Hugh Downs Takes a 20/20 Bead on the South Pole—and Moves It

updated 01/24/1983 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 01/24/1983 AT 01:00 AM EST

In January of 1912, British explorer Robert F. Scott arrived at the South Pole only to discover that a Norwegian party led by Roald Amundsen had made it there first, and on the way back Scott and all his men froze to death. Things were considerably less trying for Hugh Downs, 60-year-old host of ABC's 20/20, when he journeyed to the bottom of the world last month. His reason for trekking to the Pole: to move it, sort of.

"Ice shifts," explains Downs, "so the Pole marker has to be realigned with the earth's axis every year. My moving it is a little gimmick." Downs, above and dwarfed by a glacier at left, convinced the National Science Foundation, which has a permanent base there, to allow him to star in the event for 20/20. The real work was done by resident cartographer Loreen Utz, 23, of the U.S. Geological Survey. She used satellite readings to determine the ice movement and a surveyor's transit to pinpoint the Pole's new location at 90" south latitude. Once he planted the marker, Downs then walked around the world. "In a radius of seven and three-quarters feet I took 24 steps, each in a different time zone," he says. The television segment, which required lugging more than a half ton of equipment to the Pole, will air in the early spring.

For Downs, the hardest part wasn't the 29-hour flight from New York via New Zealand or the 34-foot walk with the seven-foot bamboo marker to its new location in the balmy (for Antarctica)-26°F summer weather. The test of his mettle was "the toughest Navy physical I've ever had," testifies Downs, who had to shed 13 pounds (to 179) and have a preventive root canal done to pass. Antarctica is the coldest continent on earth (temperatures have plunged as low as-127°F), and daily life there brought surprises. "The buildings were so overheated," recalls Downs, "that the only way I could sleep at the Pole was just take off all my clothes and lie on top of the blanket."

Back in the States, Downs went for some R&R at his home in Carefree, Ariz., where he lives with his wife of 38 years, Ruth. She has long abided his sporting streak. Downs flies planes and gliders, scuba dives, and once rode a killer whale at Marine World in San Diego. What next? "I want," he says with characteristic aplomb, "to be the first journalist on a space shuttle."

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