Russian South Pole Traverse

time for a lunch stop
Above, the Russian traverse vehicles at Pole in late December 1959

This was planned as a scientific seismic traverse as well as a traverse to Pole. It had originated at Komsomolskaya (335 miles north of Vostok) on 6 November 1959, using five tractors and eleven towed sledges for the first leg. The Vostok-South Pole trip, 800 miles each way, used 3 large tractors and 4 sledges. The first two vehicles seen in the above Pole photo are heavy 35-ton Kharkovchanka (Russian Харьковчанка, "snow tractor," or perhaps "chunky vehicle built in Kharkov!?") machines which had been adapted from the T-54 tank, while the third vehicle is an "AT-T" (Artillerlyskiy Tyagach Tyazholly, Russian ртиллерийский Тягач, Тяжёлый meaning "heavy artillery tractor," also adapted from the T-54 tank). The Kharkovchanka tractors were the second generation of Russian heavy traverse vehicles after the AT-T's, they were designed for the annual inland station resupply trips, and their design had been expedited due to the planned Pole traverse. They had been delivered to Mirny and driven to Komsomolskaya the previous summer. Powered by 520-hp V-12 diesel engines, they were truly huge and heavy--14 feet wide and over 30 feet long...but the engine could power them to speeds up to 20 mph. The cab could seat at least six people; the rear of the supposedly hermetically sealed body was divided into multiple compartments--perhaps a bunkroom for 10 people, along with galley, head, shower, office and comms rooms. The engine was housed under the rear compartments, one of their failings, as diesel fumes would escape from the engine compartment into the berthing area.

Here are three additional photos of well-photographed #23, the second vehicle in the lineup above. The first two are at the Kharkov (more recently the Malyshev) factory where these tractors were built, it is in Kharkov, then the second largest city in the Ukrainian SSR. new model snow cruiser?Russian snow traverse vehicleThe one at left was at the Malyshev factory in the Ukraine before shipment (source: the Malyshev factory website photo page).

The photo at right is credited to from this page which compares the Kharkovchanka to that American flop, the Snow Cruiser. It also links to a great YouTube video featuring these vehicles and the Pole traverse.

At right below, another photo of #23 that was taken by Vladimir Evseev at Mirny in 1965. Note the size of the vehicle relative to the man on the roof!

Russian snow traverse vehicleThe traverse to Vostok encountered an area of loose, crumbly soft snow about 60 miles south of Komsomolskaya which slowed the travel speed at times to less than 6 miles per day...and they also encountered a number of mechanical difficulties. Perhaps the worst of these was a transmission failure on one of the Kharkovchankas...fortunately they had brought a spare, and they were able to replace it through a roof hatch with the help of rigging beams. After arriving at Vostok on 29 November, when the temperature was a balmy -58ºF, the equipment for the trip to Pole was selected and serviced. The 16-man team, led by Alexander G. Dralkin, left Vostok on 8 December. They stopped for seismic readings every 125 miles and arrived at Pole on 26 December. This and the next two photos also appear in the Malyshev factory website photo page.

refueling the traverse
Refueling the traverse en route to Pole.
The traverse arrives at Pole
The traverse arrives! These two photos also appear on the Russian language website, which features more vehicle details and commentary by Viktor Chistyakov, who drove vehicle #21 all the way from Vostok to Pole. The first part of this page discusses the Snow Cruiser, but the images are no longer available.

Upon arrival, the Russians were served an American breakfast by Navy cook Ted Miller--cereal, eggs, pork chops, and fried potatoes, and they offered to cook for the Americans the next day. Later, the Russians asked to see a Western, so they were shown Hondo starring John Wayne. In addition to their seismic work at Pole, they also drove their vehicles "around the world" (circling the ring of 55-gallon drums) in 15 minutes, for which they were given special certificates. The group departed on the 29th--their original plan had been to continue to Queen Maud Land and the Lazarev station via the Pole of Inaccessibility, but they opted to return to Vostok, reaching it on 8 January. From there, the traverse party was flown out to Mirny.

Interestingly, the CIA became concerned about the plans for this traverse. Here is their declassified report,(originally SECRET(!), which includes a map of the originally planned traverse route to Lazarev.

Russian traverse vehicle upon arrival
One of the vehicle drivers, presumably Viktor Chistyakov, steps out upon arrival.
Russian traverse vehicles at Pole
The traverse vehicles parked at Pole.

[Sources and credits for otherwise uncredited photos: The photo at the top of this page is from Soviet Geographical Explorations and Discoveries, by N. A. Gvozdetsky; English translation by Anatoly Bratov, 1974 (thanks to Alex Zaitsev for the book). The two photos at the bottom of the page are U.S. Navy photos from the 1959-60 winter cruisebook.]