History of the South Pole Traverse

Antarctica’s history, as short as it might be, regales us with tales of man’s quest for the South Pole. In the early 1900’s, explorers like Shackelton, Amundsen, and Scott risked (and some gave) their lives to be the first to stand on the most southerly point on the face of the earth.

At the time, 90 degrees south was just an arbitrary number, just a spot on a blank map where all the lines of longitude converged. There is nothing there of course, unless you considered the wind, the cold, and 360 degrees of frozen white loneliness that seems to stretch into eternity.

The early explorers believed that no one would follow in their footsteps, that they would be the first and the last men to visit the South Pole.  Who would have ever thought such a desolate, godforsaken place would become “home” to an entire settlement of people? Or that the Polar Plateau would become one of the most sought after areas for scientific research.

Today, Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station, or simply ‘Pole’ as the locals call it, is home to over 200 residents during the austral summer and dwindles to around 50 during the winter. There are several buildings, including an Observatory, ‘The Dome’, a variety of Jamesways (tent structures), and a newly developed South Pole Station, complete with cafeteria, growth pod (greenhouse), and state of the art gymnasium.

Year-round habitation of the South Pole would not be possible without an abundant source of energy.  The bulk of that energy supply is furnished by burning fossil fuels, primarily AN-8 a kerosene based jet fuel.

Since the 1950’s, Pole has relied entirely on aircraft to support its fuel needs.  In the recent summer seasons the number of LC-130 flights to the South Pole has topped over 200 flights during the short four month summer season, nearly 1/3 of which are used to transport fuel.

For the past decade, the US Antarctic Program has investigated the possibility of driving fuel by tractor train to the South Pole. Several tractors hauling fuel overland would not only be much more efficient but would also  provide transport for items too large to fit in the belly of an LC-130. Furthermore, a successful delivery of fuel to the Pole would offset the number of required tanker flights and would make those planes available to support field camps in other areas of the continent.

As novel as it sounds, driving tractor trains across Antarctica is nothing new.

Americans have been operating tractors around the continent for 60 years.  The French, Russians, and South Africans all drive fuel to interior stations. Sir Edmund Hillary (of Mt. Everest fame) drove modified Ferguson tractors from Ross Island to the Pole in 1958.   But it wasn’t until recently the vision of hauling fuel and supplies across 1,000 miles of frozen wasteland from McMurdo Station to the Pole had been realized.

2009-2010 marks the 7th season of the South Pole Traverse. And this is my journal.  Enjoy

The Shear Zone

The most problematic area on the entire traverse route would undoubtedly be the Shear Zone. Just 30 miles from McMurdo the greater Ross Ice Shelf tries to bend its way around Ross Island. When this happens the glacial ice rips apart, forming massive crevasses.  Crossing this area is dangerous. The crevasses must be detected, assessed, and sometimes destroyed if necessary.

A Shear Zone passage can be intimidating, especially if you’ve seen pictures of how large the crevasses can be. A quick observation of the area reveals no indication that there could be a giant void underneath your feet. From the surface it looks completely flat and unthreatening. We must use Ground Penetrating Radar (GPR) to detect the crevasses.

All the crevasses are marked with 2X4 posts and some have names. There is Mongo, Strangebrew, Personal Space, Baby, Battery Crack, Baby 2, Juanita, Ten O’clock Break, Snap, Crackle, Pop… just to name a few.  And in the middle of all this chaos, there’s the ‘Miracle Mile’ where for some reason there are no crevasses at all.

Today we blasted the two suspect crevasses. We believe the snow bridging them is too thin to support the weight of our tractors. So we blow them up and then fill the resulting hole with snow.

The explosions were impressive. The first crevasse was relatively small. The second however was quite large- over 100 feet deep and 20 feet wide in places.

This is a NEW crevasse and we got to name it.  We gave it the name…wait for it… Justin Bieber. Yup. I’m not sure why we gave it that name, but Derrick keeps calling it Justin BEAVER and this annoys me.

These giant canyons underneath the snow have never been viewed before. That’s a rare thing this day and age to see something that no one has ever seen. We took the time to repel into the largest one to check it out.

Above: View from inside the crevasse looking up.

Below: A crevasse as seen with Ground Penetrating Radar


Sea Level

The ‘South Pole Traverse’ is a tractor-train convoy that hauls fuel across Antarctica, from McMurdo to the South Pole Station.  Below are my photos and journal entries of that venture.

Location:  McMurdo

Elevation: Sea Level

Miles Advanced: No

We picked the Reefer off the sled with a giant crane and put it back on its skis- yeah.  This took a while and when all was said and done we could not find the pins needed to hold it in place.  Had they been misplaced? Stolen?  Or was this something more sinister, like sabotage’.  Could this be the end of the Terry Billings Era?  After pointing fingers for a bit, we did what any good Traverser would do- we stole them from someone else’s sled.  Side Note: The Reefer Unit with all our food weighs about 20,000lbs.  The skis that the Reefer Unit travels on weighs about 20,000lbs. And our food weighs about 1,500lbs. End Note.

Also, we accidently punctured one of our urine barrels.  It seeped reddish-brown pissicles out the side of the drum and onto the sea-ice.  I thought it was an oil stain at first and when I went to shovel it up and then noticed it was rotting urine- I nearly vomited.

Upon getting in to town, McLovin’ went straight to the store and bought three packs of Marlboro cigarettes- his store limit for the day.  He then stood in front of the store and tried to get strangers to buy more cigarettes for him.  I found this amusing since McLovin’ vowed to quit cigarettes as soon as we left for the Traverse.  I bought him two packs, mostly out of pity, the third I kept for myself in case I need to bribe him or something.  McLovin’ is easily manipulated.

Elevation: 216 ft.                                                                                                                                            Weather: 17 Degrees, Partly Cloudy/Wind                                                                                                          Miles Advanced: 100.1

100 miles today in the CORRECT direction!  Nice.  It’s rare in the Traversing world to hit the 100 mile mark but we had light loads and a good trail.  The cab was extremely hot and I drove with the door open most of the time.

I finished one of my audiobooks already- dang.  I only have a few audiobooks and I’m trying to spread them out over what could be a 3 month long traverse.  It was the new Jon Krakauer book- Where Men Win Glory- pretty good, I would recommend it.  At one point in the book Pat Tillman writes about joining the military, he describes in great detail about missing home and his beloved wife. Tears started building in my eyes and I had to snap myself out of it, “DAVE! You’re only 100 miles from McMurdo, you are NOT going to start crying for god sakes?!”

Miles Advanced: 42.6                                                                                                                                     Weather: 18 Degrees, Partly Cloudy

We rounded the steep cliffs of Minna Bluff and are now heading out onto the Ross Ice Shelf proper. At 11:00am we met back up with our cached fuel bladders and other supplies. Surprisingly nothing was buried but someone had left the door open on the Piston Bully. It was just swinging there wide open. Usually when you make that mistake in the Antarctic the winds will pack the vehicle to the brim with snow, or worse, will rip off your door. But we got lucky.

Did my first load of laundry today, it’s a bit early for laundry, I know, but forgot to do it in town. Our machine washes AND dries-it’s pretty cool but slow as hell. Just got to make sure you keep the snowmelter full- god forbid you run out of water.

Had fishsticks for dinner tonight. Not bad, but we couldn’t remember how Robshaw had made that delicious tartar sauce last year.

“I think he added pickles?”


“Yea, OK, where would you hide a pickle around here?”

“You don’t put pickles in tartar sauce dude.”

“Robshaw did, I think, and it was good, really good! I mean, pickles bring out the flavor in the fishstick. Ask Rob, he’ll tell you.”