Standing room only at the South Pole

A hundred years ago, Antarctica was the great unknown, a frozen desert that took the lives of explorers searching for the South Pole. But last Tuesday the place looked more like Oxford Street as a crowd of up to 200 people gathered to commemorate the centenary of Captain Scott’s arrival at the pole.

Tourists in puffy jackets craned their necks and jostled, or walked around the crowd, hoping for a better sight of the chap making a commemorative speech. The numbers might have been even bigger if the Norwegians hadn’t already been and gone: Norway’s prime minister visited in December, to unveil an ice sculpture in honour of Roald Amundsen, who beat Scott by weeks.

In preparation for these hordes of tourists, the South Pole station had built a new visitor centre, and the US Antarctic Programme had appointed a “chaos co-ordinator” to deal with “tourist season”, according to South Pole Station News. “The tourist tent city is growing fast,” it reported recently.

Even without the centenary, it seems that trips to this once-forbidding frontier have become a teeny bit routine — just as climbing Everest did some years ago. Recently a Norwegian explorer let slip: “Today’s biggest challenge is not to die of boredom.”

It’s easy to see the attraction of trekking to the pole. Unlike certain ski resorts, Antarctica is one place where you can be sure to find snow, and the perpetual daytime in summer means enthusiasts can ski for hours on end. But the relative ease with which people can come and go has inevitably reduced the South Pole’s wow factor. Today, capturing the world’s attention requires some kind of novelty.

Thus, in December, the daughter of the British explorer David Hempleman-Adams joined a trip her father had organised for paying clients and became, at 16, the youngest person to ski to the South Pole.

About the same time, a three- man team set the fastest speed for an overland journey in “the most sustainable vehicle ever to travel to the South Pole” (not a huge category, one suspects). And earlier this month an American man, paralysed from the waist down, used a device called a “sit-ski” to journey about 75 miles to the pole over two weeks. He claims to have pushed his sit-ski more than 250,000 times during his trek.

The continent has become so crowded that a couple of Australians, who broke a record by skiing 1,802km (1,120 miles) unsupplied and unassisted to and from the pole, just happened to pass a Norwegian, skiing alone, who still hopes to beat their record. The three men posed together for a photograph, then went on their way.

Others known to be out there include a veteran Canadian better known for his trips to the Arctic, a couple of Belgians hoping to record the longest unmotorised polar journey (3,728 miles) using kite-sleds, an Australian and a Norwegian separately travelling from one pole to the other, and Felicity Aston, 33, from Kent, who hopes to become the first woman to traverse Antarctica alone.

Several who hoped to commemorate Scott’s doomed mission have yet to arrive at the pole. These include Bryony Balen, a student at Newcastle University, who aims to be the youngest Briton to reach the pole from Hercules Inlet, 750 miles away; teams competing in a race organised by Extreme World Races, a private company; and the Blue Peter presenter Helen Skelton, who has already claimed a record for kite skiing as part of her effort.

Nobody denies that the individual achievements are impressive. How could they not be? Conditions in the Antarctic are just as bad as they ever were.

Peter Otway, a renowned Antarctic surveyor in the 1960s, says it will always be hard: “The ‘Antarctic factor’ ensures that every physical, or even mental, endeavour is that much harder than anywhere else on Earth, thanks to the ever-present cold and the effort of even moving around in overstuffed clothing or carrying out fiddly tasks wearing great furry mitts.”

In her regular reports, Skelton has confirmed this. “It’s so cold in the day you feel you are certain to get black fingers if you take off your gloves to unscrew a water bottle. It’s mad. You can feel perfectly fine, but as soon as you stop, your hands and face go from cold to painful, to agony. If you don’t sort it out you can have frostbite in minutes.”

But in a telling comment, Skelton acknowledged that her own adventure doesn’t stand comparison to those of the past: “I almost feel like I’ll be disappointing people if, upon my return, I can’t tell tales of pain and struggle. It’s become what people expect,” she said. “More than ever I realise I am playing where a legend was written.”

Despite the crowds, and the occasion of the centenary, it seems only one expedition truly sought to commemorate Scott and Amundsen. This comprised two teams of British servicemen, each following exactly the routes taken by the great rivals 100 years ago, from the start point on the Ross Ice Shelf. Lieutenant-Colonel Henry Worsley led two men along Amundsen’s route, having followed Scott’s route previously. Warrant Officer Mark Langridge’s team followed Scott. Amundsen won (again), and it was Worsley who gave the speech last Tuesday at the crowded South Pole.

On satellite phone from the Antarctic, Worsley told The Sunday Times he had not had a bath since October 24, or changed his clothes. And he lost a dental crown during the expedition thanks to the rock-hard chocolate in his snack pack.

Worsley is the only person who has walked in both Scott and Amundsen’s footsteps. “To read their diaries and see what they saw is intensely moving. It’s at the glaciers that you really get that fingertip feel for their presence because you are being channelled into the exact path they followed.”

His expedition hoped to raise £500,000 for the Royal British Legion, but late last week its Just Giving page showed donations had stalled just above £55,000. Is this because so many others are out there raising funds? “There is an enormous spread of expeditions taking place around the South Pole,” one veteran confirms, and not all of them are equally intrepid. “Some are dropped off for what is commonly known as the Last Degree journey. That’s very common. It’s very easy.

“I don’t want to belittle them, but that’s for people to get a taste of the pole for about a week. And there’s a well-worn route from Hercules Inlet. Lots of people do that every year. It’s relatively cheap, because of the air routes from Chile.”

A key difference between exploring the South Pole today and 100 years ago is the speed with which you can get in and out. Three years after Scott and Amundsen’s race, Sir Ernest Shackleton’s ship, Endurance, was crushed by the ice pack. Living on seals and penguins, he and his crew spent nearly a year on Antarctica before daring to take their longboats to sea, on a terrifying 800-mile journey to South Georgia.

By comparison, David Hempleman-Adams last month explained how just a couple of days after standing on the South Pole, he would be back at Sainsbury’s, doing the weekly shopping trip for his family.

In 2008, on an earlier expedition, Worsley was privileged to borrow Shackleton’s own compass on the trip to the pole. “It was a hugely iconic talisman,” he said. He searched hard for something comparable to take this time, and was eventually able to borrow Captain Lawrence Oates’s Polar Medal. “It’s in my pocket now. An item of absolutely national importance. I’ve been showing that around. You can imagine the Americans wetting themselves when they saw it, because the Oates story is well known internationally. It’s seared in our conscience.”

But it couldn’t happen now. If Oates popped outside his tent today, he’d risk being run over by a kite-sled, a sit-ski, or a 4×4 zooming past on biofuel.

1335 words. First published 22 January 2012. © Times Newspapers Ltd