Between mid-February and late October, the only inhabitants of the South Pole station are the skeleton winterover crew, who watch over the experiments during the nine months that it is too cold and too dangerous to fly planes to and from the ice cap. Despite the isolation and the lack of sunlight, most of the people who winter love it – Robert Schwarz, who has watched over our Keck telescope for the past few years, has taken some amazing photos and videos of the aurora. 2015 will be his eleventh winter at the South Pole. Although I don’t ever want to winter over myself, it is still amazing to see such a beautiful, dark night sky. I hope to someday see aurora that spectacular, although preferably from a more accessible location.

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