On December 14, 1911, Amundsen's small expedition, traveling by dogsled, was the first to reach the Pole. Shackleton had come within 100 miles three years earlier but had to turn back because he and his men were running dangerously short on food. The great tragedy, though, was Scott, who arrived at the South Pole, just 34 days after Amundsen. "Great God! This is an awful place!" he wrote in his diary.

On the way back to base camp at the edge of the Ross Sea, Scott and his four-man crew ran into a ferocious blizzard. One died of fever. Another went insane and walked out into the storm. Scott and the two remaining men starved to death, just eleven miles from the depot where they'd buried extra food and provisions.

Smith feels a kinship with these early explorers, particularly Shackleton, who was a great lover of poetry. "They all learned from the other guys' mistakes," he says. "It's what makes some people great."

Smith in the cockpit of a C-130.
109th Air lift Wing.
Smith in the cockpit of a C-130.
An icebreaker off the Antarctic coast.
Ron Smith
An icebreaker off the Antarctic coast.

Aside from a short-lived attempt by the Nazis to claim the Antarctic territory during World War II — and an attempt by the British to stop them — Antarctica has been the domain of scientists. They study earthquakes, volcanoes, subatomic particles and the solar system. At the South Pole, it's quiet enough to hear a seismic shift thousands of miles away, and the atmosphere is so thin, it's possible to see into deep space.

Thirty-nine countries maintain facilities on the Ice, but the Antarctic Treaty, signed in 1959, prevents anyone from making territorial claims on the land or using it for anything besides research. In the past ten years an increasing number of cruise ships have started to prowl the continent's outlying islands, but no one is allowed beyond the shoreline without the permission of the National Science Foundation.

As a member of Operation Deep Freeze, it was Smith's job to ferry scientists back and forth to the NSF's research outposts, including the South Pole, a two-hour-and-forty-minute flight from Air Force headquarters at McMurdo. Smith flew approximately 1,000 missions, primarily in C-130 cargo planes that take off and land on retractable skis. The operation runs from September 1 to March 1, when as many as 1,000 people live at the base, crammed into dorm buildings.

During the height of summer — mid-December to mid-January — when the sun never sets, temperatures can rise to as high as 30 degrees. When the long Antarctic winter hits and the mercury plunges to 50 degrees below zero, the number of residents at McMurdo dwindles to 100.

"Where we stay, at McMurdo, is like a Western mining town, like in Wyoming or Montana or Colorado," says Colonel Tony German, who was Smith's flight commander during part of his Antarctic service and remains a close friend. "There's a lot of heavy equipment and a dirt road."

McMurdo, known to residents as Mac Town, has a movie theater, a bowling alley, a church (called, naturally, Chapel of the Snows), two bars, a greenhouse and Antarctica's only ATM. Communication with the outside world is limited mostly to e-mail. There's no cell-phone service. "That's why generals always look so happy in pictures," Smith jokes.

Smith first arrived in Antarctica in 1996, when the Air Force took over Operation Deep Freeze from the Navy. He'd joined the military fourteen years earlier, after stints as a bartender and a semiprofessional basketball player in Nottingham, England. Trained as a navigator, he flew humanitarian missions to Bosnia and Somalia, bringing food to war and famine victims.

One summer he went on a two-week mission to Greenland. "We flew over the western shore," he remembers. "I saw glaciers and fjords. I'd never seen anything this untouched or natural or beautiful. I thought, 'If I could fly up there, I would love it.'"

For aviators to ski-plane
slippery clouds
flipped upside down,
plated from pale to gray,
intimate textures to pilots,
the limit of a dry rainbow,
ever wary of a shadow
buried in crevasses
cloaked in snow

Smith learned that the 109th Airlift Wing, the Air Force's polar unit, was looking for 200 people to staff Operation Deep Freeze. He immediately applied for a transfer and was the first officer hired.

"I didn't know anything about polar ops," he admits. One of the first things he did was ask the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency, then in St. Louis, to make an aeronautical map of the area around McMurdo Station; none existed before. He still keeps the map, the size of a bed sheet, in his Antarctica closet.

Throughout Smith's tenure, Antarctica remained a mysterious, bewildering place. "There's so many things there we don't understand. Like the properties of ice."

McMurdo Station sits on a volcanic island and is relatively stable. It's surrounded by the Ross Ice Shelf, which is not. The shelf is 200 to 300 feet thick and is the size of France. "The glaciers coming off the Polar Plateau push the ice shelf outward ten inches a day," Smith explains. "The ice buckles and moves around the island. When the ice hits the rocks, it starts moving at different speeds."

The Air Force built one of its main runways out on the ice shelf. "Once the ice buckled on the runway," Smith recalls. "It was too small to see, but when the planes landed, they bounced. One pilot almost lost control. We had to call in the scientists and engineers to analyze what was going on, to map out the undulations and figure out the forces at work."

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