Do you want to trek in Antarctica, whether ‘conquering’ the South Pole or climbing its biggest mountain, Mount Vinson?
The barren, frozen glaciers and mountains of Antarctica may seem inaccessible and forbidding, but it is surprisingly ‘cheap’ to go ashore on this unique continent.
There are a number of cruise lines that offer trips where you will go ashore and be guided around key sights.
For as ‘little’ as €6,000 you can hike on Antarctica.
An expedition to Antarctica could well take years of preparation and some quite bureaucracy, not to mention decontamination before you even set foot on the icy continent. It can be one of the coldest places on the planet too!
At just over half the height of Mount Everest, Antarctica’s highest peak Mount Vinson at 4,892 metres is a lot harder to visit and climb than the highest mountain on Earth.
Meanwhile doing a trek to the South Pole is no mean feat of preparation either!
From easy and cheap to ridiculously difficult and expensive, let’s have a look at how you too can explore the continent on the bottom of the planet.
Why Visit Antartica?
Expeditions such as those of Ronald Amundsen and Robert Scott have captured the public imagination over the years.
Owned effectively by the United Nations through the Antarctic Treaty System (ATS), Antarctica is one of the last untouched wildernesses on the planet.
Though traditionally only government expeditions were once possible thanks to the sheer resources required to get there, it is now possible to travel to the continent’s interior as a tourist.
This being a trekking blog there are broadly three things you can do within our remit – you can take a cruise line and explore the coast (doing a few walks as you go – not serious trekking), you can climb mountains and do a trip to the Pole.
One of the objectives of the Antarctic Treaty is to leave the environment of the continent in perfect condition for generations to come.
Before we look at how to visit, let’s take a look at the regulations surrounding any such visit regarding protecting the environment.
Leave Nothing Behind
If you are to conform to the Antarctic Treaty you should take nothing unintended to the continent and leave no waste behind.
This is supposed to include bacteria!
Though corporate monsters are lobbying fiercely to try to exploit Antarctica’s natural resources, as long as the Treaty is intact the international law is in place to ensure that it remains a pristine environment.
Tour operators have strict codes of behaviour including boot sterilising before you set foot on the islands or mainland.
If you are running your own expedition, assuming you have prepared the expedition well and are even allowed on a plane you have to sterilise all clothing and equipment you take to Antarctica.
The law requires that you carry all your waste such as food packets, tins and other packaging home with you.
You are not for example allowed to burn your waste after you have used it in an open fire.
Though the Scott Expedition base remains in place from his ill-fated assault on the South Pole, that is more a museum piece – no one else is allowed to just leave their junk behind.
You are not allowed to impact animal or plant life that lives on the continent in an adverse way or cause them to change their behaviour – this might include getting too close to penguin colonies so they run away from you.
It also includes crossing vegetation with sleds or vehicles.
Let’s now look at the cheapest and easiest way of hiking/walking on Antarctica – via cruise line.
If you just want to go for a day’s hiking or two on Antarctica or nearby South Shetland Islands you can do this with a cruise line.
You can do this for as little as €6,000 per person if you share a cabin with strangers but for your own cabin this can cost €20,000 and up.
On a typical trip you will fly to Argentina, take a connecting flight to the cruise base at Ushuaia and then sail south past Cape Horn to Antarctica.
If you’re particularly adventurous you can even pay to help sail a tall ship there!
Once across the Beagle Passage you will do what other cruises do around the world – drop anchor, get in a small boat and land to be guided around a certain spot before getting back aboard, sailing to another spot and doing the same.
This is one of the most accessible means of getting to the continent.
Most people who do these trips are older and generally less fit than someone who likes to do Alpine summits or bigger.
That means in most cases you will have it fairly easy – no serious fitness or mountaineering to be done here!
It is recommended that you use a tour operator that knows the ropes of Antarctic expeditions from bureaucracy to preparation detail as things are so tightly monitored and controlled.
You should also use a tour operator that is a member of the International Association of Antarctica Tour Operators (IAATO) as they operate a voluntary code of conduct for all their members that conforms to the Antarctic Treaty.
It isn’t known if all IAATO members conform strictly to the code of conduct (cruise lines aren’t always perfect for example) but unless you are a corporate monster Earth hater you’d hope that every detail is met on this most fragile, pristine of environments on the planet!
For $43,000 (£33,000) you can summit the highest mountain in Antarctica.
This cost only covers the trip from Punta Arenas in Chile and doesn’t include getting to Chile, connecting flight south to Punta Arenas, insurance, excess baggage fees, or a range of other things like alcoholic drinks.
One of the least summited major mountains in the world, Mount Vinson is one of those that should be on every extremely serious mountaineer’s list, if only because it is so remote.
It is a peak in the Sentinel Range of the Ellsworth mountains that run NNW-SSE, around 1280 miles north of the South Pole.
Until recently, Mount Vinson was called ‘the Vinson Massif’ as it is a ridge of a number of peaks as opposed to a standalone mountain like K2 or Everest.
The US Geological Survey relented under public pressure and, after some of its own research to get the height of its multiple summits, named the highest peak on the massif ‘Mount Vinson’ in 2006.
The first expedition to summit Vinson was led by California lawyer and experienced Himalayan mountaineer Nick Clinch in December 1966.
Not content with climbing the highest mountain in the range, the expedition also conquered Mount Shinn (4,660m), Mount Gardner (4,587m), Long Gables (4,059m), Mount Ostenso (4,085m) and Mount Tyree (4,852m) in ensuing weeks.
Today it is possible to get a guided expedition together, and this takes around two weeks from landing on the continent.
The route taken to summit the mountain usually involves three camps, with two camps above Base Camp.
Unlike Everest that is renowned for its piles of waste, the mountain is kept pristine, as we discussed earlier.
That adds to the difficulty of climbing Vinson as the descent isn’t rushed thanks to the policy of cleanliness to prevent non-native species of plants, animals or other life from colonising Antarctica.
As we said earlier, money talks – as with the cruise liners above, you can pay top whack and be wafted in luxury all the way in super-insulated tents with the best food, or pay less and still get there only in less comfort.
The South Pole
You can arrange to man-haul 730 miles to the South Pole through a tour operator.
This costs in the region of $100,000 (£77,000) all inclusive.
For a that trek you will be preparing for a good year in advance, building muscle and blubber reserves to drag a heavy sled across the continent.
Don’t worry about the blubber – that’ll soon burn off as you spend several weeks pulling your sled across icy wastelands!
Such a trip is an undeniable achievement but it’s a bit weird at the end according to those who have done it.
A permanent research base is at the South Pole so an expedition to the Pole can be a bit anticlimactic.
You’re effectively marching to a village with its own airport!
There are even tourists who fly direct to the Pole, have their selfies taken and fly home.
This is redolent of climbing climbing Snowdon on a multi-day trek, with the crowds and cafe rather diluting the experience of the achievement.
The alternative, if you wish to arrive in an icy wasteland all alone, might be to go for the Magnetic South Pole that moves around a lot thanks to the vagaries of the Earth’s core, so there isn’t a research base there.
You may still find a scientist or two living in shipping containers but that at least is a little more atmospheric than arriving in a small town.
Compared to the True South Pole it would be closer to the spirit of Amundsen and Scott than to climbing up Snowdon!
For those with a few quid!
Have enough money to buy a small house sloshing about and have no worries about retirement?
Most people aren’t so lucky! Others fundraise for charity, but the most luxurious trips inland on Antarctica are almost as extreme as the weather conditions you will face!
One company recently made the headlines by offering a chance to fly to Antarctica for as ‘little’ as $195,000 (£150,000) per person for a week long private tour, eating Wagyu beef and quaffing cocktails with thousand year old ice.
By comparison, an Everest summit expedition can cost as little as half that.
That puts it out of the range of your average holidaymaker, and more into the reach of the obscenely rich.
Want to go it alone? Let’s get a taste of the bureaucracy involved in getting to this unique destination.
Agreed in 1959, the Antarctic Treaty imposes major restrictions on those planning trips to the continent.
The first thing to note is that you need a permit from the home government of the expedition.
If your expedition is British you need to apply for a permit from the Foreign and Commonwealth Office.
The application for the permit runs to 23 pages, dealing with the expedition’s every plan and equipment to be used, including where you will land and exactly where you plan to go.
You will also have to have plans as to what will happen in different emergency situations, and a risk assessment for every eventuality on the trip.
The forms also call for a detailed environmental impact assessment for the whole trip, end to end.
In short you need to have prepared for this trip to the finest detail before you even apply for the permit, which could be refused on any one of a number of grounds!
The FCO will publish your application even while it is considering it for the world to see.
The same site has published details of 34 expeditions happening in this summer of 2019/20 (nine being tourist expeditions, the rest being scientific) so even with all the bureaucracy people are still doing it.
Another layer of bureaucracy is a ‘post-visit report’ you must fill in on your return.
On top of this, if you have fundraised for this trip then you will owe the funding institution a favour or two and will be on a circuit of lectures and after dinner talks to pay for the fun you’ve just had.
If you fancy yourself an Antarctic explorer you still need some serious cash and preparation even to go with a tour operator. That means fundraising.
The problem with fundraising in the region of £150,000-£300,000 per person is that there are hundreds of people on the circuit seeking that sort of cash for different expeditions the world over.
You’re up against everything from solo yachtsmen and women to mountaineers and charities all trying to fight for the same pots of cash from big businesses and institutions.
That has always been the case though.
The ill-fated Scott expedition had sponsorship from Oxo, Heinz baked beans and even Fry’s cocoa for his trip to raise the £40,000 (£3 million in today’s money) he needed for the trip.
Only then did he get half the money he needed from the UK government.
The early explorers Captain Cook and Charles Darwin had to curry favours from government, not to mention Christopher Columbus in his search for the New World.
If you’re determined enough, we wish you luck.
The reward is unique.