Reaching The End of the World — South Pole Trek Part 2

Have you ever wondered what it’s like to step foot at the actual South Pole? Is it some out of body experience? Perchance not but…

Welcome back to our Antarctic adventure, where this time we are headed to the Geographic South Pole — the only place in the world, where as you’ll see, it is impossible to walk south. It’s also a place where I will visit 5 countries in just one minute, another first for me.

Also before and after visiting the actual South Pole, I might get a look at a secretive United States facility nearby. So stay tuned for that, too.

We last left off at the beginning of January 2023, shortly after the turn of the new year, which I celebrated in two countries at once on the border of Finland and Sweden. 🥳 From there, I flew to Punta Arenas in southern Chile before heading to the more extreme south to visit the South Pole. My Antarctic expedition really began when I flew from Punta Arenas to Union Glacier, where the main base camp for people visiting Antarctica is located.

Boarding my flight from Punta Arenas to Antarctica

Ready to Go

As I mentioned in my last installment, you never know exactly when you will fly from Union Glacier to the South Pole because air traffic controllers must determine daily whether the conditions are safe enough for flights to depart. Luckily for us, on the night of our arrival, we were informed that we could likely fly to the South Pole the next morning, on the first full day of our trip. We knew we would probably have a big day ahead of us, so everyone in our tour group went to bed early with their fingers crossed and their gear ready to go. In the morning, it was confirmed that we could fly to the South Pole. 🍀 We were all excited to accomplish our goal so early in the trip. We got dressed, grabbed our gear, and boarded the plane, ready to cross a major item off our bucket lists.

Unlike the flights that land on the Blue-Ice Runway, which can accommodate practically any type of aircraft, the planes that can land at the South Pole are much more limited.

The famous Blue-Ice Runway

There are mainly two types of planes that can land there without too many issues. One is a Twin Otter Aircraft made in Canada and outfitted with skis, which was pretty interesting to see.

The Twin Otter even looks Canadian 😂

We took a Basler BT-67 aircraft, which is made in the U.S. and looked older than its Canadian counterpart. Although it’s an older model, the Basler BT-67 is a bit bigger than the Twin Otters, and they can fit more people inside.

Our awesome American aircraft 😜

Both types of planes, unfortunately, are nonpressurized, and neither one has a heating system. It got extremely cold up in the plane, and you could really feel the frosty air as we flew 4000-5000 meters above Antarctica on our way to the South Pole. 🥶

It was almost as cold inside the plane as it looked out the window.

A Freezing Flight

The South Pole is nestled deep within the Antarctic continent, which is less flat than one might imagine. The South Pole sits about 3000 meters above sea level, although the elevation feels even higher due to the conditions. Some people feel dizzy flying there or even just being on the ground at the South Pole, but that wasn’t a problem for me. I enjoyed reading my book on the plane and occasionally peeking out of the window as we made the journey. 👀

I wasn’t worried about the elevation or anything else at that point; I was just ready to go!

You can really sense how humongous Antarctica is just by flying over it. It had taken four hours to fly from Punta Arenas to Union Glacier, and it took another four hours from Union Glacier to reach the South Pole. When I looked out of the plane, I was nearly blinded by a massive expanse of ice in every direction. Once in a while, I noticed a small mountain or some peaks rising out of the ice, but as we flew, the icy terrain generally stretched out endlessly all around us.

The plane itself was more picturesque than the scene outside the windows.

All in all, it was a fascinating journey to the South Pole. While there wasn’t much to see from the plane window besides the sheets of ice, even that made a big impression on me just in its sheer vastness.

My view inside the plane was also more interesting than my view outside the window 🤣

Finally, after four cold and windy hours in the air, we landed at the South Pole. It was a novel experience for me to land on the icy runway on the skis of our old Basler BT-67.

A close-up of the skis on our aircraft ⛷

When the flight landed, the whole group was happy to be in the Antarctic and perhaps even happier just to be back on the ground. 😬

Our flight landed safely at the South Pole.

Mission Accomplished

It was about a 500-meter walk to the South Pole from the runway where we landed. Still, as soon as our aircraft touched the ground, we could already see the Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station, a scientific research facility owned and operated by the U.S.A.

The American research facility looming in the distance

It’s a huge complex that we were unfortunately unable to enter due to pandemic restrictions and a plethora of other reasons. No one was allowed to visit there at the time, and while Americans may dislike tourists, they can’t prohibit us from walking around and exploring outside of the facility.

Surreptitiously snapping photos of the complex

We also saw some tents nearby where cross-country skiers and people on various expeditions could stay the night. We had no desire to spend the night there, as there’s not much to see anyway, but we visited the tents to warm up, have some food, use the bathroom, and so on. Once we were feeling more comfortable, we went off to explore the South Pole.

It looks like it would have been more comfortable for us to hang out in here, but I digress.

We were lucky that the weather conditions were very good on the day we visited. The sky was clear, and while the temperature was a frigid -30 or -35 degrees Celsius, there was no breeze, so we didn’t have to battle any wind chill. I guess that, for Antarctica, one could say it was relatively warm.

It was as brutally cold as the landscape would suggest, but technically, it could have been worse.

Running Around the South Pole

I took off my gloves briefly to snap a few pictures, and I got someone on our tour to take a few good photos of me at a sign that marks the Geographic South Pole.

We also saw a few flags planted at the South Pole representing the countries that signed the original Antarctic Treaty in 1959. One fun thing I learned about the South Pole is that if you run a loop around the sign, you can visit almost all the Antarctic territories in a minute flat. 🏃🏻

The loop!

The Antarctic territories are claimed by the U.K., Australia, New Zealand, Chile, Argentina, France, and Norway. They run from an area on the coast to the South Pole, so just by walking in a circle around the sign marking the Geographic South Pole, you can visit five countries in one minute. It’s just five countries’ territories instead of all seven because the Norwegian and French territories don’t reach quite as far as where the sign is planted. Anyway, as a country collector, it was a lot of fun, and felt like an accomplishment to visit five countries in a minute.

Proudly standing at the pole itself, where all the territories meet.

Another fun thing I learned is that at the South Pole, any direction you walk is north because it’s the southernmost point in the world. It was funny to think that even though I was running in a full circle, I was still heading north the whole time. 😅

All directions point north.

Because the South Pole is at a high altitude, it’s not that easy to spend much time there. While it wasn’t as cold as it could have been, it was still extremely chilly, so we didn’t do a whole lot there.

A funky selfie at the bottom of the world

We saw the flags, visited the signs, went to see the outside of the U.S. base, and took great photos of all of the above, except for the last, which we photographed from a respectful distance.

By “a respectful distance,” I mean that I got as close as I possibly could without trespassing 😅

We walked around a bit more before taking a snowmobile to our company’s tents to warm up a bit, have some lunch, and use the bathroom. We also visited a kind of hut containing a guestbook that I wrote in before it was time to head back. After four hours at the South Pole, we boarded the plane to return to the Union Glacier Camp for the night. The flight back to Union Glacier was relatively uneventful, but I still made a few great memories during the flight.

A bird’s eye view from the plane

Activities at Union Glacier

The tour group enjoyed a nice dinner together back at the camp that evening. We were all worn out from the day, and we were happy to get some good sleep that night. We were also glad to have three more full days at Union Glacier Camp to explore some other activities.

There was still plenty to see and do back at Union Glacier, but you’d better watch your step. 🤕

Despite arriving back at camp in time to see the sunset, it turns out that there’s no sunset to see in Antarctica because the sun never goes down completely at this time of year. It dips down below the mountains for just a few hours a day, which you can imagine is the coldest time of day.

The sun never really went down, but sometimes it hid behind the clouds for a bit.

The next three days, we had a typical routine at camp. I continued to do a lot of reading in my downtime, which was a nice change of pace from the constant adventure I’ve been on. 🤓 We were invited to a few presentations about Antarctica, including an interesting one about Antarctica’s softball team. We also went on some nice excursions near the camp.

Heading off on an excursion

We went on three beautiful hikes of an hour or two each, and we also got to drive for a couple of hours in a few different vehicles. I was very interested in the vehicles there, starting with the snowmobiles and normal-looking pickup trucks used to manage the snow and ice. There were also some very futuristic, almost alien-looking vehicles, which were a bit surreal to see in this landscape.

The hardest-working snow plow in the world 🏆

We walked around some different sites where we saw amazing glaciers and some cool rock formations that we could climb.

Hiking wasn’t so easy at this altitude, but it was well worth the energy.

Some of the rock formations looked like animals, which our tour guide pointed out to us. It wasn’t too cold on the glacier, thanks to the lack of wind, and we could see the blue ice from there, which was an incredible sight. 🤩

They call the rock formation behind me “Elephant’s Head.”

It was fascinating to walk around the Antarctic continent and see the scenery, and it was well worth it to take day trips from the base camp.

At least I had the proper gear to survive the cold.

The weather conditions were generally fine, except at one point when it got very windy and we had some snowfall. Despite the chill, we went on all the day trips and enjoyed exploring the icy terrain as a group.

The strong winds actually enhanced the quality of our excursion to the windscoop.

At some point, we also got to see an Ilyushin Il-76 land on Union Glacier’s Blue-Ice Runway. The Ilyushin Il-76 is a large Russian plane that was historically used to transport cargo. It was awesome to see how the plane approached and landed on the runway. On our last day there, I also enjoyed watching the landing of the Boeing that would transport us back to Punta Arenas.

The pretty little Ilyushin

The Last Tourists in Antarctica

By the time we were ready to head out, we were practically the last people remaining at camp. There had been another group a couple of weeks ahead of us, but after we left, the people working there would pack up all the tents and gear to fly out because no visitors remain in Antarctica during the winter.

There was not another soul in sight as everyone packed out for the winter.

Every year around December, the Union Glacier Camp is rebuilt from scratch, and in late January, it is all broken down and hauled out. 🤯 There are only a few months a year that people can visit before everyone goes home to wait out the winter again until the following year.

Antarctica is absolutely treacherous in the winter.

While we were kept pleasantly busy with activities every day at Union Glacier, we lacked any internet, so I was looking forward to getting back to civilization and sharing my impressions of the trip.

I didn’t mind too much being without the internet for a few days to visit this beautiful place.

On our last day in town, it took quite a while to get everything organized and ready to go, so we spent a lot of time just waiting around. 🥱 Luckily, I had my books to keep me busy, and I chatted with some new friends whom I had met on the tour and some people who were there for other adventures. Some travelers were there to climb Mount Vinson, the highest peak in Antarctica at nearly 5000 meters, but they never made it because of poor weather conditions. We turned out to be the lucky group who had actually made it to the Geographic South Pole.

And we got to go on some pretty nice hikes, too.

Once the plane landed and the cargo was all loaded up, the last remaining tourists in Antarctica were invited to board our flights back to Punta Arenas. I still had two days left in Punta Arenas after my South Pole trip, which gave me time to post some of the many pictures I had taken there. Our tour group went out for dinner back in Punta Arenas and then to a bar, and it was nice to enjoy each other’s company back in the “real world,” or at least out of the extreme cold.

I had a ton of photos to post when I got back!

Where To Next?

After that, I flew back through Santiago de Chile on my way to meet my dad for a three-week trip in Brazil and Argentina. My flights were quite nice, so I was relatively reinvigorated by the time we met in Rio Janeiro.

Here’s a sneak peek of Rio to warm you back up! ☀️

Join us again on our next adventure as my dad and I travel through Brazil and venture into the Amazon jungle.