Pole Position

Life at the pole has become routine. From the outside, it might seem that being at the South Pole could be anything but routine. But when you live and work here… much less work nine hours a day and six days a week, it does eventually just become where you live and work. Granted, it does dawn on me every now and then that I am right on the axis of the earth, and that is still very cool.

We do make occasional use of the pole with our recreational activities. Like on Christmas Day we have the annual Race Around The World. As long as one defines going around the world as crossing every line of longitude, then that’s just what we did. Some took the race seriously and made a good run around the three kilometer course. Others were dressed in costume, on skies and even on stilts. While others spent time in the weeks before building floats to be towed behind snowmobiles. The plumbers for instance, built an open air bathroom complete with a few toilets, sinks and even urinals. The carpenters pumped up the handle bars on one of the snowmobiles to Harley-Davidson style ape hanger handle bars and had a black bearded driver who fit the profile. In tow, they had found a hot air balloon basket and they tied a large weather balloon to it. On the front of the snowmobile they painted “South Pole Choppers.”

For new years the heavy shop (where all our heavy equipment is fixed and maintained) was decorated with a huge parachute that covered all of the ceiling and much of the wall space. A stage was built and some of the very talented musicians got together to form a few bands that played live music all night long. For the countdown to midnight some folks trekked out to the pole and found it significant to be right at the very bottom of the earth for the turn of the year. The rest of us did the group countdown in the heavy shop with a huge cheer at midnight. The dancing and music continued and I finally headed to bed, under the blazing sun, about the time Tokyo was cheering their new year, sometime around 3am New Zealand/South Pole time.

Another pole specific event was the annual moving of the pole. Seeing as how the station and the pole that we’ve planted in the snow to represent and mark the Geographical South Pole sits on an ice sheet that moves about ten meters a year, it becomes necessary to move the pole marker to maintain accuracy. So, on new years day each year, a small ceremony is enacted as the pole marker gets moved. Also, each year a new pole marker is designed and built by the winterover crew. So it’s not so much a matter of moving the existing pole marker, but setting a new one. It’s interesting to look along the flow of ice and see the previous years pole markers all lined up.

In the sports department, there have been a few games of rugby, football and soccer played here at the pole. But what might not have been expected is a Frisbee Golf course was set up and a few of us put a round in and had a good time doing it. The course is mostly spread out over the berms which are being redone, so the course and the obstacles in the course are constantly changing. I don’t think the same course has been played twice, yet.

There are more events to come, like SPIFF – the South Pole International Film Festival. Many of the local residents have been concocting up and filming various three minute shorts about the life and times here at the South Pole. Entries are due this week and the showing is on Saturday 21 January.

And then, finally, there is the looming process of shipping folks back home. With over 250 of us here at the pole and only 70 or so to be left to care for and continue to work at the station over the winter people have to start flying out of here before the unflyable weather sets in. But those are stories for a future date.

About the author

Adventure Correspondent Cameron L. Martindell is a freelance adventure travel and expedition writer, photographer and filmmaker who founded Offyonder.com in 2000. He has contributed to Elevation Outdoors Magazine, The Gear Junkie, National Geographic, The Christian Science Monitor, The New York Times, The Washington Post, Outside, Backpacker, Wired, Australian Geographic, Mountainzone.com and others. He has been to all seven continents and lived on five of them, including a four-month stint at the South Pole. Cameron has more than 10 years of mountain search and rescue experience, is an Eagle Scout, has been an Australian bush firefighter, competes in sailing regattas, plans national and international youth programs, guides Oregon rafting trips and Australian bush backpacking trips.


  1. I set First GPS Position on South Pole 1972_ is the station still there or hauled off by a Neanderthal souvenir hunter

    My name is George W.(Billy) Nottage. I set the first GPS position on the South pole in Jan 1972 using a SRN 9 Naval analog tracking system.. I stayed at the old pole station. The mark was a USGS surveying disk stamper South Poe 1971-1972. It was part of a feasibility study at that latitude for the USGS and the National Science Foundation. The mark was about 100 ft from the then NOA balloon release building. My equipment was in a small outside shed. Un-doubly now gone. The USGS set up a 24/7 monitor @ Pole 1i 1972-73 and Lorraine Utz manned it.

    There were only six satellites up then, and they were in a low 200 mi out orbit and gave only12 min manual l lock on and tracking. During entire pass. Nothing automatic.

    The tracking was do simultaneously with another point that was known about 600 miles away. Pole/McMuro/ Pole/ Byrd The requirements were 75 passes/sets of data meaned for each leg. Byrd/McMurdo was then done.

    There were three triangles Small 30 mile legs and medium 200 mile legs and large 600 mile legs with McMurdo station the common point. We controlled 22,000 sq miles mapping the dry valleys to support the dry Valley Drilling project, and other disciplines 1971 for NSF. When I was @ South Pole there were around 25 inhabitants. A thril. it was six below zero in the passage ways lined with frozen food.
    We tok turns as house mouse, bartender, movie projectionist etc.
    As bartender I had to tackle the winter over cook who took a mop and was smashing the drinks on the bar. Cook lost his marbles. They locked him in his quarters, and held an emergency meeting . 2 more planes in. vote Get rid of the nut or keep him. They kept the cook and his imaginary friend. A real fruit loop.

    The picture is me standing at the Ceremonial Pole in 1972. I understand some stupid bastard smashed the glass and stole it.
    notice someone else calming to put 1st GPS position on pole. That is not true. Maybe wit high orbit system, but I and my team mates were first. Google the m Nottage Ride in Antarctic gazetteer/place names and geographic feature named after me will appear.
    The original BM I set in 972 was a 4X4 12 ft post driven into the ice with a USGS Brass surveying tablet set in top. On the side of the 4×4 post was a copper plate stamped South Pole GPS station 1972
    established by USGS Elias McClelland, Leroy Sanford, Charlie Morrison, and Bill Nottage. I & my partners signed about 500 stamp collectors letters with the 197172 – USGS Satellite tracking Cache.
    Since the station in drifting the BM I set 43 years ago is between 100-200 ft from the 172 station I set. I would like to know it is still there? Some souvenir hunting bastard destroyed he old pole ceremonial marker. No respect for history. The copper plate and 4×4 wooden post with an aged brass tablet would have made a great souvenir.

    Can someone look it up for me @the station and take a picture of it. There was a 4X6 inch copper plate and a bras tablet, an should be easy to locate. Get the coordinates of Pole 1972 . compute drift and mark the original station. I set. I understand new markers have been placed, but how about mine.
    My E-mail is usgscartogapher@yahoo.com or
    407 348 6143

    I used an omnidirectional antennae set on a tripod. It sat in place for over a week. to keep it from settling, I took a three cornered sheet of plywood, and drilled a hole in each corner. In he middle I cut a 6 inch dia hole to fit over BM. I dug a hole i the ice and buried the sheet of plywood and heaped snow/ice on it for weight and shield it from the Sun. this kept the sun from causing settlement even at that temp of 22 to 45 below when I did the GPS Positioning
    Bill Nottage
    3 Spur Ct
    Kissimmee, Fl 34743.

    I would appreciate a condition report . Contact me if you want pictures of me at pole and Antarctica

    1. Hey Bill,
      Thanks for the incredible report! Fascinating to hear about GPS technology from back in the day. I’m not at Pole this season and those who are probably like to minimize their time outside (considering it’s dark and -68F). But I bet we can get an interested party to look for your marker once the sun and temps come up in November. I’ll connect you with some folks down there. Cheers!

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