My Traverse to the South Pole
Let’s just call this a long road trip. Though the length isn’t what makes it so interesting but rather the location (The South Pole!), mode of travel, and reasons behind the trip.
How: Tractor traverse
Where: Across multiple Ice Shelves, up the Trans-Antarctic and onto the Polar Plateau, eventually reaching the Geographic South Pole.
Why: Delivery of fuel and other essential supplies for science projects at the South Pole.
My job: Field Safety Coordinator for the US Antarctic Program
What made this stint of contract work so interesting is the unique mix of skills needed. My work was a mix of traditional mountaineering, tractor rigging, white-out navigation, field medic, tractor operator, and science tech.
I actually spent the first part of my season training the team in crevasse rescue. Then I went on a special trip to prepare one section of the route, before actually starting this traverse.
Sounds like a lot?? It was! It’s hard to share the scale of this journey but below are some great insights.
Ice shelves, glaciers, high altitude – this route has it all. We leave from McMurdo Station and traverse overland to the South Pole Station. Early on we cross over to the larger Ross Ice Shelf at the aptly named ‘shear zone’. This is a region of converging glaciers at different speeds. McMurdo Ice Shelf moves at 150 meters per year and the Ross Ice Shelf moves at 450 meters.
The larger Ross ice shelf moves roughly twice as fast as McMurdo’s Ice Shelf, and as these two masses shear past each other a tremendous amount of energy is transferred into the slower ice shelf, radiating out into the ice. This results in a very high concentration of crevasses. FUN!
This one section of the route warrants its own separate assessment prior to the traverse. I went out with a special crew, including some of the world’s best scientists on crevasse detection. We spent nearly two weeks assessing the route and making it safe for our traverse.
Once past the shear zone, we make our way onto land, moving from ice shelf to glacier and traversing up the Trans-Antarctic mountains and across the Polar Plateau.
Our environment is ever-changing: soft, swamp-like conditions, hard snow, sastrugi, blizzards, and bluebird days.
Traversing in Style
What makes this traverse so interesting is that it’s not an expedition gained by steps but by engines. It’s not about fast, light and thin margins, and we aren’t making a path we are plowing a road.
When we push out onto this traverse, we are effectively towing everything we need to survive for months on the road. We drag a kitchen module, freezer of food, snow melter, sink shower, and incinalete (poop burner). This gives us time to weather any storm. We all rotate through camp duties such as cooking, melting, cleaning, etc. A little capsule of humanity in some of the least accessible regions on earth.
The first traverse of the season takes the longest. It usually takes close to 3-4 weeks to complete the one-way journey. The variability comes from route conditions, snow conditions, tractor and equipment breakage, and weather delays.
We have all the ingenuity and skills to keep the operation running. The teams include Heavy Equipment Operators and Mechanics, and me. Everyone drives a tractor. Though, mine is miniature in comparison to the other teams. My tractor leads the way since I am proofing the route (looking for crevasses) as we go. The smaller tractor gives me a better safety margin for not breaking through snow bridges. The other tractors drag out camp and all of the cargo for delivery to the South Pole.
Let’s talk about Crevasses
With typical mountaineering, crevasse detection is done in a few different ways. To learn more about snow travel, check out my Mountain Tech and Guiding Options
- Review maps and satellite imagery to see where typical regions of crevassing exist
- Areas of rapid descent
- Where glaciers come into contact with features
- Turns and bends
- Use your own vision as you move through the terrain, looking for surface features changes at ground level
- A probe that you can test for voids with is super helpful
- Ideally, something steel-tipped that you can get to 3-5 feet depth easily.
- Sometimes it also works well to expose the crevasse so that you can truly see what is going on down there.
I used all of these techniques when working in Antarctica with one very important difference. The loads that are needed to cross the crevasses are MASSIVE. Tractors dragging roughly 27,000 gallons of fuel are heavy. So, while probing and surface features were helpful indicators, especially for when I walked around (roped), they didn’t help provide enough of a picture for our traverse needs. For that I needed, drum roll, please……SCIENCE!
Well actually maybe I should say engineering, science, and radar.
It was only through ground-penetrating radar that I was able to gather a better picture of how deep and wide crevasses were and, equally important, how big of a snow bridge they had over them. This is a unique skill set. While I have been exposed to this technique during other seasons on the ice, I had intensive training with leading experts from CRREL during our work at the ‘shear zone’ before the traverse started.
Let me remind you, the route is on glaciers, and they are always moving. Thus, the route itself is in flux and changing. There’s a risk and a reality that crevasses do appear on this route.
If possible, we re-route around any concerning crevassing. Only as a last-ditch effort would we actively work to fill in a crevasse – essentially creating a snow plug that can support our equipment. A huge part of my role is to be there for the first traverse of the season to help provide safety and decision-making for such events. I also trained the team to operate safely in the crevassed region and to safely provide crevasse rescue in the event of an emergency.
A Special Note about the NSF*
The route to the south pole has been painstakingly laid out over many years to avoid crevassing as much as possible. The NSF has invested heavily in this process (proprietary information). They also believe strongly in safety and low impact. By traversing we reliably deliver supplies and reduce overall fuel usage. The only other option is to fly fuel which has a far bigger carbon footprint. The US Antarctic Program supports incredible, world-class science and I’m incredibly grateful to play a small role in supporting its efforts.
*This post is my personal experience and view and I am not speaking on behalf of the NSF. Please reach out if you have questions or concerns.