SILVERTON – The first man to try going overland from McMurdo Sound to the South Pole was Englishman Robert Falcon Scott in 1912. He was in a desperate race with Roald Amundsen to be the first to reach the Pole. Not only did Amundsen, who took a different route, beat him to 90 degrees South, but Scott and his companions famously froze to death in their tents on the way back.
In 2006, Silverton mining consultant John Wright led a crew of eight Americans to complete the first successful out-and-back traverse between McMurdo and the Pole. They weren’t explorers in the early-20th century sense. They did it in the course of building, over four Antarctic summers, a haul road, “1,028 miles, no dirt,” Wright said at his kitchen table in Silverton.
A reproduction of a photograph from the Scott expedition hangs on the wall next to a family photo of Wright and his wife, Samantha Tisdel Wright, and their two children.
The ice and snow road Wright pioneered connects the U.S. scientific research center at McMurdo Station, on the edge of the Ross Ice Shelf, with the South Pole, which is also occupied exclusively by the United States Antarctic Program.
Now Wright has written a book about the experience, Blazing Ice: Pioneering the Twenty-first Century’s Road to the South Pole. It will be published this September by Potomac Books.
The purpose of the road, Wright said, was to “relieve the South Pole of its dependence on airlifts.” Up until 2006 all supplies to South Pole Station were flown in by giant LC 130 cargo planes equipped with skis. And only in the summers, when temperatures and daylight allow. One plane can bring in 20,000 lbs. of cargo, but the flights are costly and burn a lot of fuel, which is not the best for the pristine air at the bottom of the world. And it takes a lot of flights to support the 200 or so summer and 50 year-round residents at the Pole. Now just one of Wright’s cargo trains, giant sleds pulled by giant snow tractors, delivers 220,000 lbs. of fuel and supplies, enough to offset 11 LC 130 flights.
Why wasn’t a road built before? “It wasn’t possible until the 21st century,” Wright said. The ice is in constant motion, shifting as much as six feet a day, a half-mile in a year. The ice road this year is not in the same place it was last year. “It’s a real dynamic road,” he said, with scientific understatement. “You can’t navigate it using GPS.” You have to follow the flags his crew placed every 300 feet for the full thousand miles.
The route is tiger-striped with hidden crevasses. A D8 bulldozer named Linda went down in a crevasse during an earlier road-building attempt, just a few miles out of McMurdo, in 1991.
“We didn’t have ground-penetrating radar until 2000” to detect the voids, Wright said. Before the Proof of Concept journey was over, Wright was even able to make use of classified satellite imagery that could identify hidden crevasses from space – “spook stuff,” he said, with some pride in his success at gaining the necessary clearance.
When the Traverse found an unavoidable crevasse, they would first lower a mountaineer into the fissure to gauge its dimensions, then collapse the snow bridge with explosives, then use their bulldozers to push more snow into the hole until they had a solid crossing.
“Had we tried it [building the road] a decade earlier,” Wright said, “we would have met with calamity.” Crossing one “shear zone” the team plugged 32 crevasses in three miles.
Wright, now 60, came to Silverton in 1974 answering an ad for a “mine engineer, no experience necessary.” But the downturn in mining and a chance encounter with a friend led him to Antarctica and 13 years of work for the National Science Foundation, which oversees all U.S. operations on the continent.
Wright asked his friend, who was a buyer for the NSF in Antarctica, “What can a miner do to support first-class science?” “You know something about explosives, don’t you?” And so, for five years, beginning in 1993, Wright was the chief explosives engineer for the U.S. Antarctic Project. In 1998 he cut a tunnel beneath the South Pole Station. The tunnel carried utilities, melted well water and wastewater for the expanding settlement. It was always, Wright said, 55 degrees below zero in the tunnel. When the digger broke, which was often, “we dug the tunnel with picks and shovels and chainsaws.”
When the tunnel job was finished Wright “thought that was it for me and Antarctica.”
But as it happened he met a Cedaredge friend for lunch at Ridgway’s True Grit Café. This man had been the operator on Linda, the Cat that went down in the crevasse. And he told Wright about the new effort to build a road, the South Pole Traverse Proof of Concept Project. “Can it be done at all? Can it be done safely? Can it be done repeatedly?”
Wright was drawn back to the ice. It took four years. They had to deal with 300 miles of soft snow they dubbed “the snow swamp” and with 100 miles of wind-whipped sastrugi so hard it broke the arm on their ground penetrating radar, so hard a D8 Cat left no tread marks. “As hard as the back of God’s hand,” Wright said, marveling still.
But they pushed the route through. And came back.
The book took Wright nearly as long to write as it did to build the road. It’s going to be an interesting read.