The Geographical South Pole is not a naturally visible point, it is an end point of the earth’s axis and marked by the US base. As the 2700 m-thick glacial sheet covering Antarctica is slowly moving, the position of the pole on the ice surface is measured precisely to the centimetre on January 1st of each year and marked with an artfully redesigned South Pole Marker. At the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries, reaching this ominous point at 90 degrees south latitude was the wildest dream of polar voyagers.
Following the attainment of the South Pole by Roald Amundsen on December 14, 1911, the first crossing of the continent became the new target. After the Irish-British Ernest Shackleton failed with his plan of the first Antarctic crossing in the course of the Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition in 1915 due to the sinking of the Endurance in the pack ice of the Weddel Sea, the first continental transversal finally succeeded during the international geophysical year 1957/58 with the geologist and later director of the British Antarctic Survey in Cambridge Vivian Fuchs and the New Zealand Everest first climber Edmund Hillary with the help of tractor trains.
Numerous scientific traverses with heavy oversnow vehicles followed. In 1980–81 the British Ranulph Fiennes, Charles Burtonand Oliver Shepard drove snowmobiles across Antarctica as part of their four-year Transglobe expedition, circumnavigating the earth along the Greenwich meridian. And in 1985–86, after overwintering on the continent, Brits Roger Mear and Robert Swan and Canadian Gareth Woods ski hauled over Shackleton/Scott’s route from Cape Evans via the perilous Beardmore Glacier. When they reached the South Pole after 1405 kilometres, they received the devastating news that their ship Southern Quest had been crushed by pack ice in the Ross Sea.
After the most important geographical objectives in Antarctica had long been reached, crossed or climbed, professional adventurers of the early 1990s began looking for new opportunities to redefine old challenges, reconstructing criteria to create new records. Distance covered is a decisive criterion for modern long-distance routes. There are different approaches as to where to start – depending on whether the sea-side ice shelf edge or the land-side beginning of an ice shelf closer to the South Pole is taken as the continental margin.
Due to flight delays, Reinhold Messner and Arved Fuchs (D) set the starting point of their Antarctic crossing in 1989/90 at the inner edge of the Ronne-Filchner Ice Shelf, where they were dropped off at 82°05’S and 71°58.5’W by a Twin Otter and set off. This area is typified by a grounding line, a delineation where the inland ice sheet flowing down from the polar plateau continues over the shore, lifts from the seabed and starts to float as a 500 to 1000 meter thick ice shelf. This zone, several kilometres wide and hardly detectable on the surface, is categorised as an inner coastline for South Pole expeditions. Incidentally, the popular starting point now known as the “Messner Start” is 110 kilometres further east of the starting point of Messner and Fuchs and about 860 kilometres as the crow flies from the South Pole. Another popular starting point for South Pole hikers is at Hercules Inlet, 1,130 kilometres from the pole.
It was here that the first commercial, eleven-man ski expedition with skidoo support, led by Martyn Williams (CAN), set off for the South Pole in 1988/89. Dabei erreichten mit Shirley Metz und Victoria Murden (beide USA) auch die ersten Frauen den Südpol „overland“ mit Ski.
Not only the “What?” but also the “How?” decides
Probably one of the most spectacular Antarctic crossings of all time was the legendary “Transantarctica”. The international team with Will Steger (USA) and Jean-Louis Etienne (F), Victor Bojarski (USSR), Geoff Somers (UK), Keizo Funatsu (JP) and Qin Dahe (CHN) with three dog sled teams succeeded in 1989/90 in completing the longest Antarctic crossing ever made. It led from the tip of the Antarctic Peninsula over the now dissolved and no longer existing Larsen Ice Shelf, past the Ellsworth Mountains, via the US Amundsen Scott Station at the South Pole and the then Soviet Vostok Station to Mirnyi Station in East Antarctica: an almost unimaginable 6,048 kilometres on skis and dog sleds in seven months (220 days)! A fantastic adventure without equal.
The logistics required were colossal. A year earlier, 14 tons of dog food, food and fuel were flown into 18 depots along the planned route, and exhausted or sick dogs were flown out for rest during the expedition and replaced with “fresh” ones. Due to the enormous distance and duration, it was even necessary to set out in the polar winter and under the harshest weather conditions. For the first time it was possible to cross the entire continent without motor vehicles – and on the longest possible route. It was also the last expedition to orientate itself conventionally with sextants and hodometers (odometers on a wheel) and not yet with the newly emerging satellite navigation, which was a very special quality of the adventure.
Unfortunately, dog sled expeditions are no longer possible today. In fact, the 1991 Environmental Protocol to the Antarctic Treaty no longer allows sled dogs on the continent. It is understandable that the environmental protocol bans the elegant dog sled teams from the days of the explorers precisely for environmental reasons – namely, to protect native wildlife from communicable diseases. It does seem kind of ironic, though, that motor vehicles of all kinds are allowed on the other hand. In any case, the traditional era of discovering the continent with dog sled teams has been over since the early 1990s, and with it a great and equally exciting and emotional chapter in the exploration of the continent.
Fridtjof Nansen already used wind sails mounted on skids or kayak sleds in 1888 during the famous first crossing of Greenland on “snowshoes” and in 1895 when attempting to reach the North Pole. In 1989/90, Reinhold Messner and Arved Fuchs were the first to successfully use towing sails on their 92-day, 2,390-kilometre – and not the 2,800-kilometre – transversal that has always been rumoured. As already mentioned, due to flight logistical problems, their expedition did not start at the outer, but rather at the inner edge of the Ronne-Filchner Ice Shelf, as originally planned, and led from there on a hitherto unknown route to the South Pole and further over the Beardmore Glacier to the New Zealand Scott Station on the coast on the other side of the continent. The climber and the sailor had two depots flown in to supplement their food and fuel supplies. For the first time, they succeeded in crossing Antarctica without the direct help of vehicles or sled dogs, using only skis, pulka sleds and towing chutes – “by fair means” or “using only natural forces”,17 as Reinhold Messner aptly put it – if one disregards the two depots for support. Whenever the wind and wind-blown ice surface permitted and they could glide with their soft leather boots and telemark bindings designed for cross country skiing rather than downhill skiing, Messner and Fuchs spun up their parawings, specially constructed for them by Wolf Beringer, a kite pioneer from Baden-Württemberg.
Since 1961 Dieter Strasilla, who originates from Berchtesgaden and is considered the father of the paraglider, had also been tinkering with parachute-like wind sails for “para-skiing” in the Swiss Alps. In the pioneering days of the 1980s and early 1990s, parawings, which could practically only be used downwind, were simply seen as an elegant innovation in self-sufficient polar travel. However, these early pull kites with their short lines were not yet comparable to today’s steerable high performance power kites with their long lines that allow you to travel much faster, cruise hard on the wind and cover downright fabulous distances. But we’ll get to that later.
In 1996/97, for the first time, the Norwegian Børge Ousland completely dispensed with depots and a partner for a crossing. He succeeded in the first “Full Solo Unsupported Ski & Snowkite Crossing of Antarctica”, the first solo ski crossing of the continent with the use of a traction parachute in sections from the outer shelf ice edge at Berkner Island over the South Pole to the coast of the Ross Sea: 2,845 kilometres in only 64 days, an average of just over 44 kilometres per day – and for the first time without any depots, supplies or help from outside. He even resisted the temptation to enter the U.S. Amundsen Scott Station at the South Pole to take a shower, and also declined an invitation to a meal and even a cup of coffee. He wanted to go through the whole journey completely independent of any support and not give the slightest reason to possibly endanger the coveted title “unsupported”. The only thing he accepted were a few printed out email letters from his family. At that time, this was considered as little support as the use of a satellite telephone is today. He reached a physical and mental limit and a milestone in the history of Antarctica, which set the trend for further high-performance expeditions.
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