Mountaineering :: Trekking :: Ski touring


In December 2003 I led a 'last degree' ski expedition to the South Pole for Jagged Globe with four clients. This is a copy of the report which appears on the Jagged Globe website of the expedition.

David Hamilton


The first Jagged Globe Expedition to ski the 'last degree' to the South Pole

The two clients on the 2003 Jagged Globe Mt Vinson expedition (Rob & Jo Gambi) chose to remain in Antarctica for an additional two weeks in order to ski to the South Pole.  They were joined by Canadians Bruno and Jason Rodi and expedition leader David Hamilton.  All five were well acclimatised as a result of climbing Mt Vinson 4897m, Antarctica's highest peak the previous week.  They flew south from the ALE (Antarctic Logistics and Expeditions) base at Patriot Hills (78° 35' South, 85° 25' West) to a point on the Antarctic plateau located at 89° South, 87° West.  This start point for the ski journey was on the Polar Plateau at an altitude of 2800m and just over 100km from the Geographic South Pole at 90° South.

Each member of the team had a sledge loaded with 40-50kg of equipment and supplies.  All were experienced mountaineers, and each had climbed an 8000m summit in the recent past.  However they were all surprised by how much physical effort was needed to pull the heavy sledges through the soft dry snow and over the wind sculpted sastrugi that created an uneven surface.  Unlike mountaineering where the daily activity is dictated by the terrain, on a polar journey an unchanging disciplined routine must be followed each day to ensure consistent progress is made.  The group woke each day at 7.30am with the aim of striking camp by 10.00am after melting snow to provide drinking water for the day and cooking breakfast.  They skied for 50 minutes in each hour, taking a 10 minute rest before starting the next 'leg' of the journey.  By skiing 8 or 9 of these 'legs' each day a distance of 15-20km could be covered.  The journey could have been completed in 8 or 9 'short' days, but the team chose to ski 'longer' days and finished the trip in 6 days (15km, 15.9km, 16.8km, 20.1km, 18.1km, 19.6km).

Each day the sun circled the sky high above our heads taking 24hours to make a full revolution.  At mid-day our shadows pointed directly South to the Pole, and at midnight they would have pointed due North.  Inside the tent at night the temperatures were pleasantly warm while the outside temperatures were in the region of -25°C to -30°C.  The daytime temperatures in the open were similar, however with little wind they felt comfortable for skiing.  When there was a wind blowing it felt much colder and it was necessary to wear a face mask and goggles for protection against frostbite.  The landscape was unchanging in all directions and devoid of any large features. The surface of the snow was sculpted into intricate wind blown patterns that appeared to change constantly with the movement of the sun.

After 5 days of hard effort the team camped within 20km of the South Pole on a misty evening.  The following morning was cold and clear and a small black dot visible on the horizon indicated the presence of the US Amundsen-Scott Base at the South Pole and confirmed that our GPS navigation had been accurate.  All the world's time zones converge at the Pole and it is a fairly arbitrary decision as to which time zone should be used there.  The ski team had travelled via Chile and were using Chilean time (UTC -3) while the US South Pole Base is supplied via New Zealand and thus uses theat time (UTC +13).  When the ski expedition arrived at the South Pole the watches read 18.00hrs on 29 Dec, but for the Americans who greeted them the time was 10.00hrs on the morning of 30 Dec.  And both groups were correct!

The team received a friendly and enthusiastic welcome from the staff of the US scientific base.  Jerry Marty (NSF representative) and BK Grant (South Pole Area Manager) treated the group to coffee and cakes and explained the workings of the base, the science projects, and the construction of the new base buildings due for completion in 2007.  The following morning when all the base staff were asleep (it was now the next night for them…) there was plenty of time to take photographs at the 'ceremonial' South Pole (a silver globe surrounded by the flags of the Antarctic Treaty nations) and the 'actual' South Pole (a smaller marker in the snow which is moved approx 10m every year to compensate for the drift of the 3000m thick ice sheet on the Antarctic bedrock below).  A GPS reading by the marker gave the position as 90° 00.000' South - incredible accuracy for a bit of kit costing little more than £100.

All in all it was a great adventure, harder work than expected, and a real insight into just how difficult it must be to make the full 1000km journey from the edge of the sea ice to the South Pole pulling up to 100kg of supplies on a sledge.  And all made worth the effort by the welcoming reception received from the American staff at the Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station.

David Hamilton
High Adventure
67 Castle Road
CV10 0SG


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