For the last 10 years, three French-led traverses have transported building materials and fuel supplies on tractor-towed sledges from coastal Dumont d'Urville station to Dome C, 1100km inland and 3200m above sea level. In the past few years diesel mechanics from the Australian Antarctic Program have been invited to participate in these traverses trading knowledge with the French. This year we (John Donaldson and Scott Noblet) participated in the second and third traverses.
It takes 12 days on average to get to Dome C with the loaded sleds and about eight days to return. The start is slow, with large sastrugi and a relatively steep climb keeping the average speed below about 11km/h. As fuel is used, fuel sleds are left for collection on the return trip. Loss of power to the tractors due to altitude is counteracted by the load getting lighter and the road getting smoother. As the temperature steadily decreases so does the wind, making bearable temperatures of minus 30°–40°.
About 470 tons of ‘usable’ cargo was delivered to Dome C station by the three traverses this season. After unloading of sleds at Dome C the vehicles are serviced over two days before starting on the return trip. ‘Downhill’ speeds are at least 14km/h and usually much more, especially with the help of a snowplough smoothing the sastrugi.
A typical day on traverse involved waking up at 7:15am, having a quick breakfast, then starting the tractors at 8 o'clock and warming them up for half an hour. By 8:30am loads were connected and the train ready to start. At 1:30pm we stopped for one hour for lunch before driving again non-stop until 8:30pm.
The nine people all had jobs. Two people checked the sleds and loads, two people fuelled up the nine vehicles, three mechanics serviced the vehicles, one person prepared the meals and one did odd jobs like filling the snow melter, cleaning the incinerator toilet and helping out where needed. Food — all pre-cooked in Australia — was prepared by the doctor.
We had a great time. We learned a lot and were made very welcome by both the French and Italian people, who were very patient with our shocking attempts at their language. Most of them have a lot of traverse experience, having been involved for many years, and everything ran very smoothly and efficiently.
Engineering Program, AAD