Eight Men in a Crate: the Ordeal of the Advance Party of the Trans-Antarctic Expedition 1955-1957.
Starting with Robert Falcon Scott's 1901-04 Antarctic Expedition, the British Commonwealth had launched nine land expeditions to Antarctica prior to the Vivian Fuchs and Edmund Hillary Commonwealth Trans-Antarctic Expedition in 1955. The author of Eight Men in a Crate based her story principally on the diary of the advance party's young medical officer, Rainer Goldsmith. Anthea Arnold also relied on access to photographic materials and reflections by other members of the expedition. As was the case with Shackleton's unsuccessful 1914 Trans-Antarctic expedition, when that expedition's support party was left to endure a miserable winter on the shores of the Ross Sea, Vivian Fuchs' Trans-Antarctic Expedition also overshadowed and diminished the extraordinary ordeal of an advance party of eight men left to winter in Antarctica in 1955.
Dr. Goldsmith's first impression of the 650-ton motor vessel. Theron, their transport to Antarctica, sounds familiar to readers of other 20th-century British expedition accounts. The vessel was small, heavily loaded above and below deck with crates, dogs, barrels, coal, materials for the expedition hut, even track vehicles and a relatively new addition to Polar exploration, an airplane. Fuchs' Trans-Antarctic plans called for the advance party, under the leadership of Kenneth Blaiklock, to establish "Shackleton Base" near Vahsel Bay in the Weddell Sea. The expedition hut was to be erected at the base before the Theron headed home, leaving eight men behind.
Goldsmith's descriptions of conditions onboard are easily imagined. In the heat of the equatorial passage, the smell of dogs, suffocating lack of ventilation in the cabins, and sea sickness were an endurance test for the young physician. Reaching the colder climes of South Georgia was a relief. On 16 December, they reached Grytviken, the centre of Antarctic whaling activities and the burial place of Shackleton, who died there in 1922. The young Goldsmith must have had moments of quiet reflection when he visited Shackleton's grave. The expedition Goldsmith had joined was about to enter the infamous Weddell Sea, where the Endurance had been trapped in the ice in mid-January 1915. After drifting with the ice for nine months, the party abandoned the ship, and crushing ice sent it to the bottom a month later, leaving expedition members on the drifting pack for four more months. They finally had to take to the lifeboats, making their way to Elephant Island, where Shackleton launched his desperate, open-boat journey to South Georgia and equally desperate overland trek to Grytviken. Dr. Goldsmith must have hoped that much had been learned since Shackleton's days.
In chapter 3, the author provides a brief sketch of the history of the Weddell Sea, sufficient for the initiated reader, but somewhat sparse for anyone new to this part of the world. Not only had Shackleton's expedition come to grief in the Weddell Sea, but only two years earlier, members of the Second German South Polar Expedition, led by Wilhelm Filcher, had narrowly escaped the sea's icy grip following their unsuccessful attempt to establish a base at Vahsel Bay, Shackleton had followed Filchner's route from South Georgia, keeping well to the east upon entering the Weddell Sea. Even so, the Endurance was trapped in the ice before making landfall. Unfortunately for the eight men in the 1955 advance party, Vivian Fuchs had his own ideas about the dynamics of ice movements in the Weddell Sea. His decision to sail more directly towards the coast could easily have ended in disaster had it not been for the airplane onboard. Caught in the ice, Theron drifted northward as the Norwegian Captain, Mar[empty set], desperately tried to bring the vessel out of the ice pack. It was punishing work for the small vessel, and time was getting short. The battle lasted for nearly four weeks before they came into enough open water for the senior New Zealand pilot, John Claydon, to risk getting the float plane into the air. With little room to spare, the daring pilot sketched an escape route later followed successfully by Mar[empty set]. Then, with time at a premium, they headed for the Caird Coast, reaching Halley Bay on 27 January 1956.
At this point, the author makes a brief reference to the presence in Halley Bay of another British expedition. Only three weeks earlier, members of the Third International Polar Year (IGY) had chosen Halley Bay as their base, following several unsuccessful attempts to reach Vahsel Bay in their expedition ship Tottan. The author remarks that Vivian Fuchs made a number of flights over the area, but decided that only as a last resort would the place be acceptable for his purposes. I suspect that there is far more to this almost off-hand remark. Had Fuchs not been invited to participate in the long-planned IGY expedition to Halley Bay, or had he declined? One would think that coordination and cooperation between the two British expeditions would have saved both time and effort. As the winter progressed, members of Fuchs' advance party must have reflected on what conditions their expedition brethren were living in little more than 100km away: surely better than the misery they themselves were enduring.
According to Rainer Goldsmith, the landing and unloading of expedition goods in Vahsel Bay revealed not only panic and fear that the ship would get stuck for the winter, but also less than good planning and care in the selection of expedition equipment. The description of a hurried unloading at Vahsel Bay is amazingly similar to that of the frenzied landing of Shackleton's shore party in Ross Bay in 1914 (Richards, 2003). In Vahsel Bay, the Norwegian captain had good reasons to be concerned. His vessel, already severely beaten up by the ice on the way south, was being pounded against the bay ice edge, where the unloading was taking place. Dogs, two tractors, and two weasel carriers were unloaded. The scene was one of confusion caused by lack of coordination and leadership. At one point sea water began flowing over the ice, engulfing stores and materials not yet brought to shore. At another, gale force winds forced the captain to lay off in a heaving swell that could easily have broken up the bay ice. Five men were left on shore until the following afternoon, when the ship returned and the unloading continued. Materials for the hut were piled high at the base site. During the unloading, Fuchs used the Auster airplane to investigate the terrain the expedition would have to cross in the following year. A shifting wind began to drive the pack ice close to the ship. The hoisting of the plane back on board was followed by last-minute rushing around, according to Goldsmith, who together with his comrades watched the ship recede in the blowing snow. Left scattered in various piles were mounds of supplies and fuel to be brought up from the ice. Instead of an expedition hut, their base would consist of tents for sleeping and the converted Sno-cat crate for cooking and eating. Life for the eight men would be a test of stamina and physical and mental endurance only a true British explorer could fully appreciate. But things got worse. Goldsmith's diary entries for the week of 21-28 March describe the onslaught of a horrific blizzard that not only buried all supplies and materials scattered about, but also broke up the bay ice, sending all the remaining supplies out to sea. The stage was set for a true survival story.
Work on the hut proceeded as time and conditions allowed. Blizzards and windswept snow regularly stopped all progress, burying tents, equipment, and supplies while the men kept shoveling and tunneling. The reader is reminded that the expedition took place in the age of electronic communication and the men established radio contact with the outside world. In August, Goldsmith abandoned his tent and moved into the partly finished expedition hut, where eventually they all lived. In September, the first depot-laying journey took place in support of the coming Trans-Antarctic crossing. In October they received a message from Vivian Fuchs, who was now getting ready to head south. On 14 January 1956, nearly a year after Goldsmith and his seven companions had been left on the icy shores of Vahsel Bay, Fuchs and party arrived on the newly built Danish vessel Magga Dan. For Goldsmith it was the end of his 356-day adventure in Antarctica. I suspect that he wasn't too upset at having to leave on the Magga Dan when she headed east and north through the Weddell Sea.
The publication of Rainer Goldsmith's diary provides us with an important addition to this mostly forgotten chapter in Antarctic exploration. Although the story could have been broadened in scope, the extraordinary circumstances experienced by the eight men during the 1955-56 Antarctic wintering are sufficient to recommend the book to anyone interested in polar expeditions.
RICHARDS. R.W. 2003. The Ross Sea shore party 1914-17. Norwich and Huntingdon: The Erskine Press and Bluntisham Books.
The Arctic Institute of North America
University of Calgary
2500 University Drive NW
Calgary, Alberta T2N 1N4, Canada
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|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Sep 1, 2008|
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