The WISSARD Traverse — and They’re off!

The WISSARD Traverse — and They’re Off!

Sunday at 2:00 pm local McMurdo time, the traverse team left the WISSARD test site area, bound for the location of our remote field camp, which is over 500 miles from McMurdo Station.  They will follow the South Pole Traverse route, which was established a few years ago.  This route enables traverse teams to bring fuel, food, supplies, and equipment to South Pole Station without relying on the LC-130 Hercules aircraft. Before this route was marked, supplying and getting fuel or people to the South Pole was very dependent on weather. That is a huge factor on whether the Air Guard is able to fly the LC-130’s  not only to the South Pole, but into field camps in Antarctica or back to New Zealand.

The South Pole Traverse route…a nearly 1,00 mile, compacted snow road that links McMurdo Station with South Pole Station.


I was lucky enough to head out to Wis-Spot for the departure of the traverse.  That was really something to see.  Twelve HUGE tractors, each pulling a heavy load of several sleds or containers on skis, were beginning a 12-14 day adventure to reach our site near subglacial Lake Whillans. 

Here are the two types of tractors used in the traverse.  CAT Challenger tractors (yellow) and CASE-IH tractors (red) are used to pull the sleds and/or containers on skis.


Everyone involved in WISSARD has been busy in the past week or so, packing up things at the test site and preparing their containers and gear for this traverse.  I helped stow all of the sensitive computer gear and other items in the NIU “Command and Control” container. Others helped secure scientific equipment in boxes loaded onto sleds for the traverse. 

The drillers had to take apart and pack up much of the hot water drill system and all of the other components associated with the drilling, snow melting, generators, and tools/equipment for the project.  They had a HUGE job and remember, they have to put it all back together again once the traverse team reaches our remote site on the Ross Ice Shelf.  The drillers will be flown into the site early on, to prepare for the next phase of this drilling project, through the ice shelf and down to subglacial Lake Whillans.



The two photos above were taken by JT Thomas, photojournalist with the WISSARD Project.

When we arrived out at Wis-Spot yesterday, the traverse team was busy hooking up the last of the sleds and containers to be towed.  Not only are things being towed for WISSARD, but some sleds or supplies are being towed to the South Pole. 


It was cool to see the bits and pieces from the drill/test site packed up and ready to go!  Notice the fuel tank on the sled below?


And this is the crescent that feeds the hose down into the borehole as they’re drilling.


Lots of bamboo poles and flags will be used to mark off areas around the Lake Whillans drill site.  You might also notice the red sleds being towed out.  Those can be used to move things around the camp more easily.


I had a few moments to speak with Marlin, leader of the WISSARD team of the traverse, just before they took off.  I asked Marlin a bit more about how they would operate each day.


Marlin told me that they use a rule of 7-7-7.  This means that they start at 7:00 am each day and meet as a team.  They are usually rolling by 7:30 am.  The traverse group stops at 10:00 am to check their loads and be sure all is well.  They do the same at 3:00 pm.  Lunch time is from 12:00-1:00 pm.  Although they stop for the day at about 6:00 pm, their day is far from over. Tractors need to be refueled, ice gets chipped off equipment, loads are checked once again, and some of the guys start making dinner.  They try to have dinner by 7:00 pm. 

The third number 7 means their speed…roughly 7 miles per hour.  All day, every day for the next 12-14 days, the traverse team will be traveling slowly over the snow and ice. Can you imagine going that slow, over the same sort of terrain every day for two weeks?  And, those on the traverse teams that go all the way to the South Pole take about 46 days to reach their goal.

Ground penetrating radar checks for crevasses, which are common in certain areas called the shear zone.  I was able to find this photo on


I also learned from this blog that each tractor can tow up to approximately 60,000 pounds.  If eight tractors carry that load to the South Pole, then it can offset 36 flights to South Pole Station.  Yes, it’s much slower, but in the long run this is a great way to move equipment, fuel, and supplies between stations. 

The traverse doesn’t take the shortest route to the South Pole (as a plane might fly), because the team is trying to cross as much of the smooth ice of the Ross Ice Shelf as they can. Eventually they do have to cross the Transantarctic Mountains and make their way up onto the large polar plateau (a plateau is a flat area of land or in this case, ice and snow). 

When I talked with one of the traverse team members, Patrick, he mentioned that he has tons of music to listen to while on the journey.  I would need a lot of Rock and Roll to get me through this trip!  The photo below show Patrick and Marlin…looking happy and ready to go!


When it was finally time to leave, each man walked across the ice shelf and climbed into their tractor.


Engines came to life and the long line of tractors, containers, and sleds began to inch their way forward and then came rumbling past us.  Off went the WISSARD Project…generators, hoses, winches, equipment, tools, containers, and fuel bladders passing by us.




If your volume is up high enough, you’ll hear someone in this video say “That’s the most important sled right there.”  The first thing you’ll be seeing is a tractor hauling a sled with fuel bladders on it.  Our project depends on the fuel to run all of our generators and equipment. 

Photo below by JT Thomas


The last tractor leaves Wis-Spot. 


The WISSARD’s were not much help in suggesting a good route for the team!    (photo by JT Thomas)


But they did look good for one last shot by the Wis-Spot sign! 


Enjoy this video clip of the last few tractors heading south.  Good luck to the traverse team.  Safe travels and see you at Lake Whillans!


8 responses to “The WISSARD Traverse — and They’re off!

    • Hi Tom,
      I have to say that I really enjoyed being out there when the traverse team departed. I love getting the total picture of the project and all of the hard work that the drillers, traverse team, electricians, plumbers, carpenters, and scientists have put into it so far. It’s exciting to think that in about two weeks we’ll be flown hundreds of miles from McMurdo Station and dropped off on the Ross Ice Shelf to do the drilling and research everyone’s been waiting for. 🙂 Happy New Year!

    • You bet! But, they have a smoother ride, they’re warm, and they have tunes to listen to! Their scenery doesn’t change much….white, white, and more white! Happy New Year!!! 🙂

  1. Betty, I’m curious to know what kind of playlist you brought with you to Antartica. I know you’re very busy, but when you have time to yourself (or want to pass the time), what do you listen to?

    • Hi Ann,
      I’m a big fan of “classic rock” from the 60’s and 70’s but I enjoy just about anything. I have a huge mix of music, but honestly when I’m writing blogs and emails, I want to concentrate, so I don’t listen to music. When I’m uploading SO many photos for the blogs each day, that’s when I enjoy my music. 🙂 Happy New Year!

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