The Proof-of-Concept Traverse arrives back at McMurdo, the first-ever McMurdo-South Pole-and-back traverse. Note: Silverton American Legion Post 14’s flag flying high! South Pole Traverse Crew photo by George Blaisdell
By Mark Esper
Not long ago the idea of building a useable road to the South Pole would have seemed a bit far-fetched.
But John Wright of Silverton made it a reality.
And now he has a book out chronicling the achievement.
“Blazing Ice: Pioneering the Twenty-first Century’s Road to the South Pole” will be available in September from Potomac Books.
Wright’s first trip to the Antarctic ended up setting off a sort of chain reaction that led other Silvertonians — including Scotty Jackson and Norm Thompson — to also make the trek. Others from Silverton who went to the South Pole to work include Thompson’s daughter Jennifer Moxin, R.C. Cavness, a former mechanic at the Sunnyside, Patrick Westlund, and Wright’s wife, Samantha, who worked there for a year.
“My son was conceived there,” Wright said.
Wright happened to be a friend of the chief buyer for the contractor for the U.S. Antarctic Program who invited Wright, a mining and geological consultant, to head south.
“I asked ‘what can a miner do to support world-class science?’ He said ‘you know something about explosives, don’t you?’”
So for some five years, starting in 1993, Wright was the explosives engineer for the U.S. Antarctic Project, working out of McMurdo, a base station at the edge of the Ross Ice Shelf, with one season at Palmer Station.
In 1998 he started work on the South Pole Tunnel project.
“I hired Scotty Jackson to come down to help me finish,” Wright recalled. “When I was done with that job I thought that was it.
“He (Jackson) was a great hand, and a big help to me,” Wright said. “Scotty went on to find a home with the South Pole Cargo crew. Meanwhile, when I was done with the tunnel job, I thought that was it for me and Antarctica.”
But he got a call back and was asked to lead a team planning to build a pioneer a road from McMurdo, on the Ross Sea coast, to the South Pole research station. The project started in 2001 and was completed in 2006, with a road crossing the Ross Ice Shelf, over the Transantarctic Mountains, and on to the South Pole — 1,028 miles.
“None of it is on dirt,” Wright said. “It’s all on ice and snow. But it’s not like ‘Ice Road Truckers.’ It’s a snow road, not an ice road.”
And Wright pointed out that the project’s starting point was further south than the Ice Road Trucker’s ending point is north in latitude.
The Last Frontier
An article on the Potomac Books Web site describes the Antarctic as the last, vast terrestrial frontier on Earth. Less than a century ago, no one had ever seen the South Pole. Today, odd machines and adventure skiers from many nations converge there every summer. They arrive from many starting points on the Antarctic coast and go back some other way.
But not until very recently had anyone completed a round trip from McMurdo Station, the U.S. support hub on the continental coast.
“The last man to try that perished in 1912; a surface route remained elusive until John H. Wright and his crew finished the job in 2006,” the Potomac Books article states.
“Blazing Ice” is the story of the team of Americans who forged a thousand-mile transcontinental “haul route” across Antarctica. For decades, airplanes from McMurdo Station supplied the South Pole. A safe and repeatable surface haul route would have been cheaper and more environmentally benign than airlift, but the technology was not available until 2000.
Wright and his team faced deadly hidden crevasses, vast snow swamps, the Transantarctic Mountains, badlands of weird wind-sculpted ice, and the high Polar Plateau. Blazing Ice will appeal to Antarctic lovers, adventure readers of all stripes, conservationists, and scientists grappling with the conjunction of institutional culture and their fieldwork.
Out on the ice
Wright said the project covered some of the most isolated terrain on Earth, but safety was a primary concern.
Out on the ice and snow, Wright led a crew of about eight.
“We were operating in the southern summer only, during times when the U.S. Antarctic Program was in full swing,” Wright said. “So we had a well-established search and rescue capability.”
Nonetheless, Wright said, “when we have a problem on the trail we’ve got to solve it ourselves. So we carry all the repair things we need. I suppose our biggest concern would be loss of fuel, but we never experienced that.”
Wright said that route planning consumed “an awful lot of my off-season time. Ninety percent of our route had never been traveled before by anyone.”
Wright said the route crossed the paths of some of the earlier explorers “and their diaries and journals were a great help.”
But Wright also had access to detailed satellite imagery the early explorers lacked.
The idea of the road to the South Pole emerged in 2000-01.
“Ten years before that the U.S. Antarctic Program had tried to send a dozer with explosives out, but 23 miles out of McMurdo Base Station it fell into a crevasse. It didn’t get very far.”
Wright had access to ground-penetrating radar to help find hidden crevasses before one swallowed another dozer.
All along the way there was another Silverton link to the project.
“I realized being in charge of the project that we did not have an American flag to take with us. I asked the American Legion here if they would loan me their flag and every year I would bring it back and put on a presentation at the Legion and I would give it back,” Wright said.
“That flag that they gave me, that and came back to Silverton in triumph, was the one that flew at half-staff at Memorial Park on Sept. 11, 2001,” Wright said.
A road in motion
Out on the job, building a road on the snow-covered Ross Ice Shelf proved an enormous challenge.
“You ain’t gonna dig down to anything solid,” Wright said. “Our philosophy was to stay on top,” Wright said. “We’d compact it to an aerodynamic surface that doesn’t catch drift and doesn’t soften up.”
He said the crew would typically try to achieve two feet of a highly compacted surface, slowly pressing on the snow.
“There are different kinds of snow,” Wright observed. “Those snow swamps 300 miles across — what a bear’s ass that was. Imagine yourself on a flat plain of snow that runs as big as Texas. And for as deep as you can dig you’ve got depth hoar snow, with crystals that bond poorly.
“This stuff is like ball bearings,” Wright said. “You have to work it very lightly so the grains begin to bond together.”
The route to the South Pole led first across the vast Ross Ice Shelf, then over the Transantarctic Mountains and across the Polar Plateau.
“One of the things we did was at my instigation we measured the amount of ice movement” on the ice shelf, Wright said. Every 50 or 100 miles he would drive in a 4x4 post 12 feet long, graduated with one foot score marks to keep track of snow depth.
He then periodically captured their positions using GPS.
“We found some astounding things,” Wright said. “Some of the posts are moving six feet a day. You’d never sense that on the Ross Ice Shelf because you’re moving with it. A year later the post is a half mile from where it was.”
The South Pole Traverse also was marked with flags every quarter mile.
The road was completed in 2006. It doesn’t get a whole lot of traffic.
“There were two traverses this year, delivering cargo to the South Pole,” Wright said, with each crossing comprised of seven or eight tractors pulling loads of cargo.
“This year they had two excursions off to the side to support science projects,” Wright said.
“The pioneering traverse that we had delivered 220,000 pounds of cargo, offsetting 11 LC-130 cargo flights,” Wright said.
The road is free and open to the public, but it’s not expected to compete with the Million Dollar Highway for tourist traffic any time soon.
In fact the U.S. Antarctic Project doesn’t like to refer to the South Pole road as a highway, but merely a traverse.
“Anyone can use the road. The United States can’t keep tourists out of the Antarctic,” Wright said, but it doesn’t encourage it either.
“There are no tourist bureaus,” Wright said.
Wright sees the South Pole Traverse project as both a great engineering feat and a historic achievement.
“No one had ever succeeded in the attempt for the South Pole from McMurdo and back again,” Wright said. “The last man to try it, England's Robert Falcon Scott, died in the attempt in 1912,” Wright said. “Meanwhile our accomplishment has revolutionized Antarctic supply and logistics.”
Home in Silverton
Wright, originally from Miami, started working in the mines in Silverton in 1974. He eventually bought property here.
“It seems like all my adventures either began or ended or passed through Silverton,” Wright said.
Wright likes to tell the story of a mining tramp known as Bunkhouse Benning from Couer d’Alene, Idaho, who burst into the Miners Tavern in Silverton one night to brag that he’d worked in mines from Alaska to Patagonia and had “driven a shaft from pole to pole.”
“Then the opportunity came up for me to go down there and drive that tunnel underneath the South Pole,” Wright said.
Now Wright said he wishes he could run into Bunkhouse Benning again.
“I’d tell him ‘I was on that Pole job and I didn’t see you there,’ ” Wright said. “If only I could hear that one more time.”