Reflections Part 1: ‘Shanks’ Pony vs. Shaggy Dogs’

A series of reflections on Antarctic travels past and present, by Peter Otway. In the early 1960s, Peter surveyed much of the areas through which our teams are now passing. In this, Part 1, Peter compares the use of dogs with manhauling.

As I have followed Teams Scott and Amundsen on their long slog across the featureless Ross Ice Shelf and now, heaving their way up two very different but equally treacherous glaciers leading to the South Pole, it has taken me back half a century to the days I was in a team exploring and mapping much of the same terrain as part of the New Zealand geological and survey mapping programme with Brit Wally Herbert as our experienced and inspirational leader. Perhaps more than most, I have felt their highs and lows as they battle every obstacle and hardship the Antarctic can throw in their path, and their dogged determination to achieve their goal whatever the odds. 

Our own circumstances, while similar in many respects, were very different in others. We both faced the same elements but, like Amundsen, we had the obvious advantage of having a team of huskies to pull each sledge – no manhauling for us if we could help it! Four men, two teams of 9 dogs each, two tents and provisions for the first 40 days with the promise of airdrops to see us through our planned 3-month long survey of the Transantarctic Mountains from the Beardmore Glacier to the Axel Heiberg. 

Unfortunately, the days of the Antarctic husky are long over thanks to the Antarctic Treaty banning all exotic life (with the fortunate exception of scientists, tourists and explorers). I suspect Teams Scott and Amundsen have had plenty of time and incentive to dream about dogs as they heave their impossibly heavy sledges around the sastrugi, across bridged-over crevasses and, more recently, through bottomless snow on the spectacular Axel Heiberg and across razor sharp ice on the unforgiving Beardmore. A team of huskies would pull a sledge with three times the payload and, on a good surface, the two men would be towed alongside the sledge on skis, shuffling along or pulling forward on the short ski rope if the sledge was slowing or stalling. On a good day we could do 20 to 25 nautical miles but, in unusually deep snow, we may have gained as little as 4 miles if we had to relay our loads when the sledges bogged down. In crevasse country several dogs would often break through a snow bridge together but, with luck, the speed of their companions would pop them back out again with barely a pause – but not always, quite!  Perhaps best of all though, we had 18 extra personalities, all totally different characters but each one a lovable and hard working friend.   

Our shaggy companions came with a variety of names such as Fido, Bottle, Pea Brain (how apt!), Rocket (also apt), Zsa Zsa (wishful thinking!), Scotty, Butch, Ursa and Virgo (the Bear and the Maiden), Kalaurelik, Singanasuak, Apolotok and Kari (the last four to remind us of their Greenland ancestry) but they all had one thing in common. While they obviously regarded ferocious fighting as a means to move up the pecking order, and a form of almost daily recreation as well, they showed the utmost affection towards their human counterparts – big fluff balls who would happily lick you all over and, to show extreme affection, treat your unguarded leg as a lamp-post, in the manner of any normal dog.  More to the point, they possessed a built-in yearning to pull a sledge.  As we harnessed up each morning they would be leaping against their traces, howling to get going, although their boundless enthusiasm was not necessarily matched by their stamina, so we would stop for a short break every hour – longer at lunchtime when they would spread themselves out on the snow to cool down if too hot, or curl up and all but disappear if the snow was drifting in a strong wind.  But life, even with dogs, wasn’t “all beer and skittles” as we discovered when exploring the Transantarctic Mountains and the Polar Plateau.

Part 2   ||   Part 3

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