The (South) Polar Express
Two centuries ago, it took Lewis and Clark three years to cross half of North America. It’s taking Michigan Technological University’s Russell Alger and his teammates only a little longer to blaze a trail to the South Pole.
Of course, Antarctica poses special challenges. Ninety-eight percent of the continent is buried under thousands of feet of ice. And it doesn’t help that the trail builders can only work for a few weeks during the summer and have to start over again every year from the starting point at McMurdo Station, on the coast.
For the fourth winter in a row, Alger, director of Michign Tech’s Institute of Snow Research, has joined a National Science Foundation effort to build a thousand-mile overland supply route to the international research station at the South Pole. Currently, supplies can only be flown in, and with the weather at the bottom of the world as dicey as it is, even in the middle of the southern summer air travel can be a crap shoot.
Ground travel may be delayed but is rarely stopped by weather. It’s much cheaper. And you can haul far more gear overland than you can in the air. “With the plane, everything has to be downsized,” Alger said. “They sometimes have trouble getting enough fuel to the South Pole, so NSF decided over the years to do the trail.”
So, since 1992, the team has forged south from McMurdo, traveling through un-tracked snow and picking their way over and around lurking crevasses. Nevertheless, all those years of driving over the same route are starting to pay off, Alger says. “This year, we noticed a great benefit; we were driving on something and not sinking all the time. With every passage, it should get better and better.”
As in past years, Alger was the point man on the traverse, traveling ahead of most of the convoy to watch for crevasses. The good news was that on the 500 miles of trail that had already been marked, only a handful of small new ones had formed.
A few miles past that point, Alger was air-lifted back to McMurdo. As the remaining team members began crossing new ground, however, their luck changed. “They had to worm their way through a lot of crevasses,” Alger said.
These ravines in the ice are doubly treacherous because they are usually invisible, covered with a layer of snow that likely as not will collapse with minimal provocation. The trick is to find them before they find you.
To do that, the team tests the surface with ground-penetrating radar, located on a boom attached to the front of the lead vehicle. When the radar detects a void, everyone stops.
“Depending on how deep the crevasse is, we either go around it--which is hard, because if there’s one crevasse there are usually lots of crevasses--or we dynamite it open and fill it in,” says Alger. “It’s actually kind of neat.”
Another danger in this country of no street signs is getting lost in bad weather. The lead trailblazer pokes a flag into the trail every quarter mile, while the other vehicles follow as much as several miles behind. “When a storm comes up, we stop. We don’t move unless you can see two flags ahead.
“It can be hard to find your way back.”
They expect to cross the final 200 miles next year. But as satisfying as that will be, this is a job that truly will never be done. The Ross Ice Shelf drifts northward toward the ocean at a rate of about a meter a day, so in a sense the trail will always be under construction.
So what’s the attraction, other than following in the footsteps of Scott and Amundsen? “The main reason I go is that I can stand in the sunshine,” Alger admits. When northern Michigan is shadowed in clouds and darkness, Antarctica is ablaze in day-and-night light.
“I sure hope I can go again next year.”