Monthly Archives: April 2014

Fire is no laughing matter in Antarctica



The Kalgoorlie Miner carried a small article about the French base, before the fire.

The Kalgoorlie Miner carried a small article about the French base, before the fire.

In the last post Syd Kirkby, the surveyor, having been appointed as fire warden, found himself the butt of quite a deal of nervous laughter once the team were successful in extinguishing the early morning blaze in one of their dongers. But fire is no laughing matter in that dry cold continent and most of the expedition members were willing to admit that their brush with the fiery devil had terrified them. ‘Everyone is nervy, the slightest thickness of smoke and guys start looking around. We are to be quite honest, as scared as hell, we have seen what can happen and do not like it’.

In 1951 Robert Dovers (who later became the pioneering officer in charge and surveyor of Mawson station in 1954) experienced the horror of fire in Antarctica. From 1951 to 1952, he was the Australian observer of the Third French Antarctic expedition at Adelie Land. The day before the supply ship left, the base burnt to the ground. Dovers elected to stay behind with seven French scientists who hastily built themselves a tiny rudimentary hut. It was about the size of most modern chook pens and the eight of them couldn’t exactly change their mind as the ship disappeared over the horizon for fifteen months. What extraordinary courage these pioneers had!

In 1960 the Meteorological Building at Mirnyy caught fire in a 110 knot windstorm. Eight Russian scientists died. Their graves at Mirnyy are part of a select coterie of comrades left in the loneliest graveyards in the world.Illawarra Daily Mercury (Wollongong, NSW : 1950 - 1954), Thursda







The Victorian government formed the Metropolitan Fire Brigade in 1891,  Their headquarters building, completed in 1892, was designed by Smith & Johnson in association with Lloyd Tayler & Fitts. The Tall tower once commanded panoramic views over Melbourne, allowing fires to be spotted but failed to stop the 1956 Antarctic party from infiltrating.

The Victorian government formed the Metropolitan Fire Brigade in 1891, Their headquarters building, completed in 1892, was designed by Smith & Johnson in association with Lloyd Tayler & Fitts. The Tall tower once commanded panoramic views over Melbourne, allowing fires to be spotted but failed to stop the 1956 Antarctic party from infiltrating.

In the last weekend of April, the young surveyor almost  impressed the expedition with his lovely hat. He’d been given the job as fire chief so, before departure, Jim McCarthy and Gordon Abbs infiltrated the Eastern Hill fire station in Melbourne (that’s it in the postcard picture above) and stole the chief’s brass helmet and a red postmaster general pushbike.

His “fire kit” was ready for the genuinely terrifying event of a fire at Mawson Station.  On 28th April 1956, he got his big chance to wear that hat when he was dragged from a warm bed at three in the morning by the urgent jangles of the fire alarm Rymill Hut was in flames.

FIRE! A full blizzard blazing outside, the huts shaking, a 100 knot wind screaming around the buildings bringing with it cutting snow and no visibility … John H and I roped together and took turns at going inside with a soda acid extinguisher to try to kill the smouldering flames. Take a breath, rush in, lie close to the floor, spray, breathe very slowly until you become dizzy, then out and the next man goes in (Syd Kirkby’s diary)

After the panic had died down a little,  Syd realized that in his rush to dress in his windproofs, mitts, balaclava, and cold boots, he had forgotten to put on the metal hat. More importantly, he had also put on the harness for his mitts and his parka in the wrong order. As he was lying up on the top of the hut, pouring carbon dioxide in, facing into the wind, every time he moved his arms, he pulled his parka up, exposing his midriff. He had also forgotten to zip up the fly in his weather-proof trousers, so his groin was being caked in ice, resulting in severe frostbite and painful, blackened skin.

The all-male team handled Syd’s distress with sensitivity, and, naturally, it became the source of much hilarity for the rest of the week.

Meet the Weasels

The Australian Women's Weekly (1933 - 1982), Wednesday 25 April 1956, page 88

The Australian Women’s Weekly (1933 – 1982), Wednesday 25 April 1956, page 88

Phil Law stoked the fires of celebrity to keep the Antarctic project in the public gaze although he was ordered by senior bureaucrats inside the Department of Foreign Affairs to stop it. He was able to keep the men of ANARE inside daily and weekly papers with his own press releases and by making the advances for feature articles and full-page advertisements. The breakfast cereal Weetbix, Visco-Static Motor Oil from BP, and the popular black bread-spread Marmite also published full-page, full-colour advertisements featuring The Men of Mawson, illustrated with photographs supplied by Phil. No money was paid to ANARE, but the Antarctic project was kept in the public eye.

Black Friday and White Blizzards


Pageflex Persona [document: PRS0000443_00063]April 1956.  

 Previously at Mawson Station. The field party returned from their first plateau expedition with the surveyor disappointed that visibility prevented him getting an astrofix from the top of the mountain. When he tried to develop the round of photographs he accidentally exposed the film. A ferocious blizzard blew in trapping two members of the party up on the plateau where they’d gone to change the records at the meterological remote station.They got back after a night of extreme discomfit but the blizzard picked up again for the rest of the week. Attempts to get the Auster plane up in the air came to nothing when it wouldn’t start, and then when it did, the engine kept dying in the air. Sunday rolled around and it was movie night.

 Sunday 8th April The weather conditions were so poor that night that it took two men to feed the dogs who were staked outside on a wire. Syd and Nils had to rope themselves together to get to them and then they spent a difficult half hour digging the poor animals out of the ice so they could eat. That night movie failed to impress the surveyor: “Anchors Aweigh” Frank Sinatra and Gene Kelly – its bloody amazing they wear trousers just like men.

A week of blizzard followed so the work around the station was mostly domestic: painting the biology hut, checking that the electrical wiring was working and that the fire alarm was working kept everyone busy enough, but feeling trapped and a bit on edge.

Black Friday April 13 1956, brought in the weather change they’d been waiting for:

 The wind is down to a sensible 20 – 30 knots and we even had a glimpse of the sun for about half an hour. With the weather decent again the place has been in a fever of outside activity. Lin and Coop on the weasels, the RAAF moving the Beaver into the hangar and Peter drilling holes for blizzard lines. John and I have been pushing on steadily. The biol hut is ready for occupation, complete, finished hoo bloody ray. The place looks darn good. We are now well under way with the office and should clean it up in three days. (Syd Kirkby’s diary)

Watch this space … the biology hut is about to be the scene of their first disaster. …

Rumdoodle Peak


Pageflex Persona [document: PRS0000443_00063]March – April 4, 1956.   Previously at Mawson Station. Syd Kirkby, Peter Crohn, Bill Bewsher and Toby Cooper went out on their first expedition on the plateau. Syd and Peter climbed a mountain and spent a chilly day taking observations and trying to get an astrofix. (Should have been number three for Syd but visibility was too poor). (What’s an astrofix?)

 He climbed a mountain to take observations that weren’t good enough for an astrofix. Rolls off the keyboard, but here is what he wrote in his own diary about that mountain. It puts some perspective on the extraordinarily difficult job he had creating a map of Antarctica.

 I’ll take you back to Friday March 30th, 1956, which was Good Friday. Syd was still only twenty-one years old remember. Out in the plateau they were sleeping in the weasles because the gales were so strong that it seemed the safest thing to do but even so the little sand vehicles rocked all night and the wind howled in the heavy snow fall. He got up in the morning and “just for for the self discipline I shall have a meatless day, had oatmeal for breakfast and for tea I shall have vegemite and biscuits and chocolate”.

Out the window they could see the mountain that the surveyor had to get up, carrying about 60 pounds (28 kg) of surveying equipment on his back. Bill tried to contact base but the radio couldn’t pick up a signal.

After breakfast Syd “Piled the jigger and survey camera into a rucksack and off we went.”

Syd, Bill and Peter climbed up 1000 feet and dropped the equipment, leaving it there so they could return the next day. The climb to the top was another 1000 feet but they broke it in two: day one get the equipment half way up, day two climb to the equipment and get it to the top. After the drop off, they went on to the top so they could see the climb that awaited them. Syd said “I have never been so clapped out in my life as when we got to the top” and Peter and Bill, who were veteran climbers of 25,000 foot mountains, said it was the most difficult climb they have done.

Syd was not an experienced climber and the second half of the mountain was an S in difficulty (the second hardest rating). In his sleeping bag that night he admitted:

 I am quite honestly scared as all hell when I get onto a vertical pitch or into crack and start wedging up, while I climb I do not think, but before I go I imagine what gusts of wind could do or what would happen if I got stuck or got frost bitten hands or lost a mitt. Still I guess I will get used to it, maybe even blasé about the whole business.

The next day Bill and Syd made it to the top but the surveyor couldn’t get an astrofix. The wind was blowing at 40 knots and the drifting snow made visibility too poor. They made it back to base at eight o’clock that night and by then, Peter and Toby had already got themselves organised to come out looking for Bill and Syd. The two teams met each other outside in the drifting sleet.

Observing at RumDoodle PeakThe next year the mountain was called Rumdoodle Peak. This is the photograph Bill took of Syd trying to get his astrofix at the top.

If the mountain won’t come …

Publication date: 20 June 2014.

Publication date: 20 June 2014.

April 1956

 Still out in the field, this first trip over the plateau lasted from Tuesday 27 March 1956 to Wednesday 4th April. Syd and Bill Bewsher (who was a much more experienced climber) climbed a mountain to get another astrofix. An astrofix is The Fix referred to in the title of Syd’s biography Fixing Antarctica and it might be time to try to explain what it is …

An astrofix “locks” a local feature (say a mountain) in place so that everyone can see where it is with reference to the stars. With an astrofix it begins to be possible to create an accurate map because it allows the “fixed” features to be plotted on the worldwide grid of latitude and longitude.

Before you can make an accurate map, someone has to create the grid upon which the observations will be tied. The first grid of unmapped country is called a ground control. Its coordinates match the real location of features in the landscape. It is not an empty grid because each crossed line on the ground control is one step in the process of filling a map.

Each astrofix allows an area to be fixed on the grid.

 During the exploration of Antarctica, Syd was trying to get an astrofix as close as possible to each degree of latitude and the equivalent distance apart in longitude along the coasts and inland. So he had to be somewhere high to take one …. like up a mountain for example.

Maybe by now you’re regretting that you started reading this, but perhaps I can explain WHAT a big deal an astrofix is if I tell you that in most places of the world, the surveyor required three or four hours to observe just one astrofix but in Antarctica the surveyor and the note taker (the booker) had to climb a mountain (let’s allocate six hours to that) and then try to keep still (in the gales at the top of the mountain) and try to keep their own shivering down to a moderate palsy so they didn’t bump the equipment into a feverish wobble, and then after a few hours they might have a fix. That was in winter. In summer the sun was above the horizon for 24 hours, so only the brightest stars were visible for observation.

After a few more hours of computation, a good outcome would be a fix accurate to about twenty metres. Since 2003, by contrast, it has been possible for positions determined by GPS to be accurate to a subcentimetre.

 Syd Kirkby went to Antarctica to observe astrofixes and that year he completed eighteen. From Lewis Island in the east to Amundsen Bay in the west, almost 5,000 kilometres of crevassed icy terrain lay between them.

Back to Rumdoodle Peak






Does your chewing gum lose its flavour in Antarctica … and other important questions.


Previously at Mawson Station 1956:

During March, most of the work in Horseshoe Harbour was domestic. The office dongas took shape with painted walls and shelving, and the metal plane hangar was completed. Small parties took the dogs out on one- or two-day training runs around the harbour. Throughout March, Syd Kirkby the suveyor and the geologist, Peter Crohn, discussed plans to carry out a series of five-day trips throughout the six-week period left before the perpetual dark. On Tuesday 27 March 1956, Syd, Peter, the Mawson OiC Bill Bewsher and Noel (Toby) Cooper the diesel mechanic set out on the first of the trips over the plateau.

Moon over Casey RaSyd, Bill, and Peter left Mawson at ten in the morning and arrived at the Henderson Depot at three in the afternoon.  “The Weasels are running like dreams,” Syd wrote from the safety of two sleeping bags, inside one of the vehicles.

In the morning, the party edged around the crevassed area to the eastern side of the range, passing through by one in the afternoon. There, Syd surveyed and laid down a couple of kilometres of markers—for ice flow and accumulation studies. He set up in the lee of the weasel, but once the markers were in place and he had completed a sun observation, the rest of the team left in the weasel, leaving Syd to do magnetic readings. At five thirty in the afternoon, after “chuffing along happily,” they entered an area of heavy crevassing. It was almost dark, and they feared stopping as much as returning, so they pressed on.

On the northwest side of the range, the ice was solid. They stopped to radio in to Mawson. The diesel mechanic was a bit frostbitten, Syd reported, and he noted that one of the mysteries that had taxed his thoughts had been resolved, not entirely positively.

Does urine freeze before it hits the ground in Antarctica. You must have been wondering about that too! The answer, dear readers, is that it does but unfortunately in those winds not all of it hits the ground and the bit that get blown back freezes whatever it gets blown onto.

And speaking of important science … Do you remember the Quiz earlier this year? Click here if you don’t. I refer you to question 2.

At much the same time as our expeditioners were making this first short foray out onto the plateau, Soviet scientists set out from Mirnny on a four-hundred-kilometre trek towards the south geomagnetic pole, where they would, in the future, establish Vostok (the coldest base on Earth) and, at the pole of relative inaccessibility, Sovetskaya station.

The convoy would often cover just ten kilometres a day, despite being serviced by two C-80 tractors pulling three sledges, each carrying fuel drums, equipment, and provisions. The data obtained in that first journey allowed the Soviet scientists to measure ice-cover thickness and glacier-bed relief and produced new data on global climatic patterns. At some sites, by means of seismic acoustic soundings, they measured ice thicknesses of two kilometres, while bedrock was found at some points below the sea level.