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TODAY’s world traveler ready to come back

TODAY anchor Ann Curry looks back on her trip to the bottom of the Earth, and looks forward to seeing her kids again.
/ Source: TODAY contributor

After eight days, she finally got to the South Pole, but now a new question begs: When will TODAY anchor Ann Curry get back to New York from Antarctica?

It’s not an easy question to answer, as Curry, fresh from her trek to the southernmost point on the planet, reported from McMurdo Station on Friday.

“There is a flight we’re scheduled on to leave today,” she told TODAY’s Matt Lauer, Meredith Vieira and Al Roker at 3 a.m. on Saturday in McMurdo, which translated to 9 a.m. on Friday in New York.

But, like her trip to the pole, which was canceled a dozen times, it all depends on the weather. “The weather here can change on a dime. I’m hopeful I can be there on Monday, but I don’t know,” she said.

It was just one day since Curry and a five-member NBC News crew had landed at the Amundsen-Scott Station at the South Pole. She had hoped to get there on Monday, the same day Lauer reported from Greenland and Al Roker from Ecuador on the equator as part of TODAY’s “Ends of the Earth” initiative.

The eight-day wait for the weather to clear enough to allow a flight, Curry said, was a record delay.

The South Pole truly is the end of the earth, a place that no one set foot on until 1911 on a continent that wasn’t even discovered until 1820. It is the coldest, driest and windiest place on earth, where the temperature can drop below -150 degrees Fahrenheit and tops out on the most sweltering day of summer at a balmy 0 degrees.

The pole itself is at an elevation of 9,300 feet, and 9,000 feet of that is ice. Antarctica is increasingly popular as a destination for extreme tourists, but there are no tours to the South Pole.

“Very few people get to do this,” Curry said, adding that fewer than 7,000 people have ever been there. Nearly all are scientists and their support crews.

In the summer, the population may swell to more than 200; during the six-month winters, just two or three dozen remain at the station.

Until recently, accommodations have been primitive, but Curry visited the new Amundsen-Scott Station, which was dedicated this year after four years of construction. It’s built on stilts to deflect the drifting snow that over the years buries anything on the surface

Inside, she showed some of the amenities, including an ice-cream station in the cafeteria line.

“We've got vanilla and chocolate Frosty Boy in the South Pole,” she said. “I think we always need something to cool us down in the South Pole. Ice cream — yeah!”

It was -53 Fahrenheit outside — not counting the wind chill. “You feel like your skin is on fire —everything else freezes,” she said.

Even in those conditions, the scientists and support staff at the station turned out on the frozen airstrip with “Welcome, Ann” signs, making the Antarctic desert look like Rockefeller Plaza.

She flew on an LC-130 Hercules transport piloted by a four-man crew from the New York Air National Guard’s 109th Air Lift Wing. The unit is highly skilled in dealing with extreme weather and sudden changes in conditions and pilots all flights to the pole.

Curry and her NBC crew took off in clear conditions, flew through an envelope of white that the pilots refer to as “flying inside a Ping-Pong ball,” then found it sunny and clear at the pole. There, she visited the candy-cane-striped pole surmounted by a shiny metallic ball that marks the ceremonial south pole. (The ice the station sits on drifts about 30 feet a year, and the actual geographic pole is relocated each year.)

The pole is surrounded by a circle of flags representing the 46 countries that have signed the Antarctic Treaty, which established the continent as a scientific preserve and bans all military activity there.

After running around the pole — circling the earth in less than two seconds — Curry put an NBC decal on the metallic ball to certify the network’s first-ever trip there. (The decal was removed before she left.)

The existence of a southern continent had been postulated by geographers and explorers for centuries, but no one actually sighted the Antarctic landmass until 1820, and no one set foot on it until a year later. Another 91 years went by before Norwegian Roald Amundsen won a race with British explorer Robert Scott to be the first to reach the geographic pole. Scott and his party of four others died on the trip back to their ship.

No one set foot on the South Pole again until 1956, when Adm. George Dufek landed there in a DC-3. Over the next three years, the United States built the first year-round polar station there, naming it after Amundsen and Scott. Scientists and support staff have occupied it continuously since 1957.

The Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station Curry visited is the third at the pole and was built to accommodate 150.

There is one sunrise and one sunset a year, corresponding to the autumnal and vernal equinoxes. As this is spring in the Southern Hemisphere, the sun has been up since September and won’t set until March.

It’s been more than a week since Curry began a journey that took her from New York to Los Angeles to New Zealand to McMurdo and finally to the pole. During that time, she missed her daughter McKenzie’s 15th birthday; cameraman Mike Simon also missed his daughter’s birthday.

But, she said, it was worth the sacrifice.

“We’ve all gained a lot from doing this project,” she told the TODAY crew. “We’ve seen some fantastic scientists. We’ve really seen their grit in their efforts to find the truth about these issues facing our planet.

“It’s been a privilege, but we’d like to come home.”