When I first heard that an Australian tour operator was chartering 747s and conducting tourist flights over Antarctica at up to $7,500 a pop for the 12-hour journey, I spit the dummy. The last continent is an international treasure, not to be cheapened by raw commercialism. The roar of engines and sight of the silver bird would break the sense of wilderness for those few souls living below. And the pricing would of course restrict the view to an elite few — this wasn’t the People’s Tour.
But as is so often the case when I start blustering, I took a couple breaths and looked a little deeper. Overflights are actually nothing new — there were dozens of flights in the 1970s, though they’ve tapered off. Tourism itself is booming — there were 37,000 visitors in the 2009-10 season, mostly by ship. (So much for keeping Antartica free of commercialism.) And as for current flights, Croydon, the tour operator, has on its 2012-13 schedule a whopping total of…five. Antarctica isn’t exactly the Grand Canyon, which is polluted by 130,000 flights a year.
And while I’d much rather be on the ground sussing out a ski line or hauling a sled across the ice, having your nose pressed to the plexiglass over the coldest, wildest, driest continent still would be the experience of a lifetime. The mountains…the snow…the empty space.
In 1988 or 1989, my friend Mike Hattrup and I flew over the Atlantic for a ski trip to Ischgl, Austria, and on the return we went right over Greenland on a sparkling, sunny day. Mountains marched in all directions, girded by glaciers that looked like frigid stretch marks, endless chutes plumblining between black walls. Back then Greenland was as exotic as Antarctica is now, maybe more so, and our vow to some day ski there seemed like nothing more than wishful thinking.
Never underestimate the power of obsession, however. It took me half a decade, but eventually I was able to pull enough strings to send us to Greenland, both of us, to shoot a show for Powder-TV. Mike was in Europe at the time, so he few west and I flew east and five years after peering down on Greenland, we met on an icy dock in Nuuk, about to board a trawler heading north into the fjords, gleaming at a dream come true.
I’ve now spent about a month and a half in Greenland, can count friends there, and hold a special place in my heart for this changing, fragile environment. And it started with a simple flight, a flight that turned a name and a spot on a globe into a very real place. It is unfortunate that the seats on Croydon’s flights are so expensive. A slot in the middle of the plane, which doesn’t even earn you a rotation by the window, is $1,200 Australian. A seat that rotates to the view is $1,900. First class, that’s where you’ll find the one percent. But still. If I was a little more flush and happened to be in Australia, I’d do it. In this warming, ever-shrinking world, there’s no place like Antartica, and I’d fly over it in a second. And besides, you never know where it will lead.
Declination is other places, other spaces, and the things that happen there.