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  • Writer's pictureTerry Virts


Updated: Jul 22, 2021

Camp Whichaway; 70°S, 11°E; 13 Dec 2017

View of the sun low in the sky over Antarctica
Camp Whichaway; 70°S, 11°E; 13 Dec 2017 Photo by Terry Virts

Cold.  Of all of the adjectives to describe Antarctica, “cold” is most fitting, because it describes nearly every moment at every location on the world’s most remote continent.  Deserted, white, dry, isolated, beautiful, harsh, stunning.  Those are other adjectives that can be used in abundance when talking about this magnificent continent, but in all honesty, much like the view from outer space, words really don’t do the place justice.  Nonetheless, in my very limited experience here during the Antarctic summer, I think COLD is most ubiquitous and appropriate. 

Words that do NOT describe Antarctica are: internet, Wi-Fi, mobile phones, traffic jams, twitter, strip malls, and just about anything else that clutters our modern lives. Or insects, plants, the smell of flowers or rain or trash or anything else from the “real world.” Or bacteria or viruses or disease from the mainland. Of all of the things I loved about Antarctica, what it lacked was in many ways even better than what it had.

No land-just sea

The North Pole is actually sea ice, covering the Arctic Ocean, so there is no true “land” there. But Antarctica is a different story. It is a massive landmass, covered in ice; Earth’s seventh continent. It is also the driest continent, truly a “white desert.” Although you probably think of ice and snow when you think of Antarctica, much of that snow is very old, and when it “snows,” it is really just old snow blowing in during the tremendous windstorms that take place on the continent, also known as “katabatic winds.” My team camped at an Antarctic oasis, a place where those katabatic winds have scoured the rocky surface to reveal ancient bedrock and cleared the glaciers from much of their snow, leaving only blue ice behind.

There are a lot of interesting and unusual geographic and meteorological features about Antarctica- first of all, it is a very high continent. The South Pole is more than 9,000’ above sea level, and on top of that, the air is actually thinner than it would be at a similar elevation at the equator. So, in addition to the extreme cold, you have to contend with altitude sickness. There are some very impressive mountains here also. The Vinson Massif is the tallest peak in Antarctica at 4,892 m (16,050’), and has been summited many times. But there are probably tens if not hundreds of peaks here that have never been touched, so it really is a climber’s paradise. For those who have the means to travel to the continent and the willingness to suffer, there are mountaineering tales yet to be written.

Flying over frozen waves

The ice here was fascinating. As I flew into the continent, about 100 miles before our ice runway at “Wolf’s Fang” airstrip, I looked down and saw what I thought was the Southern Ocean. It looked just like the sea, with waves, but as we descended lower, the waves weren’t moving. It was actually frozen “pack ice,” that butts-up against the continent. This pack ice can extend for hundreds of kilometers, creating massive ice shelves, the most famous one being the Ross Ice Shelf.

Near our base camp the pack ice extends to the north for as far as the eye can see (more than 100 km), and as the ocean and wind push it against the continental land mass, it crumbles and buckles into a beautiful pattern that resembles otherworldly, violent, and unmoving waves- frozen in time, yet changing from day to day.

Ice in Antarctica
Antarctica. Really Cold! Photo by Terry Virts

This time at the bottom of the world was also my first exposure to ice climbing. First of all, you need stiff boots that can support the bulky, metal, bear-trap like crampons. These boots also need to be warm, enough to withstand temperatures that are way south of 0°C. You also need to be roped together with your partners. During the Antarctic summer, ice and snow melt from the sun, and the melting and moving glaciers hide deadly holes called crevasses. Once you are off the glacier, you transition to walking on rocks. You must walk carefully, it’s even more difficult to walk across with crampons. There were all types of rocks; granite, igneous, sedimentary, quartz, and many more. Those rocks reminded me of the Martian landscape that NASA’s rovers have photographed so prolifically. Truly a geologist’s paradise. It is a miracle that one of our team hasn’t broken his neck yet while climbing on these oasis rocks.

The voyage South

The voyage to the South Pole was very interesting. First of all, it was far. Our base camp was at 70° south latitude, which is 20°, or 1,200 nm, or about 2,300 km away from the actual pole. We flew there in a converted DC-3 (or C-47), known as a Basler, that was built in 1943!

Soon after taking off I immediately noticed the amazing mountain range in this corner of the continent- “Queen Maud Land.” These mountains do not look like the Rockies or Alps, they are more sharp and stark, and they jut up out of the ice in groups, like a herd of elephants in an endless savannah of white. Our old bird was able to climb over the mountains with no trouble, thanks in part to the modern turboprop engines that it had been upgraded ($1M per engine, thank you very much). I imagined C-47s flying the “Hump” over the Himalayas in Burma during WWII, at twice our altitude, with their original piston engines.

aerial view of Queen Maud Land
Queen Maud Land from our C-47 Basler Photo by Terry Virts

After the Queen Maud Land mountains, the scenery was pretty easy to guess. White. Forever. In all directions. And flat. Hour after hour after hour. We had to stop for gas at a cleverly named base called FD83. Fuel Depot 83° South. There one can find a marked runway on the ice, a cache of fuel barrels that are parachuted in by a Russian Ilyushin transport aircraft at the beginning of the “summer” season. A handful of tents and vehicles. And 5 men. 2 Russians, 2 Icelanders, and one Argentine. Who spend month after summer month there, at FD83, servicing the occasional transport airplane on its way to a remote corner of the continent.

4 South Poles ?

There are several important locations in Antarctica- first of all, the geographic South Pole. There is also the magnetic South Pole and the geomagnetic South Pole, which are related to the earth’s magnetic field, that shields us from deadly cosmic rays and also produces beautiful aurorae. There is also another “pole,” called the “pole of inaccessibility.” The point on the continent that is the hardest to get to. As you may have guessed, FD83 is very close to that place. My team had the privilege of spending the night there, on our way home from the South Pole. Sleeping in a tent, on the ice, at the consensus “most remote place on earth.” I really appreciated the work that those 5 men do, month after month, to enable humans to travel across the most extreme environment on our planet.

I always marvelled that the original polar explorers were able to determine their position using only measurements of sun angles and time. Thankfully GPS works all the way down to 90° south latitude. Beyond navigation, the physical work required to walk just a few hundred meters, wearing arctic clothing, at over 10,000’ pressure altitude, left me winded. I just cannot imagine the physical stamina and ability to withstand pain that men like Roald Amundsen and Robert Falcon Scott had, as they made that gruelling and freezing trek across the white desert more than a century ago.

At Amundsen-Scott station

Today the South Pole is inhabited by the American “Amundsen-Scott” station, sponsored by the National Science Foundation. “Impressive” does not do it justice. In the summer months there are over 100 people from multiple countries who live there- scientists, technicians, firemen (who also double as air traffic controllers), cooks, doctors, and even an HR person (you can’t get away from HR, even at the South Pole). The science that is performed there is impressive, including all of the meteorological and geophysical experiments that you might imagine. A young German physicist explained to me an interesting one that looks for exotic neutrinos; subatomic particles that could tell us what the universe is made of. I found this experiment particularly interesting because we had a similar particle detector on the International Space Station, called AMS-2, looking for anti-matter, as evidence of “dark matter” and “dark energy.”

My brief stay in Antarctica was nothing short of remarkable, and in many ways reminded me of my space flights. We were remote, an international team requiring special gear, and communication was limited. The environment was incredibly hostile and not at all compatible with human life without resupply from the mainland (Mr.Shackleton’s remarkable tale of endurance notwithstanding). It was a beautiful place whose description defies words, and I count myself lucky to have trekked across its hallowed ice and rocks. Although this was my first trip to the “bottom of the world,” I surely hope that it will not be my last.

Terry Virts standing at the South Pole
Terry Virts, Astronaut and Speaker, on the ‘bottom of the world’ with his book ‘View From Above’

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