Next morning, things were looking good. At Thiel Mountains the weather was ok, light clouds, but good visibility on the ground, wind conditions not perfect, but manageable and improving. Very good forecasts from South Pole. Sunny, almost cloudless day, next to no wind. Some more waiting on whether the trend would remain stable at Thiel Mountains and to wait for the next satellite image around noon, chances were good.
After lunch, there was a short staff meeting and Fran came back with the information we had been waiting for: It's a go! Dress up warmly, pack your stuff and go to the plane.
Time to get on the plane and go. My first flight on a ski-equipped plane. (Well, not quite, I had been on a ski-equipped plane in New Zealand two years earlier, but the weather conditions were too bad for a ski-landing, so it just landed on wheels on a normal runway. Once theses Twin Otters got airborne, they would have to land on skis.)
Starting in fine weather from Patriot Hills, with a nice view of the blue ice runway on which we had landed a couple of days earlier with the Ilyushin and the southern Patriot Hills range. (Patriot Hills are mainly two ranges of hills divided by a flat ice field.)
Then it was onwards to Thiel Mountains, the refuelling stop. The flight was smooth, calm and fairly uneventful. Like the Ilyushin flight, this was something I had worried about a lot in advance. Sitting in a small plane on the windiest continent, being thrown through one turbulence after the other. The reality was a flight that was as smooth as if the plain had been on rails. Actually more so, since there wasn't even the rumbling on the gaps between the rails. One more thing I felt silly about having worried.
A bit of irritation arose after a while, since we were flying fairly high (about 14000 feet) in an unpressurised cabin ("In the case of loss of cabin pressure, we'd be fairly surprised.") and for some breathing became difficult. But after going down to 11000 feet, everyone felt fine again and as far as I know, that was the only altitude related problem anyone had that day.
Which was something else I had worried about a lot in preparation to this trip. Altitude related sickness is somewhat difficult to predict and about the only way to find out is to get to some altitude and wait. There is some medicine called 'Diamox', which helps the body to acclimatize to high altitude. But some people have allergic reactions to it, and the middle of the Antarctic is a bad place to find out about this. So my doctor prescribed it to me back in November and said "Take one of these. Probably nothing will happen, but if you're allergic to it, it's better to find out now." Turned out that I didn't have any problem with it.
When I came to Punta Arenas and went through the gear check, Andy (one of the tour guides) looked at the Diamox and said "You're not taking these, are you?" I said no, not unless the doctor at Patriot Hills would advise me to do so. Whose reaction about the whole altitude sickness problem was (when he gave us the briefing about the South Pole day) "Don't worry. If something acute comes up, which won't happen anyway, we got the means to treat that on board (i.e. oxygen). Anything else altitude related won't have any symptoms for 10 to 14 hours, when you will be back here at low altitude anyway. If things go well. So don't be silly. And while the South Pole is at an 'virtual' altitude of about 11000 feet (it has an actual altitude of 9300 feet, but due to the cold, the air is thinner than in other places of the same altitude), most people have to worry about altitude sickness above 15000 feet. You'll be fine." And he was right.
Antarctica is fairly empty and for the next two hours after Patriot Hills got out of sight, there was nothing but a big white flat surface outside. Time for sandwiches and drinks. Then there were some black dots in the distance, we were approaching Patriot Hills.
After a fly-over over the runway, the plane circled and landed on the snow runway next to the fuel barrels. My first landing in a ski-plane. Smooth landing. Time to get out of the plane and stretch the legs a bit.As mentioned before, usually there is nothing there but the fuel barrels and the landing strip, but we had a 'ground crew' waiting for us.
Usually the refuelling of the planes takes about an hour, but since the fuel drums had freshly arrived, there was no need to dig them out of the snow, so we were only for half an hour on the ground. Still, enough time for a couple of pictures and for saying goodbye to the 'Last Degree' group, which would not see again during our time in Antarctica. (Last report before the flight back to Chile was that they ran into fairly bad and cold weather and were getting on slowly, expecting to reach the South Pole in 12 days or so.)
They got on their plane and we watched them leave.
Time for a final look at Thiel Mountains from the ground and then it was back into the second Twin Otter. Next stop: South Pole!
Not much to see for the next two hours. No mountains at all on the Antarctic plateau. We caught up with the other Twin Otter and kept flying in formation for a while, until it turned away to set down and drop the 'Last Degree' group.
Not much to see for the next two hours. No mountains at all on the Antarctic plateau. We caught up with the other Twin Otter and kept flying in formation for a while, until it turned away to set down and drop the 'Last Degree' group. After two hours, we got ready for landing. Outside the window nothing but white plains, but then the sight of boxes, buildings, things and stuff. We were near the South Pole.
Another smooth landing and the plane stops at a position close to the South Pole.
The flight path from Patriot Hills to the South Pole looked like this:
Only one more obstacle to face before getting to the Pole, that doesn't turn out to be one at all. Quite the opposite, in fact. The NSF (National Science Foundation, which is responsible for the scientific work at McMurdo and the South Pole) representative. Before we got to the Pole, we were told that we would be met by an NSF representative. Automatically warning lights started flashing in my head. I work in a research institute and when we get visitors, we go into 'presentation mode' and give them an presentation on what we are, what we do, where we come from, and so on.
So my nightmare scenario was that we would be greeted at the plane, taken to some kind of lecture room (preferably without windows) and given a 45 minute PowerPoint presentation on 'Science at the South Pole'. Which I'd actually love to hear (and we were given a very good information talk about this back at Patriot Hills), but not if I have only three hours at the South Pole. So I was afraid that sheer good will and enthusiasm would cut into the little time I had at the Pole.
Yes, I had a lot of worries about the Pole. I had dreamed about it for a long time and had anticipating it for a year now and there was always the thought "it might not happen". I sort of blame it on being a computer scientist. You just get used to 'debugging' things and wondering what might cause problems (and hopefully how to prevent them), so you start to 'debug' vacation plans as well. But then, that's what the actual vacation is for: To stop worrying and just enjoy things when they work out in the end and to realize that they usually do. And that other people aren't potential obstacles to making things happen (while that is essentially the view you need to have of users of any software you provide, in order to get reasonably useful software), but are usually helpful. Sometimes you need a vacation to notice this.
It turned out that she just let us do what we wanted. I did at least expect to be escorted along (as in "make sure those stupid tourists don't touch anything"), but even that didn't happen. When we got out of the plane, everyone sort of gathered round the plane and took pictures, which I wasn't that interested in, so I looked at the South Pole marker and asked her, when we would go there. Which resulted in an odd look and an "It's right there, just walk over there." answer. Seemed to me that she was about as irritated by me basically asking for permission to go 50 meters to the South Pole, as I was about being able to just walk around at the South Pole without being shepherded.
So, while everyone else was still near the plane, I walked over to the Geographical South Pole and had it all to myself for a minute or two.
I can't really say what that meant for me. It was a dream come true and I think that some of the people who know me might suspect what I felt. For example, I had been loosing weight and working out (pointlessly, but still did it) for a year in preparation. Which also means nothing to people who don't know me, but, as someone said: "It's rare that someone at your age changes his lifestyle so radically." Wasn't that radically, since I knew it was only for a year, and except for eating less and working out, I didn't change anything about my lifestyle, but what I'm trying to say is: People who know me probably get an idea what I mean when I say that this two minutes made it all worthwhile. Everything else that happened made it just perfect and even better, but just getting there to the Pole would have been enough to make me happy and make this the best day of my life.
And I won't even make an attempt to describe it to people who don't know me. I know it would sound overblown, pathetic, stereotyped and worse and would only convey the impression of bad prose and an adjective collection from a romance writer's thesaurus. Not even worth trying.
After that moment of just standing there at the South Pole, normal tourist instincts took over and it was time for photos. (Partly taken with a tripod, partly taken by the NSF representative [I hadn't paid attention to her name, since I had kept staring at the Pole when she introduced herself, which is the reason why she is always referenced as 'the NSF representative'. Unfairly formal and dull.] or whoever else would be willing to take the camera.
(When thinking about going to the South Pole, I knew that I wanted to have a couple of pictures that would recognizably me and not have the generic South Pole ECW (Extreme Cold Weather) gear look, so I brought my favourite leather jacket to the South Pole, to take a some pictures that looked more like I 'normally' look. So if I wear different stuff in the pictures, that's the reason why. Later on, I took a couple of pictures that were also recognizably me, but that wasn't planned in advance...)
Finally. The South Pole. Mine. All mine!
And many more pictures of me at the Geographic South Pole. It's a once in a lifetime event. You would do the same... (Me? Defensive? Nooo....)
Here's a short video of me, going all around the world...
Obviously it's a bit of a secret that the Earth doesn't turn all by itself. Someone has to keep it wound up...
Maybe I should say something about the pole marker. If you're interested in Antarctica, you know all about this anyway, since everyone who writes about the South Pole feels compelled to put this in, but I'll try to keep it at readable length: The South Pole moves. Which is about as wrong as it gets. The rotating axis of the Earth is very stable. What moves around is Antarctica. Which is not quite as wrong, but not the point, either. (Antarctica does move around a bit, but that doesn't count for much in any time span I care about.) What is relevant here is the ice on Antarctica moving around. So any pole marker you put here, will slowly drift away from the actual position of the Earth's axis. (About 10 meters a year.) So either you put the 'South Pole Marker' somewhere for good and hope that nobody notices that the actual South Pole is somewhere else, or you need to move the marker from time to time. In true standardisation committee fashion, they kept both options.
There is the 'Ceremonial South Pole', which has been put in a convenient place, right next to the entrance of Amundsen-Scott Station (old and new), a barber pole with a shiny ball, surrounded by a number of flags. Nice for taking pictures that are traditionally recognizable as 'South Pole pictures', since everyone has seen pictures of that 'South Pole'. And there is the other marker, which is moved to the actual position of the geographical South Pole on January, 1st every year. (With a precision of half-a-centimeter, as I've been told. Having an NSF representative nearby has its advantages...) So when I was at the South Pole on the 3rd of January (on my watch it was still 2nd of January, but the South Pole was 14 hours ahead of that), the rotational axis was most likely less than 5 centimeters away from the marker.
Well, in reality, the marker is not moved on January, 1st. They leave the South Pole marker where it is and put in a new one. Traditionally, the new marker is designed by the people who winter at the station (which sounds like a collaborative effort, but seems to be mostly a competition). This year's marker has a dedication plaque halfway down the pole. As far as I can tell, it has the name of all people of the 2005 winter on it.
Usually, there's just one flag next to the Geographical South Pole (and, Amundsen's achievement notwithstanding, it's not the Norwegian one). The reason for the second flag next to the marker was a group of Norwegian skiers, who had started their trek to the South Pole on the 82°S (they basically did what the 'Last Degree' group did, but for the last eight degrees - going to the South Pole with no depots on the way and just the equipment they had on their sledges). So when they got the South Pole, they took the Norwegian flag from the circle of flags around the Ceremonial South Pole and shot their "we made it" picture with that.
The next two pictures show me at the South Pole, holding a GPS receiver. There is a reason for that. If GCHN13 means anything to you, you know the reason, if not, it's too dull to explain.
There are also these pictures of a little plastic penguin, that may need a bit of an explanation. A long time ago, I was involved in a software project that was called 'Penguin'. At that time, most of the people involved in the project had some kind of penguin-related stuff in their offices. Among other stuff, I had two small penguins glued to the top of my monitor. (For probably about a decade now...) The project is long gone and most of the penguins are gone as well, so I felt it was time to retire the penguins. Two years ago, when I went to Tasmania, I took one of the penguins to a town called 'Penguin', and photographed it next to the big concrete penguin there. (You don't really want to know about this, but in case you do, you'll find more about this here.) Anyway, after one of the penguins had gone south to meet the Big Penguin, I sort of promised myself take the other penguin to an interesting and appropriate place as well. So he came with me to the South Pole.
And then there are also these odd pictures of a bag at both poles. A few people will know why, but for the rest: It's not interesting. Move on. Nothing to see here. Plenty of other pics to come...
As I mentioned before, there is a new Geographic South Pole marker each year. So, walking around a bit, I went to visit two of the previous South Pole locations.
This is the previous South Pole marker, put there on January, 1st, 2005, with the new South Pole Station behind it. The silvery thing on the left (dubbed 'the beer can') contains the staircase.
A bit farther down there is the 2004 South Pole marker. As is evident from the picture, the markers aren't very far apart. The 2004 marker is in the foreground, the 2005 marker in the middle, the 2006 marker is where the wooden board is and the Ceremonial South Pole is where people are taking pictures. The old station, the 'Dome' is in the background.
I was quite surprised that the current marker was so close to the Ceremonial South Pole. I somehow had the impression that the Ceremonial South Pole had been the Geographical South Pole when the station was built and that the Geographical South Pole had moved away since. However, it seems that the Ceremonial South Pole had just been set down somewhere, with the real South Pole in some distance. And the Geographical South Pole has been creeping up on it. From the way it looks, both poles will be at the closest ever, before the Geographical South Pole moves away again. (Or, in geographical terms, the other way around...)
I didn't find any stated reason, why the Ceremonial South Pole is at this position - whether there was any specific reason for that spot, or whether that was just a reason of measurement error. (Back in 1956 the Geographical South Pole had been about half a kilometer away. This is a bit more than the typical error you get by navigation with a Sextant in pre-GPS days, but given unusual temperatures and atmospheric conditions, it might just have been an error in measurement and not a conscious decision.
There should have been a line of pole markers going back a while, but the 2004 marker was the last in line. The 2003 marker has been stolen, and someone told me that they did remove the remaining old markers for safe-keeping. Though I have no idea on whether this is accurate information or just rumour.
There are, however, two other unexpected objects nearby. One is an Australian flag with a little plaque on it, which reads "Rodney Marks - Friend, Musician, Astronomer - South Pole 2000". When I was there I had a dim idea why the flag was there, having read about it somewhere, but wasn't quite sure. Having looked it up since, I learned that Rodney Marks, an Australian, died during the winter of 2000 at the South Pole and the flag is a memorial.
Something a bit more to the silly side is the South Pole Christmas Tree, which has been welded together from spare parts. At least the people at the South Pole can be sure that it's going to be a White Christmas every year...
While the front side of the wooden South Pole board (which, unlike the Ceremonial South Pole and the Geographic South Pole marker, is actually moved each year to a new position) is reasonably clean and photogenic (except for a couple of dots), the backside has been used in the past by expeditions to attach their logo to it.
In the meantime, the second plane had arrived, after dropping the 'Last Degree' group at 89°S. I remember thinking that they must have thrown them out of the plane without any good-bye, since it had only been ten minutes since we had arrived. It turned out later that they had landed, prepared their sledges, started to go south and had a photo session of them starting their journey. The second Twin Otter arrived 50 minutes after we did. Time really flies, if you are having fun!
A short time later, we could watch a Hercules plane from McMurdo that was about to land at the South Pole.
By then, the initial rush to take pictures at the Ceremonial South Pole had subsided a bit (the nice thing about multiple South Poles is that you can always find one that nobody else uses at the moment...), so I went over to that one and took lots of pictures as well...
What is the strange thing growing out of my knee in the next two pictures? A sock. And bad positioning in the picture. I took my foot out of the shoe to show off my sock (Why would I do that? Don't ask...) and the black trousers don't show up well against the black shoes, so the image looks a bit odd, but in reality, the shoe just stands there and I have my leg stretched out in front of me.
And after the pictures on the Geographical South Pole, there are also pictures of the little penguin at the Ceremonial South Pole.
And after all these "Me! Me! Look at me next to the South Pole!" pictures, here's one with just the South Pole, just to give the eyes a bit of a rest.
By now, the first rush was subsiding a bit. We had reached the South Pole, we had our little moment of glory, we had taken our photographs and we had been standing outside at -26°C (-14°F) for probably one and a half hour, so going inside to the souvenir shop seemed like a good idea.
I got me a couple of t-shirts and some small South Pole marker pins and some other small stuff. Just a minor attack of magpie shopping... (I've come across the term somewhere and found that very fitting, but I'm not sure where this comes from and whether it's widely used. It's supposed to mean to go into a shop and buy stuff purely because it catches your eye and is 'shiny' without much thought about whether you'll actually need it or would ever admit later to having ever bought such a thing.) Anyway, there wasn't much time, and instead of spending valuable minutes on deciding whether you want this or that t-shirt (and regret the wrong decision later), it's much more cost and time efficient to grab both and be done with it...
Going to the shop also had a nice side effect. Originally the information was that there would be no postal facilities available at the South Pole. We could bring our postcards and stamp them with a special South Pole stamp, but we would have to bring the postcards back with us and then mail them from Chile. Or our home country. Or wherever. But then it turned out to be possible to buy stamps at the shop and mail my postcards directly from the South Pole. Which is something I had secretly hoped for, but not expected to happen. One very happy customer at the South Pole... (The only downside to that is probably that even a very happy customer is unlikely to be back for another shopping trip. So as far as shop-customer relations are concerned, it's a bit of a bummer.) [Btw, and I'm putting this down because it's something I wish I had read somewhere before the trip, the problem with sending postcards from the South Pole is that they are not supposed to sell stamps to non-station personnel. Mailing the postcards is no problem at all. So if you bring your own US stamps, you won't have to rely on the willingness of NSF people to bend the rules a little. My postage was 80 cents for a postcard to Germany. Your mileage may vary.]
Speaking of NSF (or Raytheon, which provides services for the NSF in Antarctica and it's not quite clear to me who does what): Everyone at South Pole station (and also NSF people outside the station, like Bob and Ian, two geologists based at Patriot Hills) was very nice and did everything they could do to help us, even with our silly tourist aims and dreams. (Bob especially seemed genuinely disappointed that I wasn't looking forward to a possible science lecture at South Pole Station. It seemed that for him, the sole reason for going to the South Pole is science. Going there, just to stand at the South Pole, take pictures and shop, didn't seem right. He may have a point there. And he did give us a very good presentation about Antarctic and, specifically, South Pole science after we got back from the South Pole.)
I'm tempted to say that everyone went out of their way to help us, way beyond the call of duty. But that would be badly phrased. And damning with faint praise. It's not their job to cater to tourists. Or even acknowledge them. Even shaking our hands would already be beyond the call of duty. So it's an improper phrase. Maybe it works better like this: Even if their job would be to greet and entertain tourists at the South Pole, they still went beyond the call of duty. (That's still pretty awkward. But at least it's pointing in the right direction.)
And I'm starting to wonder, whether NSF was ever really not helpful. Almost every reference that I've found goes along the line: "NSF used to provide a chilly welcome to private expeditions and companies, in order to discourage such activities. But when we actually got to the South Pole, they turned out to be very welcoming and helpful." What I haven't found was any reference that said: "We received a chilly welcome." I'm starting to believe that the whole 'unfriendly NSF' bit is a bit of a myth.
After shopping, the next stop was the cafeteria to get something to drink. Probably would have stayed there with the rest of the group, but while I was sitting there, drinking a glass of juice, someone mentioned that we had just 45 more minutes until takeoff. I also happened to look outside the window of the cafeteria.
If the cafeteria at place I work at also had a view like this, I might consider eating there...
Suddenly, it was almost like a cartoon-like double-take. What was I doing? Getting all the way to the South Pole to waste my time in a cafeteria (but with a nice view)?
So I got up, got my gear and got out again. After getting to the South Pole in the first place and being able to send postcards from the South Pole, there was one more hidden dream, which I assumed would remain just a dream, but it was worth a try. For me, the main image of the South Pole was 'The Dome'. When I went to Antarctica, I actually thought that the Dome was the way I remembered the South Pole since my childhood, but Ezra informed me that it wasn't even started in 1970 and wasn't completed until 1975. Still, the Dome had impressed me and it meant something to me (unlike the new station, which is bigger, more convenient, practical, and all that). It's similar to Hovercrafts or the Concorde. It's a bit of the future, we used to have. (I think I used that somewhere on this website before, but there's a quite that fits here as well: "We're probably the first generation that's nostalgic about the future we used to have.") And the Dome somehow stood for the victory of science and engineering over even the harshest environment. Next to the Apollo capsules probably the main symbol of "science triumphing".
Ok, this may mean little to anyone else, but that's how I feel about the Dome. (And right then and there at the South Pole, that was the only opinion that mattered.) [I also felt very lucky with my timing to have been able to get to the South Pole at a time where the Dome was still there. While its fate is not quite decided yet, it's likely to be dismantled and removed next year or the one after that.]
The upshot of all this is: I had been dreaming of being able to stand in the Dome one day, even if just for a minute. But I since it's no longer used and I recalled having read somewhere that it's unsafe due to all the snow piled on it, I assumed that it would be off limits to visitors. But since I knew I would regret not finding out, I went outside and wondered whether there was someone who I could ask about whether I could get into the Dome.
By that time I should have learned my lesson from approaching the pole maker when I first got there. There was nobody at the entrance to the pole. (What had I expected? Security guards at the gate?)
I could just walk into the Dome and have a look around. No problem at all. I just took a couple of pictures (even though I knew that shooting free-hand at 1/4 of a second wouldn't be sharp - it was just a reminder snapshot) and went out again. Another dream unexpectedly fulfilled.
Time to go out and look at the South Pole again. Steve, our pilot, was already waiting.
A few moment later, the first few people from our group came out of the station. Time to do something that occurred to me in the cafeteria. I had wanted to do a couple of pictures at the pole that were clearly and recognizably me. I already had my 'me, sweatshirt, South Pole' picture taken at the Geographical South Pole and it seemed to me that it would be fun to do something slightly unusual (but pretty much 'me') at the Ceremonial South Pole.
(And I'd like to stress that this is, at best, 'slightly unusual'. At a place where the 300°C club has been invented, removing your fleece shirt at -26°C is probably about as unusual as breathing.)
Surprisingly, it didn't feel cold at all, so it wasn't even "heroically facing the cold". It was fairly warm in all that gear and it take a while until the body actually loses the warmth. (Though I had such a great time at the Pole, even if I had been freezing to death, I probably wouldn't have noticed.) Anyway, after five minutes or so, Mike came out of the station and gave sound medical advice: "Get dressed".
At that point, the mood in the group was more than enthusiastic. Everyone had already gotten everything he ever wanted out of the South Pole visit, and even though it was drawing towards its end, everybody was happy.
While the initial picture taking at the pole had been mainly an individual thing (everyone wanted a personal South Pole moment and picture - if possible lots of them), now everyone had all the pictures they wanted, so it was time for group pictures.
As a sub-group, the three Americans in the group did some pole pictures "Iwo Jima" style.
And finally, a couple of pictures of Cherry, the photographer.
The more ragged, less touristy, slightly bemused group in the foreground where part of the Norwegian team that had skied to the South Pole from 82°S. They were very calm and collected seemed a bit irritated by out loud, enthusiastic and egocentrical manner. While that might have had something to do with the fact that they had been at the South Pole for days, I got the feeling that they were more relaxed and more methodical people anyway. You probably won't walk a thousand kilometers while pulling a sledge, if you're overly exciteable. Anyway, they stood there like real heroes of the Antarctic, while we were just playing pretend.
And then it was all over. Time to fly back.
The flight back to Thiel Mountains was uneventful.
The landing itself was interesting. The Twin Otter touched down and almost immediately turned left to the parking position next to the fuel barrels. While this is probably way off, it felt like we used about 75 meters of the runway. Must have been more, but I was wondering what the shortest possible landing distance for a Twin Otter.[Looked it up: A Twin Otter can be brought to a standstill with as little as 100 meters on the ground. Since we still got some speed when we turned towards the fuel barrel, 75 meters might not have been that far off.] It is a STOL (Short Take-Off and Landing) plane, but that landing impressed me a lot. (Not as much as the next one, but almost...)
It had gotten pretty windy at Thiel Mountains. Temperature was still about the same as it was when we were there seven hours earlier, but some clouds had moved in and without direct sunshine and with the additional wind, it was much less comfortable there. Wearing the polar gear, it still was quite ok (that stuff is made for much harsher conditions and it laughs at -19°C, even with lots of wind), but that was the place were I was really happy about wearing it and became even more impressed by the Norwegians, who had been in conditions like this for weeks. Without an airplane nearby for warmth and coffee.
Weather wasn't good at Patriot Hills, either. It had been a nice, sunny day at -6°C (21°F) when we left. It was still a sunny day at -6°C (21°F) now, but decidedly less nice. A storm had come up and it was getting quite windy. Wind itself isn't that much of a problem (as the pilot told us "The wind speed there is currently close to the landing speed of this plane. Which means that during landing, we might be moving backwards relative to the ground. Don't be concerned."), but gusts of wind are. And Patriot Hills had lots of gusts. So the plan was: "We're flying to Patriot Hills and see what the weather is like when we get there. If we can't land, we'll fly back and camp here." (Which would have been fun. I thought. But I was clearly the only one in the group...)
The flight to Patriot Hills was calm and without any turbulences. The next picture shows the 'Three Sails', fairly close to Patriot Hills. No problem so far.
Only when we came around the hills, about five minutes to landing, things started to get rough. While the plane was fairly straightforward moving towards the runway, it was heading in all sorts of directions. I could see through the open cockpit and I would see the runway for a second, suddenly the mountains, the camp, just plain snow... Those seated behind me grabbed the back of my seat, I grabbed the back of the seat before me very tightly. The plane got thrown around a bit and it was obvious that we'd have to fly back to Thiel Mountains and spend the night there.
When we gently touched the ground and taxied over to the side of the runway.
I'd probably would have been very, very scared, if I had even believed for a minute that we were going to land. But when I actually realized that we were not going to abort and go back, we were about ten seconds before landing and I didn't have any time to really start to panic.
At the ground, everyone was already waiting with steel cables to secure the plane. We got out of the plane and rushed towards the main tent. We had made it back from the South Pole!
(Didn't have much time to do anything else, since I tried to get to the tent without being thrown to the ground by the winds, but I took a quick picture. Doesn't show much, but it gives an idea how surreal the scene looked. Everywhere else, you associate storms with dark clouds, but here it looked bright, sunny, with blue skies and you still had to fight your way through the wind. Very unusual experience. (Also managed to do a short video when safely inside the tent...)
A couple of remarks about the landing:
When we came down, the wind speed was 40 knots, with gusts of 60 knots. Just a gale with some storm gusts. Not that bad, actually. About half an hour earlier, the wind was worse, with gusts up to 80 knots.
Oddly, the second plane, which came in less than five minutes later, got through a bit of a calm phase and had a smooth ride all the way to the ground. (Or maybe they had the same kind of landing that we had and were just a lot less dramatic about it. I sort of suspect the latter.)
(Actually, Martin, one of us 'South Pole tourists' used to be a test pilot, but I never got around to ask him whether this landing was as unusual as it seemed or whether was just a normal landing that didn't bother him at all. I assume that people like Steve, our pilot, are accustomed to much stranger situations and this wasn't even close to the edge, but I have no idea. Still, it was a good landing to have been through and be able to tell about it afterwards [it makes a good anecdote and a dramatic finish to the trip to the South Pole], but I could have well done without it...)
After everyone had made it to the main tent (with only a few blown over), it was time for the celebration meal with champagne and sushi for starters.
And this was the end the best day of my life.
(I used that phrase in Patriot Hills and somebody took pity and said something like: "You'll never know. Something better may still happen." I think that's fairly unlikely and my life would have to take some very strange turns for that to happen. But anyway, it wasn't in any way a depressive thought. It was a wonderful day and it turned out even better than I ever expected or dreamed. Even if the happiest days I'm going to have from now on are only half as good, they'll be among the top five. Easily. Even if everything else now seems small by comparison, it was worth having this as the summit.)
Somewhere on this website I have used the sardonic quote: "Very occasionally, if you really pay attention, life doesn't suck." For this journey, cynism just doesn't work. Sometimes dreams do come true.
And as dreams go, sometimes you wake up, sometimes you fall, but sometimes you fly!
[Sorry about sounding like a blogging teenager for a bit. Big feelings come easily in Antarctica, but seem trite on a web page. Still, I wanted to say that. And yes, I know that it's a misquote, but in this context, it fits better than the original, so I rephrased it.]
After the Pole.
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