Our man in Antarctica

January 17 1912: Captain Robert Falcon Scott arrived to plant the Union Jack at the South Pole. “Great God,” he famously wrote in his diary, “this is an awful place.” The temperature was -30C; but for Scott it was not just the weather that was bitter.

The previous day he had realised that the Norwegian party led by Roald Amundsen had got there first. He and his four companions photographed themselves, looking hollow-eyed and defeated, then marked the occasion with stew, probably involving seal meat, plus “a small stick of chocolate, and the queer taste of a cigarette”. They would be dead within weeks.

January 17 2012: About 100 people gathered at the same spot to commemorate the centenary.

The occasion was nothing like as grand as the celebration of Amundsen’s achievement the previous month, when the Norwegian prime minister theatrically skied in. Wary of both global grandstanding and association with failure, David Cameron chose not to be represented at all. The ceremony was arranged by the Americans, who run the huge Amundsen-Scott polar base and fly the stars-and-stripes at the Pole itself, though they have no obvious right to do so.

For this day only, Britain’s flag was allowed to flutter alongside. There were five speeches, not all of them immediately relevant, but the British adventurer Henry Worsley found a touch of soaring eloquence when he paid tribute to the dead: “Their footsteps have long since disappeared but they echo through eternity.”

And at least all the speakers kept it brief. The applause was muffled because the audience were heavily gloved: it was -28C, only a fraction warmer than for Scott’s arrival. And everyone shifted quickly back inside: the Americans into their new hermetically sealed station nearby; the visitors to the encampment a mile north (everything being north from here). In our cosy dining tent we drank Chilean champagne, which was perhaps a mistake, since the Pole is 11,000ft high and in that atmosphere you get more fizz than drink.

It would be nice to believe that we were toasting our forefathers whose suffering made our own visit possible. But I think we were more wrapped up in what we had done. Some had good reason: Worsley, his face badly frost-bitten, had just yomped 920 miles with a single companion along the Amundsen route from Bay of Whales. Others had skied “the last degree”, the 69 miles from 89 degrees south to the Pole, including Wendy Booker, a 55-year-old Boston mother-of-three who has had multiple sclerosis for 15 years. (A few hours later Grant Korgan from Nevada, paralysed by an accident in 2010, would achieve the same feat.)

Some of us had flown to the Pole and then trekked for a few minutes across the frozen wastes from the visitor centre. And very nippy it was too.

Yes, the tourists have arrived. The Antarctic no longer belongs just to the would-be heroes. Me, I don’t ski; I don’t climb ladders, never mind mountains. And, frankly, I don’t care for the cold. But I got here. It may not have been a very heroic endeavour but it was still the culmination of one of the most intense weeks of my life. And I felt pretty chuffed.

I stood in front of the commemorative sign wearing my souvenir-of-the-Faroe-Islands bobble hat and the balaclava that Auntie Jessie knitted. And, since such a moment should always be marked with a personal show of eccentricity, I had a quick read of a slightly out-of-date copy of the FT; shared a bowl of cherries, which had acquired an intriguingly glacé quality; and then went off to umpire one of history’s sillier (and certainly most southerly) cricket matches. None of us tried to match the skier, famous in Antarctic circles, who celebrated reaching the Pole by stripping to her bra and pants. We have, nonetheless, moved on a long way from Titus Oates walking to his doom in a blizzard.

The idea of polar tourism dates back at least to a cruise into Arctic waters in 1875. But the Antarctic was, and remains, far more inaccessible. And the combination of Amundsen’s efficient success and the grotesque travails of the Scott party discouraged imitators. The glory had been gained, and the place did not sound much fun. But the legend never lost its hold on the global imagination. In 1956, the US established its first, primitive, polar base. In 1958, a Commonwealth expedition, led by Sir Edmund Hillary and Sir Vivian Fuchs, reached the Pole overland using tractors, and a new era began.

In 1968, the first British tourists were led ashore by the naturalist Sir Peter Scott, son of the captain. They landed on the Antarctic Peninsula, 1,500 miles from the Pole, reachable enough for small ships from South America (if you can tolerate the stormy seas round Cape Horn), and the home of seals, penguins and occasional tufts of grass – kindergarten stuff for the true Polie. There is some splendid newsreel footage of those anorak-clad pioneers, elderly but doughty, stepping gingerly on to the rocks. “It’s difficult not to feel a hint of regret,” said the commentator.

Seaborne trips remain the staple of Antarctic tourism, which makes sense. The summertime climate round the peninsula is bracing but bearable, and that’s where all the wildlife interest is. There’s nothing in the forbidding interior except lichen – though a skua, most gluttonous of seabirds, once made it to the Pole, being either very confused or obsessed by a sniff of hamburger. Not much scope for a six-part David Attenborough series there. There was no chance of the continent being overrun by the hordes until the mid-1980s. The breakthrough came when Charles Swithinbank, a British glaciologist and perhaps the most famous of living Antarcticans, came up with the thought that if the ice is thick enough, it could provide a runway as solid as the concrete of Heathrow or JFK.

The idea was picked up and developed by Adventure Network International (ANI), which dominates this market. So through the short but hectic Antarctic summer, from November to January, ANI flies tourists to its base camp at Union Glacier on an elderly, windowless but sturdy Ilyushin with Kazakh markings – and then on to smaller ski-planes going to some of the world’s most remote fastnesses: Mount Vinson, the highest mountain on the continent; Hercules Inlet, the starting point for some of the most daunting treks; the 89th degree; and the Pole itself.

Adventurers high five as they celebrate their Antarctic trip

A month ago, most of these names meant as little to me as they may do to you. On a map, Antarctica usually vanishes off the bottom; on a globe it is pierced by the stick. In quiet moments at Union Glacier, I became infatuated with the official volume, Geographic Names of the Antarctic, which ranges from Aagaard Glacier to Zykov Island via Coldblow Col and Cape Confusion; the Executive Committee Range and Exasperation Inlet (near Cape Disappointment); Frostbite Spine and Frustration Dome; and Roaring Ridge and Robbery Beaches. This scholarly work appears to be definitive, although it does not include the famous pair of peninsula mountains known as Una’s Tits.

Blokeish humour has traditionally suffused Antarctic life: no woman reached the Pole until 1969. And interior tourism of all kinds remained a rarity. Liesl Schernthanner, now the communications supervisor at the Amundsen-Scott station, was first there in the mid-1990s: “We used to get the odd rogue adventurer, very tough, usually Norwegian. About six a year.”

Now as the southern sun gets lower and the visiting season comes to an end, 2011-2012 is certain to be a record, with about 400 visitors to the Pole, and the gift shop pretty much cleaned out of its (rather feeble) range of stock. Is this the end of the untouched wilderness? Is my small footprint the harbinger of sports bars, Burger Kings and kiss-me-quick fur hats?

Perhaps not. The twin centenary celebrations make 2011-2012 an obvious peak, and 400 visitors a year is hardly an invasion. In a world with little to shout about, Antarctica is a remarkable success story for sustainable management and international co-operation. It is governed by the Antarctic Treaty, signed in 1961, which pledged that the continent “shall be used for peaceful purposes only”. And, with the odd blurry edge, that is exactly what has happened, reinforced in 1991 by a ban on mining.

Of course, if a major power or multinational got wind of a vital resource that was economically extractable, the treaty would not last five minutes. But there is no sign of that. And in the meantime Antarctica is undoubtedly the best-run continent on earth. “There is governance but no government,” as one polar expert put it, an arrangement that doesn’t work in theory, but does in practice. Under the treaty, the ludicrous claims made by various countries to huge wodges of the continent have been frozen, figuratively as well as literally, though they still exist notionally: in 1978 Argentina persuaded a station commander’s wife to reinforce its position by staying there to give birth to the first native Antarctican; flying south from Chile, no one asked for my passport because official policy insisted I was not leaving the country; and Britain, rather sweetly, maintains a post office.

Celebrating with Chilean fizz in a cosy dining tent at Union Glacier

But among the small community, mainly comprising officials and scientists, that concerns itself with Antarctican affairs, tourism is always a worry. Safety is one consideration: 257 people died on a sightseeing jolly when an Air New Zealand plane crashed into Mount Erebus in 1979; and in an event seared into the folk-memory of both ANI and the polar station, three experienced skydivers were killed at the South Pole in 1997. “We are concerned that we do not become the chief search and rescue facility for the Antarctic,” said Bill Coughran, the current head of station.

ANI worries all the time that its clients’ reach might exceed their grasp. Mountaineering used to be the preserve of a zealot-elite; now hundreds of people have climbed the Seven Summits – the highest peaks in all the continents. One might think the Last Degree would be the culmination of a lifetime of skiing. I asked one young aspirant when he had first tried the sport. “Yesterday,” he replied.

But in the old days the highest peaks were climbed only by testosterone-filled blokes inclined to push their luck; now these trips are run by experienced guides armed with a duty of care. The Last Degree takes skiers down a beaten track; participants have GPS and satphones. There are no landmarks on the high plateau that leads to the Pole. The main dangers seem to be altitude sickness and boredom. “Miles of nothingness is a novelty for a couple of days, but it does wear off,” said one skier. One man who traversed half the continent called it “just a very long, very cold camping trip”.

Yet dangers lurk everywhere here. On my last night at Union Glacier, two ANI staffers went out in a snowplough and fell down a deep crevasse; they miraculously escaped with minor injuries. Every holiday destination has its drawbacks: Rome has pickpockets; Australia has snakes. Here there are crevasses, traps even for the wary. “We think we can cover almost every eventuality,” says Peter McDowell, one of ANI’s owners. “The one thing we can never cover is natural conditions. It’s a vast place, an unforgiving place and it can bite you on the bum.”

ANI charges its customers a basic $42,950 for the fly-to-Pole trip (and more to adventurers, who need extra flights and specialist back-up). That is a sum that would buy weeks of luxury and servility anywhere else in the world. Here it buys neither. “This is one branch of the travel business where the customer is not always right,” says McDowell.

That message came over loud and clear even at the starting point: Punta Arenas, a town of chill winds and faded charm on the tip of Chile. Flying conditions from there south are very fickle. The old military maxim of “Hurry up and wait” applies. I spent all afternoon in my hotel room waiting for a call before, at 7.20, being told to be downstairs, ready, bags packed, checked out, in full polar gear, by 7.45. “What time’s the flight?” I asked languidly. “Irrelevant!” came the reply.

The Ilyushin trip was half like an away game with the school football team, half a Soviet army mission to invade somewhere small and rebellious (which I suspect is what this plane used to do). Surrounded by Seven-summiteers and similar types, I felt desperately weedy. And that feeling never went away.

The Treaty countries are also deeply concerned about tourism’s effect on the environment. No academic study I have seen supports the view that tourism should be banned. Charles Swithinbank, who first came to the Antarctic in 1950 and made his umpteenth polar visit, aged 85, last month, is very clear: “It’s fine as long as they don’t litter the place. When ship tourism began all the purists said ‘There’ll be beer cans all over the place.’ What’s saved us from that is that the tour companies are selling a pristine continent and they make very sure you don’t leave litter. It wouldn’t be in their interests.”

Matthew Engel eats cherries upon arriving at the world’s most southerly point

Indeed, ANI counters any criticism by being holier than anyone else. As the winter darkness approaches, almost the entire camp is dismantled; a stray tissue paper is cause for reproach. And though I hate to discuss it, every particle of my waste was flown back to Chile. Customers must unlearn their basic potty training so poo and pee can be separated for easy disposal. One scientist told me that none of the official bases match this.

When not thinking about toilets, customers fret about communications. Even the US polar station has the internet for less than 12 hours a day (a Nasa official once said it was easier to get through to the moon). At Union Glacier there are only satphone connections and emergency email. And, if the weather turns nasty, there is no way out. Clients are warned in advance to allow for the possibility of being stranded for a month. A year ago, people were stuck for a fortnight when flying conditions were ideal, because there was a general strike in Punta Arenas. That was a busy time for “Doc Martin”, the chief medical officer, Martin Rhodes.

“A lot of our clients are business leaders. And during the strike some of them were going bonkers,” he said. “In the rest of the world they have enough money to make things happen. And that doesn’t work in Antarctica. Quite regularly, we see clients who have serious psychological problems and it’s usually aggression. They can’t cope with waiting, not being in control.”

Not everyone likes the egalitarianism of the operation. One Russian complained about having to eat at the same table as the staff. Indeed if anything, the workers have privileges denied to clients, including access to the primitive showers. “They’re here longer than you,” I was told. They are accomplished, impressive and loyal, coming back year after year, often working in the Arctic between whiles. “I’m not an employer, I’m a drug dealer,” said McDowell. “Look out there. It’s the white powder. It’s completely addictive.”

For everyone, the tents are literally freezing, especially when the polar wind whips up. But the sleeping bags are toasty. And the food is fantastic. I read somewhere in advance that everyone loses weight in Antarctica. Not me. The Scott party suffered from scurvy; here the danger was obesity. I have never known a happier, more congenial, restaurant than the Union Glacier dining tent.

For several days, that was the focus: there was nowhere else to go. The continent was shrouded in low cloud, rendering flying impossible. Even short trips out of the camp seemed uninviting. There was a risk we would not make the Pole in time for the centenary. Like any closed community, Union Glacier became a place of rumours. The mood grew edgy.

Suddenly there was a break in the weather, a brief one, but enough to get a small aircraft up for the short trip to Mount Vinson and despatch the mountaineers. I was invited along for the ride. The Vinson massif rises from a horseshoe-shaped valley and when we touched down, there was no wind; there was fresh-fallen snow which had a dessert-like quality (Meringue? Baked Alaska?); and the sky was a blue I had never seen before, way beyond Alpine: a product of the unique Antarctican air: its clarity, its coldness, its dryness and its altitude. It felt like Shangri-La. And at that moment I understood what the fuss was about.

We got to the Pole just in time: 5pm on January 16. The centenary ceremony was scheduled for 2am the next morning. Correct: 2am. This supposedly equated to the exact moment Scott arrived. And anyway, the American organisers did not think it was 2am. The polar year consists of a single day: the sun rises in September and sets in March (and vice versa in the north). So time is an artificial construct, designed to maintain human biorhythms in an inhuman environment. The US base works on New Zealand time because it is supplied from there; ANI operates on Chilean time for the same reason. There was thus between us and them a 16-hour time difference: to them it was 6pm and they had just finished work. Whatever: it was still daylight.

There are other curiosities. There is no single South Pole, there are seven: the geographic pole, which is this one; the nearby ceremonial pole, where the 12 original treaty nations all fly their flags; the magnetic pole (which shifts, and is now under the ocean); the geomagnetic pole; the tectonic pole; the pole of relative inaccessibility; and the cold pole. The geographic pole – THE Pole – appears to be moving, but this is an illusion. The ice is heading westwards at a rate of five metres a year, so everything around the Pole is moving, including the US base – and the pole marking the Pole. Since the Pole is actually below the ice, it remains where it is. Thus a new marker has to be created every year.

I was only at the Pole for 16 hours – notionally 5pm to 9am. But I was wide-eyed the whole time, partly because I kept hearing the barely credible. Before the ceremony the Americans arranged a “mixer” with their scientists (which was nice, though a cup of coffee would have been welcome – we had come a long way). Most of the work done here is not polar as such: it is just that the atmospheric conditions are more conducive to precision than at Caltech or Chicago. One earnest young man, working on the Keck Array radio telescopes, was trying to explain the research he was doing on stars 13bn light years away, close to the beginnings of time. I was a little lost: “And so?” “You sound like my grandmother,” he replied.

Then I spoke to one of the biologists, Heather Moe, who told me about Christmas Day 2011, the hottest day in recorded South Pole history: - 12.3C, almost + 10 Fahrenheit. The long-term significance of this is unclear. But there was also an inch of snow. This time “And so?” produced a different answer. “Just to see snowfall is exciting for us,” explained Moe. “It doesn’t fall here because the air is so dry. All the snow is normally blown in from elsewhere.” Whereupon it fails to melt. This, in short, is a desert: the South Pole gets as much sunshine as Tampa, Florida, and twice as much as London. It’s just not very warm sunshine. And often less snowfall than London too. Who knew?

Some laundry takes in the Antarctic air at the base camp

Scott was right: this is an awful place. These days, it is not just flat, cold and bleak: much of it is off-limits to minimise human impact on the science, so wandering is discouraged. And the Americans have applied their customary aesthetic standards. The belching smoke gives the Pole the feel of a Siberian mining town; and the back of the base could be a builders’ yard in Minneapolis. There is some embarrassment about this. “We have a five-year programme to improve things,” explained Bill Coughran, “but removal is very complicated and expensive.”

The American polar explorer Richard Byrd said: “This is the way the world will look when the last man dies.” If that is true, we will probably all have been poisoned.

We were given a partial tour of the station – an ugly modern building that replaced the old dome, which was handsome but impractical. One can begrudge the inmates nothing, especially the overwinterers, who will endure the six months of darkness effectively locked in. Even when a woman had a stroke last year, the US refused to evacuate her. Take-off becomes dangerous below about -54C, explained a pilot; and -60C is normal in midwinter.

It is like being shown around a Scandinavian prison. We saw the library, handicraft room, basketball court and hydroponic greenhouse, where Jon Rask is proud of his Swiss chard and cherry tomatoes; the winter team get a weekly salad. And signs suggest the mild desperation of comfortable imprisonment: the South Pole barn dance (“making polka cool since 2012”); South Pole chess tournament (“Who’s the King?”); Cha-Cha-Cha lessons; Tuesday night yoga…

Adventurers played the world’s most southerly game of cricket

I am thrilled to have been there, but feel no compelling urge to return. The 15 hours scores well in the annals of polar travel; most fly-ins are in and out in four. The whole point, as it was for Scott and Amundsen, is the getting there. Many of my companions had been infatuated with the place for years. “I feel so normal here,” said Melissa McLachlan, an Australian IT consultant. “In Sydney I’m the only person obsessed with the South Pole.”

But it also leads on to other quests. The North Pole is doable, although that is in the ocean: flights are more or less restricted to April, when daylight has returned but the ice is still hard; the overland journey is challenging, with polar bear attack an occasional extra; and the operation is under Russian control, so living conditions are very basic.

Are these the last frontiers for tourism? Not necessarily. Mike McDowell, brother of Peter and another of ANI’s five owners, claims to be one of only six people to have really visited the North Pole: he went down in a submersible to the seabed. He also runs companies that can take you down to the Titanic and the Bismarck or up into orbit, which seven clients have done already (cost: $50m). Coming soon: an orbit round the moon in conjunction with the Russians (projected cost: $130m). What next? Life on Mars? Breakfast on Pluto? Will I ever summon the courage to ask him for a journalist’s freebie?

For now, I am content with my small achievement. I may have felt a wimp amid all the adventurers but I have now reported from seven continents, which is a rare feat if you’re not trying. And people at home seem impressed: I have already received my first invitation to give a lecture – Ernest Shackleton made a living touring town halls. I would like to honour Scott more fulsomely and thoughtfully than was possible in those manic 15 hours. He was a fascinating, complex character. Henry Worsley thinks he died not so much of cold or starvation, but of a broken heart.

And even with ANI’s care, I was often bloody cold and sometimes nervous. Olaf Bjaaland, one of Amundsen’s party, lived on long enough to meet Sir Vivian Fuchs. He was appalled by Fuchs’s use of mechanised transport. Now, ANI are talking of upgrading conditions for their most pamperable clients: heated tents, maybe; or some form of en suite. It’s easy enough to build igloos: there could be an ice hotel, as in Sweden. Then it would be my turn to think of future visitors as wimps. Polar exploration should not be too cushy. I strove, sought, found and refused to yield – well, a bit anyway. I expect everyone else to do the same. Great God, this is still an amazing journey.

Matthew Engel travelled to the South Pole as a guest of Adventure Network International (www.adventure-network.com) which specialises in guided adventures in the interior of Antarctica. Its seven-day South Pole Flight experiences in December 2012 and January 2013 cost $42,950 per person, including return flights from Punta Arenas to Union Glacier, and from Union Glacier to the South Pole, as well as guides, accommodation and all meals while on the ice.

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