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On the Way to the South Pole

December 10, 2008

BETWEEN CAMP WINTER & SOUTH POLE, ANTARCTICA– For three days straight now, we’ve been driving from Camp Winter to South Pole– driving 24-hours a day, in shifts of 6 hours on, 6 hours off, with 2 hours for dinner. My body has weirdly adjusted to the schedule, with the offshoot that it’s hard to tell what time of day it is, or what day it is, anymore. Today Kjetil, my driving partner in Chinook, one of the vehicles, asked if it was 1:30 am or pm (it was am). Earlier, I could not figure out if it was Tuesday or Wednesday (it was Wednesday).

The snow surface is subtly changing as we drive—sometimes it is relatively hard, covered with sastrugi (snow dunes), and sometimes soft and relatively flat. Occasionally we go up or down a hill, the only noticeable difference between the two is if the horizon is tilted slightly up or down. Kjetil and I are taking turns driving while the other sleeps in a back bench inside the vehicle cab. The sun bakes the cab, and so we drive with the windows and top escape hatch open mostly. Even though it is -30 deg C outside, it feels nice to sit by the open window, and is one of my favorite parts about driving. The other is the relative peace after being in a small camp with seven others for the last two weeks at Camp Winter.

For hours, I watch the snow surface go by, thinking about whatever comes to my head—our imminent arrival at South Pole, my recent wedding, home, the cold, the two months of the traverse yet to come. We have the vehicles set to go 10 km per hour, which is absurdly slow, as fast as a jogger basically. The throttle can be set remotely by a knob on the dashboard, and so for the most part I am leaned back in the seat with my feet up on the dash. I am usually the second vehicle, with no navigating to do and a set of tracks in front of me. The train I’m driving likes to stay in the tracks of the first, so steering is minimal as well.

Driving from Camp Winter to South Pole, with John ahead of me in Lasse, another vehicle.

The motion of the vehicle going up and over the sastrugi is almost soothing, and often times I’ll find my head nodding as I begin to drift off the path made by the vehicle in front of me. With nothing, literally nothing except the lead vehicle, it’s not that big of a danger, but disconcerting nonetheless. To stay awake, I listen to my iPod…usually Johnny Cash, my favorite local bluegrass band Bow Thayer and the Perfect Trainwreck (because I feel like a truck driver in my rig), or when things are desperate, a dance mix I had made up in Greenland. It is mildly surreal to be listening to 50Cent while driving so slowly over so much snow, in the middle of nowhere, -30 out with the window down and my feet propped up on the dashboard. “I don’t know what you’ve heard about me…”

Sometimes I catch myself thinking that I can’t believe I’m getting paid to do this. Other times I think that I’m not getting paid enough to do this.

We are low on fuel, and are now pretty sure we will not make it all the way to South Pole with the four vehicles. Our plan is to have the welcome party that was going to meet us anyway (we need to be escorted around the clean air section that surrounds the Pole), meet us a little earlier, with a few extra barrels of fuel. According to John’s calculations, we are only two barrels short, and will miss making it to the Pole by about 30 km. Between last year’s traverse and being at Camp Winter, the traverse has used over 100 barrels of fuel, so this shortage is heartbreakingly small. However, waiting for the fuel and the escort means we will get a few extra hours of sleep, which I am looking forward to immensely.

Our vehicles stopped for fueling.

In this video, Kjetil shows me how to drive, and you can see what the view is like as we drive for hours and hours and hours.

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3 Responses »

  1. [...] On the Way to the South Pole | Ice Stories: Dispatches From Polar … [...]

  2. Hey Zoe, You should be listening to Asleep at the Wheel on your iPod!
    What a unique work commute you have!

  3. Zoe…!

    Great posts girl ! That was a great description about learning to drive and driving. I was curious about the part about how nice it is to drive with the windows open when it’s still pretty cold outside.

    Do your new Norge friends know what causes the windows to fog when you guys close them? Just curious…Please give Lou a big howdy and hug for me eh??? We get to ski with Xan next weekend !!! AND, we’ll be tipping a few in your honor! LoveYaLotsWilbur…