What would Amundsen say?

It’s hard to tell whether Roald Amundsen would be horrified or delighted, proud or embarrassed if he could see what’s happening along the route his sleds followed in the autumn of 1911. Is he turning in his watery grave or chuckling behind his beard? Maybe he is wondering what point there can possibly be in repeating a feat he already accomplished a hundred years ago.
Map over AntarcticaMap of Antarctica, showing Union Glacier, the destination for our flight in, and Hvalbukta, from which we will start skiing. Map: Norwegian Polar Institute

Whatever Amundsen might have thought, the southernmost point on the globe has become a popular destination for adventurers great and humble, traversing distances long and short. During this Centenary season, 210 people will reach the South Pole – one way or another. That is about 50–60 more than during a “normal” season. Of those 210 people, 70–75 are Norwegian. These numbers do not include researchers affiliated with the American base at the South Pole. Nor do they include people who intend to climb Mount Vinson. That mountain is on the “Seven Summits” list of the highest peaks on each continent; 190 people were flown in to the foot of Mount Vinson last year.

Most of these Antarctic expeditions fly in from Punta Arenas. Antarctic Logistics & Expeditions (ALE) is the only private airline that offers services in this area. (And there is no such thing as a “cheap ticket” here.) This year they will fly in 6.5 tonnes of cargo to their own base at the South Pole to be able to handle all their clients. Around 14 December they will have two physicians stationed there full time. ALE handles three types of customers:

  1. “Soft clients” or “Fly ups” who are flown to the Pole, spend a couple hours, and are flown out again.
  2. “Last degree” clients, who traverse the last one or two degrees of latitude to the pole. (One degree of latitude corresponds to 110 km.)
  3. Long-distance expeditions.

ALE has registered nearly 60 Norwegians who will sail or ski to the South Pole from various starting points during the next few months. The shortest journey will traverse the last degree of latitude; the longest will originate from Hvalbukta. In terms of kilometres, Aleksander Gamme has the most ambitious plans: a round-trip flight between Herkules Inlet/Union Glacier and the South Pole covers over 2000 kilometres. 

I estimate that I have a 50 % chance of success.” That was his humble attitude when we met him in Punta Arenas yesterday. Those of us who know Gamme can see straight through his modesty.

The spirit of Roald Amundsen lingers over the icy waste, but the man himself is not chuckling behind his beard or anywhere else. He keeps his silence – and polar expeditions are definitely not what they used to be.