What exactly does it take to ski to the South Pole?

ski to the south pole
A polar explorer skis solo to the South Pole. Photo: Courtesy of Børge Ousland
For more than 100 years, man has been fascinated by the thought of traveling on foot to the South Pole. Even after Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen became the first person to accomplish that feat, back in 1911, the Pole has continued to be a beacon to explorers.

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Today, there are still a handful of hardy individuals who travel to the Antarctic on an annual basis just to attempt to reach that remote point on the map. The journey requires strength, stamina and determination, not to mention a healthy sense of adventure.

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Think you have what it takes to ski to the South Pole? Before setting out, here’s what you should know.

When is the best time to go?

The best time to travel in the Antarctic is during the austral summer, which runs from early November to late January. Most explorers who attempt the journey set out as early in the season as possible to give themselves plenty of time to reach the Pole.

As the end of January nears, the weather takes a definite turn for the worse, which is the cue for most visitors to abandon the Antarctic continent once again.

How do you even get there?

ski to the south pole
An Ilyushin IL-76 aircraft used to ferry explorers to Antarctica. Photo: Courtesy of Børge Ousland
Researchers and scientists who travel to the Antarctic are usually flown to their stations aboard government transport, but private individuals need to find alternate means of reaching the starting points for their expeditions.

A company called Adventure Network International (ANI), which operates out of Punta Arenas, Chile, actually maintains a camp on the ice in Antarctica and makes regular flights that shuttle individuals to and from the continent. (For a hefty price, of course.)

Is there a trail to the South Pole?

There are various routes that can be taken by individuals looking to ski to the South Pole, each with its own unique challenges. The most commonly used route begins at Hercules Inlet, on the southwestern section of the Ronne Ice Shelf. Skiers begin at sea level along the Antarctic coast and eventually climb 9,300 feet up to the polar plateau.

From there, things level out and get a bit easier, but with nothing but snow, ice, rock and sky in all directions, traveling across the frozen continent remains a challenge.

How far do you have to ski?

ski to the south pole
The Union Glacier ice camp in Antarctica. Photo: Courtesy of Christopher Michel
The distance from Hercules Inlet to the South Pole is roughly 553 miles as the crow flies, but the distance that explorers actually travel is much greater than that, since they have to ski around obstacles, avoid mountains and travel through specific valleys in order to progress toward the finish line.

How far any individual skis depends on his or her navigational abilities, but it’s not uncommon for the journey to exceed 600 miles.

How long does it take?

That depends on how fast you can ski cross-country. Most people require 50 to 60 days to cover the entire distance to the South Pole, where, thankfully, they can catch a flight back to where they started. (Two months is a long time to spend out on the ice, and very few want to attempt the return trip on skis as well.)

The record for the fastest time skiing from Hercules Inlet to 90ºS is held by Norwegian Christian Eide. He was able to cover the distance in just 24 days, 1 hour and 13 minutes.

What are conditions like out on the trail?

ski to the south pole
Conditions out on the ice can be very demanding. Photo: Courtesy of Paddy Scott
If you want to ski to the South Pole, you’d better be in tip-top physical condition. To finish the route on time, you’ll need to ski upward of 10 hours each and every day. On top of that, South Pole skiers need to carry all of their gear, fuel, food and other supplies with them at all times.

That equipment is carefully placed into a sled, which is then pulled behind them as they go and typically weigh as much as 150 pounds when fully loaded, making progress very difficult early on. Throw in snowdrifts, whiteout conditions, uneven terrain, howling winds and a sun that never sets and you start to get a sense of what this journey is truly like.

Now imagine doing that for 50-plus days in a place that is as lonely and remote as any on Earth.

What do Antarctic explorers eat?

Since they must travel with all of their supplies for the entire journey, most skiers will carry a variety of freeze-dried meals as they set out across Antarctica. Those meals are lightweight, don’t take up much room in the sled and are very easy to prepare.

Most polar explorers burn in excess of 8,000 calories per day, which is why they often try to put on weight even before setting out. Those calories are difficult to replenish on a daily basis, so, unsurprisingly, a premium is placed on high-calorie foods that are easy to transport. A favorite snack amongst Antarctic explorers are sticks of butter — sometimes rolled in brown sugar — as they meet all of the requirements for good expedition food.

How much does it cost?

ski to the south pole
The South Pole itself, located at 90ºS latitude. Photo: Courtesy of Josh Landis
As you can probably imagine, a ski journey to the South Pole is not a cheap venture. ANI offers guided expeditions each season for more than $60,000 — about on par with a climb up Everest.

Experienced explorers can choose to go it alone, however, saving themselves tens of thousands of dollars. But a solo expedition is still very expensive, and is not to be undertaken by the unprepared.

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