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South Pole Traverse Team and Equipment
Photo Credit: Forest Banks
The traverse crew and equipment at the South Pole on Jan. 8.

Tractor train would deliver fuel and materials between research stations

Thur said the most likely short-term goal would be two heavy traverse trips each season, with 45 days required for each roundtrip. He explained that the number of flights each traverse would offset is still up for debate. This season’s practice run probably saved at least a half-dozen flights by the National Guard. 

Thur said this season the traverse of Case and Caterpillar Challenger tractors hoped to return home to McMurdo in about three weeks, despite hauling back a 26,000-pound crane to McMurdo for retrograde cargo to the United States.

A typical day on the route begins before 7 a.m., as the heavy equipment operators fire up their machines. The group meets for a briefing in the kitchen module, and then heads back out the door by 7:30, with the train rolling by 8 a.m. The only significant stop is for lunch, unless the trail or machines require maintenance.

They generally shut down by 6 p.m., though the day’s labor is not over yet. “It takes an hour to shovel the machines off, and fuel up and fill the snow melter, and plug everything in — to do everything you need to do to stop for the day,” Thur said.

Entertainment is pretty subdued, he added. Maybe a game of Yahtzee in the evening, said heavy equipment operator Kristy Carney, the only woman on the team. 

“Everyone’s got their tunes in their cab during the day,” Thur said “Everybody is pretty mellow and pretty beat by the end of the day. We don’t stay up until midnight every night, rabble-rousing and trying to wake up whatever’s on the ice shelf. It’s pretty mellow.”

Weather only halted progress a few times, stopping the traverse for three full days. However, the team did spend many half-days struggling with equipment or slogging across such creatively named features as the Shoals of Intractable Funding and Sastrugi National Park. The latter is a 160-kilometer section of trail about 300 kilometers from Pole, with irregularly shaped snow drifts 1 to 2 meters high.

“For the most part, we were pretty lucky,” said Dale Hill, a heavy equipment operator on his first traverse trip, of the rough snow terrain.

Another bit of luck found the team at Pole for not only the official dedication of the new station, but arriving at 90 degrees south almost 50 years to the day that Sir Edmund Hillary led the first overland traverse by tractor from Ross Island.

“We didn’t plan it like that, but it’s pretty … cool to be here to see the flag being taken down from the Dome and be here for the dedication, and have the [distinguished visitors] come by and see our stuff,” Thur said. (See the story A New Era.)

In honor of Hillary, who died only two days earlier at age 88, the traverse flew the New Zealand flag at half-mast from the main living module as it pulled away from South Pole.

“It’s the least we can do,” said traverse heavy equipment operator James Mickelson. “The man conquered a lot of the world — and did a lot of good for the world. He’s one of my heroes.”

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Curator: Peter Rejcek, Antarctic Support Contract | NSF Official: Winifred Reuning, Division of Polar Programs