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Why Antarctica Is So Hard on the Body—Even for Buzz Aldrin

The vast polar desert is the driest place on Earth, with punishing winds and frigid temperatures.

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A helicopter drops off biologists and supplies near Mount Erebus.

Buzz Aldrin, one of the first men to walk on the moon, was safely evacuated from the South Pole, the U.S. National Science Foundation said December 1.

The agency, which runs the U.S. Amundsen-Scott South Pole research station, transported the ailing 86-year-old Apollo 11 astronaut on a military flight to McMurdo Station on the coast and then on to New Zealand.

"The plane carrying Buzz Aldrin out of Antarctica has reached Christchurch, New Zealand," Peter West, a spokesperson for NSF, said in an email.

"Upon arrival in Christchurch, the Antarctic program’s logistics hub in New Zealand, Aldrin was transferred to a local medical facility," West says.

The coldest and driest place on Earth, the South Pole is an extreme location that's incredibly hard on the human body. The miles-thick ice sheet at the Pole sits at an altitude of almost 10,000 feet, which feels more like 12,000 feet because of the low air pressure and arid polar atmosphere. (Journey to the harsh wilderness of in the new National Geographic channel show Continent 7.)

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It's Antarctic summer now, when temperatures are often a balmy –20 degrees Fahrenheit. Winter temperatures plummet to about -100 degrees Fahrenheit, and that, combined with the world's driest air, makes it a struggle to even climb a flight of stairs. The air causes instant pain to any exposed skin. It's not even wise to smile—your gums and teeth will ache. Frostbite can set in quickly.

On top of that, the South Pole is completely dark during the winter, when a reduced crew braves out the gloomy days inside the research station. The crew is required to wear or bring a duffel bag full of extreme cold-weather gear—including air-insulated boots—during any travel. (Read a first-person account of visiting the South Pole.)

There’s no native life in this vast, snowy desert nearly a thousand miles from the coast—“not even a mosquito,” Andy Martinez, the technical manager, said in a previous interview. “Humans are the only wildlife.”

Even British explorer Robert Falcon Scott, who raced Norwegian Roald Amundsen to the Pole in 1911 and 1912 and later died not far from it, described the South Pole as an "awful place."

Trip of a Lifetime

Despite the dangers, the South Pole has long fascinated explorers and tourists alike.

Tourism spiked in 2011 and 2012 during the centennial anniversaries of Scott and Amundsen's expeditions, when hundreds of people made the trip. It's not cheap: A flight to the Pole can cost upward of $40,000, and a two-month ski expedition costs $65,000. (See a hi-res Antarctic map.)

There are no facilities for travelers at the Pole, as the research station does not usually house tourists. (Read "Race to the South Pole" in National Geographic magazine.)

Getting there requires either skiing from the coast or flying in via private helicopter, which means they're still a small fraction of the approximately 30,000 people who visit Antarctica each year, according to the International Association of Antarctica Tour Operators.

Still, that doesn't stop dozens of people each year from attempting to stand on the southernmost spot on the planet—which is possibly why Aldrin made the trek.

Herculean Effort

The NSF received the request to evacuate Aldrin from a private tourism company, White Desert.

The NSF uses a specific type of military plane to fly to the South Pole—the LC-130, also called the Hercules. There are only around ten in existence, and there’s no other plane on Earth that can do what they do—transport huge amounts of cargo to the most desolate of polar reaches.

LC-130s, which are outfitted with giant skis, are the backbone of the U.S. Antarctic Program and the sole reason that Amundsen-Scott South Pole station is able to function, Tom Ellis, director of operations for Raytheon Polar Services—the U.S. Antarctic Program’s contractor—said in a previous interview.

The U.S. originally built the planes in the 1950s during the Cold War to go head to head with the Soviets in the Arctic, according to the U.S. Antarctic commander. Now they fly missions for the NSF, jetting around the Antarctic in the summer and the Arctic in the winter. The Air Force flies six flights to South Pole daily between October and February, traveling about 730 nautical miles each way.

The NSF has dispatched LC-130s to rescue people from the South Pole before, including scientist Jerri FitzGerald, who diagnosed and treated her own cancer while at the station.

But it's too dangerous to fly these planes to the Pole during the winter. Only two other times in the last 60 years has a plane landed at the station during winter—both times to evacuate workers at risk of death. And even those flights did occur deep into the polar winter.

Only a small plane called the Twin Otter can make the journey then. In July, one of these planes made a midwinter flight to the heart of Antarctica to evacuate two workers who had fallen dangerously ill.

Christine Dell'Amore is the author of the book South Pole.

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