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What it’s like to go on holiday in Antarctica

Welcome to the hotel Antarctica

It’s the world’s largest desert – but as Sophy Roberts discovered when she spent a week in the interior, exploring the wilderness is not so straightforward

It’s the world’s largest desert – but as Sophy Roberts discovered when she spent a week in the interior, exploring the wilderness is not so straightforward

Sophy Roberts | April/May 2016

Approaching Antarctica, the anticipation is like that on no other journey, for you are travelling towards an idea, not just a place on the map. Its vast, pristine wilderness, owned by no one, is a symbol of geographical purity unique on the planet. Its brutal climate – plunging temperatures down to -97°C, and 200mph winds, which scour and groove the icy surface – puts mankind properly in his place. And its human history is of ultimate courage, of people who pushed themselves to the limit, and sometimes over it – Shackleton, Amundsen, Scott and the others who beat on towards their goal in the face of the worst that nature could throw at them to become the giants of 20th-century exploration.

That powerful idea still draws the bravest. As I flew towards the continent’s interior, another British adventurer, Henry Worsley, was a month into his solo crossing of the Antarctic landmass – skiing across the ice, pulling everything he needed, from food to fuel to shelter, on a fibreglass sled. He was trying to complete the journey Shackleton had planned to make in 1916 before his ship, Endurance, got stuck in the ice.

Like me, Worsley was using the expertise of a specialist company called Antarctic Logistics & Expeditions (ALE) for his epic trek. But I was a very different kind of client: a tourist here for a week, staying at ALE’s HQ on the ice, a tented camp on Union Glacier at 79 degrees south. Drawn by the idea of raw, unadulterated nature that is irresistible to explorers, I found myself stepping into one of the most curiously controlled environments of my life – in the last place on Earth I expected to find it.

LEFT The camp is 551 miles from the nearest year-round scientific station RIGHT Inside the Ilyushin plane, preparing for landing

 

Chartered from Kazakhstan, the Ilyushin IL-76 plane I travelled in needs a 12-hour window of good weather to ensure it can land and get out of Union Glacier on a single return loop from Punta Arenas in Chile. About one in five scheduled passenger flights gets delayed by more than two days due to climatic conditions. Still, the hardy plane, with its Slavic crew and dusty Russian Orthodox icon hidden behind the bank of analogue dials, is probably the best machine for the job.

Over its 29-year history operating in the interior, ALE (previously known as ANI) has learned to cope with Antarctica’s unique meteorological challenges, and makes no apologies for the delays. The company recommends that travellers allow a week’s leeway with their international flight out of Chile at the end of a trip, in case they get stuck on the ice. “Our logistics are elastic,” said David Hamilton, my assigned guardian at Union Glacier, “that’s just the way it is. You come here for a week, and you stay for two, but we don’t charge for them.” It was an experience I was later to live through. Due to get off the ice to join my family before Christmas, I was held hostage by a white-out for 24 hours. I gritted my teeth and sympathised with the Russian guest who, the staff told me, had offered the pilot a suitcase of cash to get him home.

Yet despite the unpredictability, around 500 guests came in the 2015-16 season (from November until the end of January), with tourists paying the minimum $24,650 per person based on six days at Union Glacier. It’s no mean sum for what, in some ways, feels like a mining camp – except for the astonishing whiteness of the snow, kept pristine by ALE’s tough policies on waste. (Everything except water from sinks is removed from the ice, including any drips on the snow from a coffee cup, which guests and staff are requested to scoop up the moment they fall.) The facilities are spartan: 35 guest tents furnished with hard floors, cot beds, a table, small towel, pillow and polar sleeping bags. There are two dining tents, one of which doubles up as a mess area for lectures, another tent for yoga, a phone box for satellite calls, a shower block, loo block and numerous back-of-house constructions, including a sunken sea container used as a freezer, a laundry (washing is freeze-dried on outdoor lines), a basketball hoop, punch bag and volleyball pitch. Not far away, in the same horseshoe valley, is a ski runway for two Twin Otters and a turboprop conversion of a Douglas DC-3.

These smaller planes are used to get to three satellite camps: Mount Vinson Base Camp, which at 4,892 metres is the tallest peak on Antarctica; 15 tents at the South Pole; and a pop-up camp on the pack ice in Gould Bay on the Weddell Sea, open during the Emperor penguin breeding season (from November to early December when the chicks fledge and leave). Some guests pay extra for an hour-long scenic flight over Vinson, or for a day-trip to the South Pole. Others opt for “The Last Degree” – guide-led, 60-nautical-mile ski-and-sled expeditions from the 89th degree to the Pole.

I stayed at Union Glacier for all of my seven nights on Antarctica (the South Pole Camp was full due to weather delays, while Mount Vinson was clouded in). By day, I went on guided excursions by ski, skidoo and foot. Once I worked up a sweat, on a flat, 10km-long track groomed for skis, fat-tyre bikes and runners. Another time, we took snowmobiles down to a curl of snow and rock known as “the beach” where, under a bright sun at midnight, I lay down and made a snow angel on the surface of the ice. I ate well (cooked breakfasts, curries, sticky puddings) and slept little: in the austral summer in Antarctica, the orb of sun never quite dips below the horizon, with night much the same as day. I wore sun block at 3am.

Opposite the camp was a crescent-shaped snow cliff with a sharp, storm-carved edge. The flatlands in between were given definition by miles of snow waves, or sastrugi, formed when the surface is blown into crests with sharp corniced ends, some more than two feet high. There is little snowfall here – an average of 6.5 inches a year at Union Glacier – which, with the absolute whiteness, makes Antarctica the best place to find meteorites. They sit on the surface of the icecap like a negative image of little white-headed flowers on the steppe. Like Mongolia, Antarctica is fenceless. It should have been the wildest place on Earth, yet I wasn’t looking at an empty horizon I was free to explore. Every single thing I did, including going for a pee, involved strict rules and nannying recommendations.

I understood the need to keep the continent pristine (even urine is exported, packed into the Ilyushin alongside neatly stacked “Wag Bags” of human faeces brought back by the pole-bound adventurers, who carry their shit behind them on sleds). As the days went by, I also began to understand why ALE spends so much on satellite imagery and ground-penetrating radar, and why it was necessary to keep to groomed tracks in order to stop falling down a crevasse. Still, I hadn’t expected to have the most carefully managed tourist experience of my life in the biggest wilderness on the planet.

LEFT Polar expert Rob McCallum (centre) with two of his clients RIGHT Camp staff keep fit

Tourism started in Antarctica in the 1960s with chartered ships and a few over-flights from Chile, Australia and New Zealand. Three decades later, cruise companies added the Antarctic Peninsula to their itineraries. In the austral summer of 1990-91, 4,698 tourists visited the continent, according to the International Association of Antarctica Tour Operators. By the close of the most recent season, that figure was closer to 40,000.

The vast majority of tourists stick to the Peninsula, travelling on cruise ships from Punta Arenas, or Ushuaia in Argentina, making the rough, two-day crossing over the Drake Passage. A few visit eastern Antarctica, travelling from New Zealand or Australia. While the crossing is less popular than the Drake, taking up to six days, and the band of sea ice more forbidding, they get to see Scott’s hut on the Ross Ice Shelf. The hut, which Scott brought from Britain in 1911 and used as the base from which his doomed expedition set out, is one of the continent’s main cultural sites. The other is the Ceremonial Pole (different to the geographical Pole, which has a marker post that’s moved each year as the ice sheet shifts), surrounded by a crescent of flags belonging to the original 12 signatory states to the 1959 Antarctic Treaty. (Antarctica belongs to no country but, under treaty rules, is “a natural reserve, devoted to peace and science.”)

“It might be a stick in a white desert – and a really hostile spot – but the Pole is also the focal point of a great deal of human effort to get there, misguided though it might have been,” said Rob McCallum, an extreme travel specialist, who was accompanying a trip of ten private clients, including a grandmother and her son. After making more than 100 trips to Antarctica, he visited the Pole for the first time in December. “It represents the pinnacle of any visit to the continent,” he said.

Less than 1.5% of visitors to Antarctica are “deep-field tourists” – travellers visiting interior Antarctica, rather than the Peninsula. But then, there are only two places to stay on the continent: ALE’s camp and Whichaway Camp in Queen Maud Land, reached via a six-hour flight from Cape Town, and sleeping only 12.

ALE remains unique, in size and in reach. Around 20% of its clients are scientists or government employees, who use ALE to assist in specific projects (while I was there, this included flights to switch around personnel at the Argentine base). David Rootes, one of the company’s five owners and an alumnus of the British Antarctic Survey (BAS), explained that this kind of work was ethically important and politically vital – operating with complete transparency to counter any opposition to the potential impact of tourists. “Government organisations worry about Antarctic tourism, that this is the thin end of the wedge,” he said. “If a fly-by-night company goes bust, who will remove their kit from the continent?”

“The industry will be destroyed if governments have to help get tourists out of trouble,” said McCallum. “At the moment, ALE has ensured the balance is skewed the other way.”

The author on the back of a skidoo

Its bread and butter are the “trophy hunters”, as camp staff call climbers who want to conquer Mount Vinson – the reason the company was conceived in the first place. In the 1980s, Texan oilman Dick Bass, trying to put together logistics for his private Vinson ascent, asked for help from Giles Kershaw, an Antarctic aviator. Bass’s expedition gave birth to the “Seven Summits” challenge, where climbers seek to conquer the highest mountain on each of the seven continents. When Pat Morrow, a Canadian, was raising the finances for his Vinson summit in 1985, also with Kershaw, he developed the first blue ice runway. This was the start of the company now called ALE.

As the logistics evolved, another group of clients developed: athletes and explorers who come through Union Glacier either as solo travellers, or as members of private expeditions skiing to the Pole. “To my mind, skiing to the South Pole is like sitting in an Imax theatre with nothing showing,” remarked my guardian Hamilton one day, when we were out on snowmobiles, “or being inside a shipping container that is painted white on the inside. It’s not for me. You are walking on a treadmill, with a fan blowing cold air in your face for eight hours a day for 60 days at a cost of $70,000.” For others, however, it is the ultimate expression of human endurance – and worth the ultimate price.

During my visit, there were three different groups heading for the Pole, including Henry Worsley. He had stayed at Union Glacier before I arrived, and was the talk of camp when I was there – likeable, brave, and with plenty of polar experience. But the brutal conditions proved too much. Tired and recognising he wouldn’t be able to complete the expedition in the summer weather window, he was transferred back to Union Glacier on January 22nd when he was 150 miles short of his objective. Concerned about his state of health, ALE’s medics airlifted him to Punta Arenas on the scheduled flight that night. He died on January 24th.

Worsley was the real deal, trying to do his trip alone, with minimal support. Other adventurers, however, are more reliant on ALE, hiring its guides and making use of fuel and food caches on way-marked routes. This is mostly how polar exploration happens in the 21st century. But then Antarctica speaks to ambitions in different ways. During my stay, David Hempleman-Adams, a British explorer, was leading 14 people on a ski trip, completing the last 97 nautical miles to the Pole that Shackleton had failed to travel on his ill-fated 1907 expedition.

Left A tourist from Beijing has fun on the blue ice near Elephant’s Head Right Home to one of the pilots, this once-orange tent was bleached white by the polar sun

In the visitors’ book I found signatures from the Mongolian Antarctic Association, the president of the Hong Kong Aerospace Society and, in 2011, “a very cold Egyptian” who wrote that his next ambition was to become the first Egyptian astronaut. Four weeks before I visited, David Beckham had come to Union Glacier with UNICEF to play a game of football, part of a campaign in which he played seven matches on seven continents. The pitch was marked out on the ice using orange-juice powder (later removed). On one day at the Pole in 2012, there was a Qatari, an Iranian, a Palestinian and an Iraqi. For my part, I was glad to be there as a tourist, eating alongside the most eclectic gathering of people imaginable. There was a Maori mechanic, a Saudi climber who had needed to travel to Paris from Jeddah to buy her polar kit and a German art curator who was collecting sound at the South Pole. There was also a group of high-profile billionaires, including five people who flew in for two nights only – one night at Union Glacier, the other at the South Pole.

“We once had a Russian lady who wore a tinfoil cape. She performed a ceremony at the Pole,” said Adam Unger, the camp’s field guide supervisor. “She stood there in what looked like a Bacofoil outfit while these men danced and chanted around her.” As Unger told this story, he was packing away mirrors weighing 70 kilos, brought from Salt Lake City to ALE’s Gould Bay camp. A client wanted to take pictures of penguins looking at their reflection. The expense to get the mirrors here would have been in the region of $2,500, which highlights the staggering cost of fuel that inflates all prices. According to Michael Williams, an American economist I met on the ice, the price of a barrel of Jet A1 fuel in America is about $63. By the time it has been moved as cargo to Union Glacier it costs $4,580. Once it is deposited at the South Pole, it costs $5,600 a barrel.

“Everything put on a plane to Antarctica is expensive,” said the ALE mountain guide, Andy Chapman, who previously worked for the British government: “When I was still with BAS, I remember them telling me a drum of fuel was more valuable than me – and certainly more expensive.”

Camp staff hail from 19 nations

The deadpan candour of the staff was an endearing feature of my stay. When I asked Carolyn Bailey,ALE’s guest- services manager, about the Pole, she said, “There’s bugger all to do at the Pole once you’ve got your pictures. Unless it’s science.” She was exaggerating a little, in that most guests get an hour-long tour of the US research station, but I appreciated her humour, which reflected the anti-hotel attitude of the whole staff. Nobody on the ALE team panders to guests by dressing up interior Antarctica as anything other than what it is: a polar desert. Still, they all want to be here: 69 on-ice staff representing 19 nations, who return year after year, whatever the job – from the poo boy, who deals with the frozen human waste (in 2013, a geologist took the job), to the head meteorologist, Marc De Keyser, in his ninth season. “The rest of the year I do marine forecasting from Ostend. Antarctica is my holiday.”

“You can be sitting down for dinner at Union Glacier and on one side is a top-rank scientist, and on the other some expeditioner who has just walked to the South Pole,” said Rootes. I met mountain guides like Hamilton, who has made seven successful summits of Everest, and Hannah McKeand, another ALE employee, who not only broke the world speed record for skiing solo and unsupported to the South Pole, but has completed over 6,000 miles of Antarctic sled-hauling, more than anyone else in the world today. The calibre of the staff was humbling, making the expectation that guests clear up after themselves – and, on occasion, help with the washing up – seem quite natural. There were certainly no extraneous luxuries: poor wine; showers recommended every two or three days. Yet it also somehow worked, this culture of curious people thrown together on the ice in a place as remote as you can humanly be.

Even so, I struggled with a lingering sense of alienation, which I felt most acutely when the weather came in. It was like being stuck inside a ping-pong ball, all shape and shadow lost with the departure of the ghostly polar sun. In its sterility, and now blankness, Antarctica had an entirely abstract beauty, a sense that was compounded by never being able to move through the landscape freely. I quietly admitted the reality: seduced by the romance, I had come box-ticking to the seventh continent, assuming the sheer act of getting there – requiring money, not effort – was enough to ensure some kind of sublime experience. It wasn’t until I walked near Elephant Head, a marble-white outcrop resembling a benign, furrow-browed beast, that the boasting rights of being on Antarctica started to give way to a more genuine emotional response.

I was looking into the ice beneath my feet, at an elegant puckering of the surface formed where rocks have warmed in the day, causing tears of fresh water to melt into the ice below. The drips make holes, only to freeze over again, forming a different colour of ice – from cobalt to sapphire – to that made from compressed snow, and crystals, which looked like diamond necklaces suspended in the blues. When I knelt down to look deeper into the frozen spectrum, it felt like I was looking into the iris of the Earth.

I’d read that ice on some parts of the continent reaches down to 15,500 feet. So I peered closer, to see how deep I could see. Far, far below were hundreds of bubbles, like the surf from a crashing wave, with all the kinetic energy of the past held in frozen time.

If before I had been looking for a more profound connection with the landscape – and had been frustrated – I was now humbled by its immensity: the air caught in the ice was 800,000 years old, as old as the first hominid footprints outside Africa.

 

With no cell phone coverage, tourists at Union Glacier use a satellite telephone kiosk

Hamilton suggested we move on, in order to get up to Elephant Head then back to camp in time for lunch. I put ice cleats onto my boots and switched my sunglasses for goggles, which offer better protection against the brutal Antarctic sun. I added a third layer of gloves. Maybe we are not meant to be here, I thought.

An hour later, we trudged back to the giant six-wheeled polar van, all the time keeping to the route marked out by the travel-safety team and groomed by the mechanics. Never once did our vehicle waver from the pre-marked tracks, nor break the 30mph speed limit. We even paused at a pillar-box-red Stop sign before we crossed the ski-way. McKeand’s description of skiing solo to the Pole was rather different. “There is a stillness and a blankness that you are just free to fill with your basic human animal being,” she had told me. “I love that feeling of being stripped away to something bare. You remember that all that really matters is shelter, food, rest and the ability to survive in the world.” Getting down to the essentials of our being is a powerfully attractive idea; but it is one that a tourist trip to the world’s brim both enables and takes away.

Sophy Roberts was a guest of Antarctic Logistics & Expeditions (antarctic-logistics.com, +1 801 266 4876) and Swoop Antarctica (swoop-antarctica.com, +44 117 369 0696). Union Glacier Camp operates November to January each year, providing guided experiences for guests including South Pole Flights, Emperor Penguins and Climb Antarctica, as well as logistical support to expeditions and national Antarctic programmes. A seven-day South Pole Flight experience costs $48,150 for the 2016/17 season and includes six days of excursions around Union Glacier and a one-day round-trip flight to the South Pole

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