BUENOS AIRES, Argentina — This has been the busiest summer in history for Antarctic expeditions, with dozens of skiers reaching the end of the Earth to mark the centennial of man's first journey to the South Pole.
About 20 teams set off from the South American side of the icy continent, and only one is still under way: Australians Justin Jones and James Castrission are attempting to ski to the South Pole and back to their starting point without any help whatsoever.
Alexsander Gamme of Norway was waiting for the Australians at a spot 1 kilometer (less than 1 mile) from the edge of the ice shelf at Hercules Inlet, so they can share the record of becoming the first to ski to the pole and back both unassisted (without kites, motors or now-banned dogs) and unsupported (without caches of supplies along the route). Gamme's team told the ExplorersWeb site on Tuesday that said the three hoped to meet up in several days.
All three men have skied for more than 85 days, traveling much farther than Britain's Felicity Aston, who arrived at Hercules Inlet on Monday. Her 59-day trip across 1,084 miles (1,744 kilometers) made her the first woman to traverse Antarctica alone and on her own power. Aston counted on two supply drops along the way, however, to lighten her two sleds.
"In my opinion they're all notable. This is very difficult to do, all of this, and as a result I don't like to split hairs too much ... It's sort of disrespectful to the effort that people bring to this. There are a lot of difficult logistics out there," said Peter McDowell, who manages the Antarctic Logistics & Expeditions company's operations from Punta Arenas, Chile.
Some of this year's visitors flew directly to the U.S. research station at the South Pole, or were dropped off and then skied in from just one degree of latitude, to join last month's celebration of Roald Amundsen's team from Norway becoming the first to reach the Pole in 1911.
But most others were supported by Antarctic Logistics & Expeditions, which has moved about 500 people around the continent this summer. They included scientific expeditions, record-breaking attempts, high-end tourist trips and government programs sponsored by Argentina, Brazil, Australia, the United States and Britain.
Only 60 people were left Tuesday at a base camp at Union Glacier, most to support planes that are on call to rescue adventurers in case anything goes wrong. All will be off the continent by month's end, McDowell said.
Doing anything at all in Antarctica is very expensive and difficult, involving vast distances, subzero temperatures and unpredictable weather, even during the southern hemisphere summer when the sun never sets. Britain alone has lost 29 lives in Antarctica since the deaths of a five-member team led by R.F. Scott that reached the pole five weeks after Amundsen and succumbed to hunger and exhaustion on their way out. Their bodies weren't found for eight months.
This summer, no skiers died and only eight had to be removed due to illness or injury, McDowell said.
"Modern communications makes a big difference," he said.
Antarctic Logistics & Expeditions list of 2011-2012 trips: http://www.antarctic-logistics.com/news
Follow Michael Warren on Twitter at http://twitter.com/mwarrenap