Old Antarctic Days (continued)

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Early days of the NZ Expedition 1956-57 and some facts you didn’t know.

Please forgive me if some of this is a repeat of previous items in this blog.

The NZ expedition ship H.M.S. Endeavour was captained by Captain Kirkwood and like all R.N. captains he knew who was the boss of HIS expedition though he also recognised that Hillary – already Sir Edmund, after the Everest epic 3 years before – was the leader on land and that the captain’s authority did not extend beyond his ship. His brief had been to off-load the expedition at Butter Point, McMurdo Sound, which is on its western side. It was thought desirable for us to be some distance from the Americans, who were already established on Ross Island, so that we would not be completely overwhelmed by them.

But when Hillary and others inspected Butter Point in early 1957 it was obvious that it was quite unsuitable because of ice conditions. This was inspite of an inspection made the previous year by Bernie Gunn, a geologist, Harrington, and Hatherton, a palaeontologist, which was courtesy of the Americans as usual. This trio had reported to the Ross Sea Committee that Butter Point would be suitable. Much later, I learned that Bernie Gunn had not agreed that Butter Point would be okay, but the other two had overruled him.

By this time it was well into the short Antarctic summer and the Americans – helpful as always – suggested and even bulldozed a site for our Base at Pram Point just 3 km from their Ross Island McMurdo Base, which already, had the makings of the small city it became. Remember this was in the Ross Dependency, the sector of Antarctica supposed to be claimed by NZ.

So this was where we went, indeed there was not any real alternative. The Endeavour was manoeuvred through the sea ice to the nearest accessible point possible, where some American ships were also unloading supplies for their Base and a tractor train using our Ferguson farm tractors was started to unload our stuff for Pram Point a few km away over the sea ice. These were the tractors which Hillary took to the Pole next year. The Americans gave us a Weasel, a small snow vehicle- to help, but it was not so small that it could not tow a sledge, and had such nice things as internal heating. This, remember, was at the time when even heaters in ordinary cars were not common.

By then Hillary was already anxious to have a go at finding a route from McMurdo up to the polar plateau for his, still-secret polar dash next summer (southern summer 1957-58). Ostensively, this was to be the route for Sir Vivian Fuch’s incoming party, but this was, as people now say, just the ‘cover story.’

So Hillary with one or two others, like Harry Ayers, disappeared and left the Base building to the second in charge, Bob Miller (later Sir Holmes Miller) and anyone else who was around. Some, like the IGY people, including me, could not actually do anything until the huts were erected and power available. So there were a lot of people, sleeping in tents, to help Randal Heke and his summer Ministry of Works staff get on with hut erection while the weather held, which it did that summer. Temperatures were -5 to -15 degrees Celsius.

I imagined Bob Miller hardly slept for a few weeks, because he always seemed to be up and around, doing something whenever one emerged from one’s tent in the perpetual daylight. Bob Miller must have just about lived on George Marsh’s Dexedrine which were war-time tablets given to those who had to be on duty for long periods. Later, I tried one myself when I was in a great hurry to get the magnetometers installed and working in time for the IGY. But at this time George Marsh (our doctor), who of course prescribed them, became sick himself with what he called diphtheria. He confined himself to bed and had his meals brought in. There’s no doubt he was quite sick but no one could dispute a doctor’s own diagnosis.

At this time most people who could find an excuse like exploring, or flying an aeroplane (we had two), disappeared because hut erection was not compatible with mountain climbing, which, in retrospect, I think a lot of them thought was their real job.

The layout of the Base originally intended for Butter Point was quite unsuitable for Pram Point for one simple but important reason: the place where tractors would come off the sea ice was to be right beside my magnetic huts. Can you imagine trying to do terrestrial magnetic observations with tractors (very magnetic) going right past your observation huts which, in a more civilised environment would be called the “Magnetic Observatory.”

So, with Bob Miller, I worked out an entirely different Base layout to suit my requirements. As I have said Hillary and lots of people had disappeared so couldn’t be consulted which was a good thing from the IGY viewpoint! And this is the way the Base is 50 years on, even after one rebuild. It’s my layout.

Eventually, the Huts took shape; proper cooking in the mess hut began and people appeared from various field activities when they had a heated hut in which to sleep!

There was a night watchman rostered to wake the cook. A roster of mess orderlies was started: two men on for a week; never mind if you had scientific work of importance, it had to be fitted in your schedule regardless of any sleeping. The mess orderlies filled up the snow melters for water. These ran off the exhaust gases of the diesel-electric generators of which there were 6, 3 working and 3 on standby. Right now as I write in 2008, wind turbines are being installed for power there.

The mess orderlies for the week also ensured the fuel tanks for the various hut heaters were kept full from our dump of fuel drums. They also did Sunday’s meals when the cook was off duty.

The dogs were tethered out on the ice, covered themselves in the snow. And were quite happy to be fed a lump of frozen meat every day or so. We really had a fairly comfortable self-contained Base and often American visitors, who were numerous, liked some aspects thought to be superior to theirs’. For instance, we had a remarkable refrigeration system for our frozen food; we dumped it outside the mess hut. The Americans actually had domestic refrigerators in their huts. No kidding! How did we ever manage to win that war of only 12 years before?

I will not detail any of my two magnetic huts and the work done there, but I must say that the magnetometer installation, which had taken a qualified mathematical physicist two years to do in NZ had to be done in just a couple of months. This deadline was due to the start of IGY in the middle of 1957 and also the end of the long hours of continuous daylight, which of course, blended into continuous extremely cold darkness about May. No wonder I thought of George’s Dexedrine but recall only taking it once because, though I was pressed for time the work being scientifically exacting, demanded a clear head too, which one didn’t get on Dexedrine. In later years at Scott Base, I saw lots of examples of people who had let the free alcohol get to their minds with very bad reflection in their work.

The Nature of Scott Base

Was Scott Base a military establishment or a university field station?

It was BOTH, and there was some conflict because different people, saw it differently.

The Hillary contingent who were bent on exploration and getting to the Pole the next summer (southern summer: 1957-58) thought of Scott Base as a military outfit. The IGY people thought of it mostly as a University Field Station of whatever university they had graduated from – or had been associated with, even if, in some cases, they didn’t actually have graduate qualifications.

Nearly everyone, except the youngest had war-time military service; I had done my service in the artillery but it was short because the Americans clobbered the Japanese with two atomic bombs which finished the war about a week later. Well, that was just 12 years before and those who remember those times will recall the chaotic era after the war ended, there was the Korean War, the cold war, unemployed “generals” looking for a peace-time job, the constant threat of another bomb, etc.

So, a relatively military-like establishment evolved in Scot Base. We were also influenced by the Americans whose base was a navy one.

Hillary, the bee keeper, had been in the Pacific islands with the RNZAF facing the Japs, so had John Claydon, too. Those two had known each other then and now Hillary ranked Claydon, whereas it had been the other way in the war. The question of who ranked who still had weight though this was not of great importance to the IGY people who, being university types, were not used to taking orders from the military.

So the unofficial “military” base concept lead to the two wireless operators, Ted Gawn and Peter Mulgrew automatically imposing a “war-time” censorship without even thinking about it because that was the way they had always done things. This was a nuisance to us who sometimes wanted to communicate back to NZ but had messages rejected by those two who effectively became the “boss pair” when Hillary or Miller were out exploring. Nowadays one can just ring NZ from Scott Base.

Another problem was again lack of sleep when your night watchman or mess schedule conflicted with scientific demands. This just had to be endured; there was also no arbitrator to sort it out. Then we had our “in charge” palaeontologist telling a physicist how to run his magnetic observatory. The paleontologist’s job was auroral observation! Never mind that often there was no aurora to observe! Yes, it certainly had war-time aspects like when any ‘erk” was expected to be able to shift the piano if he was musical enough to know “Waltzing Matilda” from “Land of Hope and Glory!”

The ionosphere observations as well as the seismology got done well with little drama by Neil Sandford and Herb Orr. Sandford got his immense aerials erected with the help from anyone available. Sandford has since “defected” to Australia.

The auroral observations didn’t get done too well because the all-sky auroral camera froze up. I had a similar problem with one of my recorder clocks and solved it by putting a small heater – actually a low-wattage light bulb – on it. The auroral camera problem could have been solved similarly, and indeed was, but a couple of years later!

The Dogs on Sledge

It will be remembered that Scott was beaten to the Pole by the Norwegian Amundsen and a key reason for this was the faith put in huskies by the Norwegians. Now, as is well known, the English have now, and had then too, a sort of mystical attachment to dogs. Kiwis visiting Britain often say that their dogs got better treatment than their children and there is a lot of truth in this. So for Scott to use dogs to do real work was unthinkable and low and behold he settled for ponies to haul the sledges and, as is well known, his man, Capt Oates was a pony handler.

Well, the ponies were a complete flop in everyway. They ate a lot, perished in the cold, and could not manage the rough icy terrain. Norwegians being used to using sledge dogs at home were naturally used by Amundsen.

When the NZ expedition was being organised some 45 years later in 1956, all this was well known, and by now petrol-driven vehicles had improved immensely. Remember in these 45 years two world wars had been fought which saw the development of tanks and aeroplanes. People now expected to be able to rely on petrol engines; whereas in Scott’s time they were apt to be very temperamental and a disaster in extreme cold.

So the Ross Sea Committee opted for Fergusson farm tractors especially as our expedition was given some! Dogs were also included, as a sort of back-up,a nd Dr. George Marsh was also our dog man. We had about 40 huskies and enough for 4 teams each of 9 dogs, and they were quite at home in the cold being tethered out on the ice far enough apart so as not to fight. Given a lump of frozen meat – did you think we thawed it out for them? They were quite happy, so long as fed regularly and would lie on the lump of meat until soft enough to eat. Tough animals!

So in the 1957-58 summer besides Hillary’s tractors racing to the Pole, there were about 4 field parties each of two men and 9 dogs, doing things like surveying and geologising, being supplied from the air by pilots Claydon and Cranfield. Meanwhile, the Base was manned by the IGY scientists, including this writer, the cook, the radio operators, and Wally Tarr the aircraft mechanic plus any other odds and sods who happened to get there by fair means or foul. Anyone just turning up, even just if newspaper journalists normally, had to earn their meals and hut space by doing real work like filling snow melters.

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