Do you have an interesting story that you’d like to tell around Parachutist’s virtual bonfire? USPA members may email true stories of noteworthy jumps to firstname.lastname@example.org. Pieces should be 300 to 700 words in length and may be accompanied by one or two photos.
In 1991, I made the first tandem jump at the North Pole. Because that year marked the initial availability of the Russian GLONASS navigation system (The U.S. GPS system would not become operational until 1992), we were also able to prove that we were the first expedition to reach the exact geographic North Pole. This is because the North Pole is located on a floating island of ice over 13,500 feet of water. Since that ice often moves at up to 10 km a day, no permanent surveyed marker exists at the surface (although the Russians now have one tethered to the sea bottom).
After my fourth jump at the North Pole in 1997 (I made six in all), I decided I really needed to collect the complete set and make a jump at the South Pole. However, the South Pole is a very different animal. Instead of being at sea level, it sits on top of an 8,000-foot-thick glacier resting on about 1,000 feet of solid rock. And although there is a large U.S. base right there, the South Pole is considerably harder and much more expensive to get to. While Russia has several military bases with runways in Northern Siberia and the New Siberian Islands, some within just 650 miles of the North Pole, the South Pole is 2,500 miles from the nearest airport, which is in Chile.
In 1996, a company named Adventure Network International was supplying civilian transportation to Antarctica by a Twin Otter on skis to a glacial blue-ice runway at the Patriot Hills Glacier and the South Pole. I set up a trip with them for January 1997. Six members of my 1996 North Pole expedition decided to beat me to the South Pole and become the first to jump both poles. Tragically, four of the jumpers did not fully understand the high-altitude environment of the South Pole and chose not to use oxygen for the jump. (While the official elevation of the pole is 9,100 feet ASL, the flattening of the atmosphere, due to the earth’s rotation (or more precisely, the lack of it at the pole compared to the equator), yields a density altitude of 13,000 to 14,000 feet. Plus, the extreme cold air limits lung function, making it effectively even higher.) They went up another 8,000 feet above ice level for the jump, meaning they jumped from the equivalent of nearly 25,000 feet without oxygen. Of the six who jumped—four formation skydivers and a tandem pair—three in the FS group died of impact while still holding hands, and the fourth was literally pulled out of the formation by his AAD and lived. The tandem pair (who used oxygen in the plane) landed safely. Following this tragedy, my trip—and all skydiving at the South Pole—was cancelled.
After this, I tried on and off for years to get a jump at the South Pole with no luck. Then, a few years ago, a new outfit called Antarctic Logistics and Expeditions decided they would allow jumping at their base at Union Glacier about 500 miles from the South Pole. I had long ago decided that it simply wasn’t worth the trip to Antarctica if I couldn’t jump at the pole. It would kinda be like climbing Mt. Everest and stopping 100 feet from the summit. But at 72, I wasn’t getting any younger, and a jump at Union Glacier would at least give me a jump on all seven continents plus the North Pole, something very few people have accomplished. And even if I couldn’t jump at the pole, I could at least travel there in a Twin Otter on skis and officially become “bipolar” (something people have accused me of for years, anyway). So, I named my quest the Global Skydiving Challenge and decided to get ’er done.
ALE made travel to Antarctica almost luxurious. After 4 days of weather delays at ALE’s facilities in Punta Arenas, Chile, my wife, Terri, and I boarded a Russian IL-76 with actual airline seats for a five-hour flight over the Southern Ocean to their base near the natural blue-ice runway on Union Glacier. There are no paved runways on Antarctica simply because it never gets warm enough to pour them. Luckily, Mother Nature has sculpted out several flat blue-ice runways where fierce catabatic winds (look it up) flow down through mountain ranges.
We arrived at Union Glacier on what I was told was a fairly nice summer day: 24 degrees Fahrenheit below zero. ALE’s base at UG is absolutely amazing, especially considering that it is torn down and re-assembled every year after being used only for 12 weeks. It consists of 36 guest tents, 72 staff tents, a large (thankfully heated) mess tent and a rec tent (perfect for a repack). It also includes a weather station, toilet facilities (unheated) and—believe it or not—a small building where you melt a bucket of snow for a shower. Most importantly, they have two Twin Otters and a Basler turbine DC-3. Normal people use this as a base for side trips to the coast to play with the penguins, climb Mt. Vincent (the highest peak on Antarctica), run a marathon or visit the South Pole. Now, the rest of us get to skydive.
With 30-knot turbulent winds coming over the mountains, the weatherman said we probably wouldn’t be able jump for a few days, so Terri and I decided to hop the next flight down to the South Pole to get that part of the trip accomplished. We boarded the Twin Otter for the five-hour trip with two pilots and four other adventurers—a full load, because we were required to carry food, water and shelter for three weeks in case we were forced down on the way.
Twin Otters can’t carry enough fuel to make the round trip, so halfway down to the pole, ALE set up a refueling base at Thiel Corners. There, we found a small outhouse and about 100 55-gallon drums of Jet-A that had been tractor-sledded 250 miles from Union Glacier at about 3 mph. One of the pilots said that with transportation costs, this fuel was worth more than $500 a gallon (explaining the $26,000 per-person cost of the round trip from Union Glacier to the pole).
When we arrived at the pole, the sky was a perfectly clear, indigo blue, with light winds and about 300-mile visibility (no water vapor or dust). It was the most perfect jumping weather I would see on the trip (except for the -34 F temperature on the ground and -60 F at altitude), and I didn’t have a parachute! The frustration was almost worth it because the place was so unique, and the flight over 500 miles of continuous glacier was an unbelievable experience.
Because a blizzard was coming and we were going to be snowed in for a couple of days, we quickly got the required pictures at both the ceremonial South Pole out in front of the U.S. base and the actual South Pole that was 100 yards away. (The base, then 10 years old, had moved 10 yards a year on the glacier it’s built on. This was the third U.S. base built there; the other two have long since been swallowed up by layers of snow. The new one is very large, built with an aerodynamic shape and on elevator stilts to stop it from being swallowed, too.)
With only 12 guest tents, the ALE camp (nicknamed “The World’s Southernmost Resort”) near the U.S. base was much smaller than the ALE camp at Union Glacier, but—believe it or not—had first-class food and wine. For people over 65, the trip to the South Pole is normally limited to a just a few hours to prevent altitude sickness. However, a blizzard set in just a few hours after our arrival, so we were stuck there for a couple of days. (I wasn’t too worried, because just a few years before I had spent nearly a week sleeping above 14,000 feet while on an expedition to jump next to Mt. Everest.)
When we finally returned to Union Glacier, we had only a few hours of good weather before another storm blew up, quickly blowing away 13 (luckily unoccupied) tents. Reportedly, normal December weather was blue skies, light winds and less than an inch of snow, but we had had three blizzards with nearly two feet of snow. (Global warming?) As it turned out, the weather would only get jumpable for three hours on Christmas Day before the first IL-76 flight able to make it in would arrive. We had all planned to be home for Christmas, but then again, we would have a great story about being snowed in in Antarctica!
We made two jumps on Christmas Day. Freefall cameraflyer P.H. (Paul Henry de Baere) went with instructor Tom Noonan and his tandem student, Jim Wiggins, on the first jump, and with me on the second. There was also a fifth jumper, an Australian wingsuiter named Glen Singleman, whom ALE hired as camp doctor and jumpmaster on our jumps.
On the second jump, 15 seconds after we left the Otter, a cloud layer instantly formed below us. This was slightly disconcerting because there were 3,500-foot-high mountains right next to the DZ, which I could no longer see, and I couldn’t tell at what altitude or how thick the clouds were. Luckily, the cloud layer was thin. I popped through at around five grand, and it was clear below. Even though the wind chill in freefall was 100 below zero, I never got a bit cold. Adrenaline is a wonderful thing when used correctly. Within 30 minutes of the second load landing, it was snowing again.
The ALE crew always spends Christmas in camp, so they were ready. All of a sudden, they broke out dozens of costumes (everything from penguins to the pope and—of course—Santa), and we were off on a Christmas parade, singing carols with hot toddies in our hands. All in all, perhaps the best Christmas of my life.
Right after the parade, we packed up all our personal stuff and headed off to the blue-ice runway to watch the return of the IL-76. One rather unpleasant passenger sloshing around on the way back was all the pee and poop the camp had generated since the last flight. It never gets above zero on Union Glacier, so nothing bio-degrades and therefore must be taken back to Chili.
Last year, ALE bought two United Parachute Technologies Sigma tandem rigs (my longest sales trip ever had actually paid off), brought down two tandem instructors and freefall photographers and offered extremely expensive tandem jumps to their guests at UG.
Still, no South Pole jumps were allowed. Maybe next year…
Jumping will be available at the Antarctic Logistics and Expeditions trip to Union Glacier from December 26, 2020 to January 3, 2021. So, start saving your pennies (or find a really rich tandem passenger to pay your way). More information is available at antarctic-logistics.com
Bill Booth | D-3546, Founder and CEO, United Parachute Technologies