Leaving work one afternoon in Spokane, Washington, Katy House's boss asked her if she would be interested in taking a job in Antarctica as a diesel mechanic at the vehicle maintenance facility at McMurdo Station. "You want me to go where? I can’t go to Antarctica," responded Katy. "Why can’t you go to Antarctica?" asked her boss Mark. Well, why can’t I go to Antarctica thought Katy House, who grew up being encouraged "to do whatever she wanted to do, whatever she loved."
Katy accepted the job at McMurdo Station Antarctica and became a participant in the United States Antarctica Program, supported by the National Science Foundation. Two years later Katy House became the 1st woman in the world to travel on the South Pole Overland Traverse as a diesel mechanic.
The main mission of the team traveling the longest, coldest traverse on Earth is to re-supply the Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station with fuel. Located in the middle of the windiest, coldest, driest, largest desert on earth, the South Pole Station is connected to McMurdo Station via a 1,600 kilometer compacted snow road navigated using a visual flag line and GPS.
Three giant generators running on jet fuel provide the South Pole station with energy. The almost undisturbed Antarctic ice shelf is home to a variety of research and science, including recording levels of snowfall, weather patterns and monitoring air quality. Ice cores provide data for climatologists, glaciologists, and meteorologists tracking climate change. The South Pole is home to the largest neutrino detector in the world. The United States Antarctic Program has been supporting science at the South Pole since 1956, maintaining a staff of 50-200 people.
Katy’s main role in the mission to the South Pole is to keep the tractors in excellent working condition. She finds it really rewarding when none of the equipment breaks down along the way because that means she did a really good job preparing the team's tractors for departure. The biggest challenge for her is working out in the cold, enduring some of the harshest weather conditions on Earth. "Also challenging is going to the bathroom in a bottle with the tractor in motion" laughs House, a common problem for women working in Antarctica.
Before departing McMurdo it takes the team of ten, House being the only female, extensive prep work to fill the fuel bladders, prepare the equipment and all of the supplies needed for life on the road. House describes the fuel bladders as "sandwich bags full of liquid." The bladders are used to transport fuel. First the team must assemble the CRREL (cold regions research and engineering laboratory) tools each of which holds eight bladders, each containing 3000 gallons of fuel. The three South Pole traverse missions scheduled for the 2014-2015 austral summer will supply the pole station with over one-half of the fuel it needs to run the station and support the science work of the station.
The rest of the fuel needed is flown in by the 109th Air National Guard division on Hercules LC-130 aircraft to ensure the station has enough fuel to endure the winter.
Katy thought she would be married with children by now; She didn’t think she would be doing anything like this. As a child, she spent time in 4-H raising and showing guinea pigs, rabbits and cat’s for competitions at the fair. She was also the Deer Park County Princess.
Growing up playing with five sisters and two brothers, she says, "We get along so well you wouldn’t even know we were related." She loved watching her Dad fix things, "he is really handy". Her family is extremely supportive. Her little sister says she "wants to do awesome things just like Katy."
The easy going, friendly and fun 27 year old has lived her life with determination and adventure close to her heart. Home schooled until her senior year of high school after the public school system pronounced her legally blind telling her parents she would never make it to her high school graduation.
Katy filled with motivation graduated with her class and continued her education with a scholarship from the 'Women in Construction" group, in addition to tuition sponsor from the Kiwanis group graduating college with an associate degree in automotive technology and diesel heavy equipment mechanic maintaining above a B average and holding a place on the presidents honor roll every quarter.
Katy studied to become a mechanic spurred on by her love of mechanical work and her love to fix things.
Katy always wanted to work on diesel engines and not automotive engines.
"I love tractors! I love being able to climb into my work."
Katy enjoys figuring out how things work, and being able to fix things, which can be quite a creative process in Antarctica, considering you cant just go down the street and get a part. The closest parts dealer is in New Zealand. "Here we need to be able to fix things with the supplies we have on hand"
The South Pole is the southernmost point on earth. All other directions point north. It takes a team of ten anywhere from a record setting low of 19 days up to 30 days to reach the pole from McMurdo Station. It takes about ten days at the pole to un-load the fuel and then head back home to McMurdo.
The traverse team takes strides to maintain "normal" working town hours of McMurdo Station. Alarms sound in the bunkrooms at about 0615am allowing time to dress in multiple layers and start your tractor before the morning meeting the rest of the team at 0700 If it is your night to cook dinner, you also pull the food out to defrost during the day.
Each day the trek gets under way at about 0730am. The team breaks at 1000 and 1500 to check loads, stretch and take a run around the tractors for movement. They also breaks at noon for a hot lunch. Once they stop for the night at about 1730 one member of the team cooks dinner while the rest, park the tractors, drop their loads, re-fuel the tractors and shovel snow into the snow melter for their water supply.
At about 2030 the team has dinner and goes to bed before repeating the process the next day. Everyone on the team drives a tractor and has long, hard, cold days but they do it together following one after another in a convoy line for the 1,600 kilometers traverse.
"We have a blast"
"You pretty much just do the same thing over and over so if something different happens that is an exciting day. But if the trip is uneventful that means we are doing something right, which is also an amazing feeling!"
The team faces a variety of weather conditions in route. Katy says it can be
"mentally stressful because you cannot see what is going on as you are driving in a big white box."
When the weather clears and the views reveal themselves "some of the colors are almost
indescribable" driving between huge glaciers and seeing rocks in the distance that look almost red and purple.
One of her favorite parts of the journey is "driving up the leverret and trying not to fall in any holes"
The flagged route is pretty much a straight line to the South Pole Station with only a few turns to make the entire way; when it is time to turn the team has fun with it and likes to use the turn signals.
Katy's team Spot 1 (South Pole Overland Traverse) departed McMurdo on the morning of November 3, 2014. The team plans on Traversing to the Pole twice this season before the winter resides over Antarctica. After prepping and breaking down her equipment and completing two of the three South Pole Overland Traverse missions scheduled for this season Katy will have been on the ice for almost nine months.
Living life doing what she wants to do and following her dreams Katy House has become a Woman of History.