The Wilmette Beacon
By JOE COUGHIN
There's white and then nothing.
Snow and ice forever. The only thing welcoming you is the sun, the bright dictator ruling the land from a seemingly unmoving perch on high.
It decides when you can visit, its glow blinding off the endless bed of white, but still warm enough for survival.
It's negative 30 degrees, you're 9,000 feet in the air and it's the driest place in the world here at the Earth's bottom.
Welcome, to the South Pole.
Wilmette's Rick Sweitzer, 57, was lying motionless in a hole in the frozen ground.
Not to worry, though, Sweitzer chose this sleeping arrangement occasionally during the 56-day trek from Antarctica's coast to the South Pole.
"I dug a trench about this deep," Sweitzer said holding his hands about two feet apart sitting in a computer chair in his company's Wilmette office. "I have a down sleeping bag. For me, it's the most comfortable sleep of the year."
Sweitzer, along with fellow guide Dirk Jensen, also of Wilmette, led a group of 16 amateur adventurers to the southern most tip of the planet on behalf of PolarExlorers.
It took nearly two months and 700-plus miles of cross-country skiing, but this expedition had a mission larger than just general sight-seeing.
This trip was to celebrate the spirit, history and importance of all exploration as Sweitzer and crew descended upon the South Pole on Dec. 14, 2011, 100 years to the day after Roland Amundsen and his team, the first humans to reach to bottom of the world, did the same.
The group, consisting of adventurers from all over the world, converged with hundreds of others ready to take in the moment.
"They had a ceremony and it was a very moving moment," Sweitzer said. "The Norwegian Prime Minister [Jens Stoltenberg] spoke and Amundsen was there in spirit. It was quite a touching moment, especially for those in our industry."
The South Pole may be an adventurer's goal, but it isn't often visited.
Sweitzer said the amount of travelers who've been there is "countable on one page," but after the centennial year it would have to be a "very long page." He added there are usually about three total expeditions to the pole each year. In 2011, there were 20-plus.
At the actual South Pole, which is 90 degrees latitude, there is a small sign to mark the spot. That sign is moved slightly each year to compensate for the gradually moving ice.
The sign recognizes not only Amundsen's arrival, but also Robert Falcon Scott's. The British Scott was on his second expedition to Antarctica, and in a polar race with Amundsen.
Scott and his four companions made the Pole on Jan. 12, 1917, 34 days after Amundsen. Unfortunately, Scott and his mates perished on the return trip; however, Scott's arrival date is also revered and celebrated in the world of exploration, especially in Great Britain.
Not far from the actual South Pole is the ceremonial South Pole, where a metallic sphere sits atop a striped pole and is surrounded by the flags of the 49 countries, including the United States, involved in the Antarctic Treaty.
Here, at the ceremonial spot, pictures were taken and heated visitation centers were set up for guests to eat, socialize and celebrate the centennial.
"It was a pretty big deal and very successful," Sweitzer said. "It's a very big deal in England and Norwegian. And there you all are, right there, at the bottom of the world."
The start of new territory
Sweitzer and company comrade Annie Aggens grew up in Wilmette at different times, but with similar life philosophies.
The back roads and beaches of the North Shore could only contain them for so long. They each had the spirit of an explorer.
"From a young age I had a passion for the unknown," Sweitzer said. "I grew up thinking if I could think it, I could do it."
Aggens, a 1988 graduate of North Shore Country Day School, began doing multi-day trips at a young age.
At 9, she would go on overnights for four days, which soon turned into 10-day trips, and by the time she was in college, Aggens would take off for 50 nights at a time.
"It just appealed to me," she said. "Then, the further North I went, the more interested I was.
"Luckily, I had very adventurous parents, who supported my dreams instead of holding me back."
Aggens had to skip December's trip to the South Pole, however. Of course, she wasn't too mad to be taking care of her 8-month-old daughter, Piper Hearne Aggens Jensen, who is partially named after English explorer Samuel Hearne.
Her husband, Dirk, returned with dozens of photos.
Aggens joined PolarExplorers in 1997, and has made trips to both the South and North Poles, as well as dozens of other locales with the globetrotting Wilmette-based adventure company.
PolarExplorers is an offshoot of Northwest Passage, 1130 Greenleaf, which was founded in 1983 by Sweitzer.
As a full organization, Sweitzer, Aggens and company offer adventure trips to places all over the world, including Greece, Ireland and Mt. Kilimanjaro. It also plans local trips, like a kayaking adventure in Devil's Lake, Wisc.
And in the summer, you can find Sweitzer and his qualified band of trainers kayaking at Gillson Beach or the Skokie Lagoons.
PolarExplorers was officially founded in the early 1990s, with the first official trip to the North Pole taking place in 1993. Since then, it has led 40-plus expeditions to the poles.
PolarExplorers also led a group to the North Pole for its centennial, which was April 4, 2009, 100 years after it was first reached by Americans Robert Perey and Matthew Henson, and four Inuit men.
Sweitzer said only about 10 people in the world were at both the South and North Pole centennials, and all 10 were with PolarExplorers.
Where do I sign up?
PolarExplorers expeditions are initially open to anyone. Of course, not everyone has the resources to participate in the lucrative travels.
Not only do you have to spend four or five days training in the bitter cold of Ely, Minn., but predictably, the expeditions don't come cheap.
It is a global business, and thus prices on the website are in Euros, but for a full trip to the South Pole one can expect to pay around $50,000. Some trips PolarExplorers offers are far less, and some are much more.
Northwest Passage offers a variety of expeditions that hold a wide range of price tags.
Leaders of the training exercises in Minnesota take potential explorers through everything they may face while skiing on ice and snow in the pole, like the universal nightmare of falling into freezing waters.
"It's not infrequent that people go through the ice," Sweitzer said. "The truth is, it happens. I've seen it multiple times."
He added it's not as bad as your nightmares: "Your instincts take over; you get out of the water."
Cracks or rips in the ice are a danger in the North Pole, which lies on the Arctic Ocean, and is essentially a large sheet of ice moving with the aggressive waters.
The South Pole, on the other hand, is on Antarctica, a large land mass. Thus, the land is impervious to such quick changes in geography.
There are more than cold waters to fear, however. Temperatures are very low, and things like hypothermia and frostbite come into play.
The training trip covers all these and then some.
"The key is have an awareness of what's going on in your body," said Aggens, who is one of the company's top guides. "And awareness of things around you. Spilling over boiling water is a common problem."
As a crescendo to the centennial in the South Pole, Sweitzer was joined by others in a recreation of a famous photograph of Amundsen and his crew standing outside their base tent in 1911.
The four men stand seemingly independent of one another, hoods down around their necks, the ripping cold not affecting their line of sight, which leads slightly upward atop the tent admiring two flags waving in the dry breeze.
It's the spirit of the explorer.
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