How I Made it to the South Pole

I made it to the South Pole!!!

Lee Abbamonte, South Pole, ceremonial South Pole, Antarctica, White Desert

At the ceremonial South Pole as happy as can be!


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!
Lee Abbamonte, South Pole, Geographic South Pole, Antarctica, White Desert

At the Geographic South Pole and still as happy as can be!


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.
Lee Abbamonte, Novo Base, blue ice runway, Antarctica

Arriving at Novo Base with my friends Patrick, Jeff and Eileen!


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.
White Desert, camp, Antarctica

White Desert camp in Antarctica


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.
White Desert, glacier, Antarctica

Glacier view from high above


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.
Emperor Penguins, penguins, Antarctica

Emperor Penguins and their chicks are the best thing ever!


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!
Emperor Penguins, penguins, Antarctica, chicks

Emperor Penguins and their chicks.


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.
Lee Abbamonte, rock climbing, Antarctica

Me on left and Patrick rock climbing near the White Desert camp in Antarctica


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.
ice caving, Antarctica

Amazing colors while ice caving in Antarctica


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.
White Desert guide, Jerome, Antarctica

One of our French mountain guides, Jerome-great guy and great hat although he couldn’t name a player on the Yankees!


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.
White Desert guides, Manu, Antarctica

Manu is another French mountain guide who is an amazing and very accomplished climber


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 camp, Antarctica

Patrick drinking soup at 83 degrees camp


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.
Antarctica, 83 degrees, White Desert, Antarctica

White Desert at 83 degrees


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.
DC3, 83 degrees, Antarctica

Refueling the DC3 at 83 degrees


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.

Lee Abbamonte, Antarctica, South Pole plane, DC3

Lee Abbamonte all business on the plane before the announcement


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.

cockpit, DC3, Antarctica

My view into the cockpit of the DC3


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”.
DC3, South Pole

Our group on the DC3 after finding out we’re going to the South Pole


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.
Amundsen-Scott Station, South Pole

Amundsen-Scott Station at the South Pole


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.
Lee Abbamonte, ceremonial South Pole, South Pole

Me hugging the ceremonial South Pole globe when I first arrived…ecstatic doesn’t even describe the feeling!


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.
Ceremonial South Pole, South Pole, Lee Abbamonte, friends

Me, Patrick and Jeff at the ceremonial South Pole


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.
Lee Abbamonte, Bob Bonifas, Robert Bonifas

Me and my buddy Bob Bonifas are two of the worlds most traveled people…I’m just 41 years younger!


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!
Lee Abbamonte, Ceremonial South Pole, globe, South Pole

Me taking a photo into the ceremonial South Pole globe!


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.
Geographic South Pole, South Pole

The actual Geographic South Pole!


I made it to the South Pole!

Comments

  1. Congratulations on accomplishing this feat! What a great story. I had no idea Antarctica was so huge (five hour flight from the edge to the South Pole). Did you high five Santa for the early Christmas present? Oh wait. Wrong Pole! 😉

  2. Walter Jackson says:

    Congratulations Lee! Its was great to read the post and to see that you finally made it. Are you going to the North Pole now, or space?

  3. For some reason, I felt the sheer excitement of you being there. 🙂
    Way to go!

    Kerwin.

  4. Steve Wiideman says:

    Congrats! What an amazing adventure Lee!

  5. Congratulations on completing a trip of a lifetime and achieving your goals. You’re quite an inspiration. I always get energized after reading your updates to continue my own travel adventures. As your story highlights, many things are possible with hard work, preservation, and a bit of luck. Well done!

  6. This is amazing!!! So cool to be in every time zone in a second and at the bottom of the planet! Can’t wait to hear more!!

  7. Jeff (In Capetown) says:

    Im just thankful Lee has finally showered.

  8. Jeff (In Capetown) says:

    No joke.
    I could see the hotel staff standing at a distance from me last night when i checked in.
    45 minute shower!

  9. Really glad that you got to complete this awesome accomplishment! I remember your story about last year’s miss. Thanks for also sharing what the experience was like.

  10. Michelle V says:

    Amazing, Congrats! So what’s next?!

  11. Wow. Fantastic. Will you make it to Wake and BIOT in time to get the TCC record as the youngest to complete it? You have exactly one year right?

    • Lille, theoretically you could argue I’ve already established a new TCC record and I am unsure whether I pursue trying to get the South Atlantics and those two you mentioned…I’ve been to more at a younger age than my buddy Charles and the effort/time to get the others isn’t of paramount importance to me right now as I have so much going on…that could change but we’ll see. I’m quite content as of now!

  12. Congratulations. But you made up the TCC record that you claim to set. I’m in the TCC and there’s no record of youngest to come close to finishing the list. Charles has the record and sounds like he’ll keep it until a new challenger arrives on the seen.

    Plus we in the TCC know that you claim to have visited some places you did not (helicopter over Montserrat sound familiar).

    • Haha…I’d imagine you’d use your real name and email if that were the case and at least know the difference between seen and scene. Plus I really enjoyed my visit to Montserrat!

  13. Wow that’s awesome Lee. How long were you outside at the South Pole? Were you able to get into the American base?

    • about 2.5 hours or so which is certainly ample…it’s so cold out!

      I was able to get into the US base although I have to say it was not a very pleasant visit. The station chief was quite rude to us and I had to go in to reason with her to get all of our passports stamped. I did manage to see much of the base above ground including the basketball court but I was actually the only one on the group who went inside-but we all got our souvenir stamps although they refused to open the gift shop for us so we couldn’t get hats a T-shirts!

  14. That’s an unbelievable story. I had no idea it was so difficult to get to the South Pole. Thanks for sharing this incredible story. I assume we’ll be seeing you on TV talking about this soon? Safe travels home Lee.

  15. Wow is all I can say. I’ve been following your blog for years and this is the first time I’ve really felt your passion come thru the screen. I felt like I was there at 83 with you! Good for you and you deserve it!

    • Thanks Ajay…ya this destination really meant a lot to me. I’ve put a lot of time, energy and money into getting there and when it came down to the wire it was a big rush when we got there! And to do it with good friends made it so much more special.

  16. Congrats Lee, an amazing accomplishment from an amazing guy! Those of us who actually know you for more than just travel are so proud of what you’ve done over the years! Just another milestone of what I am sure will be many more in all walks of your life.

  17. Simply incredible and a great redemption from last year! Luckily Prince William didn’t go this year!

  18. The best line of the whole post was “the penguins 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!”

    You’re too funny and congrats!!!

  19. awesome man… glad that worked out for you and really bummed I couldn’t make it work this year. That definitely was a nail biter trip.

  20. First of all…huge congratulations…
    I can feel your triumph in your writeup.. Man! You made it to the south pole.
    You have a dream..you went for it even with hurdles
    Your initial semi succesful trip did not let you down.
    I wish your north pole and space conquering trips fall in near future.
    Cheers!

  21. Guy Icemaster says:

    Hi there ! Congratulations, well done, thumbs up, and more of that kind ! However, allow me to put in a tiny little bit of criticism……it’s not very nice of you to say
    bad things about other people reaching the Pole….” some people on a tractor / publicity-stunt” . You are referring to Manon Ossevoort, known as the dutch tractor girl. Check out her story about how she got there , and you will find her (and her crews) voyage at least as valuable as yours !
    Cheers !

    • Hey Guy, and thank you! Also I wasn’t saying anything bad about anyone and honestly had no idea about anything about their trip other than I was told it was a publicity stunt by the Russians down there and they delayed out flight out because they had to be fetched by the Arctic trucks as they were behind schedule. Believe me, knowing how hard it is to reach the South Pole I would never criticize anyone for getting there or even trying because it’s a massive undertaking.

      That said, I met her and her team and they were all very nice, albeit excessively dirty after 5 weeks on a tractor!

      We all flew back to Cape Town together. I haven’t looked up their trip at all.

  22. Hey Lee,
    Congrats man. Another great accomplishment to add to your list. I really loved the story and really felt like I was there. This is something we would love to do at one time in our life. Reading this while recovering from my broken back just makes me want to get back out there as soon as I can.
    Thanks for the inspiration and great read. Cheers man!

  23. how long did you stay at the South Pole before departing again? An hour? Overnight?, etc…

    • Brandon, we were on the ground at the South Pole for about 2.5 hours…you’re not allowed to camp there so we set up camp back at 83 degrees. The snowdrifts covered the tents at night and when we woke up it was literally snowing in the tent from the condensation-it was freezing.

  24. Hi Lee, Congratulations with your achievement. Would it be possible to know which travel company you went with? Thanks in advance.

  25. Congrats Lee! Loved reading about your journey and beyond thrilled for you that you achieved this goal. One of these days I’m going to join you (again!), although it will definitely be an adventure closer to the equator, maybe a rainforest. Safe travels!

  26. Hey Lee ! my congratulations ! it’s really an amazing adventure. I read your story and I felt at the same time my enthusiasm, my surprise and my wish to go there, it’s contagious, you know ? I’m a young beginner of traveling from Armenia and I want to reach at least the half of your list. Good luck for the future trips !!!

  27. Just recently started following you on the Internet and you are an inspiration! Where would one start if he just discovered his dream (visiting the South Pole!) Keep it up man look forward to reading more stories!

  28. Alex Gerevini says:

    What a wonderful story, Lee!!! These are the exactly the kind of stories I really love to read in your blog!!!
    I was literally crying out of joy…
    Congratulations Lee, and Happy Holidays from Tokyo.
    Alex

  29. What a great story—and gorgeous pictures! Congrats, pal =)

  30. What a trip!

  31. Christian Falck says:

    Congratulations Lee. I’ve been following you since I saw your Pitcairn trip on TV, another difficult place to get to. I noticed you mentioned you used http://www.white-desert.com/adventures/emperors-south-pole/
    to accomplish your south pole adventure. I also saw it costs 59000 euros for the 14 hour round trip flight from Novo to South Pole. That’s extreme in all ways. cold, far, expensive. Many reasons hardly anyone has done it. Congrats on walking around all time zones in a second. It took your whole life actually up to that point. Amazing perspective on life and the world to have done it.

  32. I have learnt about TCC list today but I am way on it now. Following your steps far nad beyond. I will work and go for it. Congrats man!

  33. Antarctica has been my dream for over 20 years! You’re expedition sounds like my kind of thing, not those organized tours. Where do I start?

  34. Christiano Maquinista says:

    Did you whip out your compass to watch it go crazy at the geogaphical south pole? Planes with no instuments ? Thats weird! How do you explain this?

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