Chapter Three

To digress a bit from the biographical you have learned now about the history of I.G.Y. (International Geophysical Year). Earlier, there had been “Polar Years” for the international study of phenomena, usually aurorae, clearly associated with the polar regions. You don’t usually see aurorae far from the poles. They were known to be associated with sunspots and magnetic storms that is violent perturbations of the aforementioned earth’s magnetic field were known to accompany aurorae which were known to occur simultaneously at both poles at times a great number of sunspots and at 11 year intervals, roughly.

There had been two “Polar Years.” The first being in the late 1800’s and the second in the 1930’s. Now, with the war over it was obviously time for another so international scientific organizations got every one enthused up into having one in 1957-59. This was to be a grand event. Not just in the Polar regions but everywhere. Governments were talked into great activity to establish observatories in Antarctica, it being the least understood of earth’s continents.

Now N.Z, had ports on Campbell Island and one had been mooted for the Ballery Islands, both in the Southern Ocean, not long after the war. Indeed Sir Ernest Marsden had co-opted me to be involved with the Ballery Island base on the magnetic side. For several reasons nothing came of it but with IGY came the idea of a true Antarctic base for N.Z. Everyone & his brother seemed to be enthusiastic. The Americans, of course, had no conception of the notion that some nations regarded their sector of Antarctica as holy territory not to be intruded on by others. They put bases just where they fancied and now, being top dog, who was to deny them?

So they established a base at “McMurdo” situated on Ross Island in what was regarded as N.Z. territory – regarded that is by Kiwis! Other American bases came into being at other sits like Cafe Hallett and the S.Pole. This was very good if you regarded the opening up of antarctica as a “good thing.” Certainly it wasn’t a good thing for the penguins who were once plentiful

Adelie penguins near Scott Base, Ross Island

at Pram Point, Ross Isd. but where there are now none because it is adjacent to the U.S. McMurdo Base. The Americans brought long range air-transport with facilities at McMurdo and the Pole to give non-stop flights from Christchurch N.Z. This ended Antarctica’s isolation except for the remote points and in the long polar night.

Antarctica is a huge continent, the size of the U.S.A. and more or less totally covered in thick ice even in these days of climate change. One must note a few things about day & night so near the pole. The notion that days are 6 months long followed by 6 months darkness is wrong becase the two equinoxes are periods of virtually continuous twilight during which it is never truly night or day. Explorers and scientists there take full advantage of the long summer daylight to do things though one can easily overdo it and work for “days” without a break. For instance just before the official start of IGY I was, on my own, able to establish a fully operational Magnetic Observatory at Scott base in a matter of about 3 months.

The two non-magnetic huts comprising the Magnetic Observatory at Scott Base

In N.Z it had taken 2 years for one man to do only a partial job in the lead up to IGY. Of course, in one respect, much of the “organisation” had already been done in that all the apparatus was neatly packed in boxes to be right on hand when needed. Careful attention to detail before sailing from N.Z. had ensured this, but did not obviate upsets by other scientists-cum-explorers with other ideas of priority.

Chapter Two

Living through the deadly horrible times of the Great Depression which occurred between the wars, growing up in Christchurch New Zealand which was the departure point (actually it’s Port Lyttelton) for many an Antarctic endeavor, led inevitably to an interest in polar exploration. This, in spite of being conscripted for a short time into the N.Z. forces at the age of 18-19 to repel the Nazi and the Japanese attempts to take over the world.

Concurrent with the excitement of a potential invasion of New Zealand, which, of course, did not eventuate even though it was close, was my first job. At the same time was “fire watching.” Yes, we really had nightly fire-watching in remote Christchurch N.Z. To much of the populace this seemed a needless burden on an already stressed country, but not to the authorities who we later learned were in receipt of top secret information straight, one assumes, from Churchill’s mouth. At this time Sir E. Hillary, who will of course feature in this blog, was in the Air Force in the Pacific helping to prevent this and hunting crocodiles in his spare time.

It is essential to relate all this to show how I ever got to Antarctica for, being just interested meant that one merely took one’s place with thousands of other young men. In those days there was no thought of young women ever going, a bit like going to Mars now – remote and incredible. But I anticipate things a bit. In those days school leaving was automatically followed by military service for boys – no ifs or buts – you did it more or less straight from school. But I got a job straight from school because I was a year younger and had enrolled part-time at University.

My job was at an almost unknown establishment known as the “Magnetic Observatory” in Christchurch. This was part of the old D.S.I.R. (Dept. of Scientific Industrial Research) led, in those times, by Dr. (later Sir) Ernest Marsden. Ernie Marsden was quite a character with quite a history. It was he who, together with the better known Geiger – yes the Geiger of the counter – was discovered, by bombarding gold atoms with alpha particles, that the atom was largely empty space. Well the story of how this was done under the guidance of the great Nobel prize winner Ernest Rutherford has often been told so I won’t promise a future blog! Ernest was a popular name then – we have already met three in this short blog.

Well, here am I a junior on the staff of the “Magnetic Observatory” Christchurch, a place with observed and recorded changes in the earth’s magnetic field. To the uninitiated that’s the field or force, if you like, that controls a magnetic compass and causes it to point to magnetic north and not the geographical north. Incidently because this magnetic declination, or “variation” changes in both space and time it often causes great confusion to amateur navigators.

In times before the days of satellites, and exact modern navigation systems, a good knowledge of the earth’s magnetic field was quite essential for decent navigation so the work was regarded with some importance especially as there was a war on and the Americans were unofficially reported to be forever getting lost in the Pacific!

As well as geomagnetism “my” little place also contributed to meteorology (that’s weather) & seismology (that’s earthquakes) so, as well as the great Sir Ernest, I also got to meet people like George Eiby (of seismology) and Richie Simmers (of meteorology) while still a part time undergraduate.

Magnetometer at Scott Base similar to those at Christchurch

Chapter One


Old Antarctic Days

by Polar Medallist Vern Gerard B.Sc., M.Sc., F.InstP., F.B.I.S.

Once upon a time in a continent far away there was a semi-mystical place called the South Pole of Planet Earth. For many years this had been the goal of many explorers of the planet and great was the kudos to be gained by anyone reaching it by whatever means.

Eventually it was reached by the Norwegian Amundsen, and his conrades, travelling by dog-sledges but within days they were followed by the Briton Captain Robert Falcon Scott and his team who were man-handling sledges, but also he and his team of 4 others all perished of cold & starvation not far from the place near to where the New Zealanders now have their Scott Base.

Scott Base in the summer 1957-58 with dogs lined up

As a young boy of about 10 I remember reading about this great British epic journey in a “Boys Own Paper” which was a weekly of the kind which does not appear now. This around say, 1934, was publishing “South with Scott” in serial form which, with fine line illustrations, evoked the magnificent tradgedy of the explorers Scott, Wilson, Oates, Bowers & Evans. They died of hard work, cold & starvation. The final remaining three men were just a few kilometers from a depot of food & fuel which was, in modern terms, hardly any distance from their bases on Ross Island which is where lies the modern Scott Base of New Zealand. You must remember they were man-handling sledges. Scott’s pony’s having proved to be real “white elephants” in the extreme cold of Antarctica.

This marked the start of the modern age of polar exploration which produced flights in the recently invented aeroplane – airplane to Americans – to the N.pole and by Byrd, an American, over Antarctica.It was a time for all sorts of semi-crazy but noble ideas. One was Shackelton’s Trans-Antarctic attempt which ended up with his party getting to 11 miles of the Pole and with his epic open-boat sea journey from Elephant Island to South Georgia in mid-winter. This was at the time of the first World-War. Because they had no very effective wireless in those early days their plight was quite unknown to the outside world. If you haven’t read accounts of this incredible boat journey please do so because it is considered by many to be a much more arduous journey than Bligh’s open boat jaunt across the Pacific, though the latter was longer. But Shackelton, unlike Scott, lost no lives except one man’s pet cat and that is another story worth telling.

A trans-antarctic crossing was actually achieved many years later by Sir Vivian Fuchs which will be related much later in this blog when the Hillary-Fuchs expeditions are discussed.

One of Fuchs’ snow cats after arrival at Scott Base 1958