Authors: John H. Wright
I had negotiated a week's worth of work in Denver, without commitment to accept the overall job, in order to consider the proposition and decide for myself. Crossing the high plains of South Park, watching for antelope in the distance, I found my resolve:
I will not lead, or be a party to, any plan that puts one person's life at risk.
Monday morning I found my boss-to-be. An affable fellow with white-gray hair, he'd hired me for my first job on the Ice nine years before this, but he'd stepped out of the program the next year to deal with a death in his family. Now he was back. I was glad to see him. He showed me to a cubicle desk, dead center in a sea of cubicles. It came equipped with a phone, a computer, an ergonomic chair, and two sets of drawers. The cubicle's four-foot-high walls supported an empty bookshelf. The desktop was bare. There was no drafting table, nor wall space for maps.
“This will be yours. It's a manager's desk,” he said.
A skinny, pony-tailed fellow stepped up with an armfull of reports and plunked them down on the manager's desk. “I knew you were coming. I took the liberty of collecting these for your review. Welcome aboard,” he said cheerfully. “I'm here to help.” The fellow would be my part-time support man.
“Thank you,” I returned. I recognized him from my first year on the Ice, too, when he worked for the field support group. He was energetic and
brimmed with enthusiasm. But I was cautious about the whole business. “I'm only here for a week. Perhaps longer, depending on what's in this stuff.”
Brian had never heard of the Shear Zone before setting out in
. The mountaineer told him nothing about the route. He was never issued a map and compass like he always had been in Vietnam. His boss simply asked if he wanted to take a bulldozer across the Ross Ice Shelf. His partner, with seven years on the Ice, thought they might be out six days. All they had to do was drive out past Minna Bluff and turn south. Brian told me that when he and his partner went for their briefing, all they got was “what to do with human waste.” I said, “You've got to be kidding?”
“No, really, John. The guy said âYou won't need to haul back your waste,'” and Brian laughed, though he barely cracked a smile.
That was funny. But a familiar shadow lurked in Brian's story: the assumption that everyone knew what they were getting into. What Brian knew in advance was a measure of what the system knew before allowing them to come into harm's way. But Brian's brain worked differently from mine. Faced with an unfamiliar problem, Brian gave orders. Facing the same problem, I asked: how did things come to be this way?
I looked at the reports, anxious to review them here, on the basement level of the office building. But my boss spoke up. “Before you get started, you need to go to human resources and sign some papers.” He led me over pathways and up stairs to the third and highest floor of the building. “They're in here.”
I found my desk an hour later and picked the thickest report from the stack.
The McMurdo to South Pole Traverse Development ProjectâFinal Report
was the legacy of a predecessor project from the mid-1990s, five years after
. I'd only heard rumors about why that project ended. The U.S. Navy was phasing out of the Support Force Antarctica business. The New York Air National Guard (NYANG) was phasing in. The Guard promised higher cargo delivery to South Pole than the U.S. Navy had provided.
Resupplying South Pole, anticipating massive material requirements for building a new station there, provided the pretext for developing a surface traverse. But the NYANG'sâI loved that acronymâpromise of increased cargo delivery ruled against spending for traverse development. A divided camp at
NSF saw one group sided with the established airlift, expensive but proven. The other sided with surface traverse, at least as an auxiliary capability. Airplanes won out, and the South Pole Investigative TraverseâSPITâfoundered.
The fat binder held dividers, map pockets, and pages of text. It collected “deliverable” reports provided by institutions of higher learning in support of the overarching project. A loose-leaf introductory letter fell from the front of the binder as my hands grappled with the weight of the assembly.
The SPIT project manager wrote that letter. I knew John Evansânot well at the time, but I respected him from a distance. My eyes lingered on his last sentence: “I have tried to summarize the project from its conception to its demise on the
shoals of intractable funding
[emphasis mine] and timing difficulties.” If Evans was still working in the program, I needed to find him. Maybe he was in this office.
Evans's report would take some time to work through. I set it aside, and turned to another collection of reports. These dealt with ground penetrating radar (GPR) and detecting hidden crevasses. Cold Regions Research and Engineering Laboratory (CRREL) authors were names I'd heard on the Ice but no one I really knew. The reports indicated a technical capability for locating hidden crevasses did exist, but how to adapt that to a moving traverse on ice shelves and glaciers, which were themselves moving, was not clear.
One of the CRREL authors wrote, “the ground penetrating radar never misled us.” That report covered some testing in the Shear Zone. Its engineered language applied to what they saw, not to what they might have missed without knowing, and not to anyplace where they did not look. Though radar offered a promise of Superman-like x-ray vision, I'd have to see it for myself.
Did we need a CRREL expert with us all the time? Could we train our own specialistsâa mechanic, or a mountaineer, or an equipment operator?
I met my boss again that afternoon. “Were you around when
“I remember it well,” he answered.
“Did you go out there?”
“No. I was in town when it happened. “He described the incident with phrases like “poor planning,” “should never have happened,” and “ill-prepared.”
We turned the discussion to ground penetrating radar. He asked if it really worked.
“These reports say it should. But they don't deal with traversing, or with building a road across the Shear Zone. There is this.” I showed him: “â
never misled us
His eyes opened wide at reading the claim. “What do you think?”
“Those guys never had to look somebody in the eyes and tell them âYou go out there with that D8.' It's a technical report. â
Never misled us
' can mislead you into thinking the radar will never mislead
“What do you want to do?”
The boss's cubicle was one in a cluster of four. Over their partitions, cubicles vanished to the horizon; an office, not a sea of white. We'd try the radar, but I needed to know more about it. The whole project depended on reliably detecting hidden crevasses. We'd not go where somebody said there were no crevasses just on their say.
“If it works,” I said, “we should go over every step of the thousand miles with it before we ever bring a tractor onto the same ground.”
“I'd favor every inch.”
We shook on that. If the radar worked, I promised to radar every inch of the way between McMurdo and South Pole before a traverse fleet crossed that same inch. If the radar didn't work, we wouldn't go.
“And I will support that,” my boss declared. We had a pact.
I revisited Evans's tome and the rest of the stack throughout the week.
A paper dated 2000 contained a colorful map of the proposed route. It plotted a straight line from the Shear Zone across the Ross Ice Shelf to a specific pass over the Transantarctic Mountains. Curiously, the line passed directly over a well-known crevasse zone isolated in the middle of the Shelf: the Crary Ice Rise. The line then followed a zigzag path over the mountains, ultimately connecting to another straight-line reach over the high Polar Plateau to the Pole. The map looked like a show-and-tell exhibit rather than a carefully rendered navigational tool.
But straight lines suggested uniform terrain. They implied ground without difficulty or hazard or variation. “Straight” also meant nobody had really looked at it. I wanted more information about the Crary Ice Rise.
A CRREL paper dated 2001 gave a list of coordinates fixing the turning points on the colorful map. The list included eighteen points labeled “L” for a route segment on the Leverett Glacier. The SPIT work targeted the Leverett as the leading candidate for passage over the mountains. I didn't know much about that glacier yet. Why did they select any of those points?
I'd often worked with hundred-year-old field notes of mining claim surveys recorded by U.S. Deputy Mineral Surveyors, filed then with the General Land Office, and archived today by the Bureau of Land Management. The notes invariably led me to rediscover original claim corners, perhaps a blaze on a spruce tree, then twelve-inches in diameter, bearing letters and numbers carved just so according to their instructions. Were the CRREL notes as reliable? Lives could depend on it.
One report in Evans's tome outlined the basis for choosing the Leverett. A sieve-like process screened twenty or so candidate glaciers, rating them from “excellent” to “forget-about-it.” The sieve caught the Leverett on top, the only one to win a “good” rating. All the other candidates fell through. The next highest was rated “poor.” That was the Skelton Glacier, the one Hillary used in 1957.
The SPIT team landed on both the Leverett and the Skelton in 1995. After scooting over their surfaces on snowmobiles, their verdict lay squarely with the Leverett.
Getting to the Leverett was another matter. There was the Shear Zone, only a few miles out of McMurdo. The SPIT team had been there, too. And they had radar.
The proposed route covered more than a thousand miles one way. Evans's team examined only 10 percent of it. They focused on “problematic” spots. Problematic meant what one
as a problem. If one did not perceive a problem that did not mean no problem was there. Nevertheless, I saw clearly where Evans left off and where I might take up his trail. I could accept or disagree with any of the proposed route.
The other 90 percent had not been traveled by anyone, ever. But many others' tracks had crossed the proposed route: Shackleton's, Scott's, and Roald Amundsen's. What did they have to say about the land around those intersections?
Albert Crary, the American glaciologist, circumnavigated the Ross Ice Shelf in the late 1950s. Sir Edmund Hillary made his run up the Skelton to
Pole the year before. Our route would cut across the middle of the Shelf, ground neither of them had traveled.
I located both Hillary's book recounting his 1957 tractor traverse to Pole,
No Latitude for Error
, and Crary's technical report
Glaciological Studies of the Ross Ice Shelf, 1957â1960
Hillary described encounters with crevasses radiating off Minna Bluff and White Island, lands visible from McMurdo. Apparently he thought the crevasses formed where the Shelf ice impinged on those two points of land. When he set off in his Massey Ferguson from Scott Base, he swung deliberately wide of the landmarks to avoid those crevasses. He succeeded in reaching the Ross Ice Shelf after a tense, though uneventful, passage.
Crary's work there showed a belt of crevasses in contrast to a radiating pattern. The belt ran seventy-five miles long from the point of Minna Bluff to the tip of Cape Crozier, the easternmost point of Ross Island. Yet even Crary had crossed the belt a couple times in a Tucker Sno-Cat, and he likewise reported no incident.
How could both those men cross a place full of crevasses without incident?
had followed an “established route,” Brian saidâHillary's route. Crary's information had been bought by American taxpayers and published. It was available and I was looking at it. Had
's planners ignored it? What good was institutional knowledge if nobody paid attention to it?
Crary drew several maps projecting ice shelf characteristics into the central regions he had never traveledâprojections of ice thickness, elevations, snow pack, and others. The one that caught my eye showed a region of soft snow right where the line on the colorful show-and-tell map went.
What's that like â¦ under that line? How will heavy tractors handle soft snow?
I set Crary's work aside. The more I looked into it, the more I realized how much I didn't know. That intimidated me, for
was never far from my mind.
Turning back to
herself, I asked around the office; who was there then, who remembered what? The McMurdo station manager at the time advised the operations director against going at all. The ops director dismissed his warnings, bowing instead to the NSF representative's interest to proceed. The
NSF rep at the time occupied the “big chair” in McMurdo. He was the godlike boss of all. I never learned what was on his mind. But the ops director's acquiescence told of the contractor's need to please the client.
, the ops director remarked to the station manager, “You never said âI told you so.'” The manager replied, “I told you the first time.”
Had there been too much project inertia? Who actually said “go”?
John Evans occupied another cubicle on the basement floor we shared. His desk lay over the horizon from mine.
“Yes?” he said, cheerfully, when I approached his desk. John was a cleanshaven, bright-blue-eyed, and fair-haired man perhaps ten years my senior. A rugged mountaineer, he'd made the first ascent of Mount Vinson, the highest mountain in Antarctica.
“Ah yes,” he said. “I remember you. How can I help you?”
“I'd like to talk to you about the South Pole Traverse project.”
We decided to talk outside, away from the nearby cubicles and folks we might disturb. In the parking lot, we enjoyed deep breaths of fresh air. The Rocky Mountain's Front Range lay snow-covered on our western horizon. It looked strikingly similar to the Royal Society Range of the Transantarctic Mountains, across the Sound from McMurdo Station.