Finding your way to the bottom of Earth
This story has been corrected
AMUNDSEN-SCOTT SOUTH POLE STATION, Antarctica — British explorer Robert Falcon Scott spent weeks slogging through snow and ice before he reached the South Pole on Jan. 17, 1912.
One hundred years later, it took members of the New York Air National Guard’s 109th Airlift Wing less than three hours to fly an LC-130 Hercules over the 750-mile route from McMurdo Station to resupply the Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station.
Finding the way to the bottom of the world isn’t as simple as following the compass south.
“Compasses work in Antarctica, but they’re unreliable,” said the navigator for the South Pole mission, Maj. Blair Herdrick, 39, of Edmonds, Wash.
The Transantarctic Mountains are the last geographic features that aviators see on their way to the pole, which is surrounded by hundreds of square miles of featureless flat ice. Occasionally the LC-130 navigators will break out sextants like those used by early polar explorers and do celestial fixes on the sun to find their way.
Crew don oxygen masks when they approach the pole. At 9,301 feet above sea level, they aren’t at risk of passing out, but the thin air could affect their judgment if they don’t get supplemental oxygen when the aircraft depressurizes prior to landing.
Herdrick’s LC-130 skidded onto the ice and stopped next to the Amundsen–Scott South Pole Station, named in honor of the first Antarctic explorers to get there. Norwegian Roald Amundsen reached the South Pole on Dec. 14, 1911, and Scott arrived 33 days later.
The 80,000-square-foot station, completed in 2008, is two-stories tall and includes a gymnasium, an indoor garden, a dining facility, and living and work space for about 250 personnel, including dozens of scientists looking into topics that range from climate change to the origins of the universe.
“Virtually everything there came in the back of a C-130,” said 109th Airlift Wing safety officer Lt. Col. Joseph Hathaway, 49, of Mechanicville, N.Y. “When they were building the station, they would design a piece of equipment and figure out how to break it down into pieces that would fit in the aircraft. There is a 10-meter telescope there that we took there in the back of an LC-130.”
The wing’s commander, Col. Tim LaBarge, 50, of Tupper Lake, N.Y., said the most important cargo that his unit delivers to the South Pole is fuel.
“They have a requirement to have so many gallons of fuel on station before we leave Feb. 15 because there is no way to get in there in winter,” he said.
Only about 40 people stay at the station during winter, when the sun never rises and temperatures can fall to 117 below zero.
“We will download fuel out of our wing tanks into the manifold at the South Pole,” LaBarge said. “They need it to keep their generators running for electricity and heat.”
National Science Foundation deputy director of polar programs Kelly Kenison Falkner, 51, of Arlington, Va., was at the South Pole when the LC-130 landed. The professor of oceanography said that the thin air means people working there need time to acclimatize, but she added that the research going on there is world class.
“There are all kinds of fantastic frontiers of knowledge going on down here,” she said. “There is a strong astronomy and astrophysics program, and we have arguably the most productive facility in terms of studying the origins of the early universe.”
The air journey back from the South Pole follows the same path that Scott took on his desperate journey north.
Aviators can gaze down at the 100-mile-long Beardmore Glacier, the largest in Antarctica, which Scott and his party struggled to descend on their fatal march.
The aviators pass over Mount Kirkpatrick, one of the highest peaks in Antarctica at 14,856 feet, before a final push to McMurdo takes the LC-130s over the Ross Ice Shelf, a seemingly endless expanse of white that Scott and the last surviving members of his party trudged across in an effort to reach pre-positioned supplies.
It was here that one of Scott’s companions, Lawrence Oates, near death and barely able to walk, voluntarily left his tent in an effort to save the others. Scott wrote his diary that Oates’ last words were: “I am just going outside and may be some time.”
The frozen bodies of Scott and the remaining members of his party were found in a tent, just 11 miles short of their supply depot. Also found was Scott’s diary with a public message:
“We took risks, we knew we took them; things have come out against us, and therefore we have no cause for complaint, but bow to the will of Providence, determined still to do our best to the last … Had we lived, I should have had a tale to tell of the hardihood, endurance, and courage of my companions which would have stirred the heart of every Englishman. These rough notes and our dead bodies must tell the tale …”
Mount Kirkpatrick was incorrectly identified as the highest peak in Antarctica; it is one of the highest.