Recognising Antarctic adventurers and scientists

Antarctica, a distant continent of extreme cold and ice, presents challenges to man’s ability to survive and scientific understanding. Recent noteworthy achievements and some holiday background reading have provoked me to share news of these feats.

Towards the end of 2011 Sebastian Copeland and Eric Landry became the first people to reach the Antarctica Pole of Inaccessibility, the farthest point from any coast and probably the hardest point to reach in Antarctica, without any assistance or motorised transportation. The following extract is taken from Sebastian Copeland’s blog post, where you can read the adventure in full.

“With seven kilometers to go, we set down to check our bearing. Good thing as it was forty five degrees off: we almost overshot it! We lifted off one last time and rode practically next to each other, in formation. Within minutes, I raised a fist in the air and screamed, looking over at Eric who did the same! Ahead of us, sticking from the horizon were two markers; we sped toward them. The tall sastrugi we were now crossing at a ninety degree angle no longer mattered; the burn in my legs was forgotten; and the adrenaline actually warmed my toes! In no time, we were closing in. Each foot of ice separating us from what I had so long planned for was now disappearing under my skis. We could now make out a thin, derelict communications tower, and the remains of a drilling tower. And of course, the famed bust of Lenin, sticking out of the ice on a small wooden tower, at once stoic, incongruous and forlorn in this desolate space; like a Napoleon on a frozen Elba, in a timeless exile. The rest of the base was somewhere below our skis. We past the tower, made a slow downwind turn, and simultaneously set down our kites.

Fifty three days, and we were there. Eleven hours on the trail, and 96 kilometers later, the Antarctica winds relented and honored our effort by letting us close the gap with our head high and a glory’s grace.”

Sebastian Copeland and Eric Landry reach the Southern Pole of Inaccessibility

And just when you thought there weren’t any challenges left to conquer, how about cycling to the South Pole?

It is always inspiring but also somewhat reassuring to see how far humans can push their athleticism in such extreme climes. However understanding this environment and how it affects our existence on Earth is perhaps more useful. Conducting scientific research in Antarctica’s landscape is far from an easy task. In recognition of the early efforts made to collect significant data in the late 50s/early 60s, I present extracts from Swithinbank’s resultant writings (taken from To the Valley Glaciers That Feed the Ross Ice Shelf (Swithinbank, 1964), The Geographical Journal, 130(1), pp. 32-48, copyright Royal Geographical Society):

“Ever since R. F. Scott discovered the Byrd and Nimrod glaciers in 1902, and since E. H. Shackleton ascended the 130-mile long Beardmore in 1908, there has been speculation about the part played by these glaciers in the nourishment of the floating ice shelf…

Swithinbank's team at Amundsen Glacier (copyright Royal Geographical Society)

We planned to put a line of survey markers a mile apart across the 9-mile wide mouth of Mulock Glacier. For markers, we had prepared 10-foot lengths of 3-inch and 4-inch aluminium piping topped with large red flags. But the ice was scarred by such a confusion of snow-bridged crevasses that not even a helicopter could find space to land safely. After dumping the camp gear and half the party at the top of an 1100-foot cliff overlooking the valley, Krebs, Darby and I flew to the ice below and approached the area in which we planned to put the first marker stake. The surface was rough, and it was impossible to tell which parts were solid and which dangerous. We were not unprepared for this situation; nevertheless, the events of the next few minutes served to dampen my enthusiasm for some aspects of glaciology.

The helicopter was equipped with a rescue winch designed, perhaps, for fishing drowning airmen from the sea. With this device we could lower a man to the ice while the helicopter hovered above. All that one had to do was to wriggle into a form of harness and slide off the edge of the door. The winch wire looked awfully thin. As I dangled between earth and sky, revolving like a spider suspended from a strand of its web and buffeted by the rotor-blast, I recalled the words of Scott when he made the first balloon ascent in the Antarctic, and ‘felt some doubt as to whether I had been wise in my choice’. But, once my feet were on the ice, it was easy to duck out of the harness and take hold of the ice drill and stake that Darby handed down from the cabin. Meanwhile Krebs kept his eye on a driving mirror mounted on the cockpit, watching our fumblings below and behind him. I waved him away, made a quick hole with the ice drill and planted the pipe in it. Our troubles only really began when Krebs returned to manoeuvre the helicopter side-ways towards me. But he slowed, for understandable reasons, with my newly established survey marker safely beyond the sweep of his rotor blades, and beckoned to me with his head. I considered it tantamount to suicide to walk on that surface, so I beckoned to him with my head. Nothing happened. Krebs was a man of patience, but I knew there were limits. Helicopter engines overheat if the machine hovers too long, and I did not want to be left on the glacier. So I took a step forward on to what appeared to be hard snow. Both my feet disappeared through a snow bridge. But the ice drill straddled the crevasse and I quickly climbed out. At this point Darby threw me the end of an alpine rope. There were fortunately no other witnesses to the spectacle of a shaken glaciologist advancing on hands and knees at the end of a rope belayed to a doorpost of the helicopter…

Man-hauling on Scott Glacier (copyright Royal Geographical Society)

The helicopters came again on November 29 and moved us 80 miles down the coast to Byrd Glacier. We landed at the foot of a small pyramidal peak on the left bank, overlooking the ice 3300 feet below. The glacier surface was like an ocean in torment. As far as the eye could see, serrate ridges and giant furrows were aligned parallel with the abrupt rock walls of the valley. Between them lay endless fields of crevasses… The scale of the whole landscape was appalling. Behind us rose the 11,000-foot ice-clad peaks of the Britannia Range. In front lay Byrd Glacier, nearly as wide as the English Channel…

In two places he unwittingly lowered me on to a snow bridge, so that instead of ducking free of the harness I found myself gesticulating wildly at his calm, clean-shaven image in the driving mirror. Most of the surface consisted of steep and slippery bare ice, making it necessary to work without moving one’s feet to avoid careering into a hollow…

We were able both to see and to speak to the pilots as they flew over the glacier to search for the stakes. They found three, hovered over each in turn and threw smoke bombs while Taylor and I, at opposite ends of the baseline, read angles to fix their position…

The sun shone on Christmas Day, so we struck camp and headed back across the crevasses.”

Plaque to New Zealanders killed in Antarctica. It lies beneath the flagpole at Scott Base.

Tragically, four New Zealanders have died in Antarctica: Lieutenant Tom Couzens (19/11/59); Jeremy Sykes (19/11/69); Terry Newport and Garth Varcoe (13/10/92). A full acknowledgement of these men is made in Bob McKerrow’s blog entry, ‘The four New Zealanders who were killed in the NZ sector of Antarctica‘. Below, Bernie Gunn describes the dangers of working in Antarctica which led to the death of Tom Couzens:

“I almost asked Couzens to let me drive, but reflected that the machine [a sno-cat] was his responsibility and did not want to put him in the awkward position of having to obey an order that he might do only reluctantly. We laughed and joked in a carefree way and then suddenly appeared to be precipitated into another dimension. We were falling, upside down, iron clanging off walls of ice. I had the slightest impression of seeing the right front drive pontoon shoot up in the air, of a roll to the right and a crunch of snow against the sno-cat body and a long fall. I had time to think, “Must be a crevasse!” and then, “If we survive this one, we will be lucky!” and then came a monumental crash.

It was about 10 o’clock in the morning. I came to, pinned upside down in a cramped fashion in a tiny space between the seats and instrument panel. What had been the Cat roof was flattened to within a foot of so of the seats. My knees were in my face but I was able to wriggle into a more comfortable position.
“Now, think sensibly” I thought. “The others will come, sooner or later, don’t get frostbite, try to get out.” My balaclava had come off and my ears were already painful. I could not get a hand up but was able to wriggle it back over my ears, so I still have them. Lucky, that. I kicked at the crumpled door of the Cat, it seemed totally unyielding and in fact was hard against an ice wall and the jolt sent waves of pain up my mashed-up spine.
There was a groan and Lowery came to. He was pinned in more tightly than me but Couzens did not move and it later appeared he was killed instantly by the steering wheel. Above my head on the driver’s side, light filtered in and ice gleamed a few feet away.”

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