an interesting kitchen. The tent was supported by a center pole. Around this pole were two stoves. And all around this center, they dug a circular ditch so that you could stick your feet in it and sit all around. The snow that was removed from the ditch was that which would become water in the kettles.
The day was December 13, 2011 and we had a plan: to reach the location of the pole the next day, retracing the footsteps of Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen (1872-1928), the first to reach the site, one hundred years ago.
Our journey had begun five days earlier, in Chile. Rick Sweitzer, owner and guide of the American tourist company Polar Explorers, gathered the group in Punta Arenas, at the southern extreme of the American continent, for a round of pisco sours.
My group consists of 17 people. In addition to the two guides, the photographer John Wainer and I came to work. The others are tycoons, industrialists, financiers, oil traders, millionaires in general. Each paid $52,500 (R$92,000) for eight days in Antarctica, not to mention the flight to Chile, the medical exams and required insurance. These 13 tourists, including two women, could go on holiday anywhere in the world. They preferred to face an uncomfortable journey, but with a rare reward: to be one of the few living persons to visit this place.
One of them, the American Daniel Pena, 66, came to marry. He brought his wife, Sally Hall, 48, and one of his employees, William Smith, 41, who took a course on the internet especially in order to officiate the wedding on the ice. Daniel is a giant of 100 kg (220 lbs) and almost 1.90 m (6' 3"), the kind that you obey without thinking, just hearing the voice like thunder. A singular man: he bought a castle in Scotland to play golf ("The sport was invented there"), wrote the book "Your First 100 Million" (not released in Brazil) and carried six kilos (13 pounds) of vitamins to Antarctica ("I take 120 pills a day: vitamins A, B, C, D, E, zinc, calcium, magnesium, minerals, supplements etc. That's why I don't look 66 years old.").
The Japanese Mieko Kugizaki is 73 years old and looks it. She relies on a cane since having surgery to reconstruct her pelvis a few years ago. On one of our group excursions, Mieko brought (and paid for his trip) an exclusive guide, who also serves as a translator. "Last year I went to the North Pole. For 2012, I booked a ticket on a space plane that leaves the atmosphere." The ticket costs $ 200,000 and the trip only lasts two hours, complete with four minutes of weightlessness. The husband never comes. "He's afraid," she smiles.
The Texan James Ryffel, 52, works in real estate and builds shopping centers in the states of Texas, Arizona and Georgia. Sometimes he keeps them. "I have about 45," he says. Jim Finley, 55, is from the oil business. He has 900 extraction rigs, spread over 13 U.S. states. James (four children) and Jim (three) have been friends for 15 years, as have their wives and children. And then there's Jim Johnson, 50, who builds commercial buildings in Colorado. Hospitals, hotels and offices are on his list, but demand in the U.S. has led his company to specialize in... prisons. "We are completing our 16th prison," he says. The three went together to the North Pole in 2009, when the region celebrated one hundred years of its conquest.
ROUTE TO ANTARCTICA
Two days after those pisco sours in Punta Arenas, we leave aboard a Russian IL-76 cargo plane, which appeared to be falling apart. The seats do not recline, the door to the only bathroom does not lock and there is no separation of the passenger cabin from the cargo area. The crew came with the equipment after the dismantling of the Soviet Union: they are all Russian and look like the villains from 007. At lunchtime, each passenger gets up and makes their own sandwich of bread, ham and mayonnaise, on top of a Styrofoam cooler on the floor. And to think that at least four of my colleagues have private planes in their own countries.
"The important thing for such a trip is to make you appreciate the basic things like water, air, shelter from the cold," summarizes Avantika Dalmia, 35, daughter of an industrialist in India, who is celebrating 15 years of marriage to Puneet Dalmia, 39. "My family is in the fields of cement, sugar, electricity and industrial ceramics," says the husband. Basic things.
The trump card of this plane is that it can land in unpaved places, like the blue ice runway in Antarctica, where it puts down 3,000 km (almost 2000 miles) and four hours later. Soon we are in Union Glacier, base of the company that operates the Antarctic aircraft, having vegetable soup in a heated shed. And, surprise, they serve Chilean wine, red and white.
One of my new friends, the American Anton Valukas, goes around with a thermos and offers: it's single malt whiskey. Anton is a 68 year old lawyer, appointed by the US Justice Department in 2008 to investigate the failure of Lehman Brothers. Today, he heads a firm of 500 lawyers and always wanted to come to Antarctica. "I just got divorced and I thought it was time. I called the agency and said, 'I'm 68, do two hours of cycling per day. I am able to go?'" It is evident that Anton is in much better physical condition than me. At 41, I had spent all of 2011 delaying joining a gym. I ended up signing up one month before the trip and did exercise only on the day of registration. A thorough check-up in the first week of December, however, testified that John Wainer and I were healthy enough for the challenge.
I take this opportunity to interview one of the steel kings of Chicago, Dave Nelsen, 53. I discover that he has 30 vintage cars, all Chevrolets. "Nineteen are Corvettes, and they are from 1953, 57, 59, two from 63, three from 67, 68, 69, 72, 78, 90, 01, 08, 09 and 2012," he tells me, off the tip of the tongue, but skipping two models. Full of whiskey, we talked about the pleasant sensation of driving Corvettes on the streets of Chicago (in a dream, in my case). I set foot in Antarctica just three hours ago and I'm surrounded by glasses, bottles and millionaire buddies. I should have brought my cigarettes...
We spent three days at the Union Glacier camp, waiting for good weather to fly to the South Pole. We are still a thousand kilometers (620 miles) away, and the planes do not get along very well with ice and snow. It is impossible to fly by instruments, since the equipment cannot measure the solidified water as well as if it were dry land. I get used to using powdered toothpaste (the toothpaste freezes) and to writing with a pencil (ink would become hard).
A chain of black mountains, dotted with white snow, surround our colorful tents, reminding us at every moment that we are in a unique place. But what is most remarkable in the camp is the discrepancy between the bathroom and the pride that the people who work there feel about it. Indeed, it used to be hard, because "we now have toilets," they boast. But they don't flush. And you need to separate solids and liquids to facilitate handling later, since all this is flown out to be disposed of in Chile. There is no running water. Bath, therefore, no way. I ask Daniel Pena, the owner of the castle, as he faces the harsh experience of the bathroom. "I'm the first to wake up and do it before everyone else." That's the secret.
ROUTE TO THE POLE
The first thing that happens when you step into the polar region is your nose starts to run. At 35 below zero, the mucus freezes and every drop becomes a mini-stalactite that pricks you in the nostrils. We had just come down with the small DC-3 on the runway of blue ice near the South Pole, so frightened by the stories of necrosis caused by the cold that we cover every millimeter of the body with the maximum material available. The temperature is 35 degrees below zero. I'm disguised as an onion, with five layers of clothing. An exaggeration, I notice in two minutes.
Nine tourists from our group, including myself and John, have chosen to ski the last 20 km toward the pole. The two guides will accompany us. The intention was to reach the location the next day, December 14th, the same date as Amundsen in 1911. I spent the first moments of this new journey wondering what I was doing there. Cussing the situation, I put on my skis, tied the sled to the belt and started pulling. Each one of the ten of us pulled a sled of equal weight, with 15 kg to 25 kg (33 to 55 lbs) of clothes, a sleeping bag, food, chocolate, tents, stoves etc.
Soon I felt the big toe of my right foot get cold. I thought of changing socks, but saw that it would be impossible. The simple act of drinking a sip of water required turning around to ski back even with the sled, bending both knees, almost sitting (the ski keeps you from raising the heel), taking the outside gloves off, finding a place to put them without dropping them in the snow, opening the pack, finding the bottle, opening it, drinking without losing your balance in this hell of a position, and when done, doing it all again in reverse. Meanwhile, the expedition goes on and you are falling behind. Changing socks, therefore, was not an option.
It is worth mentioning that our skiing has nothing to do with recreational type like at Bariloche or Aspen. We didn't slide down the snow, as there are no descents on the plateau of the South Pole. We were walking, lifting one ski after the other and taking steps. It was like walking with flippers on the beach. John suffered more than me because, besides the sled, he had photographic equipment hung on his body, and had to stop to take pictures from time to time. Soon there were two groups. In the rear, I walked with the Texan friends James Finley and Jim Ryffel, and Arjun Gupta, 51, an Indian resident of California who specializes in funding new companies in Silicon Valley and then selling them. He has done this with 61 of them.
Fifteen minutes later, my big toe had ceased bothering me, but the fingers of my left hand started to hurt a lot. They were in the process of freezing, for sure. The feeling was hot, not cold. It seemed that I had put my fingers in the mouth of an oven. I complained to the guide Dirk Jensen, who was friendlier than Rick. He took off my outer glove and the one under it. He said it was just cold, no big deal, but cautioned that they were too tight. "There needs to be room for air. It's the hot air that keeps your hand warm." I put bags of chemical heaters inside the gloves, but 15 minutes later, the pain had increased.
Being in 30 degrees below zero while going from the hotel to the restaurant is one thing, but staying at 30 degrees below zero all the time was quite another. I remembered the passage of "Solar" (2010), by Ian McEwan, in which the protagonist, who is on a similar trip, pees outdoors at the North Pole and thinks that his penis froze. The risk of remaining silent seemed to be still too big, and when I complained for the third time, Dirk gave me his outer gloves and went without. He saved my hand (I think) and part of my humor (for sure).
Minutes later, a snowmobile approached, with one of the staff from the camp. He had a can of fuel, which had been left behind. Rick yelled to everyone: "If someone wants to give up, now is the time," offering the lift back. Jim Finley stepped forward: "I'm not doing well with these skis, the boots are twisting all the time and maybe I'm not really enjoying this very much." In truth, I was jealous.
After some time, I was able to keep my balance effortlessly on the skis (never having seen one in my life). Even so, I was at the end of the line. Arjun and Ryffel James went with me, but the two stopped a lot to save their breath. We were almost 3,000 meters (10,000 feet) above sea level. Breathing becomes more difficult: there is less oxygen in the air. After the eighth mile, the fatigue became unbearable. The sled seemed increasingly heavy. So as not to waste time, we didn't have lunch that day. I began to feel cold, despite the constant exercise, and put on another jacket. I felt that I was approaching exhaustion when, instead of using the poles to help with balance on the skis, I began to use them as crutches, throwing my weight on them at every step. Every 50 meters, we stopped for a minute or two, bent over, hands on knees, gasping.
When the first group finally stopped, seven hours after starting out, they were about 500 yards ahead of us. I painfully conquered the last steps and collapsed on top of my sled. The Icelander Bjarn Ármannsson, 43, was at ease. With four children and four companies (chocolate, propane, data storage and insurance), the marathoner, accustomed to the ice in his country, helped the guides to set up the tents. Like him, Jim Johnson, Dave Nelsen and Anton Valukas kept their energy and good humor. Nevertheless, Anton told me later: "I have faced physical challenges in several places in the world, but this was the most brutal day of my life."
I entered the tent and John was in the same suffering mood. "How did we get into this?" he asked, and instantly fell asleep. It was 10 PM, but the damn sun never set, so you couldn't tell... There is no night in the Antarctic summer. The sun is there all the time, at a height of 30 degrees from the horizon. It spends all its time circling over our heads. Sometimes, when the weather clears up, the sun shines and the sky is as blue as at a beach in the Northeast. But when it's cloudy, the smooth expanse of snow that dominates the polar region, without mountains or hills, meets the cloudy sky at the horizon, and everything turns into an endless white mass.
I left John sleeping and went into the green tent that the guides had set up for cooking, the one with a ditch in the middle. Suddenly, all the torture began to make sense. You could see the happiness of the men around the fire, slicing chunks of salami an inch thick and drinking instant cappuccinos, self-satisfied, thousands of miles away from their employees, mansions, women, children and other dramas.
There were packages and more packages of dried foods, like meat and rice, but they preferred snacking on sausage and tortillas with cheese. It was like Tubby's Fellers Club in the comic books, a little house where girls don't go. They were almost all there, including James Ryffel, who looked exhausted, was unable to eat anything and soon went to bed. He was feeling the effects of altitude, and that night, barely able to relax, had nausea and chills. Nor did Arjun, my other companion of the trailing group, appear for the salamifest.
The next morning, I went back to the trekking line like one walking the plank of a pirate ship, ready for the slaughter. But the day ended up not being as bad as the first: the fatigue was no longer a novelty. After four kilometers (about 2.5 miles), we entered a research area of the American station. The guides commanded a detour to the left until we found the road, to complete the last four kilometers following the tire tracks. But James Ryffel didn't detour along with us. He was so exhausted that, despite being the last in line, he did not notice the change of route. The Icelander Bjarn had to go get him, and from then on, also pull his sled.
We reached the pole moments before the marriage of Daniel and Sally. They were married between the flags of the U.S. and the UK (she's English) that surround the ceremonial marker of the South Pole. We all toasted with vodka. It was December 14, the same day as Amundsen, a hundred years ago. There were Norwegians everywhere, including the country's prime minister, Jens Stoltenberg, who attended a ceremony for 500 people, a record in that place.
Here and there, I met the colleagues of our expedition who had not participated in the trek. Ms. Mieko, leaning on her cane, and her private guide from Alaska. The Dalmia couple from India. And Peter Lui, 53, a Chinese person interested in a very specific distinction: being the first Boy Scout of Hong Kong to be at the South Pole. "Years ago, an English Scout came. Or I would have been the first in the world," he lamented.
There are well-differentiated people circulating here. A 60 year old Norwegian gentleman, named Asle T. Johansen, says he came skiing from the coast with two colleagues, for more than a thousand kilometers (620 miles) over 40 days, using clothes and equipment identical to those of Amundsen. "We killed 30 reindeer to join the pelts needed for coats, gloves and so on." Another is Jann Pettersen, 78, grandson of the carpenter on the victorious expedition of 1911. He went around displaying the gold watch that Amundsen gave to his grandfather in person.
And the retired American Don Parrish is walking around the polar marker one, two, ten, 20 times. Parrish, 67, is the fourth most traveled man on the planet. He has already been to 787 places out of the 872 listed on the site Most Traveled People. "But I'm also a member of a circumnavigation club and here I have the opportunity to take several turns around the globe." That's right, Don is giving micro-turns about the Earth around the axis of the south pole, walking only ten meters each circle. "I decided to circumnavigate a hundred times, in honor of the one hundred years. But to avoid any risk of error in the account, I did 110 laps. "
Don's behavior draws my attention to two specific issues regarding the last place on earth. Trekking to the pole, I stop precisely at the marker and breathe deeply. If I take one step forward, I go north. So far so good. But here, unlike all other places on the planet, if I take a step back, am I also going north. Every step I take in any direction is north. Then I realize another situation: a step to the right puts me in December 15, 8am New Zealand time. But there at the end of the world, where all latitudes and time zones come together, a step to the left leads me to the previous day: December 14, 8 PM Chile time.
I return to the cafeteria, where my fellow expedition members are. Arjun slept about 20 hours to recover from fatigue. James, about 15. Jim Finley says he plans to return next year. "I feel like I have failed." Ryffel James tells his friend: "If you need to come back, I will come with you." The other tourists are only waiting for the weather to clear so they can fly back to camp, then to Chile and on, each to his own life. Meanwhile, they pass the time playing Monopoly in the cafeteria, with play money.