A Sri Lankan Nomad shares his experience at the Geographic South Pole in Antarctica

I always had the idea in my head that I would visit the South Pole one day, but the actual planning happened sometime in August 2021. In a year there is only a very small window when you can visit the South Pole. That’s from mid-November to mid-January, it’s the summer for Antarctica with 24 hours of sunlight. Typically you have to plan these tips about 1-2 years in advance, but given the ongoing unfortunate COVID-19 pandemic, tour companies were opening up trips to the South Pole, Antarctica and I took advantage of that to visit in early January 2022. Like everyone else my research also started from googling “tours to the South Pole, Antarctica”. The majority of the results that showed up were cruising around the Antarctic Peninsula. Unfortunately, the cruise did not meet my expectation. I wanted to do 4 main things on the continent. 1. Visit the Geographic South Pole, 2. Stand on the ground (soil/rock/bedrock) in Antarctica. 3. Visit and walk on a glacier. 4. Cross-country ski across the white desert in Antarctica.

Fortunately, through a mutual friend, I got to know about an organization called “International Association of Antarctica Tour Operators”. (www.iaato.org). This organization is basically a collocation of tour companies that helps safe travel in Antarctica. In this organization, I found a land-based operator called “Antarctic logistics & expeditions – (ALE)” that takes adventure travels to the Geographic South Pole. Reaching out to ALE I was able to sign up for the tour with them for early January.

About Me:

My name is Dinuka Karunaratne. I was born and raised in Kandy, Sri Lanka. I schooled in Dharmaraja College, Kandy (from grade 1 to 13). I graduated with a Bachelor of the Science of Engineering in Electrical and Electronic Engineering in August 2007 from the University of Peradeniya, Sri Lanka. In January 2009 I started my post-graduate studies and I graduated with a Doctor of Philosophy in Electrical Engineering in May 2013 from the University of South Florida, USA. At the moment, I live in the United States and work for Intel Corporation as an Engineer. In my free time, I love to explore and I’m always up for a new adventure.

I have traveled to all seven continents. I have visited 36 counties. Below are a few of my other travel adventures. In Orange are the counties I have visited.

2016 – Incar trail – Machu Pichchu – Peru

2017 – Everest Base Camp – Nepal

2018 – At Mount Kilimanjaro, Tanzania

2022 – Patagonia – Chile

My journey to the Geographic South Pole, Antarctica –January 11th, 2022

In Route

My trip starts on January 1st, 2022 from Portland Oregon USA. I reached Santiago, Chile on January 2nd, 2022. I had to be in quarantine until my COIVD-19 PCR results came and my mobility pass got activated. I had about 2 days in Santiago to explore. On January 5th I flew to Punta Arenas, Chile from Santiago, Chile. Punta Arenas was the main base station for ALE to take travels to Antarctica. Late December/Early January unfortunately the COIVD-19 cases were rising due to the Omicron variant. Since Antarctica has no medical resources, ALE requested consecutive 5 days of negative COVID-19 test to be sure none of their passengers had the COIVD-19 virus in them. This really took me by surprise. Fortunately, I didn’t have the virus in me and I was able to board the plane to the Antarctic on January 10th, 2022.

Pictures from the Plane – the Drake Passage, connecting the Atlantic and Pacific oceans between South America and the Antarctic Peninsula
Union Glacier Ice runway in Antarctica. The plane was chartered by ALE and operated by Icelandair. The ice runway has no control tower or any other fancy equipment or even an actual runway. The pilot lands the plane on ice with his/her best judgment. Simply amazing.
On January 10th, 2022 – Me standing on the Antarctica continent for the 1st time. The Temperature was about -20C
From the Union Glacier runway, we were taken to Union Glacier Base camp

Day 1: Union Glacier Base Camp

My tent in Union Glacier Base Camp
We used flat tire bikes to go about the campsite. – it was the first time I rode a bike on snow and it wasn’t easy
Other equipment at camp

Day 2: Geographic South Pole Day

In the morning we were given a lecture about Geographic South Pole and how we all should be prepared for the journey. de-hydration, hypothermia, snow blindness, toothache, sunburn, altitude sickness, etc.

The elevation of the geographic South Pole is at 9301 feet (2835m) above sea level. The elevation constantly keeps changing due to the Antarctic Ice sheet above the Antarctica bedrock. The Antarctica ice sheet thickness is about 8,850 feet (2,700 m). Since the Antarctica ice sheet constantly keeps moving (about 10m per year) the marker of the geographic South Pole needs to be moved to reflect the true geographic South Pole. So, when the Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen reached the geographic South Pole on December, 14th 1911, and placed his tent and marker are not the same location as the geographic South Pole marker today is due to the Antarctica ice sheet movement.

Once the lecture ended it was time for our 1000km (700 miles) journey to the Geographic South Pole from Union Glacier base camp. From 790 46’ S we had to get to 900S.

The plane that took us to Geographic South Pole

After about a 4-hour plane ride I landed a snow/ice runway near the Geographic South Pole. From the snow/Ice runway, it was about 500m to the Geographic South Pole visitor center. It was an unmanned office with history and information about the Geographic South Pole. Here is where I Stamped my Sri Lankan passport with the South Pole Stamp.

From the South Pole visitor center, we went next to the ceremonial South Pole. It was about a 500m meter walk.

From the ceremonial South Pole next was the Amundsen–Scott South Pole Station, which was also about 500m away. The Amundsen–Scott South Pole Station is the United States scientific research station at the South Pole of the Earth. It is administered by the Office of Polar Programs of the National Science Foundation, specifically the United States Antarctic Program (USAP). Unfortunately, we could not visit it due to COVID-19 pandemic restrictions.

From the Amundsen–Scott South Pole Station we walked to the Geographic South Pole. This was also about a 500m walk. When we go there the temperature was about -25C.

On January 11th, 2022 – Me standing at the Geographic South Pole with the Sri Lankan Flag. The Temperature was about -25C when this picture was taken.

Unfortunately, the weather and the visibility got really bad. The temperature dropped to about -40C and it was super windy making it unsafe to stay any long time at the Geographic South Pole.

Because of the bad weather, our return flight from the Geographic South Pole back to Union Glacier base camp was somewhat of an adventure. When we got back to Union Glacier base camp, it was facing a snowstorm and all our tens were hidden in the snow.

Day 3: Elephant Head Hike – it’s a marble rock that is shaped of an elephant head, hence the name. About 98% of Antarctica is covered by the ice sheet. This was my opportunity to experience the land in Antarctica.

A fossil – Poof that life was there on Antarctica. Antarctica used to be part of the supercontinent Gondwana where scientists have proof life was on this continent

Day 4: Cross-country ski the white desert in Antarctica. The total distance was about 10km. Because the surrounding is so white there is no contrast to see the surface topography. You don’t realize you came to snow hill until you feel the extra resistance. This wasn’t something I had experienced before and was very surprising to me.

Day 5: Union Glacier and Drake Icefall. Union Glacier is a large, heavily crevassed glacier that receives the flow of several tributaries and drains through the middle of the Heritage Range, Ellsworth Mountains, Antarctica. The glacier drains from the plateau at Edson Hills on the west side of the range and flows east between Pioneer Heights and Enterprise Hills.

Day 5/Day 6 (End): – Returning back to Punta Arenas, Chile from Antarctica
Weather instruments that provide weather data to the pilot.

The plane that came to takes us back home
Goodbye Antarctica

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