Traversing Antarctica

A train of tractors pulling fuel containers.
The French traverse arrives at Concordia station (station visible at top right of photo). (Photo: Steve Macaulay)
Packed sleds and polysleds on the British traverse to Berkner Dome.Anthony Hull in the cab of a Pisten Bully tractor.Two men standing in front of a traverse tractor.The French traverse from Dumont d’Urville to Concordia used a paired tractor system to pull 8 to 10 sleds. A map showing the route of the British traverse.Map showing the French traverse route.

Travelling in a tractor and sled convoy across a frozen, near-featureless landscape, at 11 kilometres per hour for some 50 days, is not everyone’s idea of fun.

But according to Australian Antarctic Division Traverse Systems Lead Project Officer, Anthony Hull, it can be rewarding, even when personal space is at a premium and comforts come Antarctic style.

“I spent 51 days without a shower, with three other blokes in one shipping container, and sometimes our toilet was a drum on the back of a sled. But it was one of the best experiences of my Antarctic career,” Mr Hull said.

Just as well, because for many Antarctic programs it’s the best way to haul tonnes of fuel, food and equipment between stations and field camps, or deep inland – opening up the continent to new scientific research opportunities.

Up until the early 2000s Australia had some 40 years’ experience undertaking such ‘heavy traverses’, largely to support glaciological research. These included traverses inland of Casey in the 1970s, six year-long traverses in Wilkes Land in the 1980s, and traverses around the Lambert Glacier Basin between 1989 and 1995.

Now with the Australian Government’s commitment to lead an international quest to drill an ice core containing million-year-old ice, deep in Antarctica, the need for Australia to reinvigorate its heavy traverse capability is critical.

“The million year ice core project will be our first traverse ‘customer’ in 2020,” Australian Antarctic Division Traverse Systems Project Manager, Matt Filipowski, said.

“For this and future projects over the 20 year life cycle of the traverse, we need to be able to travel more than 1000 kilometres inland to sites of scientific interest, hauling infrastructure, food, fuel and scientific equipment that will allow us to establish a mobile field station, which can be resupplied by traverse or by air.”

With this ambition in mind, Mr Hull and fellow traverse project officer Steve Macaulay, joined the British and French traverses, respectively, during the 2016–17 Antarctic season, to study the different traverse technologies and methodologies employed by each program.

“We had a range of topics to investigate, including the types and numbers of prime movers and sleds used, power generation, fuel transport, occupational health and safety, mobile station infrastructure, and the interface of the traverses with ships and aircraft,” Mr Hull said.

The two countries’ traverses use quite different models, due mainly to the “logistical pathway” (aircraft or ship) used to deliver supplies to Antarctica, and the terrain that’s crossed.

“The British model has strong links to an aviation platforms and is a bit like a ‘roadhouse’ – serving as a mobile fuel station and hard shelter for their twin otters and deep field science programs,” Mr Hull said.

“The French traverse is mainly set up to resupply the French-Italian station, Concordia, at Dome C, about 1250 kilometres from their coastal station Dumont D’Urville. It’s more of a logistical freight operation, transporting cargo and fuel from their resupply ship into Concordia, and bringing out heavy equipment and waste.”

Mr Hull spent 71 days with the British Antarctic Program, with 51 days on traverse. In that time he participated in two traverses; 994 kilometres between Beamish and Berkner Dome, on the Antarctic Peninsula, and 785 kilometres between Berkner Dome and Three Ronnies Creek. Only 14 of these traverse days involved driving, with the rest of the time spent building berms to winterise equipment at scientific research sites, digging out buried fuel drums, decommissioning camps and grooming ski-ways.

Mr Hull said the traverse sleds were manually packed with components tied down with straps, rather than using containers. The relatively flat, smooth route between field sites also meant they could use ‘polysleds’ that look like large plastic tarps, rather than sleds on skis.

“It took the team up to three days to prepare and build one packed sled and during the traverse we would stop every three hours to refuel the prime movers and make sure all the straps were tensioned,” Mr Hull said.

“The polysleds offer less surface drag, so it meant we could pull heavier loads. We hauled approximately 90 tonnes on our second traverse, using three Pisten Bully snow groomers.

In contrast, Mr Macaulay spent 110 days with the French team on two traverses between Dumont D’Urville and Concordia. Each 2500 kilometre return trip involved about 24 days of driving (about 100 kilometres per day), with another 63 support days.

“The route to Concordia is like a highway that the French traverse two or three times a season. The terrain is undulating and covered in sastrugi, so a tractor at the front clears the route and a snow groomer tidies it up,” Mr Macaulay said.

The traverses consisted of six tractors, with pairs of tractors joined by ropes. Each paired tractor system pulled eight to 10 sleds, carrying containerised loads of about 150 tonnes.

“Unlike the British polysleds, the French use sleds with solid axles like trucks,” Mr Macaulay said.

“Smaller sleds carry 20 foot containers, aviation fuel and tanks, and larger sleds carry either two 20 foot containers or a single 40 foot container.”

While the days were long and routine, Mr Macaulay said he enjoyed the quiet time alone in his tractor.

“You start the tractor in low gear and once you reach a predetermined gear and speed you can literally put your feet up until you stop,” he said.

“So long as nothing breaks and you keep the tractor on the road, you can let your mind wander.”

At the end of the day everyone had a job to do to prepare the traverse for an overnight stop. They then retired as a team to eat pre-packaged meals prepared by the traverse doctor. Fortunately, the food was based on French cuisine, with plenty of cheese, cream, butter and pastries, high in the calories the hard-working team required.

While final decisions are yet to be made, the Australian traverse capability will need to move similar cargo and total tonnes as the French traverse model – given the equipment required to establish a mobile inland station and associated ice coring field camp, and the location of the likely ice core drilling site near Dome C, not far from Concordia station.

Whatever the traverse model, one thing is certain. The new capability will be a whole lot faster, more efficient, and more comfortable than traverses of yore.

“We used to use heavy, steel-tracked bulldozers that could bump along at about seven kilometres per hour,” Mr Filipowski said.

“Now we can move almost twice as fast on more comfortable rubber tracks, using modern GPS navigation and carrying much bigger loads.”

Wendy Pyper
Australian Antarctic Division