Happy Centennial, folks! Modulo the +20h time shift, today is the 100th anniversary of when Roald Amundsen, leading Olav Bjaaland, Helmer Hanssen, Sverre Hassel and Oscar Wisting became the first people to ever stand at the geographic South Pole of the planet. It was the proverbial “Last Place on Earth”, a featureless geographical point – a concept, really – with nothing in particular to distinguish it from any other spot on that 2000-mile ice sheet of the polar plateau. The only way you could tell you were there was that, if you measured carefully enough, you’d discover that the apparent motion of the sun and stars formed a perfect circle above you, with no dip toward the horizon in any direction. And still, it was a place that captured the imagination of the world, a place where a flag needed to be planted.
Okay, honestly? It wasn’t the “Last Place on Earth” – there were plenty of other, more remarkable spots that remained untouched. It would be 42 years before Hillary and Norgay planted a flag on the summit of Everest (what is it about humans and our flags?), but Antarctica was special for many people. It was a continent, an entire continent the size of western Europe, and except for some tiny bits around the edges, no one had any idea what was there. Only 50 years earlier, at the height of the age of steam, we weren’t even sure there was a continent down there. Really. Modern era and all, and the bottom of the map was all “Here be dragons”. Really, really cold dragons.
Anyhow. National pride and all, Scott, Shackleton, Amundsen and the rest all took turns moving their respective flags around the continent, “discovering” new territory and reporting back for God and Country. Everyone has their favorite – Scott the grandiloquent poet, Shackleton the unflappable seaman, Amundsen the coolly efficient engineer. Popular sentiment has come down lately looking at Scott as a glory-seeking bumbler, mostly due to Huntford’s book (as one of Kim Stanley Robinson’s characters observes in “Antarctica”: “It’s a good book in some ways, but it really should have been called ‘Scott was an idiot’; it’s a five-hundred page list of stupidities. But a lot of them are crazy“).
Anyhow. A hundred years ago, Amundsen made it. Stayed for three days, then headed home, leaving a flag, a tent with some supplies, and a note for Scott, asking him to relay a letter with their news in the event that the Norwegians didn’t make it back. They did, of course, ahead of schedule and having put on weight during the trip, while Scott’s party, in a twist of fate, ran out of food and will to live just 11 miles short of their resupply depot.
Today, tourists and politicians from all over the world have converged on the tactfully-named Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station, a space-age wonder of a place at the bottom of the planet. My Polie friends down there – Bill, Elissa, Daniel, Kiell, all the rest – are putting up with the temporary international invasion of TV cameras and celebrities. Probably having some fun with it too; Polies always seem to know how to have fun with whatever man or nature throws their way. Then tomorrow, it’ll all return to normal. Folks will get up for their 10-hour shifts shoveling snow, washing dishes, poking at scientific instruments and pushing papers. Just another day, in just another high-tech office building. On the bottom of the planet, in the last place on Earth.