Antarctica -the year before

The whole thing started about a year before the trip itself. Travelling to the South Pole is expensive. Very expensive. (Ok, since everyone can look it up on the web anyway, let's talk numbers for a moment. Starting from southern Chile, the trip to the Pole costs $33500. If you add the cost of getting to Chile (and back), staying there for a while, travel insurance, cost of equipment and lots of other minor cost factors, the trip ends up costing about $38000. More, if you add a couple of days in Chile afterwards.)

I have a normal office job. I simply don't own the kind of money to afford a trip like this. So it always was just a dream. I kept looking at the ANI web site for years (also got very depressed when they cancelled the while 2003/2004 season and it seemed there might never be another commercial trip to the interior of Antarctica again), but that's just like people looking longingly through the windows of Ferrari showrooms. Completely different world. Forever out of my league. Now, if I ever won the lottery...

Not being able to afford it, also made it a safe 'ultimate' destination. I have done some slightly 'unusual' trips in the past and co-workers have been asking me about what would be the 'ultimate' destination for me. I used to answer 'South Pole', since it was exotic, unusual, a place where few others would even want to go, and I knew I wouldn't ever get there, so there would be no need to ever think again about an answer to the question.

I didn't win the lottery.

But something else happened. My grandmother's sister died in 2004 (aged 92) and left me (fairly unexpectedly) about $35000.

Which essentially meant that I had the means to go to the South Pole.

But while I had been saying in the past that going to the South Pole would be my ultimate vacation, it is also a significant amount of money and I wasn't quite sure whether I should throw all that money at a single vacation. I could have saved it for old age (something my bank, not surprisingly, recommended). Move to a bigger apartment and pay the difference in rent for quite some time with that money. Live out a midlife-crisis and buy a small used roadster. Give the money to charity. Buy techno-toys. Burn it in a big fireworks show. Take a year off from work and live a life of leisure. Play the stock market. Live a life of sex, drugs and rock'n'roll for a while. Or have four big vacations instead of the ultimate vacation. Or do something sensible with the money.

So between Christmas and New Year 2004, I sat down and thought about what to do. Given that the title of this is "Antarctica - the year before", it's not hard to figure out the result.

So my New Year's Resolution was: Go to the South Pole.

So a lot of my spare time in January and February was spent trying to figure out what had to be done. Should I deal directly with ANI (who are the tour operators for the South Pole trip)? Should I use a German travel agency specialised on this kind of trips? Should I use my usual travel agency, which had never done that kind of thing before, but are quite good at dealing with odd requests and were very useful in organizing the Australia / New Zealand trip? (I did choose the last option, btw.) What kind of health and travel insurances would I need? What paperwork? What equipment? Where to get that equipment?

But that's all sort of fun and part of the joy of travelling.

What really scared me was the medical form. The forms included a certificate to be filled out by my doctor to certify that I would be fit for Antarctic travel and reasonably unlikely to have any medical problems being there. Problem was that I didn't have a doctor. I consider myself not at all fit, but fairly robust. Didn't have any illness in the last twenty years. Hadn't been to the doctor in twenty years. So I was getting slightly nervous about this. How to find a doctor to certify that I was healthy? What might he find if he looked closely?

So I decided to look for a doctor that usually does 'flight fitness tests' (or whatever the term is) for pilots. First of all, he'd be used to writing certificates. He'd be able to deal with filling forms in English. He'd know a lot about altitude related problems (which seemed more or less the main risk in travelling to the South Pole). And he'd be more specialized in check-up than in actual treatment.

To make it short: He didn't find anything serious. (Phew.) But there were three points that kept him from signing the certificate right then. I was overweight. My ergometer values were bad. My blood pressure was to high. None of this really surprised me. I like to live (and eat) well. I don't do sports. And my job isn't quite as stress-free as it sounds.

So, while not stated outright, the deal was this: I still had about ten months time. I was going to lose weight, work out regularly and take blood-pressure reducing medicine. If I got down to normal weight and was fit by November, I would get my certificate.

I was going to hate the year.

Losing weight wasn't as bad as I thought. Never went on a diet before (never had a reason to), so I didn't know what to expect. Since this was kind of a long term strategy, I didn't bother about diets at all, knowing that I wouldn't be able to follow it for a whole year. So I decided on the easiest method: Eat less. My whole plan boiled down to: Have a normal meal at noon (no restrictions on that at all). That's it. No breakfast. Nothing in the evening. Switch during the weekends: Have only breakfast and a full meal in the evening. Nothing at noon.

It's simplistic, but it did work for me. Probably better than any planned diet would have done. Lost about 40 pounds in half a year. Stayed at that level for the rest of the year (by eating an additional meal when I got under a specific threshold). But I think the main reason why this worked was that I really, really, really wanted to go to the South Pole. And if I had to go through this to get there, then I would. I'm fairly sure I won't hold that weight, now that I'm back from the South Pole. The motivation is gone and just 'being slim' is no match for 'eating well'.

What I seriously disliked was going on an exercise bike for half an hour every day. Not only did it take away half an hour of my spare time, it was also boring and hard to do. At the beginning, I was hoping that it would get easier over time, as I was getting accustomed to it, but it didn't. (Main reason for this is the fact that you measure heartbeat and keep that above a certain level, so even if you should improve and get fitter, you need to work harder again to get the heartbeat up. So it's like Sisyphus work.)

I kept going and was quite serious about doing it every day (it's one thing to get home from work and do half an hour on the bike, but it's much harder to get back from a party at 2 am and *then* get on the bike for half an hour before finally going to bed), but I hated it a lot and I'm fairly glad that it's over now.

Forwarding to November.

Lost weight. Did my exercises. Took my blood pressure pills. Went to the doctor. Got my certificate signed.

E-mailed ANI and asked what to do with it.

Got an e-mail back, telling me to ignore it. I had an old set of forms, which they weren't using anymore. The medical self-evaluation sheet that I had filled back in February (which basically asked: "Are you aware of any medical problems that may cause problems?") was sufficient. Nobody ever wanted to see the piece of paper I had worked so hard for.

Still. Better fit and in shape for the medical check-up before the trip in Punta Arenas. Would have been annoying to go there, have my blood pressure measured, being told "With this blood pressure, we can't let you go to the Pole. Much too dangerous. Trip cancelled. Nice knowing you." So at least I would be reasonably prepared for that. Which also never happened. Nobody ever checked. Or asked. So essentially, all the stuff I've done in the last year was for nothing. (Except probably being "good for me" in some unspecified medical sense. But for the intended goal, it was a waste of time.)

It later turned out that most of my worries (and I worried a lot about "not going to make it" in some way during that year) were pointless. I talked to the doctor at Patriot Hills (who, by the way, is an incredibly cool guy) and he said that his main problem would be people who try to hide any illnesses because they are afraid that they would not be allowed on the trip of their choice. According to him, there are very few medical conditions that would keep someone from going to the Pole. And ANI would try to make it happen, if at all possible. Their job is to get customers to the Pole, not to keep them away. So all my sleepless nights were wasted...

Anyway, I made it through the year and I got to the South Pole. And while I could have a slightly more comfortable year, I didn't really 'suffer' in any meaningful way, so I don't want to whine any more about it.

So all's well that ends well.

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