May 27, 2010 at 7:59 PM 5 comments

Location:    Australian Antarctic Base – Mawson.

Era:               Pioneering, (at least, I thought it was) – 1964.

Entries from the diary of the Officer in Charge.

August 10th    Weather overcast.  Temperature Minus 10C.  Frank, Roger and Les prepare to leave for Fischer Nunatak to rescue VW.  Departed approximately 10.00 a.m. in Snow-Trac.  Light snow falling about 11.00, also wind had increased and weather turning nasty.  Became concerned about the party.  At 2.30 p.m. radio schedule, they were stopped near Mt. Henderson in blizzard conditions.”

I was a Radio Operator and had been in Antarctica for 7 of the 14 months of my stay at Mawson.  Our mission to rescue the VW was to be a bit of a jaunt.  A chance to spend a day on the polar plateau, away from the confines of our coastal base.  The Volkswagen had been abandoned the previous year and in the spirit of this adventure, the cook prepared us sandwiches and off we went.  Not before throwing in three sleeping bags, just in case.

We carefully weaved our way through the crevasses and ice falls, leading onto the plateau and were soon bouncing across some of the 14 million square kilometers of ice that comprises Antarctica.  It is a magnificent and yet intimidating  continent.

Two hours later, the weather had turned and we were enveloped in fast moving drift snow, whipped up by a powerful polar wind.  Visibility was reduced to zero and we slowed to a crawl.  Blizzards last at least three days and knowing how ill-equipped we were, we felt compelled to press on.

“Les, get out on the end of that rope and guide us.”  (Frank always came up with the bright ideas).

“Why me?”

“You’re the youngest.”

“Thanks Frank.”

Tying the rope to a headlight and then  around my waist, I leaned into the driving snow, barely making headway.  SkinHome for 3 days. exposed to a blizzard, is similar to being sandblasted, but with tiny ice particles, travelling at over 150 kmh.  I could see nothing in front of me and after 30 freezing minutes, crawled back to the vehicle, to tell Frank what to do with his rope.  He was philosophical, so we settled in for a long haul.

I transmitted a general broadcast in Morse, giving our position and intentions, hoping that someone would receive it.  I was to make the same transmission every three hours, over the next three days.  Radio reception in blizzards is impossible, due to the discharge of static electricity from the wind driven icicles, so there can be no acknowledgement of a message having been received.

At 4.30 p.m., picked up a general broadcast from the party.  Now stopped in blizzard, equipped with sleeping bags and little food…..”.

Over the next three days and nights, we were buffeted violently and relentlessly, by a wind that threatened to turn us over, sweep us out to the coast and we felt, even as far as Australia.  Conversation was  impossible and having the heater turned off to conserve fuel, we pummelled each other to keep warm.  The inside temperature hovered between -10C and -15C.

Our frozen sandwiches were rationed at half per person per day.  Water was obtained by swiftly opening the door and trying to capture a handful of passing snow.  Tied to the Snow-Trac, one would reluctantly take a toilet break,  exposing one’s waterworks to the elements.   Some jaunt.

August 11th   “Temperature -10C.  Fully developed blizzard.  No contact with the field party, owing to drift static.  Hope they find the caravan as they have little food, although equipped with sleeping bags.”

(The “caravan” referred to was a remote weather station, established in 1955 in the Framnes Mountains and at which there was a cache of emergency rations.)

August 12th  “Blizzard conditions exist,  with wind and air pressure rising steadily.  Nothing of the field party on radio.  Intend taking a “Weasel” into the field to search, as soon as conditions permit.”

Despite another miserable and hungry 24 hours, we were in good spirits.  It was just a matter of how long the blizzard would last – several had run for 6 days earlier in the year

Shelter and food.August 13th  “Weather fine, with slight surface drift.  Received transmission from field party this morning at 9.30.  All well, rather tired.  Will try and make caravan.  1.30 p.m., they arrived at the caravan and shelter, after ordeal – all well.”

I contacted Mawson Radio and advised that we remained “blizzed” in, with no visibility, still isolated and stationary.  The Mawson operator pointed out that it was a perfect day on the coast and asked what was our problem.  Forcing open the rear door, we found ourselves in an ice cave, which had formed over the three days, encasing the Snow-Trac.  Punching holes in the walls, revealed a magnificent Antarctic day – the bluest of skies and a horizon stretching forever.

During an inspection of our vehicle and surrounds, we discovered how luck, Providence, or both, had intervened on our behalf.  A few metres from where I had stopped at the end of the rope, was a wind scour – hundreds of metres deep.  A little further and we would have toppled over the edge, with all probability of never being discovered.

During our training in Australia, we were constantly warned never to take this Great South Land for granted.  A lesson  learned.



Entry filed under: Antarctica - Eastern.


5 Comments Add your own

  • 1. beachblogger  |  May 29, 2010 at 5:19 PM

    Ha! Makes my little winter swims pale into insignificance. Hey Leslie don’t forget to categorise … this one would go in an Antarctic Adventures category, or some such …

  • 2. Social Graces  |  May 30, 2010 at 8:08 PM

    Incredible, Leslie. It is hard to imagine how cold -10C or -15C could be but I would think colder than anything I’ve experienced (even a European winter).

    Looking forward to more …

    • 3. lesliedavid  |  May 30, 2010 at 9:10 PM

      Hello Carolyn.

      Great to catch up with you yesterday and to learn more of your goals and aspirations with this Blogging phenomenon. It can be a lot of fun and I hope to dig up more stories from this aging grey matter, to share with you. I re-read your initial Blog and you would have been encouraged by the comments you received – they were involved and interesting.

      All the best for now.


  • 4. Judi  |  June 1, 2010 at 10:31 AM

    Wow – what a great story and very well written, dramatic – I breathed a sigh of relief at the end. A fabulous piece of writing. It had me there in it.

  • 5. lesliedavid  |  June 1, 2010 at 11:06 AM

    Hi Judi.
    Many thanks for your generous comments – I hope you are enjoying this Blogging phenomonen, as much as I – it is a lot of fun. It would be great to catch up again in a month or two – so if you felt like donning your organiser’s hat, I will be a starter.

    All the very best.



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