Reflections Part 3

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 3, Peter concludes his series of reflections.

Our mission, dictated by the New Zealand Antarctic Division, was to produce an accurate topographic map (at a scale of 1:250,000) and to carry out a geological reconnaissance of the region as part of NZ’s Ross Dependency mapping programme.  To achieve this, leader Wally Herbert and I (as the surveyor) planned to establish extensive ground control (accurately located natural features) to provide the framework for us to map the detail from US oblique aerial photography once back in New Zealand. Geologist Vic McGregor was responsible for the geological mapping and rock collection and mountaineer and guide Kevin Pain was our field assistant – and my tent and sledging mate.  That was the theory, but then there was always the “Antarctic factor” which ensures that every physical, or even mental, endeavour is just that much harder to do there than anywhere else on earth thanks to the ever-present cold and the effort of even moving around in over-stuffed clothing or carrying out fiddly tasks wearing great furry mitts. 

Our plan was to sledge eastward around the edge of the plateau from our landing site near the head of the Beardmore, spending at least a day surveying and studying the geology at each of our  selected sites, finishing the survey at the Axel Heiberg. The pattern we established was to camp at the foot of our selected nunatak or 10,000-13,000 foot peak and then set off the following day, often on a 4-5 hour climb of between 500 and 4,500 feet. There, Wally and I would set up the theodolite on the summit while Vic and Kevin took off to explore whichever rock outcrops looked most promising.  Although Wally and Kevin would sometimes swap jobs I was always stuck with the theodolite – literally on several occasions when my tears froze to the eyepiece. Not recommended! Standing in a -20 to -30 degree C wind (-45 C of windchill) for up to 5 hours – longer if delayed by cloud or strong wind – peering through the theodolite at distant peaks and making delicate adjustments for precise readings, was my personal endurance test. For the poor booker beside me recording the numbers I called out, it probably seemed even worse, being mind-numbingly cold and boring. However, after the first few miserable experiences, I turned around from the theodolite to find he had disappeared into the emergency pup tent cunningly stowed in his backpack and set up while I was otherwise occupied.  He was obviously a faster learner than I was!  

The surveying procedure consisted of making repeated precise horizontal and vertical angles to 20 to 30 selected features around the compass, taking a 360 degree photo panorama at 15 degree intervals with the camera mounted on top of the theodolite to later fix the position of minor features, sketching the panorama and labelling all points observed (the booker’s job), making sun observations for azimuth and hence orientation and, occasionally, star observations (we could see 2 or 3 of the brightest in broad daylight) for precise latitude and longitude, although these were more often observed from the shelter of camp and connected to the main station.  (Scale for the survey network was provided by making several sets of baseline measurements in flat terrain, each taking two or three days.)  Finally, all hands would usually join in to build a cairn of rock, or snow blocks if on a snow dome, over the survey mark as a “trig station” for sighting to later. 

Meanwhile geologist Vic, assisted by Kevin or Wally, would be working on the snow free ground around the peak systematically identifying and collecting rock specimens, recording their bedding and location and searching for fossils. Vic hit the jackpot at only our second station when he discovered the first ever Triassic fossils in Antarctica: many well preserved ferns and conifers in shales of the Beacon group and an impressive coal seam – convincing evidence of a bygone semi tropical clime, but hard to imagine now! His systematic work was later published in maps and scientific literature and, together with the work of other early Antarctic geologists, helped prove the “plate tectonics” theory, and that Antarctica was the central continent of Gondwanaland, once connected to South America, Africa, India, Australia and New Zealand. 

Although the work was at times exhausting, the rewards made it all worthwhile. Our high stations gave us magnificent views of soaring mountains, some bare rock others clothed in tumbling icefalls, and of course great glaciers, such as the Beardmore where we marvelled at the grit of Shackleton and Scott forcing their way up over the rough icy slopes and through the sinister crevasse fields – a challenge that Team Scott has just met and overcome in the same tradition.  Standing on Barnum Peak looking down the Liv Glacier, we could visualise Admiral Byrd 32 years earlier desperately jettisoning his emergency gear and fuel in a desperate effort to clear the saddle below us, going on to become the first man to fly to the South Pole. Then there was our grandest view from survey stations atop 13,350 ft Mt Fridtjof Nansen, which became the highest mountain then climbed in Antarctica, gazing down onto Amundsen’s Axel Heiberg Glacier – the reverse of the view that Team Amundsen would have become all too familiar with as they struggled up through the deep snow, double hauling all the way.  Our worst times were: breaking sledge runners on sastrugi, losing two brothers (fortunately dogs) to heart attacks in the tough conditions, and having to sit out blizzard after blizzard, losing precious surveying time, when the weather switched in mid December from fine and cold to just frequently bad.  

During our final 6 weeks an uneasy debate broke out over the radio waves: how our team should be retrieved from the plateau since it was clear the US Navy’s old DC3 would be struggling at that altitude. Wally’s first plan, endorsed by Sir Vivian Fuchs of Transantarctic Expedition fame, was to simply sledge to the US Pole Station and “hitch” a ride back to Scott Base on an empty C130 Hercules. (That one appealed to us all!) But when that was turned down on account of “unacceptable risk” he proposed, instead, following Amundsen’s route pioneered exactly 50 years earlier down the Axel Heiberg to the ice shelf. When that plan hit the same stone wall, he took the bull by the horns – and, with light loads, we all sledged down the upper, crevasse free, half (to the site of Henry and Lou’s Camp 43 another 50 years later). From there Wally and Vic skied off down through the tortuous major icefalls to the bottom, flagging a safe sledging route all the way.  Even then it required a further 11 days of debate by Morse code, while we finished off the survey on the plateau, to convince the authorities, that a) we had already reconnoitred the whole glacier and b) were confident we could sledge it safely!  

The descent started the day we got the green light.  Almost immediately we ran into a sea of soft fluffy snow and bogged down with our heavy sledges (blame our geologist and his rocks!) – the exact reverse of Amundsen’s “firm surface” that he raced up with his dogs. Despite the downhill grade we had to off-load half our loads and relay them in stages down the glacier. This continued all the way to the bottom except for Henry’s “mother of all hills” that he and Lou had to zig-zag up. Here we raced down, my sledge at one stage flying backwards, dragging the dogs behind us in clouds of snow! To compensate for its challenging sledging conditions, the scenery and grandeur of this alpine glacier almost defied words. Even Amundsen, not known for exaggeration, had exclaimed: “The wilderness of the landscape is not to be described: chasm after chasm, crevasse after crevasse, with great blocks of ice scattered promiscuously about, gave one the impression that here nature was too powerful for us.” A century later, I’m sure Henry and Lou must surely have agreed. For our own team and 16 remaining dogs, the Axel Heiberg meant the end of the road after 95 days, with the plane due the following day for a safe low altitude pick up – and finally a square meal and shower to follow! Our faithful friends had pulled our sledges 660 nautical miles, 170 miles of it relaying loads of up to 500 kg across the plateau and finally down the glacier, and had now earned their rest. 

After reflecting on my own polar adventures so long ago and remembering the tough days, I feel an even deeper admiration, not only for the sheer physical effort driving Mark and Henry’s teams towards the Pole under even more extreme conditions, dragging their own heavy sledges, but for their indomitable mental attitude that drives them on day after endless day. The spirit of Scott and Amundsen surely lives on a century later!

Part 1  ||  Part 2

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