The nature of the martian south polar cap has remained enigmatic since the first spacecraft observations. In particular, the presence of a perennial carbon dioxide ice cap, the formation of a vast area of black `slab ice' known as the Cryptic region and the asymmetric springtime retreat of the cap have eluded explanation. Here we present observations and climate modelling that indicate the south pole of Mars is characterized by two distinct regional climates that are the result of dynamical forcing by the largest southern impact basins, Argyre and Hellas. The style of surface frost deposition is controlled by these regional climates. In the cold and stormy conditions that exist poleward of 60°S and extend 180° in longitude west from the Mountains of Mitchel (~ 30°W), surface frost accumulation is dominated by precipitation. In the opposite hemisphere, the polar atmosphere is relatively warm and clear and frost accumulation is dominated by direct vapour deposition. It is the differences in these deposition styles that determine the cap albedo.