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The Ice: Polar Adventure to the Bottom of the Earth

Written by Jim Graves.

“There are few places on earth where the might of nature is felt with such naked force. The sheer scale is awesome, an alien immensity assaults the senses, almost as if it were a landscape from another planet. Antarctica is a land of violent extremes and yet, paradoxically, it is one of the few places where man comes closest to controlling his own fate.”
– Huntford, Roland, The Last Place on Earth, Random House, Inc., 1999

So you ask, why would I choose to travel nearly 10,000 miles to such a remote, desolate, cold, and harsh place as the interior of Antarctica? Consider for a moment the unique features of this far-off land. It is the fifth largest continent on Earth, larger than Australia and Europe. Approximately 60% of the Antarctic continent is still unexplored.

Despite ice and snow, it is the driest continent on Earth with less than 4 mm of precipitation monthly, about the same as the Sahara Desert. The average thickness of the ice sheet covering 98% of the continent is 72,000 feet. This represents 90% of the ice and 70% of all fresh water in the world. The ice sheet at the South Pole is more than 1 mile deep before reaching the landmass below.

Antarctica is the highest continent on Earth. The altitude at the South Pole is more than 9,000 feet. The highest mountain on Antarctica is more than 16,000 feet. Antarctica has “dry” valleys too, devoid of snow and ice.

It’s a land of active volcanoes. It is also the coldest continent where the record low is -128 F. During the “summer” from November through January, 24 hours of sunlight prevails. During the winter, 24 hours of darkness shrouds the continent.

No living creatures inhabit the interior of Antarctica. Simply stated, I went to Antarctica because there’s no other place on the Earth like it!

Antarctica has been a source of mystery and challenge to mankind for centuries. The Ancient Greeks postulated there was an “Antarktos” further South to balance the Earth. For Eighteenth Century seafarers, “Terra Australis Incognita” or the Unknown Southern Land, was a mysterious place to be discovered. Sir Ernest Shackleton, Robert Falcon Scott, and Roald Amundsen slogged their way deep into the Polar Plateau on heroic expeditions.

For years, travel to the interior of Antarctica was only accessible to scientists, researchers, and select expeditions. This changed in the mid-’80s when several daring pilots and mountain climbers successfully flew to the interior to climb Vinson Massif, the highest peak in Antarctica. That was the precursor to Adventure Network International (ANI) and its camp at the Patriot Hills.

Curiosity and adventure motivated me to venture forth in January 2002, leaving behind family, friends, and the practice of law. I was very fortunate to go to Antarctica with my brother, David, and our friend and polar pilot, Dan Weinstein from New York. We flew from Lansing to Miami, then on to Santiago, Chile, crossing the Equator during the middle of the night. After a layover in Santiago, our trip took us to Punta Arenas. This gateway city is located at the Southern tip of Chile, on the Strait of Magellan. From Punta Arenas we would board a converted Russian military aircraft, flown by a Russian crew, to make the four-hour flight to Ellsworth Mountains and the Patriot Hills.

Travel to Antarctica is unpredictable. We were advised to remain flexible and to plan on possible delays leaving for Antarctica and returning. The primary impediment to travel in this region of the Earth is the weather. Punta Arenas is located at approximately 55 degrees S. latitude. Reaching the Patriot Hills at 80 degrees S. latitude from Punta Arenas means flying from Cape Horn across the “Roaring 50s” of the Southern Ocean. Here warm and cold ocean currents clash in the “Antarctic Convergence.” Cold polar air temperatures and high velocity winds add to the volatile mix.

Visibility and crosswinds dictate whether the aircraft landings in the interior of Antarctica can be made safely. Flying to the Patriot Hills requires complex logistics, aircraft with sufficient range to fly there and back without refueling, skilled pilots, acceptable cross winds, and visual flight conditions. There are no paved runways, air-traffic control facilities, and navigational beacons as we know them in our part of the World.

Our flight was delayed several days. This opened other travel opportunities in the Patagonia Region of Southern Chile, once explored by Charles Darwin. We rented a van from a local resident and made a 3-day road trip North across the vast Patagonia Plains. We encountered burrowing Magellanic penguins, the guanaco (a type of llama), the nandu (a small ostrich), large sheep ranches, blue ice glaciers, aquamarine glacial lakes, and the giant granite spires of Chile ‘s Torres del Paine National Park. Located in a remote region on the Chilean-Argentinean border, Torres del Paine was designated by UNESCO as an International Biosphere. To reach the park, we traveled round-trip 150 miles on bad roads, stopping on the way back at the Cave of Mylodon, once home to a prehistoric, sloth-like mammal.

The ANI camp is located nearly 600 miles from the South Pole. The closest city or town is nearly 1,800 miles away. Landing on the natural Blue Ice runway, kept clear of snow by the high winds off the nearby mountains, involves the use of jet engine reverse thrusters (no braking) by the flight crew. Fortunately, the crew had considerable experience making similar landings on compacted snow runways in Siberia. Though the landing was somewhat bumpy due to the uneven surface of the ice airfield, only the slightest apprehension crept into my psyche as we touched down.

Stepping from the jet through the rear cargo door onto “The Ice” was an exhilarating experience.

It is difficult to describe one’s thoughts and feelings. Awe and wonder best describe my reactions to the white expanse of snow and ice. (“I’M REALLY HERE!” is what I was thinking).

Mountain peaks, covered by thick ice and snow, stood off on the horizon. In the other direction, I could see distant glimpses of the camp’s low profile and pyramid-style tents and weather havens. The sun, in all of its brilliance, reflected off the snow and ice making the wearing of glacial goggles necessary to protect one’s sight.

We met an interesting mix of people in camp on our arrival. Some were waiting to fly to the South Pole. Marathon runners, who had just completed a race to the South Pole, and meteorite hunters were waiting to return to Punta Arenas. A Finn and an Aussie, who had skied to the South Pole in 28 days, were due back. Camp staff comprised extremely able and talented expedition guides, pilots, climbers, meteorologists, radio operators, mechanics, and cooks from Scotland, New Zealand, South Africa, Canada and the UK.

At first I was assigned a small, one-person tent. As it turned out, however, we were able to use one of the weather havens that comfortably sleeps four. As much as I tried to sleep, I was unable to adjust completely to the 24 hours of sunlight and high winds that battered the sides of the weather haven at “night” during our stay. Despite the winds, we successfully hoisted a U of M flag outside our weather haven that flew during our stay.

The next day we made a guided snowmobile trek up over ” Windy Pass ” and across a sweeping blue ice valley to the next range of mountains. While at the Patriots, we also traveled by snow-cat to the crash site of a cargo plane that had a veterinarian on board and dogs that he was planning on using for conducting experiments. The veterinarian survived the crash but the dogs escaped only to perish on the ice. Now the tail section of the plane is the only part which is visible above the ice and snow. The nose of the plane and its fuselage and wings were completely buried. We also visited the nearby permanent Chilean government camp that is occupied in alternative years. As with the plane, the Chilean camp was slowly being consumed by snow and ice.

The highlight of our trip was a flight in an orange, single-engine Cessna, aptly named the “Polar Pumpkin.” Our pilot was an experienced Antarctic and New Zealand glacier pilot. We took off from a natural snow ski-way used by smaller aircraft. From the air the peaks, glaciers, crevasses, and stark beauty of the polar plateau below were even more impressive. The flight ended with a thrilling low pass over the camp.

While we were intending a stay at the Patriot Hills a full week, the unpredictability of favorable flight conditions forced us to leave earlier than planned. I have already begun to contemplate my return to Antarctica. Having seen and experienced the continent’s interior, next time I hope to explore the Antarctic Peninsula. There one can see penguins, seals, birds, and icebergs from the deck of an icebreaker. Until then, I will enjoy the memories of my trip to “The Ice.”