Thursday, 17 April 2003 00:00

Veterinarian skis through cold & wind to South Pole


With just two days left on his journey to the South Pole, Scott Anderson got frostbite.

The temperature was minus 40 degrees, and the wind was coming directly at his face at 30 miles per hour, creating

a wind-chill approaching minus 100 degrees. Just as in the previous 5 days of pulling a 100-pound sled towards the South Pole, Anderson had spent most of the day slogging on cross-country skis toward his destination with a guide and another traveler.
However, today the little bit of explosed flesh around his mouth had not been able to fight off the cold. His lower lip and left cheek froze. Fortunately, face frostbite is generally more benign than frostbite on toes and fingers.The frozen area soon formed a scab and within 10 days had healed completely. In addition, while his face was mending, he got to take a look at the place he had worked so hard to reach.

"After a week of hard physical labor, to see the South Pole and flags, it was an indescribable feeling - a sensation not to be repeated," said Anderson, a veterinarian and 8-year Palisadian. "It was a combination of amazement that I was really actually there, pleasure at having done it...and relief that we were finally there and had a day to relax."

Actually, beacuse of bad weather, Anderson's group had four and a half days to hang out at the South Pole before their plane ride home. Anderson spent much of that time walking around the pole and reading, but he also placed the Norwegian flag at the historic spot. The South Pole generally shifts about to feet each year, he said, so he calculated the location where the pole would have been when Norwegian Roald Amundsen became the first person to reach it on December 14, 1911.

Like Amundsen, Anderson's wife, Lisa, is Norwegian and also a "big admirer" of the late explorer. She gave her adventuring husband a large Norwegian flag to leave at the pole. Planting the flag caused him to think about how much harder the original expedition had been than his trip. To be the first to reach the South Pole, Amundsen lived for about one and a half years in Antarctica and traveled about 700 miles by dogsled to get there.

In addition, "he and his group had no possible way to get out of there other than by their own strength and skill," Anderson said. "It was a moving feeling to think about that."

This January, Anderson flew most of the way to the pole and skied the final 69 miles. While he was waiting for the plane ride home, another group arrived. This crew was part of a diabetes fundraising expedition, which traversed 730 miles in 61 days, following the path of Robert F. Scott, the ill-fated British explorer who arrived at the pole one month after Amundsen and then perished on the trip home. In the modern journey, Will Cross became the first person with diabetes to travel to the South Pole.

Today when people reach the pole, they find a scientific base, the Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station, which Anderson could see from about 9 miles away because the terrain is so flat. Otherwise, for the remaining miles he traveled, all he saw was snow-covered flatness, although the land does vary slightly in height. Sastrugi, gentle ridges ranging from 1 to 3 feet high, are a part of the wind blown terrain., and Anderson said that although the short ridges don't "sound like much, when you're pulling a sled and it's the end of the day, the ridges are tiring and can tip your sled over."

A typical day of his journey meant rising at 7 a.m. to boil water for morning oatmeal and hot chocolate as well as for a thermos-full of lunchtime soup. By 9:30 a.m. his group was skiing. throught the day, they would never pause for much more than five minutes, because the weather was too cold for standing still. When they stopped at about 6:15 p.m. each night, they would make a scheduled radio check-in call and begin making camp. The three men would build a snow wall on the windward side of their tent and then cook dinner inside before falling asleep at about 9:30 p.m.

The inside of the tent was warm, and the three generally took off their coats and wore shirt-sleeves inside. Rick Sweitzer, the trip's guide from The Northwest Passage company, had been to the North Pole about 10 times before, but never to the South Pole, while Nikos Magitsis, also a first-timer, became the first Greek to reach the North Pole, so he is a minor celebrity in his country. Anderson plans to make his own North Pole trip in the next few years.

Anderson noted that morning and night looked the same in Antarctica, because in the summer season the sun shines 24 hours a day. The penguins and marine life of the coast are not present on the barren interior of Antarctica, and he saw neither plants nor animals during the entire journey.

The weather was uniformly cold. On cloudy days, the temperature dropped as low as minus 40 degrees, but even on warmer days, the temperature never rose above minus 20 degrees, he said. Anderson kept his fingers warm with three layers of gloves and sometimes up to four hand warmers per hand.

Such care is vital. A guide from another pole-traveling group removed his gloves for less than five minutes to help someone, and suffered frostbite on three fingertips. Unlike Anderson's mild case, the guide was in danger of losing his fingertips when anderson flew home. Such frostbite problems had made Anderson acutely aware of keeping his hands warm, and prior mountain climbing trips to places like Tibet had helped him acquire the right clothing and training for the various strenous aspects of the trip.

Although Antarctica is covered with snow, it rarely snows more than 2 to 3 inches a year there, he said. However, because the weather is so cold, the snow never melts. Thus, the winds can create extreme whiteouts simply by tossing the snow off the ground and into the air.

The wind is one of the reasons air travel can be so difficult there. Anderson spent extra days at the pole and had to forego a second planned journey to climb Mt. Vinson, Antarctica's highest peak, because the windy weather delayed the various legs of his journey. If he had attempted to climb Mt. Vinson, weather delays might have then prevented his timely return to his veterinary work at California Animal Hospital and to his wife and their childern, Paul, 4, and Erik, 1. One previous group was stuck at the Patriot Hills Base in Antarctica for six weeks because of consistent wind whiteouts.

Anderson may never have the opportunity to return to Antarctica and climb Mt. Vinson, but that was the one regrettable note in an otherwise unforgettable journey.

"My first glimpse of the pole marker as we were approaching on our skis will stay with me forever," he said. "It's a place I'm unlikely to be again. Even if by some strange chance, I find myself there again, to see it for the first time, and to have made it there myself on skis, it's a feeling I don't think I will ever duplicate."

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