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Authors: John H. Wright

Blazing Ice

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From A to B: How Logistics Fuels American Power and Prosperity
—David Axe



John H. Wright

Foreword by
David M. Bresnahan

Copyright © 2012 by John H. Wright

Published in the United States by Potomac Books, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced in any manner whatsoever without written permission from the publisher, except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles and reviews.

Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
Wright, John H.

Blazing ice : pioneering the twenty-first century's road to the South Pole / John H. Wright ; foreword by David M. Bresnahan.

      p. cm.

Includes index.

ISBN 978-1-61234-451-5 (hardcover : alk. paper)

ISBN 978-1-61234-452-2 (electronic)
1. Antarctica—Discovery and exploration. 2. Antarctica—Social conditions—21st century. 3. Antarctica—Environmental conditions. I. Title.

G860.W75 2012



Printed in the United States of America on acid-free paper that meets the American National Standards Institute Z39-48 Standard.

Potomac Books
22841 Quicksilver Drive
Dulles, Virginia 20166

First Edition

10 9 8 7 6 5 4 3 2 1

for Brian Wheater,
whose cautionary tale of
kept us on alert,

for the crew,
who toiled on the trail and proved the concept,

for all those who helped


Foreword by David M. Bresnahan





2 Denver

3 Frontier Attitude

4 French Connections


5 Crossing the Shear Zone—Year One

6 Crossing It Right—Year One

7 Crossing the Ross Ice Shelf—Year Two

8 That
: Ruminations on the Meaning of Road and the Influence of Terrain

9 Farthest South—Year Three

10 Traverse to Williams Field


11 Return to Farthest South

12 Sastrugi

13 Farther South

14 Going In with Airplanes

15 Christmas at South Pole

16 Return to McMurdo


About the Author


I felt suddenly alone
on the snowy flats of the McMurdo Ice Shelf near Williams Field skiway. Ann had just taken their group picture. Now, the eight of them walked away, back over the snow. Their waiting tractors and sled trains lined up on the snow road, pointed south under a blue sky and a bright sun. I knew they'd do it this time, get all the way to South Pole and back. John was right, though. It wasn't a three-year project. I knew that too, but I had to sell it to others. I had no appreciation at the beginning of what really lay under the red lines drawn on those maps, no idea the level of effort it took to design and assemble the fleet. Support at the National Science Foundation was not undivided, either. But these eight were tenacious. And I was proud of all of us.

Their yellow tractors and red tractors started crawling forward. In a half mile the caravan turned east, directly into the face of the gray blizzard-wall overtaking the Shelf. And that was the point: the weather grounded our LC-130 Hercules aircraft, but the traverse kept going. A perfect start. Damn, I wanted to go with them.

The United States established a strategic presence at the geographic South Pole in 1956. Since that time, we have supplied the Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station from our logistics hub at McMurdo Station on the coast of Antarctica entirely by airlift.

Less than a hundred years ago, no one had even seen the South Pole. These days, World War II and Cold War interests in the unknown continent have
quieted. The National Science Foundation now runs the entire scope of American interests in Antarctica through the United States Antarctic Program (USAP). Glimpsing the first thirty seconds after the Big Bang, measuring the annual dilation of the ozone hole, monitoring the front lines of global warming—we do world-class science down there.
requires extraordinary logistical support, and
was my job.

I'd been intrigued with the idea of an overland supply traverse to South Pole for years. “Traverse” is what we call them in Antarctica—tractor and sled caravans crossing the ice and snow. Some shared the vision, but the concept was not a new idea. A 1962 Operation Deep Freeze report, for example, points out “an overland system for delivering large quantities of bulk fuel to Byrd Station” could substantially reduce airlift costs.

Through the late 1980s and 1990s we advanced the traverse concept in workshops, studies, reports, and field investigations. I was frustrated that others in NSF's Office of Polar Programs couldn't see the future then. But vision is a hard sell in NSF when you want money, not just words. I finally took possession of the traverse development after I spent time in the field exploring a possible route in 1995. When George Blaisdell and I completed our study in 2000, “Analysis of McMurdo to South Pole Traverse as a Means to Increase LC-130 Availability in the USAP,” we found the benefits to the program were overwhelming.

Building of the United States' third research station at South Pole was then nearing completion. In 1998–1999 supplying Pole with building materials over and above its normal science support claimed 316 LC-130 sorties, leaving only 182 flights available for remote field science. Since that year, flights for field science dropped to 102, 103, and in 2001–2002 had fallen to only 64. Remote field science, the great strength of the USAP, was dying.

Under these circumstances, we found support for the South Pole Traverse Proof-of-Concept Project. Our study showed the traverse would not only free up LC-130 flights for field science, but that it would be economical as well. Tractors would burn half the fuel to deliver the same payload to Pole as LC-130s. The environment would win in a big way, too: for the same fuel burned, modern tractor engines released merely hundredths of the noxious emissions produced by LC-130 turbo props.

Could we pull off the proof-of-concept? Could we find a route, prove it safe, and show it could be done over and over again?

In an ironic twist, modern technology perfected in the 1990s and available in 2000 enabled this more primitive means of delivering supplies to South Pole. We had GPS for navigation, ground penetrating radar for finding deadly hidden crevasses, Iridium phones with data links for e-mail, and satellite imagery. None of these were available when we'd dropped a bulldozer in a crevasse not far from McMurdo in 1990. The time was right for us now.

Who would lead the project?

At NSF's urging, the USAP support contractor hired John Wright. I knew him, but not well at the time. He had pulled off some challenging jobs in the USAP and had built an impeccable record for safety. I remember pictures of a stunningly accurate hole-through in the South Pole Tunnel Project he ran where two tunnels met face to face in the dark. John always placed his crew in the forefront, while he stood in the background, smiling. For the traverse job, he put together a field team of Ice veterans. They collaborated with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Cold Regions Research and Engineering Laboratory, and a host of other contributors. John brought out the best in all his crew. But he sure was hardheaded at the merest shadow of a threat to their safety.

When they came back to McMurdo on January 14, 2006, the nonbelievers stepped aside. They had delivered eleven LC-130 loads of cargo to Pole. They'd done it safely, and with little more impact to the environment than the tracks they left. And they made history. No one had ever traversed from Mc-Murdo to Pole and back. The concept was proved.

Because of that, USAP logistics will never be the same. At maturity, the traverse would give us back ninety flights or more. In 2000, George and I thought it'd take three tractor fleets to do that. These guys showed us it could be done with two. And that's only the beginning of change.

I am pleased to have John, my friend and colleague, tell our story.

M. B
, D.C.
15, 2010


To my wife, Samantha
and my friend Ann Hawthorne, I give my deepest thanks for suffering through early manuscript drafts of
Blazing Ice
, and for their encouragement throughout to bring our worthy story to book.

Author William Fox's (
Terra Antarctica
) meditations on rendering geography into landscape through human imprints made him a soul-brother for our undertaking. Tom Sawyer (technology editor,
Engineering News-Record
) recognized both the technical component of our achievement and the dramatic story underlying it. I thank both these writers for their enthusiastic counsel.

Chris Landry, snow scientist, and learned man David Emory, both of Silverton, Colorado, graciously provided critical reads of the manuscript in its middling and later versions. Mountaineer Tom Lyman, intimately familiar with the story by virtue of having lived two years of it, kindly offered his read and comments. And special thanks to Andy Hanahan III for hints on Chicago style.

As pupil, I bow to master Bruce McAllister (
) who helped me wrench
Blazing Ice
out of the technical operations reports it inhabited into the narrative in which the story truly lives. I thank Bruce for ongoing guidance through the forests of modern publishing.

I am profoundly grateful to Anne Devlin of Max Gartenberg Literary Agency for bringing
Blazing Ice
to Potomac Books and arranging this perfect publishing marriage.

Finally, I wish to acknowledge with deepest appreciation Roald Amundsen, Fridtjof Nansen, Ernest Shackleton, Robert Falcon Scott, Vivian Fuchs,
Edmund Hillary, Albert Crary, and John Evans for the legacy documents they left behind. These added immeasurably to our effective route planning, and to ensuring our mission safety and success in the twenty-first century.


The white world of snow and ice
lay below us now. A frozen cascade, big as Niagara Falls and broken by hundreds of gaping crevasses, draped over the plateau's rim. Downstream, the Leverett Glacier flowed gracefully around the stony buttress of Mount Beazley.

The first of our heavy tractors appeared just below the rim, laboring up the final grade. The place was strangely silent. The snows absorbed all sound. No wind blew.

Finally the tractor topped out. It was a ponderous, stately event.

Today was January 4, 2005. I looked back on the ground we crossed getting here. Seven thousand feet below, icy turbulence had blocked us from the Transantarctic Mountains for a month. Three hundred miles of snow swamp behind that had held us up for a year. And just a day trip out of McMurdo Station, blasting and dozing a path across three miles of hidden crevasses, had taken another year of our lives.

BOOK: Blazing Ice
4.68Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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