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On December 11, the 1989-90 Trans-Antarctica Expedition arrived at the South Pole – the halfway mark of the first-ever un-mechanized crossing of the Antarctic continent. Today is the 25th anniversary of that historic and celebrated event. Less known are the events behind the scenes the weeks prior to the expedition’s arrival.
What nearly did the expedition in as they approached the Pole was not the bitter cold, the altitude or the terrain. It was not a weakness in either men or dogs. Rather, it was the foibles of airplanes and the lack of fuel for the Twin Otter re-supplies that would allow the international expedition to continue some two thousand miles past the Pole. It’s a complicated story and one that’s never been told.
Twelve tons was needed as they tackled the next leg - the “area of inaccessibility” - a seven hundred-mile stretch that had never before been crossed. It was my job to find a way to get it to the Pole. But the fuel was not where it was supposed to be and time was running out. Without it, the team would be forced to abort the expedition at the South Pole and fly home on what little fuel we had remaining.
International collaboration on the Trans-Antarctica team had gotten the expedition to this point and demonstrated, as we'd hoped, the power of six men and six countries working toward a common goal. It was a dramatic symbol during an era of significant shifts to the world's political geography... Perestroika, the breaking down of walls. The international cooperation that got them the fuel they needed was quieter but equally dramatic and, for many years, shrouded in mystery due to a pact made by the Soviet and American principles involved - myself included.
As we celebrate this historic anniversary, I cannot help but think back with great affection to those who worked behind the scenes to make Trans-Antarctica's arrival at the Pole a happy occasion twenty-five years ago. The government officials, scientists, environmentalists and adventurers that love this wondrous continent conspire to keep it safe. They have done so for fifty-five years, since the Antarctic Treaty was first signed. They don't always agree and they sometimes do not cooperate. But in December 1989, regardless of their nationality and political position, they saw something valuable to the continent in the success of this audacious adventure and they stuck their necks out to make it happen. It's a great, great story. Thanks to all who made it happen - you know who you are!