Six Months of Continuous Darkness at the Antarctic

A letter recently written to a lady who is currently a member of the Scott Base Team on how to while away the winter darkness in the Antarctic.

How to cope with the darkness ? It affects some more than others, especially those without a clear program of work for the winter.  For myself, I had to visit my magnetic [actually non-magnetic!] huts every 12 hours.  This involved a trek by torchlight (or flashlight to Americans!), often on hands & knees if there was a bad blizzard, as was common.  I was the only poor guy who had to go out this often.  Others, especially Hillary’s crowd mostly prepared for their summer work and probably slept a lot.  Some over indulged in alcohol but this wasn’t on for any of the scientists with a clear program of work

And, I could conceivably have got lost outside and no one actually checked to see if I had returned from my 12- hourly outing. I only had a glass at the mid winter celebration and then did not miss my 12 hour trek. In later years alcohol was a problem, so I believe.

Do as much as possible in the darkness even if it’s nothing more exciting than writing reports about what you did in the summer.  But don’t tell me that you didn’t come to Scott to write reports!!!

When the sun returns there always seems to be a lot to catch up with even if it’s just taking pictures in the strange new phenomenon called sunlight. (By the way, you haven’t told what your speciality is.)

We had a weekly winter talk, after dinner, on every Tuesday if I remember right. No exceptions allowed. Hillary’s was about crocodile hunting in the Solomon Islands during the War (our war ie.WW2).  Mine was on Interplanetary Travel.  Remember this was a few weeks BEFORE the Russian Sputnik amazed the world.   Bob Miller, who was the effective base leader, talked about Spanish Bull Fighting.  The aim was to avoid anything to do with the Antarctic and why we were there.

Anyway, for most of us scientists the winter passed fairly easily, then.

Vern Gerard.

The Endeavour

Essentially an extract of a brief speech given by Vern Gerard to the Prime Minister celebrating 50 years since the return of the Endeavour to Wellington after the IGY, TAE expedition of 1956-58.


Vern Gerard speaking at Parliament in 2008 celebrating the 50th anniversary
of the return of the Endeavour to Wellington.
(Prime Minister Helen Clark is seated on the left.)

The Endeavour

I have actually been on two Endeavours, but have not sailed on either.

The one I liked best was Cook’s ship and, though I am old I am not that old, and this Endeavour was actually a modern replica of Cook’s which visited Wellington some years ago. She was a very fine ship.

The Endeavour we are celebrating today was being used to transport Scott Base- the future Scott Base, to the Antarctica in 1956-57. I was actually on her for only 7 days in January 1957. This was while we were unloading the future Base.

Most NZers to staff Scott Base went South on this Endeavour because NZ was, as often, punching above her weight, and our IGY scientists and a few others could not be given room on her so the Americans, as usual, kindly helped by taking us down on the US Navy ice breaker Glacier. Icebreakers roll horribly in a bad sea and I well remember being the only one not sick.

I first saw the Endeavour to the east of Beaufort Island just north of Ross Island on 5 January 1957 when the Glacier was breaking ice for US ships. She still had a Christmas tree on her mast head. On the upper deck were most of the people we had trained with at Mt. Cook.

Scott Base was intended to be at Butter Point on the western side of McMurdo Sound; but when the Endeavour got near, it was found to be an impossible place with practicable access only by helicopter. We had two aeroplanes but no helicopter. This rather wrecked our plans, which had been quite settled on Butter Point because a preliminary party had examined it the previous year and reckoned it was alright especially for the TAE crossing party scheduled for late 1958. But actually it would have suited no one well except maybe a palaeontologist

The Ross Dependency is claimed by NZ, but it was the Americans who came to our rescue and more or less decided on Pram Point for our Base when they bulldozed a site there for us. This was a handy 3km from McMurdo – an easy walk. In fact it was not a bad spot with lots of penguins around then – but not now. I don’t think Hillary, Miller, or Helm wanted to be so close to McMurdo, but the Base had to go somewhere.

The Antarctic summer is short – it was already after the New Year and the Endeavour had on board 9 pre-fabricated huts, 2 aeroplanes, tractors, 6 diesel generators, tons of supplies, IGY scientists and Hillary’s mountaineers, etc. So everyone was quite pleased to settle for Pram Point and Scott Base is still there today 51 years after.

On 12 January 1957, after a week on the Endeavour, I left her for a tent at Pram Point and I have never seen the Endeavour since.

Chapter Six

The first women in Antarctica, and more tales

In those days women never, or almost never got to Antarctica and certainly there were none with Scott, Shackelton, Byrd, Amundsen, etc. But I believe one or two may have crossed the Antarctic circle in the very earli days perhaps with whalers or men like Balleny. Anyway on the 15th Oct. 1957 two women air hostesses arrived at McMurdo or, to give it its official name United States Naval Air Facility McMurdo Sound Antarctica. This in spite of Rear Admiral George J. Dufek’s ruling that so long as he was in charge of the place there would be no women there. Now, of course, women are always there.

Well now, how these two managed it is a long story and not now very clear in my memory. It seemed that the U.S. had an aircraft mishap a long way away – that is not actually in Antarctica, and were short of transport to fly summer people to McMurdo so, being in the USA, they simply hired a PAN AM long range passenger aeroplane to do the job. Now, my memory & interpretation of the facts is that according to the union rules the aircraft had to have a full crew to be allowed to fly, so what happened? The crew included two air hostesses and they came with it on the 8 hour flight from Christchurch New Zealand and it was all outside of Admiral Dufek’s jurisdiction. In those days there was a lot of contact between us at Scott Base and the Yanks at McMurdo, just 3 km away, so we certainly knew all about the 2 girls who were expected. In fact I have a record in my diary of their names!

Miss Patricia Hepinstall and Miss Ruth Kelly said to be blonde! But in full Antarctic clovver who would know & even then women changed their hair colour like they changed their shoes. These, then, are the names of te first women to be so close to the South Pole. Now, 50 years on they will be in their 70’s at least, maybe with great-grandchildren. It would be interesting to hear from them.

Anyway a big welcome was organized for them even if Admiral Dufek gave it all a thumbs down, and we at Scott were included. My notes of the occasion show that it included a dog team race between sledges of N.Z. Scott Base and the U.S. McMurdo Base. And there was a beard judging competition with the girls as judges. Into this competition I was persuaded to enter. We all expected that the prizes would at least be kisses from the girls but it was left to them to decide andthey said that the winners could escort them back to the aircraft. Quite a letdown. The only winner from Scott was our Wally Tarr, an aircraft mechanic, and it’s my guess that he would not have been keen to go all the way back to the airstrip. It was cold outside, around -30 degrees centgrade. For myself, my magnetometers beckoned and I had to return home for the 12 hour proper change on the recorders.

At this McMurdo party I remember seeing old polar explorer Sir Hubert Wilkins. Well, Wally Tarr had to endure a lot of off-colour remarks about his beard which was judged to be the most bushy. People asked things like “Did she feel it? The beard I mean!”


Here is a photo of our Neil Sandford driving a sledge pulled by a dog team with one of the girls a passenger. Neil was in charge of radio propagation research which to you ignuramuses was basically a sort of radar of the extreme upper atmosphere called by scientists, the ionosphere. His work enabled him to organise his day so that, when his gear was operating properly, he could have a lot of time off. Lucky him – I had to be on deck every 12 hours at least. This was definitely difficult at times. In fact it had led to me disobeying Ed’s firm instruction that in the polar winter you didn’t go on your own between the two bases. Buck, our cook, also went on his own at times. If the weather was clear & you knew the route well – carried a torch (flashlight) – it was not really dangerous, just v.cold. Anyway we did it and got away with it. Don’t fall in a tide crack!

As I have previously noted, because of the semi-official censorship on radio traffic one couldn’t complain to N.Z. headquarters about the allocation of duties. It was necessary to sort problems out on the spot. Sometimes this involved people with little or no actual scientific knowledge of the research one was supposed to be doing. It helped that we, at Scott, mostly, spoke the same version of English, at least more or less!

Our Doctor, George Marsh was from Shropshire but was generally regarded as a “good guy” even if he got sick himself when the base was being built. He alleged that he had dpihtheria and confined himself to bed with meals brought to him. Who among us could produce a contrary opinion? Well, he looked sick enough for a few days. Later he was, of course sort of responsible that all 23 of us kept in good health & took our vitamin pills which some did! George got the idea that I did not get any exercise. He didn’t know that I had a 12 hourly jaunt to my magnetic huts. Anyway, you couldn’t call that much so he decided I needed a “run with the dogs” during an “off duty” period. When was that? My “off duties” were taken up with helping dig out fuel drms – at least some of the winter, plus mess dties, which we all had. As well as M.D. George wasa “dog-man,” involving training them to full sledges & keeping them in good health for the summer field parties. So a “run with the dogs” was just that except that the dogs, nine of them in harness, were pilling a sledge but you ran too & did not hitch a ride on the sledge. Oh! Dear No! George’s exerise was not an easy ride.

So I went one cold “morning” in the pitch darkness in about -40. Actually it turned out to be -50.

Here I should point out that in those “ancient” days we were still using fahreheit mostly, except for purely scientific measurements, so it can be confusing. But you lot out there reading this blog should know that -40 degrees fahrenheit = -40 degrees celsius just like +68 degrees fahrenheit = +20 degrees celsius. Got that? And of course +32 degrees fahrenheit = 0 degrees celsius, this is the melting point of ice.

Cutting a long story short I did survive my run with George and his dogs. By the way I had to harness some of the dogs too. With big strong huskies this is not easy especially as they soon got the message that you are new to this game so they try out anything to escape to have a go at their nearest rival dog.

Not it is sad to relate that Dr. George, who declared that I was unfit, is now dead. We were both about the same age.