2011.01.26 Real winter just a check and plane flight away

Written by David Green.

By RICH FOLEY

Enjoying winter so far? I can’t say that the lack of blizzards has upset me any, but some of our local meteorologists seem to be feeling the pressure. 

I spent last Thursday in Adrian, where there were a few snow showers during the day. I returned home just in time for the 6:30 p.m. news, which announced a snowstorm which was “dumping” on the area. When it was time to give details, they admitted “most of our viewing area received a trace to a half inch.” Doesn’t sound like much of a “dump” to me. But if a lot of snow appeals to you, this is the year to visit Antarctica.

This December marks the 100th anniversary of Roald Amundsen reaching the South Pole, followed by Robert Falcon Scott’s arrival a month later in January 1912. According to a recent New York Times article hundreds of “tourists, adventurers and history buffs” are planning trips of their own to the pole, following the tracks of the two pioneers.

I can understand someone wanting to retrace Amundsen’s trip, but why Scott’s?  The British explorer not only lost out on the glory of being the first to the South Pole, but he and his entire party died on the return trip, victims of bad weather and inability to reach a stock of supplies. 

To me, following Scott’s journey is like gathering a group of your tastiest-looking friends and retracing the route of the Donner party. Yet two teams of three men each plan to leave from the starting points of both Scott and Admundsen and race to the pole.

Besides the skiing option, some will attempt to drive to the pole by truck. There will also be airplane flights, some of which will land just short of the goal and allow you to ski a few miles to the pole, just like you accomplished something. That option costs $57,500. This strikes me as similar to someone building an elevator on Mount Everest which allows you to ride to the 2,900th floor, then get out and climb the final few feet.

Once at the pole, there’s not much to do. The National Science Foundation, which runs the research station at the pole, isn’t too excited about an onslaught of visitors. “We really don’t have a process for them other than letting them know that they are at the pole...and we’re not able to provide them with any amenities,” said Peter West of the NSF’s Office of Polar Programs.

Actually, the NSF does have a commissary at the station, which allows visitors to send mail, which will be delivered with a South Pole postmark, and yes, they do sell T-shirts. Probably something like “My friend froze to death at the South Pole and all I got was this lousy T-shirt.”

Most Antarctic tourism will be by cruise ship or sightseeing airplane for those less adventurous travelers. Even so, back in 1979, a sightseeing plane crashed into a mountain in Antarctica, killing all 257 persons aboard. You won’t find any mention of that in a flight brochure I downloaded.

The tour operator offers a variety of options aboard a chartered Quantas 747-400. Flights leave from Sydney and Melbourne and last approximately 12 hours depending on departure city and which of 19 different routings offers the best weather conditions. About three or four hours of the flight is over the continent coastline and includes flying over the South Magnetic Pole, but not the South Pole itself, which is another 1,500 miles or so away.

Tickets run from $999 to $6,799 with a variety of seating options and hospitality. For the $999 option, you spend the entire flight in the center row in Economy Class, which seems to mean you’re paying for a 12-hour flight which returns you to your starting point without your having seen a thing. 

Most of the other options also offer seat rotation, which gives you a window or next to window seat half of the flight and leaves you stuck on the aisle the rest. The $6,799 ticket is the only one offering a window seat the whole trip.

My favorite seating option is the Business Class Centre. For $2,999, “although they do not rotate to a window seat, full Business Class facilities, food and drinks are provided.” Yes, for 12 hours you can gorge yourself and drink until you’re stupid, while others on the ground are freezing. In explorer heaven, Robert Falcon Scott must be rolling in his grave.

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