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Traverse tractors with fuel bladders on sleds.
Photo Credit: Ralph Maestas
South Pole Traverse tractors pull sleds of fuel bladders destined for Antarctica's southernmost research station in 2007-08. This year's traverse will save the USAP an estimated $1.5 million in fuel and plane costs as it begins its first full season in operation. 

Traverse gets green light for operation to South Pole, AGAP

The changing times have necessitated some new ways of doing business on the Ice. At the top of the list: The NSF has given the green light for the South Pole Traverse to begin this season, hoping to save about $1.5 million in flight hour costs and 330,000 gallons of fuel by using an over-snow tractor train to deliver fuel and supplies to South Pole Station rather than the LC-130.
Begun in 2002 as a proof-of-concept, the traverse basically consists of large tractors hauling sleds across 1,600 kilometers of snow and ice. It took the team four seasons to establish the flagged and compacted snow route between McMurdo and South Pole External U.S. government site stations.
Last season, after a one-year hiatus, a mostly new traverse team re-established the route using Case and Caterpillar Challenger tractors. [See previous story: Ready to roll.] Paul Thur led the traverse last year, and will do so again beginning in October for its first full operational season.
Originally scheduled to make two roundtrips to Pole, the traverse instead will make its delivery of fuel and equipment (including a Caterpillar Challenger 95) to the South Pole Station, and then head toward the blankness of East Antarctica to support a science project studying a subglacial mountain range — the Antarctic Gamburtsev Province (AGAP) External Non-U.S. government site. [See related story: Mountainous mystery.]
The 10-person team hopes to deliver about 264,000 pounds of cargo to South Pole and AGAP, along with 55,000 gallons of fuel to the South Pole and 50,000 gallons to the AGAP field camp. The traverse will use up to 80,000 gallons on the trail this year.
“We’ll have a better idea after we go with the big tractors once what our fuel consumption will be,” said Thur, who works for Raytheon Polar Services (RPSC) External Non-U.S. government site, the prime contractor for NSF. “It may not be 80,000 total burned. That’s my rough estimate. I hope [the estimate is] way over.”
Thur said it would take about 25 days to reach the Pole, with a slightly faster return time of 18 days after completing its mission to AGAP and making a stop at 90 degrees south en route home. “Route maintenance shouldn’t be a big deal. Compaction should be better,” he said. “We shouldn’t get stuck anywhere — I say that now — we’re going in pretty heavy.”
Rick Campbell, a senior project specialist with RPSC, wrote the original proposal for the traverse program, and is excited that the years of work are coming to fruition. “We’re no longer proof-of-concept or [wondering] can we do it,” he said. “We know we can do it. Now we’re moving forward to doing it well. I love the efficiencies that we’re realizing, and the teamwork we have.”
Much of the cargo space on this week’s flights accommodated additional equipment for the traverse, including new vehicles, sleds, fuel bladders and specially designed spreader bars that allow the tractors to carry four bladders side by side.
“It’s a lot of stuff,” Thur said.
Despite the hardships of the job — the equipment operators and mechanics spend nearly the whole summer field season, more than three months, on their own in the Antarctic backcountry — there are plenty of applicants for spots on the team, according to Thur. The most important trait, he said, is the ability to get along.
“Skills are secondary compared to attitude,” he said.

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