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Silvertonian John Wright led road-building team in Antarctica

SILVERTON – It has been ten years since Silverton resident John Wright, having just pioneered the first ever road from the coast of Antarctica to the South Pole, stood at the southern edge of the Earth and triumphantly addressed his team.

“Today we have done something remarkable. Each of us knows the struggle we’ve gone through, so this will not be a windy speech. … I want to congratulate each of you on our achievement, and offer my hand in thanks.”

From 2001 to 2006, Wright was tasked with blazing a road through one of the planet’s harshest and most-unforgiving climates in an effort to construct a resupply route from the McMurdo base station on the Ross Sea coast to the South Pole research station.

The hope was the thousand-plus mile trans-Antarctic haul route, funded by the United States National Science Foundation, would become the primary method of bringing supplies to the South Pole station. Opening the route would free up aircraft to undertake more science-based missions and cut operational costs.

A decade later, the impacts of the route, which is traveled annually by two fleets, are measurable. The road, which cost $5 million to build, saves that amount every year in expenses, and cut down resupply flights from about 400 prior to about 75 last year.

The haul route is also a win for the environment, Wright said, requiring one-third the fuel to move over land as opposed to flying, and the use of tractors releases only hundredths of the noxious emissions produced by aircraft.

“The impact has been tremendous,” Wright said on a cold, snowy afternoon from his self-built home that overlooks Silverton. “It was a resounding success and continues to be.”

Discovering the West

Wright, 65, was raised in Miami, Florida, and whether cognizant of it or not, throughout his life always seemed to seek out the country’s colder regions. He discovered the West in his younger years, and never turned back.

While enrolled in Fort Lewis College in 1974, Wright saw a job posting in The Durango Herald for a resident geologist in a producing mine based in Silverton, with “no experience necessary,” he said.

That began a career in mining and geologic consulting, which continues to this day.

However, in the early 1990s, a downturn in the mining industry drove smaller operators out of business, eroding Wright’s client base. He closed his office, and went to labor in the mines.

And then began his path toward Antarctica, albeit a nontraditional path.

In 1993, Wright resolved to bury a recently deceased friend in the front yard of his Silverton home. At the services, a mutual friend, who was a chief purchasing agent for the Antarctic Support Contract, asked if Wright would like a job as an explosives engineer on the continent.

“I asked him, ‘What does Antarctica want with a miner from Silverton?’” Wright recalled. “He said, ‘Well, you know something about explosives, don’t you?’”

Wright spent five years on the explosives team for the U.S. Antarctic Project, then another four years driving a tunnel under the South Pole on a separate assignment. He thought his time in Antarctica was over, when he was approached with the most ambitious project of them all.

Wright was asked to be project manager for construction of a road that would accomplish the first ever round-trip traverse from McMurdo to the South Pole on the ground. The last man to attempt the same feat, Robert Falcon Scott, a British Royal Navy officer, set out in 1912 and made it to the pole, but perished along with his crew of five in the return journey.

Snow swamps

Each year had its own set of challenges for Wright and his eight-person team, which worked about 12 hours on and 12 hours off from about mid-October to late February.

The first year, the team spent the entire construction season crossing crevasses, aided by previously unavailable technology, such as ground-penetrating radar, satellite imagery and equipment adapted for extreme cold climates.

The next year, Wright and company encountered a terrain no one had even expected, snow swamps: three hundred miles of a soft, seemingly bottomless expanse of snow.

On the third year, the team ascended the Ross Ice Shelf to the head regions of the Polar Plateau, allowing crews on the fourth and final year to return and finish the last 300 miles to the pole.

Which they did at about 3 p.m. Jan. 14, 2006.

The road itself, made of snow, is a feat of engineering, colleagues agree, designed aerodynamically to avoid snowdrifts, and marked by flags to guide the way as the ice shelf shifts.

“They made history,” David Bresnahan, with the National Science Foundation, wrote in a foreword to Wright’s book on the project. “No on has ever traversed from McMurdo to Pole and back. The concept was proved.”

As the ice shelf shifts, sections of the route move at different rates. One area traveled a half mile last year. But because other portions of the road are also constantly moving, the road has only expanded about two miles – from 1,028 miles when constructed to about 1,030 miles this year.

Wright said it takes about 25 days to travel from McMurdo to the South Pole station, which is located at an elevation of 10,000 feet. The return journey, with less fuel and supplies to carry, takes about 10 days. Fleets travel about 12 hours a day, and they carry living quarters for crews.

Exhausted and proud

But on another level, the route represents a conquest of one of the planet’s last frontiers on a continent human eyes had never laid eyes on just a century ago.

“We knew we were doing something big and important, but you couldn’t think things like that as you were facing daily peril,” said Wright, who noted no one was injured during the project.

“I’m very proud of our accomplishment, but there was no ceremony or anything like that when we got to the pole. I just felt exhaustion on completion.”

The road, he said, in theory should last “indefinitely” with some required maintenance. Yet concerns over ice-shelf collapse and global warming threaten that prediction, he said.

Wright left Antarctica the year after the route was complete, and returned to Silverton. He published a book, Blazing Ice: Pioneering the Twenty-First Century’s Road to the South Pole about the project in 2012, and he returned to geological consulting as gold prices slowly recovered.

Wright doesn’t have any plans to return to the harsh continent, but he said over lunch last week he’s fine with that. At 9,308 feet in the San Juan Mountains, there’s no lack of wind, cold or snow where he’s currently living.

“A winter in Silverton is about a summer in Antarctica,” he said. “So that sums it up.”

jromeo@durangoherald.com

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