Reflections Part 2

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.

Our 3-month survey of the Beardmore-Axel Heiberg region, although typical of the NZ geological and Survey expeditions in the early 1960s, was unique in some respects, covering a larger area than usual (21,000 sq miles) and involving living on the Polar Plateau at 8,000 to 11,000 feet. Best of all from my own perspective, our 4-man team had the privilege of exploring and mapping the areas made famous by Shackleton, Scott, Amundsen and Byrd. The plan devised by our leader, Wally Herbert, was to be landed (by a US Navy DC3) at the head of the Mill Glacier, flowing into the upper Beardmore. How cushy compared to Team Scott’s 7 week slog across the ice shelf and up the glacier! We would then work our way eastward around the edge of the plateau to the Axel Heiberg, setting up our survey stations on high peaks with commanding views over wide expanses of nunataks, mountains and glaciers, all the way down to the Ross Ice Shelf 60 miles to the north.

Plateau life in tents in those days was not so different from today. We obviously faced the same fickle weather, miserable cold and variable snow conditions. We also had a diet of carefully selected high calorie food (which became incredibly boring long before our three months were up), efficient cold weather clothing and double sleeping bags, but all filled with down rather than a synthetic. However our two-man “Scott polar tents”  (pyramidal and double-walled, supported by four aluminium corner poles) were perhaps a little more spacious, and we usually had the additional delight of the well rehearsed evening “howlo” put on by the dogs after their pemmican dinner, tethered to their wire spans outside – treble, baritone and the occasional base, the full choir. After-dinner dairy writing and reading followed until we fell asleep to the sound of the snow hissing like sand on the flapping outer tent walls, our exposed faces often cooled by a continuous fall of hoar frost shaken down off the walls.

The morning schedule, compared with today’s, demanded a similar level of will power to implement: wake at 7am to the alarm clock and then battle to open a frozen sleeping bag zip (sometime adhered to your beard – that could be a challenge!) to stoke up the old Primus, melt a snow block or two and prepare breakfast of porridge, bacon & egg (from egg powder), biscuits with thick butter & jam and instant coffee.  On the trail, though, life was distinctly less exhausting and more entertaining, not to mention occasionally frustrating if the dogs felt so inclined. As our mission was to survey and geologise, rather than endure the daily southward haul, we would spend at least two nights at each location – usually at the foot of a mountain or nunatak – before moving on to the next selected site. Sledging day would see us harnessing up the two teams of nine wildly enthusiastic dogs. Such was their keenness to get on the trail it was essential to ensure the Nansen sledge was so securely anchored to ensure it could not be jerked out of reach only to disappear over over the horizon in a cloud of snow and howling dogs with all one’s worldly possessions on board, as was reputed to have happened in several famous incidents in the past.  

As we took off with a great rush and with both men on skis clinging to their tow ropes at the back of the sledge, the driver would yell out Owk (right) or Irr’rr (left) in an endeavour to nudge the lead dog in the right direction. With a certain degree of luck, and baring the appearance of prominent lumps of snow or ice that attract dogs in the manner of lampposts creating a zig out to one side followed by a zag out the other, the sledge would carve out only a mildly erratic line.  Where it was imperative to steer a more precise course around obstacles, icy slopes or crevasses one man would go ahead on skis – often on a rope attached to the main dog trace for safety or for extra pulling power. As the dogs flagged, the driver bellow out Ouit, ouit  (as in Wheat, wheat) to keep them going or, to stop, Ahrr, ahrr, with which all nine dogs would stop dead in their tracks, especially if tired or due for their hourly 5-minute rest.

Navigation in those far off pre-GPS days was more of an art. In good visibility if the landmark we were aiming of was visible there was obviously no problem. However, if we were instead facing the blank white wall of a whiteout or drifting snow, we would navigate by dead-reckoning – steering by sun compass (in preference to our magnetic compass due to metal objects on the sledge) and sledgewheel with a mileage counter for distance. The sun compass was a white disc graduated in degrees with a central stalk to cast a shadow, and a movable hand (like a stop watch’s second hand). By rotating the disc to set it on the computed course bearing and moving on the hand 5 degrees every 20 minutes to track the sun, it was then a matter of endeavouring to steer the sledge (ie the lead dog!) so that the sun’s shadow fell across the hand. As we were often in potential crevasse country, if the shadow disappeared for long periods we usually deemed the whiteout too unsafe for further travel. At the end of each day’s run we would determine latitude and longitude by either astronomical (sun) observations taken by theodolite or by dead reckoning, applying our distance travelled and average bearing to our previous position fix. This would be transmitted by Morse code back to Scott Base, together with any other messages. No satellite phones in those days!

In the next enthralling episode I will try to answer the vexing question: “What were we actually doing down there anyway?”  The short answer is: making a map and looking at rocks but, in reality, that was easier said than done. There was always the “Antarctic factor”!

Part 1   ||   Part 3

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