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Winter Driving with the Pros: The South Pole

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The Crew: Cargo and Logistics Department, Amundson-Scott South Pole Station
Laura Conchelos, Construction and Station Maintenance
Austin Danicic, Air Transportation Specialist
Amanda Nohowec, Waste Technician

Extreme winter driving pros Austin, Laura, and Amanda (L to R) in front of the office. (Photo/Laura Conchelos)Location: Amundson-Scott South Pole Station, United States Antarctic Program, 90.0000° S, 139.2667° W

Vehicles: 953, 950 and 277 Caterpillar Loaders, Skandic Snow Machines

Best Winter Driving Tip: Never assume things will work as they are supposed to in cold weather, so pack accordingly and know your gear!

Here’s What to Think About: You should always be prepared with cold weather gear in case your vehicle calls it a day earlier than you expected. In our cases, the machines we use do break down from time to time--as any machine will, especially in severe conditions. In that case, we have to hoof it back to the station. Bring sunglasses or goggles! And footwear is important, too. Not just because you might have to walk home, but because wearing winter boots with thick insulation affects how you feel the pedals, which will impact your driving. Allow extra time to get used to driving in boots.

See the Team in Action, and Read More about Driving in Wintry Conditions at the South Pole
Caterpillar 953 in action. (Photo/Austin Danicic)Car Talk: Tell us about your winter driving experience.

Laura: Austin has worked in the U.S. Antarctic Program for two seasons, Amanda has worked ten seasons and I’ve worked here for seven. 

Car Talk: Your best driving tip is about bringing the right gear. Why is that so important to you guys at the South Pole?

Austin: Because you never know when you may have to get out and walk! That's a big issue because the temperature at the Pole during the summer season can range from the negative teens upwards of negative fifty below (Fahrenheit). 

Sunglasses or goggles are essential. It is bright at the South Pole during our summer months--and that’s 24/7, too, because the sun never sets or even dips below the horizon during our summer season. All that sunlight with all that clean snow can wreak havoc on trying to stay focused while operating heavy equipment.

And know your boots--that goes for both us, and everyday drivers. It's a little different driving in boots with lots of insulation on the bottom, compared to flip-flops, which barely feels like you’re wearing anything. Take time to get used to not being able to feel every precise pedal movement because of your bulky winter boots.

Car Talk: What do you drive down there?

Austin: I drive 953 and 950 Caterpillar Loaders.

Laura: I usually drive a Skandic snow machine. Down here we use snow machines for running, hauling stuff, hauling people and commuting to our job sites.

Amanda: I drive a smaller Caterpillar 277 named Wall-E. I get way better gas mileage and go faster in Wall-E than the guys in all of their great big male compensation tractors!

Amanda puts Wall-E through its paces. (Photo/Amanda Nohowec)Car Talk: What are you guys all doing down there that you need to drive around so much in these difficult conditions?

Amanda: Technically we are all here supporting science for the United States Antarctic Program, but I think I can say we're all here because our jobs are fun and this seasonal work lets us save money, allows us to travel a lot, and gives us ample free time.

Laura: I’m a carpenter and most of the station is walkable, but some projects are just too far away. When we commute to work, the biggest concern for me is making sure there are the same number of people when we arrive at the site, as when we left the shop.  We might do well with a walking school bus down here!

Amanda: Wall-E and I move waste containers on station so it can be collected and sent off of the continent.

Nothing worse than a packed commuter train! (Photo/Laura Conchelos)Car Talk: What’s the driving like on the South Pole?

Laura: The speed limit is only 10 m.p.h. on the station. But these machines still take a beating with all the different drivers and heavy loads to haul.

Austin: Driving at the South Pole is great. You are never stuck in rush hour traffic, there are no stoplights and it really makes you appreciate driving in warm conditions!

Amanda: And we never have to fight for parking or feed the meter.

Car Talk: Sounds great. Where do we sign up?

Laura: You can find out more about life at the South Pole and what we do right here.

Car Talk: Thanks for talking to us, guys!

Laura: It's our pleasure, Car Talk! Many of us listen to the podcast of the show. Thanks for keeping us entertained as we drive around down here.  If you'll excuse us here, we have to leave the computer room and go back out to where it's 100 degrees colder. 

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