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Bottom's Up By ski, by balloon and even by bike, adventurers are turning Antarctica from the last frontier into the hot new playground

Jan. 20, 2003
Jan. 20, 2003

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Jan. 20, 2003

Bottom's Up By ski, by balloon and even by bike, adventurers are turning Antarctica from the last frontier into the hot new playground

Strange things will go through a man's head while he's trekking
across the frozen interior of Antarctica, his vision dazzled by
the ice and a sun that never sets, his imagination fired by the
weirdly sculpted sastrugi of windswept snow.

This is an article from the Jan. 20, 2003 issue

So it was for Doug Stoup in the early weeks of 2001, while
becoming the first American to make the 730-mile journey on
skis from the coast of Antarctica to the South Pole. A
39-year-old videographer from Boca Raton, Fla., Stoup made the
trip in 63 days, but even as he did, one thought kept rolling
around in his mind: He could have traveled the same terrain a
heckuva lot faster by bike.

"I think I could have covered the same ground in 22 to 25
days--three times as fast," Stoup said recently, a few days
before departing for Punta Arenas, Chile, to pursue a dream he
has been cooking up ever since: the first bicycle expedition in
Antarctica. A veteran guide for Adventure Network International
(ANI), a Canadian company that specializes in land-based
Antarctic adventure travel, Stoup will follow a route that takes
him from ANI's base camp in Patriot Hills into the Heritage Range
of the Ellsworth Mountains and back, a 10-day, 200-mile loop.
He'll travel on an icebike that has no plastic parts (to keep it
from shattering in the cold) and fat tires, similar to those on a
lawn tractor, that are 14 inches high and six inches wide. In
soft snow Stoup will deflate the tires for traction; over
hardpack and ice he'll reinflate them for maximum speed. Stoup,
who has been to the South Pole four times, will do the trip solo,
hauling 100 pounds of provisions behind him on a sled. For added
historical weight, he hopes to make first ascents of two
mountains during the trip. He'll have a satellite phone for
emergencies and a camera to film a documentary he's tentatively
calling Alone. But the main purpose of his trek is to prove that
the icebike--designed by cycle maker Dan Hanebrink--works.
Stoup's grand plan is to get sponsorship after his return and
prepare for a full-fledged, solo, unsupported bike expedition
across the Antarctic continent in 2003--04, from sea to frozen
sea.

"It's the last frontier," Stoup says of his beloved Antarctica.
"The last untouched wilderness."

Untouched? Well, there was a time when most of Antarctica was
untouched. But those days are fading fast. With a lust to be the
first to do something on what adventurers like to call the last
continent, a veritable army of recreationalists is descending on
Antarctica's remote, pristine expanses with all manner of modern
toys, despite criticism from environmentalists worried about the
long-term effects.

The most popular activity is climbing 16,607-foot Vinson Massif,
the highest mountain in Antarctica and one of the Seven Summits,
which are the highest peaks on each continent. While not a
challenging climb technically, it's a must-do for the vertically
obsessed.

Ski-ins to the South Pole are big, and for $45,000 a head an ANI
guide will take you and your friends from the coast to the Pole
in 60 days. Seven intrepid adventurers ponied up for that trip
during the last Antarctic summer (which runs from November to
February). Don't have two months to spare? You can sign up to be
flown within a 10-day ski of the Pole. Want to get into Guinness?
This season alone Tom Avery, 27, became the youngest Briton to
walk to the Pole. Andrew Gerber, 28, became the first South
African. Jose Fejou, 54, of Spain, became the first diabetic to
follow in the snowshoes of Roald Amundsen and Robert Scott, whose
race to be first to the Pole was won by Amundsen in 1911.

Scott was a month behind, and he and his companions died trying
to make it back to their ship. No explorer returned to the South
Pole by foot until 1956. But these days to stand on the Pole all
you need is a checkbook. "We've had numerous inquiries from
all-women's groups and all-retiree groups who want to ski to the
Pole," says Anne Kershaw, the president of ANI, which will fly a
record 179 adventurers and tourists to Antarctica in the 2002--03
season, at an average price of $25,000 each. "We've had inquiries
from people who want to travel by Land Rover or Range Rover. With
the right tires, they'd do fine. And there's been a lot of
interest in organizing a race for solar-powered vehicles, which
are environmentally friendly and can be fun."

One Australian cruise line, Adventure Options, offers sea
kayaking and scuba diving during its Antarctic trips. Skiers and
snowboarders first carved tracks down Vinson Massif in 1999.
(Doug Stoup was among them.) Hot-air balloons have soared over
the Pole, the first in January 2000. A skydiving expedition over
the South Pole in 1997 ended tragically when the chutes of three
members of the six-man team failed to open, and two Americans and
an Austrian were killed.

The prize for this season's most quixotic quest goes to a pair of
Irishmen, Brian Cunningham and Jamie Young, who hoped to travel
from the Pole to the coast by kite-powered buggies. The 10foot
aluminum contraptions, which they assembled at the Pole after ANI
had flown them in, resembled iceboats on skis. Giant spinnakers
were supposed to harness Antarctica's famous winds and whisk
Cunningham and Young the 650 miles in 10 days. Instead they were
becalmed from the outset and aborted the mission before leaving
sight of the Pole.

"The scientific community still looks at all this recreational
activity with disdain," says Kershaw, whose company has been
bringing adventurers to Antarctica since 1985. "They see it as
the frivolous pursuit of people with too much time on their hands
and money--money that could be better spent on science. But when
our clients return from their Antarctic experience, they're
ambassadors for the continued protection of the continent."

Not everyone agrees with that sunny assessment, and there is
growing concern in the scientific and environmental communities
that recreational tourism in Antarctica is getting out of hand.
Ten years ago 6,704 tourists visited Antarctica, most of them
arriving by cruise line and restricting their visits to the
Antarctic Peninsula. By 1999--2000 that number more than doubled,
to 13,826. And while a weak global economy and the events of
Sept. 11, 2001, have since curtailed that growth (only 11,588
tourists went to Antarctica in 2001--02), the number of
land-based adventure tourists brought into the interior by ANI
has continued to rise, from 139 in 1999--2000 to 159 last year to
179 this year.

"Adventure tourism is a very small segment of the tourism
industry in Antarctica," says Josh Stevens, the North American
campaigner for the Antarctica Project, a Washington, D.C.--based
environmental group, "but it represents the greatest potential
threat to the environment and scientific operations because it
gets the press attention and encourages people to extend
themselves beyond their capabilities. As more and more dubious
'records' are attempted, environmental impact will follow."

Antarctica's scientific appeal lies in its uniquely sterile
environment. There's virtually no pollution, no contaminants, no
bacteria, no disease. Virtually no plants or animals live in the
continent's interior, where for six months the sun never rises
and where the earth's coldest temperature was recorded: -129ºF
Scientists from 27 countries work cooperatively on the
continent, studying heaven and earth, and their ongoing climate
and glacier research has set off some of the loudest global
warming bells. It was scientists in Antarctica who discovered a
hole in the earth's ozone in 1985.

"Scientists haven't had a chance to get to some of these places
first," says Beth Clark, who is director of the Antarctica
Project and wants to see a moratorium on adventure tourism in
Antarctica for the next 10 years. "The scientist has one chance
to get it right, and the adventurers can do these harebrained
schemes anywhere. They're not appropriate in Antarctica.
Adventure Network International is an accident waiting to happen.
You combine all these activities, and there's a huge impact on
the environment."

Kershaw, not surprisingly, disagrees, and her many supporters
point out that the adventure tourist industry has to abide by the
same strict environmental rules in the Antarctic that are in
place for the scientific community. Visitors must haul out
everything they bring into the frozen wilderness, including human
waste, and every activity--harebrained or otherwise--must first
be approved by both the Environmental Protection Agency and the
National Science Foundation. "We already have regulations we have
to adhere to," Kershaw says, dismissing the notion that there
should be a cap on the number of tourists who visit the
continent. "Antarctica is like a rose. It's beautiful and exotic
and fragile, yes, but it has its thorns. And those thorns will
always limit the number of people who want to go down there. It's
expensive, and those costs are not going down. Weather delays
aren't an hour or two. They're a week or two. And there're only
so many people who are willing to spend that much time waiting it
out in a cold tent. It'll always be a limited market."

But one whose limits grow larger every year.

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY WADE MCKOY/FPI [INSIDE COVER] ANTARCTICA An army of adventurers is invading the last continent WIDE-OPEN Stephen Koch, on the slopes of Vinson Massif, eyes fresh terrain.COLOR PHOTO: TIM HALL/AP POLAR EXTREMES British climbers scale 2,920-foot Mount Hoegh, above Paradise Bay.COLOR PHOTO: ANI BUBBLY ON ICE For ANI clients the trek to the Pole is somewhat less arduous than it was in the days of Amundsen and Scott.COLOR PHOTO: GORDON WILTSIE/ANI FIDDLIN' AROUND Stoup's custom-made icebike (second from top) is far from the most incongruous sight, as tourists come to play (yes, that's a homemade violin) and putt.COLOR PHOTO: COURTESY OF DOUG STOUP [See caption above]TWO COLOR PHOTOS: GORDON WILTSIE/ANI [See caption above]
Clark calls the adventure outings "harebrained" and fears the
long-term environmental effects.