What’s the farthest away you can get from everything and still be on planet Earth? The easy and obvious answer is Antarctica, which is a fascinating place with an astounding history, but it’s still a very large place. Where in Antarctica is, technically and scientifically, the “farthest” place on Earth? I did not know the answer until yesterday, but it’s a place called the South Pole of Inaccessibility. It was first reached by human beings 56 years ago today, on December 14, 1958, and its story is as epic as any tale of exploration or discovery in recent human history.
The Pole of Inaccessibility is not the same as the South Pole. While the geographic South Pole is the southernmost point on Earth, where the axis of its rotation intersects its surface, the Pole of Inaccessibility is the place, mathematically calculated, to be the farthest distance from land anywhere in Antarctica. Thus, it is literally the place on the frozen continent that you must travel farther to than any other. It’s much more difficult to reach than the South Pole (which was also first reached by humans on this date, December 14; the human who did it was Roald Amundsen in 1911). But in 1958 a team of Soviet explorers reached this very distant point, and made history.
Reaching this point was an express objective of the Third Soviet Antarctic Expedition, which was transported by ship to the frozen continent in November 1957. There was a lot of scientific activity in Antarctica in 1957-58, which was known as the “International Geophysical Year,” supposedly a period of heightened cooperation among the world’s Earth scientists. In reality it was another opportunity for the U.S. and U.S.S.R. to outdo each other in the Cold War. The Third Expedition was led by Yegevny Tolstikov and consisted of 445 men. (Not surprisingly for the 1950s, the thought of bringing women to Antarctica never seemed to occur to anyone). After setting up shop and gathering their extensive equipment at a permanent Soviet base on the coast, a convoy of tractors began trekking into the interior. They established several stations, but in December 1958 a team of 18 men set out for the Pole of Inaccessibility, dragging tractor-trailers loaded with equipment and prefabricated buildings behind them.
This screenshot from Google Earth gives you a sense of just how remote the Pole of Inaccessibility is.
December is the best month for Antarctic trekking. Because the seasons are reversed in the Southern Hemisphere, December and January are not only the warmest months, but ones where the sun never dips below the horizon. On December 14, 1958, the eighteen Soviets reached the Pole of Inaccessibility and began building a small station there. It had a hut for four people, a radio shack and a statue of Lenin, looking toward Moscow. The Soviets wanted everybody to know that Communists had been the first to reach this distant point of Earth. They also built a makeshift airfield, which was rather important: it was their means of escape. The team stayed only 12 days. On December 18, an airplane landed at the station to bring supplies; on December 26 it left again, bringing all the members back to less-remote Soviet outposts. The Pole of Inaccessibility Station was never intended to be permanently manned. It was simply too far from everything and too remote to be supplied sufficient to keep people alive there. Besides, what would you do in a place like that?
After the Russians left in December 1958, the Pole of Inaccessibility Station saw no human visitors for seven years. Then in 1965 two American teams visited it, finding the buildings still intact. After checking up on the place (hey, that’s what you did during the Cold War) they left, and the station was apparently deserted for a very long time. The next person to reach it was British Antarctic explorer Henry Cookson, who with a small team kite-skiied to the Pole of Inaccessibility station in January 2007. They found everything buried except for Lenin. The picture at the top of this article was taken by him. Humans again visited here in 2011.
Antarctica is a place where history is very literal. Due to its climate nothing there ever rots or decays, though the winds and snow can bury all trace of human marks fairly quickly. Eventually the snow will bury even Lenin’s bust, but the Pole of Inaccessibility Station will still remain, encased in ice, frozen in time forever. That’s an eerie thought, but also sort of a profound one.