The South Pole Traverse

Pretty much one of the most sought-after, intense positions you can get here in Antarctica is to get the chance of going on the South Pole Traverse. It’s essentially a caravan of tractors and supplies that track across the ice, over a glacier, and across crevasses to get to the South Pole to resupply them with fuel.

DSC01656Most everything here in Antarctica is supplied by the LC-130 Hercules plane. It usually takes about 4 gallons of fuel that the plane burns per 1 gallon of fuel that’s transported by LC-130 to actually refuel the Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station. EXTREMELY ineffective. When the Traverse started just shy of 10 years ago in the 2005/2006 season, they found out that it’s a much more efficient way to transport large amounts of fuel, albeit a much more dangerous one for the Traverse team. It only takes 1/2 gallon of fuel to transport each gallon that makes it up to the South Pole. Taking around 140,000 gallons of fuel each year to the Pole while dropping fuel caches and supplying remote camps along the way, this saves on average 65 LC-130 flights a year. In total, they delivered more than 110 tons of cargo in that first year. This number is considerably higher this year since they only made 1 traverse to the Pole that first year and this year they made 3 traverses.  After that first year, they had a 1 year hiatus to build up the infrastructure on the trail leading to the Pole. They made great headway in 2007-2008 at nailing down the routine for the Traverse team and in the 2008-2009 season, they completed the first operational Traverse year. This accomplishment marked a great achievement for the NSF and a mind-altering way of transporting fuel across tundras. This is why a lot of people here on station hold these teams in such high regard.

Essentially rock stars in the eyes of most of my friends, these teams are completely secluded from the world while on the 28 day trip to the South Pole. Once they drop their supplies off, it’s a much shorter return trip. I takes 1 1/2 to 2 months in total after they drop their caches, visit the remote camps, and return to McMurdo Sound. It’s an incredible feat considering the history of South Pole journeys by the human race in the last 150 years. Knowing that we can consistently brave this extreme weather through scientific and mechanical innovation that came from the advancement of the human race with virtually zero casualties is unbelievable to me. I would have never believed that this was possible if I hadn’t seen it with my own eyes.

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The caravan consists of big trailers used for storage and sleeping, Caterpillar and Case tractors for dragging everything over the ice, and huge, long tubular bladders filled with oil. It’s a pretty interesting sight to see. I was fortunate enough to drive by their staging area on my way to work every day. I got to see the progression of equipment getting prepped for the trip every day and I tried documenting all the different stages. The giant bladders for the fuel are exactly as it’s described, a big black long bladder that are strapped to a hitch so the tractors can drag them along the ice (Shown to the left and above). The trail leading to the South Pole is all up hill, climbing in elevation to almost 10,000 feet with the barometric pressure sometimes up to 14,000 feet. It’s approximately 995 miles (1601 km) one way, making it almost 2,000 miles round-trip.

I’ve had the pleasure of talking with several of the traverse team members from past traverses, from SpoT 1 and 2 over this season, and a member of SpoT 2 who happens to be my room mate while he’s in town here. I’ve had a good amount of time to pick a few of these unique individual’s heads about their experience along with one of the managers of the whole operation. They have all said it’s extremely important who your team members are and how their personalities mesh together as a whole. How someone will interact with others is one of the main things they look at when being considered as a potential team member, even. They prefer people that have had at least 1 year of “ice time” (being deployed in Antarctica). This is to ensure they can even handle the lifestyle that contract work entails before setting out on an extremely monotonous, sometimes grueling adventure to the South Pole. They also have to have some kind of specialized skill they could use with a background of mechanics. You don’t necessarily have to be a mechanic to operate a tractor on the traverse but it definitely helps. You could specialize in carpentry or electrical engineering and they’d still let you be an operator but you’d have to have a pretty impressive resume.

I asked my room mate what he thought the best and worst part of the trip was. He said that the best part of the trip was split between how much of an adventure the whole experience was and how excited he was to be driving back into McMurdo Station after sitting on a tractor for the last 2 months. The worst part of the trip was how little scenery there actually was on the nearly 2,000 mile trip. The most scenic views leading through the route they took into Antarctica was the first and last 100 miles in the bay near McMurdo overlooking the Trans-Antarctic Mountains. The glacier they use to access the continent is definitely a lot safer than the Beardmore Glacier that Captain Scott and Shackleton used years ago travel across the continent but the scenery is less than impressive most of the way. The living spaces they have are incredibly small but as comfortable as possible when dragging small trailers filled with bunk beds, bathrooms, and kitchens. They would work about 12 hours a day and park for the night until they get some sleep and food in their stomachs. Then another morning of firing up tractors, getting their sled trailers ready, and fueling their machines. After that, right back on their way on the South Pole Highway until they get to the South Pole. They get a day off at the Pole, with the eventual return trip in sight.

The South Pole Traverse is an incredible statement of human ingenuity in the most inhospitable place on earth. It has always been on the forefront of fascination for the general public and will continue to push the limits of human capabilities as long as we insist on being a part of this environment for the further understanding of science. I firmly believe that the most extreme places and situations bring the best out of humanity with Antarctica being a shining example of that.

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