Posts filed under ‘Antarctica – Eastern’

FLYING ON ICE

The Press Release, issued:  10 February, 1965,   read in part….

“Antarctic Plane Damaged – Passengers’ Narrow Escape”

“On Sunday night at 8.30 p.m., the Beaver aircraft of the Australian Antarctic Expedition, broke through a weak patch of sea ice…..  On board were the;  Pilot, Surveyor and Radio Operator – Leslie Miller – who were to have landed at Rayner Peak for surveying….”

Unloading the Beaver

For several weeks, I had been working alongside 4 surveyors and 3 fellow radio operators, traversing and surveying several mountain ranges, about 650 kilometres west of Mawson.  The goal was to establish a series of detailed maps of both Kemp Land and MacRobertson land.

Our ship, the “Nella Dan”, was secured in sea ice off the Antarctic coast, from where we were flown 200 kilometres inland, onto the polar plateau.  A surveyor and a radio operator were left at the base of each mountain range, to set up camp, with daily climbs to the summit, carrying the heavy distance-measuring equipment.  Being Summer, we could work through 24 hours of daylight.

It wasn’t always easy going.  A further press release, on 24 February, 1965, noted that the weather had imposed severe limitations on the operations and that, “during periods of storm, survey parties had huddled in tiny tents, in blizzards up to 150 kilometres per hour.”  We were an intrepid lot.

But, back to the night of the 10th.

Seating arrangements in a Beaver, fitted out for operations in Antarctica, were spartan.  It was accepted that the pilot and surveyor had the front seats, with the radio operators flying “economy”.  In my case, this meant sitting on a spare battery down the back.  It was a matter of hanging onto whatever looked remotely secure, during take-offs and landings, or when bouncing around the sky.

Our destination on this evening, was to be Rayner Peak and with our heavy survival gear and radio equipment onboard, the plane lined up for take-off.  We gathered speed and all seemed normal, until we hit a really rough section of ice.  The plane became airborne, but instead of staying in the air, it plunged  downwards – not onto the sea ice, but through it.

There was an incredible crash and a loud grinding noise, as the propellor chewed through the sea ice, firstly turning

Careless!

 the windscreen white and then grey, as we looked down into the Southern Ocean.

The Beaver is a high winged aircraft and we were suspended under the sea, fortunately with the wings supporting us and preventing the plane from diving to the bottom.  Even so, whenever we moved, albeit slightly, the plane rocked from side to side.

Daring to barely breathe, let alone move, we sat motionless and mute for a couple of lifetimes.  The pilot began turning off switches, carrying  out a  procedure that I assumed had been  established for watery occasions, such as this.  Then, pre-dating Apollo 13’s Jim Lovell by 5 years and Tom Hanks by 30, he said,  “Gentlemen, we have a problem.”

You bet!

With the right side of the plane sealed against blizzards, it was the left that provided the only exit.  The surveyor pushed as hard as he could  against the pressure of the water, opening the door just enough for both him and the pilot to make their escape.

My situation was a  little more complicated.  Climbing over the top of the pilot’s seat, I had to crawl across the cockpit to the door, with the plane now nearly filled with water.  Once outside, it was a matter of working my way underneath the wing, to pop up like a frozen cork, with arms and legs flailing, to stay afloat.

We could hear the siren from the “Nella Dan” and it wasn’t long before willing hands pulled us out of the water, rushing us back to the ship, so we didn’t turn into human Icy Poles

Anyone home?

The counselling was brief and unsophisticated.

“Have a shower.  Organise your replacement gear and we will have a helicopter leaving in an hour, with you onboard.”

“But…..”

“What’s your problem?”

 

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June 8, 2010 at 10:26 PM 1 comment

DOGS ON ICE

Miss Minnie

I was outside, under the stars recently, waiting for the pampered and pyjama-clad little mutt pictured opposite, to do her final “business” for the day, when the Southern Cross caught my eye.

As I gazed at this constellation, my mind drifted to another time and another place, to where these same stars shone, but over a frozen, white and windswept land – Antarctica.  A place where real dogs had worked, lived, fought and died – the home of the Husky.

Disembarking from the ice ship, “Nella Dan”, at Mawson in 1964, there were just two sounds breaking the silence of that Great South Land.  The first was the deep throb of diesel electric generators and the second, a distant barking of 24 Huskies, welcoming us to our new home.  Dogs whose forebears came from Greenland, Labrador and other icy frontiers and who had been given exotic names such as;  Slink, Pong, Winkin, Orhog and of course – Flash Harry.  Over the next 12 months we grew to respect and love, these wonderful animals.

Antarctica however, is not for the faint hearted and we quickly experienced the reality of living in this unforgiving environment.  Because seal meat was always in short supply around Mawson, the previous handler had advocated a reduction in dog numbers and as a consequence, five were shot.  I still recall the stillness and silence  of those remaining, when the final gunshot echoed around the ice cliffs.  They knew.

But these were working dogs, expected to pull a payload equal to their own weight, which they did with enthusiasm

Training on Sea Ice

 -most of the time.  They had a firm grip on the Eskimo language – responding to “Mush”, (Go), “illi-illi-illi”, (turn right), “ee-yuk, ee-yuk, (turn left) and of course, “Whoa” and “Sit”, in English.  The first three instructions were accompanied with the crack of a 5 metre rawhide whip, to give added direction and urgency.  And, despite the discomfort of sled travel, these Huskies provided us with the safest form of transport, especially over crevassed terrain and on sea ice.

Each dog was a personality.

Flash Harry. All front - No grunt

Ian was the leader – aging, but still retaining the respect of his team.  Flash Harry, being a stronger dog, was trialled to replace him, but when given the lead harness, he could be seen prancing out in front, pulling nothing but his enlarged ego.  The team soon woke up to Flash and jumped on him at the first opportunity.  He was subsequently demoted to running as a “spare” – the ultimate ignominy.

Poor Pong.  From being a strong and reliable worker and whilst on  a field trip with us, he was reduced to a cowering wreck after an all-in brawl, during which he was singled out for “payback”.  He could no longer work in harness and suffered the ultimate indignity in Husky Land, of being sent back to Mawson in a Snow-Trac.  Pong’s psyche was irreparably damaged.

It is to be remembered that these are wild animals, with a large  dose of wolf running through their veins.  Barely before the command “Mush” is uttered, there is the mandatory fight, when old scores and imagined  slights are settled.  They continually joust for supremacy and on many occasions we had to  stitch and salve wounds, inflicted after a dust-up.  Left to their own devices, they can kill each other and this is not a preferred option,  especially when there is work to do.

However, I never heard of them biting a human.  Once, when trying to separate 9 warring dogs at “Mush” time, I slipped on the ice and could do nothing but lie there, surrounded by snapping, snarling jaws.  But, so busy were they with their own, they ignored me.  Although, several used me as a step ladder, to gain better leverage on an opponent.

We were reduced to one female, (Husky that is), when Snooky died earlier in the year, after being frozen during an extended blizzard.  Connie, (named after Connie Frances – which gives you an idea of the era), came on heat in early September.

The dynamic of having;  26 male expeditioners, 18 randy male Huskies and one bitch on heat, was interesting.  The dogs howled each night, trying to escape their chains, for a close up of young Connie.  The rest of us, listening to our canine counterparts and having been “on ice” for some 8 months ourselves, were similarly restless.  I think the aging Ian, the “chosen one”, missed the boat, when upstaged by a younger competitor, who had chewed through his collar and had his way with the hapless Constance.

She produced a litter of six beautiful pups and it was as if they were our own – so proud were we.

Too soon, the year was gone and it was time to say goodbye to these dear friends and to hand them over to those sent

Orhog - a lovable larrikin.

 to relieve us.  We had experienced so much together and one could not restrain the tears, when walking the dog lines,  bidding a  final  farewell  to each of these faithful companions.

The Husky is no longer a part of Antarctica and it is now the responsibility of we who were there – to remember.

May 31, 2010 at 6:52 PM 3 comments

MEMORIES ON ICE

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.

 

May 27, 2010 at 7:59 PM 5 comments


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