I made it to the South Pole!!!
After years of planning, attempting, failing and tons of time, energy and money-I finally made it to the South Pole and it was every bit as incredible as I knew it would be. Standing at the bottom of the world, where so few have been before me, was perhaps the ultimate thrill of my life. From the day I arrived at the South Pole on December 19, 2014 until the day I die-I can say I stood at and I made it to the South Pole!
You may recall my attempt last year when Prince Harry prevented me from reaching the South Pole. This year’s expedition validated that it is really difficult to reach the South Pole-any way you slice it.
When I landed on the blue ice runway at Novolazarevskaya Russian base (Novo Base) in Antarctica for the second time in 13 months; I felt very confident about my chances of reaching the South Pole. The weather was pretty good for Antarctica and the weather had been good all season-the Antarctic season lasts 5 weeks and my group was the last group of the year.
Arriving into the familiar surroundings with familiar guides and staff at the White Desert camp near Novo Base was like a bit of a reunion. It was great to see the same staff that I had been with last year and came to admire greatly.
I arrived on December 10, 2014 and was set to explore the Antarctic continent again. I was beyond pumped. I was further amped by the fact there was a second DC-3 this year at Novo Base so we had a plane basically designated for my group to reach Atka Bay; where the Emperor Penguin colonies are and also the South Pole itself.
The weather at the beginning of my expedition was very good and we were able to do some great hikes around camp and even got to fly out to see the emperor penguins. They had been emailing me all year saying how excited they were that I was coming back so I was thrilled to see them and their new chicks again!
We were supposed to fly to the South Pole the next day but that was cancelled. Then it was the next day and that was cancelled. Then we were not only supposed to fly to the South Pole but were to be ready for an 11am pick-up by the Arctic trucks to bring us to the runway. We were all dressed and packed and then it was cancelled at the last second and then for at least 2 more days. This is when my stress level reached epic proportions.
As an Antarctic veteran, I knew this was a bad sign and the weather was taking a turn for the worst. Sure enough it did and the next few days were spent doing really fun activities around camp including a Via Ferrata, some great rock climbing, ice caves and several hikes. However, none of those things were why I designated another 2+ weeks of my life to be back on the ice. I wanted to reach the South Pole so badly I could taste it.
We were so close to the goal and were so ready but we were told Mother Nature was not cooperating. There was a lot of tension at camp between staff and the group; which included a few good friends I’ve known for over 15 years. The communication was not great and there was a growing distrust that we weren’t being given honest information.
After some lengthy and open discussions, the staff went above and beyond to meet our demands for information and I commend them for it. Nine people were desperate to achieve a lifelong goal and we wanted every bit of information-good or bad. The staff obliged and even printed out weather maps and forecasts from Novo Base, 83 degrees and South Pole station itself. It did not look good for us and our spirits were down but still hopeful of course and trying to stay positive.
Aside from obvious reasons like distance, cost, weather and everything else associated with reaching the South Pole; something you’d never know unless you’ve experienced it is the importance of 83 degrees.
83 degrees is a latitude line. In comparison, Novo Base is at 70 degrees and the South Pole is at 90 degrees. In order to fly from Novo Base to the South Pole; the DC-3 has to land to refuel at a special camp set up at 83 degrees-literally the middle of the plateau where it literally looks like a White Desert and like nowhere you’ve ever seen or been before.
Four men, drive Arctic trucks to 83 degrees and sit there for 5 weeks. Their only job is to refuel the 1-3 planes that land there each season en route and back from the South Pole and the rest of time they just drink and smoke-literally these guys are just as you’re imagining them to be. 83 degrees is about a 5-hour flight from Novo Base.
Upon reaching 83 degrees, you have to get another weather report for how it is between 83 and the South Pole. If it’s determined to be OK, then you continue-if not, you stay there or go back to Novo. This would prove to be critical for my group and I.
On December 18, our camp manager called the group to the common room to offer a gamble. The Ilyushin 76 plane, the massive Belorussian cargo plane that flies to and from Cape Town and Novo Base, was due to arrive and leave on December 19th back to Cape Town although we were originally scheduled to leave on December 20th. He mentioned we could take a gamble today, meaning December 18th, with iffy weather where we were given a 30% chance to make it to 83 degree let alone the South Pole.
The only other option was to wait a day and then try on the 19th and hope that the Ilyushin would delay for us to return to Novo Base. This may have been possible as another small group was returning from the South Pole on a tractor for some publicity stunt and they were running behind schedule. However, that option sounded terrible.
There was only one option and we took the gamble. I’ve accomplished lots in my life on 30% chances or less and there was no fucking way we weren’t trying!
We packed up in a flash and were off the Novo Base to board the DC-3 with our Canadian pilots. We were told that it was a coin toss if we’d make it to 83 or not and there would be a final decision about 2.5 hours into the flight-basically half way to 83. Those 2.5 hours were amongst the longest of my life. We were all sitting on eggshells and not really talking.
Then the pilot emerged from the cockpit and as my heart skipped several beats, he simply said, “We’re gonna keep going”.
It was pure elation, a roar of exultation from the group and it was perhaps the biggest emotional roller coaster of recent memory for me and I was pumped beyond words.
It’s not often in life, in fact never, that you really have no control at all over something you want so desperately. In my life, if I’ve ever wanted something, I have gone out and taken it or worked really hard to achieve it-whatever I decide I want-I make it happen one way or another. With the South Pole, all I could do was put myself in the position to get there and hope-that was so frustrating.
However, if it were easy to get to the South Pole then everyone would go.
When we arrived at 83, the pilots seemed concerned; which of course made us concerned. The weather along the horizon wasn’t great and there wasn’t a good contrast, which means that the pilots would have a difficult time landing at the South Pole. DC-3’s do not run on instruments-they are landed by sight.
So while we were refueling at 83, the pilot got on the satellite phone and was getting updates on the weather and he told us it was 50/50 before the call. Once again, we were agonizing on the decision by the pilot, the Russians back at Novo Base and Mother Nature. That 5-minute phone call was again amongst the longest 5 minutes of my life. The last words the pilot said after being briefed of the phone were, “OK call you from the air”.
I exploded with excitement knowing that meant we were going to reach the South Pole in 2.5 hours. We were all so thrilled and after a week of near misses and cancellations and stress we finally made it to the South Pole in the early morning of December 19, 2014. We landed at the US runway at Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station. I don’t know if I’ve ever been so happy in my life.
I immediately ran over to the ceremonial South Pole and hugged the iconic globe in front of the flags of the 12 signatory nations of the Antarctic treaty. After a round of picture taking and videos; we made our way to the Geographic South Pole. We all walked around the South Pole visiting every time zone on the world in a second and for me personally-achieving the remaining 6 territorial claims of Antarctica.
That means that I have now been to 318 Travelers Century Club (TCC) countries, territories and unique destinations. This makes me the youngest person to have reached that many destinations-ever. I still have 6 remaining on the TCC list although the list has expanded by several over the last decade. I am in no rush to finish the list.
This story could’ve easily had a different ending and damn near did where my tone would’ve been completely different! These last 10 days put us through the full spectrum of human emotion and to be honest, in hindsight, it makes it that much sweeter.
We made it by the skin of our teeth, with a lot of uncertainty, under trying circumstances, at the only small window of opportunity, at the last possible second. So whoever or whatever you believe lies up above, was certainly having some fun with our emotions for the last 10 days but in the end we made it and we deserve it!
We stood at the bottom of the world in -40F weather and didn’t feel a thing because the adrenaline was so high. I’ll tell you another time what it’s like to have the hairs inside your nose freeze or your eyelids freeze together if you blink for more than a split second. But for now, I am the happiest guy in the world.
I made it to the South Pole!