Driving and Drilling in Antarctica

By Beacon Staff

Nearly a century ago last week, Roald Amundsen, his four men, and his 17 dogs reached the South Pole. Today, in four vehicles named for famous Antarctic sled dogs, the Norwegian-U.S. Scientific Traverse of East Antarctica plods toward the same pole. En route, one Whitefish woman drives Chinook across the barren white ice cap.

No roads. No landmarks. Just ice. “You just plug in a heading and stick to it,” Lou Albershardt explains how to navigate Chinook across remote eastern Antarctica. Her rig–named for one of the lead dogs on Richard Byrd’s first expedition to Antarctica in 1928–is cantankerous. “He is a good dog who needs loads of attention,” says Albershardt. “So thank goodness, I also ride with the mechanic!”

Driving days start at 3 a.m. under blue skies with -30 F summer temperatures. Crews first crank up the heaters in the four dogs, then try to start them. “It can take 30 minutes or on a few mornings four hours,” says Albershardt. Driving by 5:00 a.m., the expedition cruises less than five miles per hour. “We are talking slow when you have 3,000 kilometers to go!” says Albershardt. Each day, they shoot for 60 miles, swapping off drivers, with all four rigs traveling in sight of each other and stopping only for refueling.

Most driving days end at 10 p.m. or later when Albershardt climbs in her sleeping bag in the back seat of Chinook rather than sleeping in tight quarters with snorers. The sky is still blue.

Some days end sooner, when parts break and require up to nine hours to replace. “We are down to three good differentials,” she says. “We’re carrying way too big of load for these poor vehicles.” That load would be 12 crew members along with science equipment, food and fuel for two months.

So far the expedition has made two five-day science stops. On these days, Albershardt drills into the ice sheet for cores. One deep core she retrieved in early December recorded 1,000 years of climate history in its icy layers.

For a week now, Albershardt has been plagued with a bleeding finger that hasn’t healed due to metal fragments embedded under her skin. After minor surgery by the expedition’s medic, her drilling has been temporarily suspended until the wound heals. “There are two types of days – driving and science. Then, there are planned days that go straight to hell in a hand basket,” sums up Albershardt.

Stay Connected with the Daily Roundup.

Sign up for our newsletter and get the best of the Beacon delivered every day to your inbox.