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Ready to roll

South Pole Traverse re-establishes 1,600-kilometer trail for logistics transportation

On the morning of Jan. 13 — as most of the population at Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station slept, weary from the previous day’s dedication of the new research station — the South Pole Traverse tractor train chugged away back to McMurdo Station with little fanfare.

It’s a marked contrast to the jubilant scene that took place here about two years ago. That’s when traverse leader John Wright and company ended four long years of trail building to arrive at the South Pole just before Christmas in 2005, proving that it would be possible to deliver fuel and materials reliably between the two U.S. Antarctic Program research stations.

Those were the days of trailblazing. Now it’s time to put the concept to work after a one-year hiatus.

“We pretty much reoccupied the same trail the whole way, except maybe a mile or two, or a couple hundred yards on top of the Leverett [Glacier],” said Paul Thur, South Pole Traverse manager, on the morning of departure from Pole.

Thur, like most of this year’s team, is new to the traverse. But their mechanic, Russ Magsig, has been on the project since its inception, traveling on the first 200-kilometer foray from McMurdo Station during the 2002-03 austral summer.

“It was softer than I figured,” Magsig said of the snow trail marked by bamboo poles topped with flags. “I thought we would have a little more base on the top. But we came through it OK.”

The trail markers were generally in pretty good shape, he added. That means future traverse teams will not have to spend too much time re-flagging the route each season. “Some of those flags are going to last five or six years,” Magsig said.

The markers closest to Pole — and the youngest part of the route — appeared as if they just came off the supply ship, Thur added. “They almost look brand new.”

This year’s mission was to re-establish the 1,600-kilometer-long route between McMurdo and South Pole stations, conducting maintenance along the way. It took the team 43 days to make the journey, not including time at the front end of the trip filling in crevasses along the shear zone. A mere 5.5-kilometer-long blip early in the route, not far from McMurdo Station on the Ross Ice Shelf, the shear zone is famously Swiss-cheesed with crevasses.

Thur said the team filled in 10 medium-size fractures (compared to the previously filled ones), and would need to keep an eye on about a dozen more features.

“The shear zone was kind of rewarding because we’ve been able to maintain that same road for … six years,” Magsig said. “If we make a new road [through the shear zone], that would be five years of usage that we could get out of it.”

The National Science Foundation wants to use the traverse as an alternative way to deliver fuel, as well as bulky materials, to the South Pole. Currently, the ski-equipped LC-130 aircraft operated by the New York Air National Guard is the only means of such transport. And the traverse tractors and their sleds wouldn’t return to McMurdo empty, as they could haul back waste and obsolete materials.

This year was more of a practice run for Thur’s team. They delivered a little more than 8,000 gallons of fuel in large bladders. “[We] proved that you can bring bladders all the way to the Pole once the trail is remediated,” he said.

The goal is to haul as much as 200,000 gallons of fuel across the continent eventually. “That’s years down the road,” Thur noted. Magsig added, “We’ve got to work up to that.”

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.

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