Things went relatively smoothly for the Winter Traverse to Law Dome. We averaged above 10km/hr for the trip up and down. Track conditions were relatively smooth although there were some areas of hard ice.
Six people in total. Traveling with the ITASE van towed by a tractor and a Hägglunds towing a sled with extra fuel and equipment. Left station at 8 am on Monday, winds low and visibility good, and arrived at Automatic Weather Station (AWS) 02 in the early evening and settled in for the night.
Work on doing the maintenance on the AWS started around about 8 am the next day and was done by about midday. Winds were around 25 to 30 knots and temperature around −25°C to −30°C. Lunch was had on site and the return drive commenced back to station.
At the D12 waypoint, camp was set up again for the evening and we managed to return to station just before lunch.
All up a successful mission.
Travelling on a traverse
For our traverse to Law Dome there were three modes of transport: the Cat tracked tractor, a Hägglunds and the ITASE van.
The Cat is a seriously large tractor that pulls the ITASE van, which is a basically a shipping container that has been converted into living and cooking quarters for six people and then unceremoniously plonked on a ridged metal sledge. The initial plan was to have a large power generator towed behind that as well but due to mechanical problems we were left using several much smaller generators to provide the requisite power for the trip.
The terrain was wind sculpted snow and ice which varied in thickness and hardness, otherwise known as sastrugi, which stretches for as far as the eye can see. The ground was so rough we only averaged about 12km/hr. One interesting phenomena was a mirage on the horizon that made it look like you were heading towards a huge escarpment but you never reach it.
Back to travel, the tractor has to be the best option, good suspension, comfortable seat, high raised sitting position, about 2.5 metres high, excellent temperature control and 360 degree views. Perfect for long hauls over uneven ground. Plus, as you increase your speed you are blissfully unaware that the occupants and other contents of the things you are pulling are being thrown around like they were in a washing machine. Until you get a slightly impolite message over the radio suggesting it would be a good idea to slow down a little.
Next would be the Hägg. A vehicle that can tackle all manner of uneven ground and travel at speed; very capable. However, it has been designed around the engine which sits in pride of place in the middle of the cab. The driver and passengers are all squashed to the side, quite cramped. Your elbows bang on the side of the engine casing or doors and there is precious little room for your legs. Think of your worst long haul flight in baggage class and then remove half the space. As you are sat next to the engine it is also very noisy. The heating is either full on scorching or off with no middle ground but that is better than being cold. It does have some suspension but not much so you do feel most of the bumps. The windscreen wipers are about as effective as trying to remove an iceberg with a toffee hammer. In conclusion a great vehicle for short haul trips, which a traverse certainly isn’t!
Finally, we get to the ITASE van. If you can imagine a horse drawn gypsy caravan with all the pots and pans hanging down and merrily clanging away. It’s a lot like that but without the merry bit. The sledge has no suspension so you feel every lump and bump and it sways a great deal; so anything at all that isn’t tied down, held down, or constrained somehow ends up on the floor pretty quickly. Due to our power generation problems there was only one small heater working to keep the place warm in the −26 degree temperatures. The poor thing struggled to keep the place just above freezing.
You can’t sleep at all due to the noise of everything banging about and the huge crashes as the whole thing drops off a step or pitches violently to the side, trying its best to dislodge you from your seat. Noise cancelling headphones and (if you are susceptible) motion sickness tablets are a must. The best part though is you can stretch out, move around or even lie down and you have a ready supply of goodies to eat. Just beware of flying objects. Fortunately, we swapped vehicles every couple of hours to ease the burden.
The trials of day to day living and working in this environment are a whole other story and we only had a couple of days of it.
Would I do it again? With a couple of tweaks to the equipment why not. So very different to anything else you’re ever likely to experience and very unlikely to forget either.
So, if you do fancy going on an Antarctic traverse make sure you get your Cat tracked tractor licence, noise cancelling headphones and spend a week driving up and down cobbled streets in a wooden cart or with the air taken out of your tyres.