Monthly Archives: July 2014

Frost Bite

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On the last Sunday of July, the only reminders of the Douglas Islands dog trip were a few scabs and tender feet. The trip had produced extremely painful frostbite but not a lot else to write home about.

Frost bitten nose

 

Peter and Syd spent the last day of July sledging to Bretangen Bay. to conduct an observation. They spent the night there with the dogs and then the next day the pilot flew in to take the dogs home. No teams had very attempted to fly in Antarctica in the winter dark before, so it was a dual experiment for the Australians.  It was possible to use the planes in winter flying in the dark winter and flying with the dogs.

 

Got down there about ten yesterday, pitched camp and walked up to the glacier by mid-day. Found an Emperor rookery and spent a few minutes photographing them then went up and ran a line out onto the glacier. It is a thing I would prefer not to do too often. There was a light snow cover and it was fantastically crevassed. We covered about two miles on it and I was terrified all the way. … I seem to remember, some months ago, thinking that the plateau colour scheme reminded me of something and wondering what it was. I knew it was something close to me but could not place it. Yesterday evening I was looking at the two blues and white and feeling pleased and very fond of it when suddenly my mind had me back at home, sitting in the lounge, quite alone, just relaxing.

 

Syd completed a group of four pairs of meridian transits and then climbed a 1200 feet mountain to read a round of angles and take a set of photos. Then great fun, they were able to tug their toes in and glissade down the five hundred feet of slope using just their shoes.

Beautiful

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SYDNEY-KIRKBYLate July 1956

Waiting at the base for the next trip was never Syd’s strong point. The three sea-ice expeditioners nursed very severe and painful frostbite for over a fortnight before Syd’s diary entry showed he was bored …

Wed 25th July 1956.

 A dirty old day, a gusty wind averaging 50 knots with low cloud and fairly low temperatures. Pottered about getting ready to go to Bretangen Bay and giving Haggis  a hand … Gave the met boys a hand to get a ’sonde away about four, she was quite  a spirited old release but she went which means they still haven’t missed a day this month.

My only bright spots of the day were the reflected sunlight on the clouds to the south making the plateau look like a great low pearl grey cloud and the moonrise in a gap ’specially arranged in the clouds so that we could see the view. It was shiny as platinum and as big as a cart wheel and flashed by blue grey draperies of cloud. Beautiful.

Mad men and husky dogs

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Husky_edited-1 with colour more colourJuly 1956

Previously on the dark sea ice: Their first expedition in the dark winter was a dangerous journey on the treacherous sea ice high way, to find a group of island that Douglas Mawson found in 1930. Dark omens snapped at their heels as they set out. They found the islands and turned for home. Camped at the top of the cliff, with the dogs below them, they heard the sea ice break. After trialling a new technique of getting the dogs to the top of the cliff, they eventually returned to their tent on the cliff face while the dogs ate beside them. …

At midday the sun appeared, but the barometer plunged dramatically. A four-inch swell rocked the ice, and the tide crack grew wider.

Syd was confident that the full moon’s light was sufficient for navigation, and so they lowered the dogs down, one by one, and staked them on the shifting ice shoulder.

It was not easy to build an ice bridge across the six-feet-wide gap, but it was an even greater challenge to convince the huskies that this wasn’t another example of human treachery. Eventually, at three in the afternoon,  the three men and six dogs crossed the ice bridge and left the island.

They  “made good time for the first seventy minutes (six miles) but were then slowed by an increase in the wind.” There was still some light from the moon, and after two hours they had made ten miles.

They stopped for a block of chocolate and to rest the dogs. Nils was stiff; his feet were sore; and his face was frostbitten. He rode in the sledge for the next four and a half miles as they pressed onwards towards Welch Island in a steady fifty-knot wind directly into their faces. They arrived at Welch an hour later.

Calculating that they could cover the remaining six miles in the three hours it would have taken to pitch camp, they decided to push onwards to Mawson. “Fate had one more nudge in the ribs for us. About a mile past Welch we ran into heavy sastrugi.”

There were no records of high, ramped-up rolls of hard snow on sea ice, and yet they were confronted with: “stumbling, tumbling backside over breakfast sastrugi.” The dogs could hardly see over the high piles, and the exhausted men could barely keep on their feet, but they pushed themselves through hours of horrible effort to be rewarded the next day as they stumbled into Mawson, in serious need of reassurance of their sanity.

If a man’s going to die …

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July 1956

Previously on the dark sea ice: Their first expedition in the dark winter was a dangerous journey on the treacherous sea ice high way, to find a group of islands discovered by Douglas Mawson in 1930 but never again seen. Dark omens snapped at their heels as they set out. They found the islands and turned for home. A wild storm blew in and the dogs refused to pull. The men yoked up, crawled on all fours and led the dogs onward.

Now, camped at the top of the cliff, with the dogs below them, they heard the sea ice break ….

 

men crawling 001_edited-1

 

 

 

A horizontal spray blasted, and ice broke into bombarding weapons while they clambered down to the dogs. Staked on the breaking ice, the dogs were wild with fear.

There are rules for taking huskies up cliff faces. Mostly, it is done one dog at a time. It’s unorthodox (to say the least) to pull seven dogs, still on their mooring line, up a cliff.

They all knew it was a bad idea, made worse by the fact that Denny, the one bitch in the team, was in season. Of course, there was the blizzard to make the climb up the cliff a bit more exciting. Just the same, they decided that that was the plan they’d put in place.

Peter was on the front of the trace; Nils was in the middle; and Syd was on the tail end, going diagonally up the steep cliff. Halfway up, Peter slipped and let the dog line slacken.

In the midst of a life-threatening manoeuvre, in a blizzard, the dogs used the slack to investigate whether this allowed them to get to Denny. She stepped backwards into space and fell over the cliff, hanging on her collar, taking two dogs with her.

Now the three men had 120 kilograms of tethered, struggling husky, hanging off a trace in space. Have I mentioned that huskies are directly descended from wolves? They are enormous and they can be a bit moody!

Peter eventually secured a hold of his end of the trace while Streaky, whose nose was simply too close to Denny’s tantalising hindquarters, came up with a new plan of his own. “Ah, well,” Streaky reasoned as he hung in space by his neck. “If a man’s going to die, he might as well die happy.” Swinging in the wild wind, he attempted to mount Denny as they hung in space.

Three expeditioners dragged seven enraged huskies up a sheer wall of exposed rock and tethered them carefully. Around the tent the animals ate, while the men wondered at their own foolhardiness.dogg

 

 

 

When good expeditions go bad.

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men and dogs15 July 1956

 

Robbie’s dream that Syd was about to find his vocation as dog food might have been an omen. The trip on sea ice in the winter dark was difficult.

They really had very little idea where they were going. The maps were poorly sketched and Douglas Mawson’s notes show that he thought the islands were about forty miles from Horseshoe Harbour and ten miles out to sea.

Syd and the team sledged out as ghostly forms in the ethereal gold-tone light, aided by a gentle, lunar-ray path. Within hours they thought they were very clever boys indeed! They were pretty sure they’d found the illusive crystal quartz isles.

They conducted block searches (I might describe this in another post) until a dark, rocky outline against a pale horizon, about twenty miles off the coast, revealed the lost islands—lower in the sea than Mawson’s description had suggested.

Sea spray, whipped into a meringue, had coated the rocks and obscured their edges.

The Douglas Islands were an inhospitable campsite but they must have been very tired for they overslept in the morning, and it was almost noon before they were on the move.

The dogs pulled well, and they made twelve miles due north during the afternoon, stopping at a couple of small islands where they “puttered about and got the camp up and started a star observation at five.” They slept well again, but another shambling, uncoordinated decamping had them departing late again, headed for Welch Island. The journey had already taken a day longer than planned.

Then it all went a bit hay-wire.

Heavy ground drift pushed by fifty-knot winds impeded their progress. For a while the dogs ran well, and the men could see through the drift to the peaks on the ranges, but then the wind intensified. The huskies turned their heads away from the blizzard’s blinding fury and refused to pull.

Two men (down on hands and knees, with the lead dog tethered to their belts) performed as lead dogs. Visibility was less than an arm’s length, and they could feel cracks opening as the sea ice swelled. Syd navigated using Mawson’s notes, and after five hours of crawling on the shifting, cracking surface, they felt the land of an islet beneath them. It was “a most inhospitable spot,” skirted by sea ice with a sheer forty-foot cliff face. But they were off the sea ice.

They staked the huskies out, on their nightline, on the footing at the edge of the rock wall. It took time and energy to climb the cliff and almost three hours to get the tent set up and a primus lighted.

They were high up on an exposed tabletop. Their uneasy slumber was interrupted by ferocious gusts snapping the guy ropes. The tent fell inwards with its corner poles flailing. Outside before he was awake, Syd took a serious tumble and fell heavily on an elbow and knee. Through the hectic night they were forced to go out twice more. Briefly, on Wednesday morning, the wind stopped while Peter cooked breakfast, but then “all hell broke loose again.”

The tide crack in the sea ice opened wide, and the ice shoulder around the islet, where the dogs were staked, started to crumble.

 

 

 

What do you do with an ailing expeditioner? Why you feed them to the dogs, of course!

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ad huskies page jsut pictureTheir first winter dog-sledging trip in 1956 was an eerie mid-July excursion on the perilous sea-ice.

The loss of all the best dogs made the job of training a viable expeditionary dog team almost impossible, but Syd was sure that dog sledging was far from a remnant of quaint antediluvian exploration.

Nils Lied, the Norwegian weather observer and former navy commander, had all previously wintered at Heard Island. Nils, or Vikes as he happily answered to, had extensive knowledge of working with dog teams, a valuable rarity on an ANARE team.

Vikes agreed with Syd about the dogs.  He trained the boisterous descendants of wolves into a team, choosing them from the badly depleted cast of hopefuls. Mac and Butch, litter brothers, were strong toilers and wonderful lead dogs but they were nine years old. Horace, and the legendary Oscar, both of whom lived long lives as grand old men at Mawson, were on Vikes’s team.

Streaky, with one chewed ear and a pirate’s grin, was a hard working, loyal, affectionate rascal with the courage of ten explorers. Sweet-natured, brown-eyed Brownie was all heart but he was a ‘dumb Palooka’. The other dogs could gauge distance and angles but Brownie never could. In obvious crazy pavement crevassing, huskies calculate how much slack trace they need to jump over—but not Brownie.  He would jump with too little trace, or he would pause, calculating for too long, until the sledge overran him and bumped him into the crevasse. Denny, a small bitch, completed the team.

Syd, Peter and Nils decided that their first sledge expedition would leave Mawson on Sunday 15th July, 1956 and would be to a group of islands discovered by Douglas Mawson in 1930, during a British, Australian and New Zealand expedition.

Subsequently named the Douglas Islands, they had never again been sighted.

They set out with the dogs on what should have been a two-day round trip, with some ominous events casting a bit of a pall over their mood.

He was tired and testy:

All round, with a considerable lack of love for my fellow man, God knows why, and the madhouse getting the gear repaired I am probably rather difficult to live with tonight’.

In truth, they were all on edge. Robbie Jacklyn (the cosmic ray physicist) added to the tension by sharing the ‘queer dream’ he had during the night:

He dreamt I perished and was fed to the dogs to keep them alive and going.’imagesHI21MACQ