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The four members of the 1968-1969 British Trans-Arctic Expedition (Photo: BTAE)
A bridge of ice
Ken Hedges of the 1968-69 British Trans Arctic Expedition
reflects on the perilous and ground-breaking journey
by Ken Hedges
August 10, 2020
“There is no record of a longer sustained dog-sled journey in the history of polar exploration.”
Journal of the Royal Geographical Society, December 1970
A thousand years ago, the Vikings sailed from the Old World to the New World. Norse seafarers appearing over the eastern horizon of the Atlantic Ocean came into contact with their Inuit counterparts, whose ancestors had migrated across the Bering Strait some 10,000 years earlier with their backs to the setting sun. It was in Canada’s eastern Arctic that the human race, dispersing from their origin eastward and westward in the pre-dawn of recorded history, first encompassed the globe.
In 1968 the four-man crossing party of the British Trans-Arctic Expedition, each driving a sled powered by a team of 10 West Greenland Inuit Sled Dogs, was poised to set out from the New World back to the Old World across a bridge of ice — which, with the ravages of accelerating climate warming, no longer exists today.
Expedition leader Wally Herbert’s vision and persistence had conceived and energized the task which lay ahead. The plan was to traverse the polar ice cap from Point Barrow, Alaska, to the Norwegian archipelago of Svalbard via the geographic North Pole. We would follow a Great Circle route, heading north from the Alaskan coast across the Beaufort Sea, roughly parallel to the International Date Line. Then after reaching the North Pole (and without changing course), we would head south to follow the Prime Meridian, fine-tuning our course toward Svalbard. In all, we would cross 12 time zones, carving an erratic track of 6,000 kilometres as we worked our way through a shifting labyrinth of sea ice and converging meridian lines of longitude.
Of all polar sledging expeditions, it is perhaps that of the British Trans Arctic Expedition of 1968-69 which most attracts such powerful nautical associations expressed in terms of maritime history and celestial navigation. Given such points of contact, it is the seafarer who is called upon to live in isolation, far from loved ones and the world at large as he or she engages their sense of self-reliance, team work, resourcefulness, that acquired ability to make do and mend.
In a remarkable contrast between things ancient and modern, the navigation of the surface of the world’s last remaining ocean to be crossed was completed only seven weeks before mankind first landed on the moon, first setting foot on the Sea of Tranquility.
The expedition owed greatly to the help of their team of
West Greenland Inuit Sled Dogs. (Photo: BTAE)
THE GAZE OF ANIMAL LIFE
The story of this expedition cannot be told until full tribute has been given to our magnificent dog teams. Each man — Wally Hebert, expedition lead, Allan Gill, navigator and cameraman, Roy ‘Fritz’ Koerner, glaciologist, with the author serving as medic — was equipped with a sled hauled by a team of 10 dogs. During Christmas 1967, Gill and I had collected 40 huskies at Qaanaaq, Greenland, some 140 kilometres north of the United Stated Air Force Base Thule. These wonderful animals are powerful creatures with the endurance necessary to cover vast distances in extremely cold weather for months on end. Unlike their Alaskan counterparts, Greenland dogs are accustomed to working individually using a fan hitch (where each dog in the team is attached separately to the sled) to reduce the loss of momentum when negotiating moving ice fields and the rough terrain of countless pressure ridges.
Greenland’s Thule District is a remote land at the northern reaches of human habitation — an unforgiving place. In the darkness and raw cold of mid winter accompanied by the reassuring presence of local Inuit hunters, we set out over an uncharted track across the Greenland Ice Cap with our rag tag menagerie of dogs to USAF Base Thule. En route, with no other means of transport, we encountered a Danish school teacher who, when disoriented with hypothermia, had become separated from her party during a blizzard and sustained severe frostbite to her hands; and an impoverished young Inuit mother who had suffered disfiguring burns to her face and hands when she had inadvertently added gasoline from an unmarked container to her kerosene lamp. She saved her baby from the conflagration, but not without incurring considerable injury to herself. These women were lucky to be alive. Later, for both, there would be lifelong scars bearing evidence of their service to others.
It was a salutary prelude to the journey which lay ahead, to attempt the first crossing of the Arctic Ocean. We faced a prospect where mishap and cruel choices might dictate our success, our safety or even our survival.
Later we experienced a time of prolonged social isolation to test our mettle as we lived and moved across the sea ice on a journey which would extend over 476 days. There were no maps, only the unpredictable topography of unstable ice with impassable leads and churning pressure ridges advancing like a wall of lava; five months of darkness as we overwintered in the approaches to the geographic North Pole; an encounter with a rabid Arctic fox; a fire engulfing one of the tents; half rations; measured risks to be taken; incapacitating injury; and the unreadable expression of predatory polar bears with the stark confrontation of kill or be killed.
Out here, there is an intuitive living out of a gentler narrative:
That the needs of my neighbour best describe the coordinates of my neighbourhood.
That I am my brother’s keeper.
Out here, the human spirit,
responsive to the forces of nature, discerning of the past and creative with what lies to hand,
was more clearly perceived and more often witnessed
than in the clamour of our modern suburban lifestyles with their hurried rhythms
and the sophisticated appetites of a consumer society.
Out here, in the pristine beauty and immense silence of the Arctic
It was the mute constancy of our dogs, our beasts of burden,
Which shared and at times best conveyed the inspiring testimony of creation.
Out here, it is the gaze of animal life
Which reflects the conscience of mankind
In the stewardship of nature.
We flew the dogs to our start line at Point Barrow, Alaska, where the members of the crossing party met as a team for the first time, just one week before our journey began. Time was of the essence as we sensed the rhythm of the seasons, so we set out with only four hours of daylight in early February 1968. It took us three weeks to negotiate the treacherous offshore currents scouring the Alaskan coast. Out at sea, the swirling ice had a propensity to become a tombstone, not only because it could move like a landslide of icy rubble but also because it surrounded us on all sides and mostly in darkness. We were reminded of the 11 souls of the Canadian Government Expedition of 1913-16 who had perished in the penetrating cold of that same ice field in the Beaufort Sea when their ship, the HMCS Karluk, had foundered.
We were diverted and sometimes stopped dead in our tracks by countless pressure ridges, impassable leads and blizzard-like storms. All contributing to an unforgiving treadmill as we trudged across the shifting momentum of unstable pack ice. Later, as we drew nearer to the Earth’s northern axis of rotation, we gradually became aware of a rotational frame of reference, the Coriolis Effect, gently veering the untethered ice clockwise to the right of our intended day’s march.
One of the expedition's camps, where glaciologist Roy 'Fritz' Koerner
would set out to take manual measurements of the sea ice and navigator
Allan Gill would chart the next day's course. (Photo: BTAE)
SCIENTIFIC PROGRAM AND NAVIGATION
Throughout the trek Roy ‘Fritz’ Koerner, our glaciologist, undertook a series of manual measurements of sea ice thickness, a routine he assumed with commendable determination. It was these observations of multiyear ice floes that provided the historic benchmark against which today’s modelling to predict the rate and extent of the melting ice cap can be measured.
We travelled before the days of GPS, satellite communications and personal computers, and without the benefit of weather or ice forecasting in a place where most days were overcast and celestial navigation was the uncomfortable bedfellow of dead reckoning. It was in these circumstances that Koerner’s prescient report served to establish some of the earliest baseline trends of climate warming. Soon enough, within our own lifespan, we saw the consequences: the ice was melting.
Navigator Allan Gill was the kind of irreplaceable guy you always want to have along on an expedition, an unflappable Mr. Fix-it. And it was he who, not unlike Captain James Cook, armed with chronometer, theodolite and navigation tables, found the way to our desired haven. Gill’s 18th-century navigation techniques did not capture the pinpoint accuracy of later GPS systems, but it proved pragmatic, consistently giving us an accuracy to within 200 to 400 metres, depending on unpredictable surface currents.
Using only pencil and paper, Gill maintained an impeccable record of position fixes. This was essential for establishing our whereabouts; correcting for magnetic variation (for which we needed to know how far east or west we were — our longitude); for offsetting each day’s drift; and for establishing an unbroken dotted line as documentary evidence of our journey. As with any blue-water voyage, well beyond sight of land, we were not simply joining the dots, we were making the dots as our journey progressed across a featureless seascape.
THE NORTH POLE
On April 6, 1969, 407 days outward bound from the Alaskan coast, we reached the geographic North Pole. We’d not been driven by an obsession to get there first. At the time, it was our unquestioned understanding that Captain Robert Peary of the US Navy had claimed to have reached this point 60 years earlier in 1909 (this claim was later disputed in 1988). For us it was a unique navigational waypoint on a longer journey, and we held no interest in challenging the ambiguous legitimacy of other’s aspirations. In any case, if you are first, you must beckon not boast. But soon enough, albeit unwittingly, we were to find ourselves immersed in the claims and counterclaims as to who it was that got there and back first across the sea ice to strive for “the reward of priority.” The honour system, which conveyed those earlier claims, is of course founded upon trust, and the strength of our trust in each other is based on the personal narrative of each one of us.
The North Pole is a geographic anomaly where the conventions of time and space meet. (There is, for example, no east or west. And you don’t actually know what day it is, except by an arbitrary decision to settle on the Prime Meridian). Its axis of rotation, set at an angle of about 23.5 degrees from the plane of its ellipse around the Sun, creates the mechanism by which we experience the cyclical nature of day and night and the four seasons. Simply put, without the North Pole being close to where it is, biological life as we know it would not exist — and neither would we.
It was fascinating to have reached this desolate place, and yet it was to prove even more fulfilling as we drew close to our goal in completing the first transit of the Arctic Ocean and to do so by its long axis via the Pole of Inaccessibility (the middle of nowhere in the dead centre of the ocean where we had first encountered a polar bear) and the geographic North Pole.
The team faced countless pressure ridges, impassable leads and
blizzard-like storms throughout the expedition. (Photo: BTAE)
Two months later, on May 29, 1969, Allan Gill and I made landfall on Vesle Tavleøya, a small offshore island in Norway’s Svalbard archipelago, marking the northernmost extremity of the Eurasian tectonic plate. Incredibly, we had landed within hailing distance of the latitude and compass bearings recorded in the 1773 ship’s log of HMS Carcass. It had been almost 200 years before our arrival that this ship of the line, manoeuvring through swirling cross currents, had become beset in ice. It would mark the farthest north of the Royal Navy’s first attempt to reach the North Pole. Mustered within the ship’s complement was 14-year-old midshipman, Horatio Nelson, who later became the most famed admiral in the Napoleonic Wars and celebrated as the greatest sea warrior in British history.
In crossing the Arctic, we had traversed the distant horizon of Canada’s northern shoreline. We had set out far to the west of the 141st meridian (marking the international boundary between Yukon and Alaska). In turn, our landfall in Svalbard was far to the east of Nares Strait (marking the international border between Ellesmere Island, Nunavut, and Greenland). It had been here, exactly 100 years before our expedition, that HMS Alert had reached 82 degrees north latitude in the Royal Navy’s final attempt to reach the North Pole.
International logistic support for the expedition was pivotal in the eventual completion of our journey.
A helicopter from HMS Endurance, after having ferried the expedition's dogs to Spitsbergen,
the largest island in Norway's Svalbard archipelago. (Photo: Mick Rowsell)
The United Kingdom
Wally Herbert’s original proposal had received the endorsement of the storied membership of the Royal Geographical Society’s Expedition Committee under the patronage of His Royal Highness Prince Philip. Each committee member was the product of resilience, experience and war-time leadership whose track records had been shaped by their conduct during the urgency of their assignments. None were insensitive to fear in the presence of danger, but had displayed a willingness to confront calculated risks as a prerequisite for making things happen.
From the Royal Navy came the ice patrol vessel, HMS Endurance, whose helicopters, some 12 days after we made landfall, extracted us, our dogs and equipment from a disintegrating ice field at the confluence of the cold waters of the Arctic Ocean and the warm waters of the North Atlantic Drift Stream.
The Royal Air Force transported the dogs from Greenland to Alaska and provided outstanding radio communication through our base radio operator, Squadron Leader Freddie Church.
From Britain's Special Air Service, the SAS, emerging from the Borneo jungle as a last-minute replacement on the expedition, came their Regimental Medical Officer (and author of this account).
Throughout the expedition, we were reliant upon a total of seven extreme-range supply drops by C-130 Hercules aircraft from 435 Transport and Rescue Squadron of the Royal Canadian Air Force staging from pre-positioned stores at Rivers, Man., Resolute Bay, N.W.T. (now Nunavut) and United States Air Force Base Thule (northwest Greenland). These missions, conducted with great expertise and determination by the RCAF, represented a vital Canadian element to the ultimate success of the expedition.
United States of America
USAF Base Thule provided a major transport hub both for the shipment of our West Greenland Inuit Sled Dogs and during the last stage of the expedition on the approaches to Svalbard.
The hospitality and resources extended to the nascent expedition by the US Naval Arctic Research Station in Point Barrow, Alaska, contributed significantly to the final preparations for the journey. It was here that Allan Gill and I mustered the dogs into their four teams, while waiting for Herbert to arrive from last minute planning in London and Roy ‘Fritz’ Koerner to arrive from his postdoctoral work on the Devon Island Ice Cap.
The procurement of 40 dogs purchased from Inuit hunters in the Thule District of Greenland was undertaken under the supervision of the District Commissioner based in Qaanaaq. The dogs (having been immunized against rabies) were transported to Point Barrow, Alaska, in the belly of an C-130 Hercules aircraft. These animals were not domesticated pets. A cargo net was rigged to protect the aircrew from the 40 snarling dogs who, at that point, had not been formally introduced to one another. The heat was turned up to encourage the dogs to sleep, while Gill and Hedges were kept busy sorting out dog fights among an unruly mass of fur and fangs.
Political clearance for landfall on Svalbard was graciously extended by the Norwegian government. This had included the prepositioning of stores on the main island of Spitsbergen. However these stores had been raided by marauding polar bears.
Norway has a 100-year vibrant history of dog sledding connected to polar expeditions of the early 20th century. Our dogs were delivered to the town of Longyearbyen by helicopters from HMS Endurance. Here, the animals were quarantined and distributed to their new homes in Longyearbyen and subsequently incorporated into the famed Norsk TrekkhundKlubb ambulance service in Norway.
Dr. Ken Hedges served as medic on the 1968-69 British Trans-Arctic Expedition.
(Photo: Mick Rowsell)
If any journey is to be worthwhile, it must embrace a personal validity. For there is within us an innate yet vulnerable faculty that seeks an accountable purpose for any and every task we might undertake. This is the human spirit, a vessel of discovery for the meaning of life and how we should live it.
On the last day of our expedition, as we waited for our extrication by helicopter, something stirred in the isotherms of an unseen world beneath the ice. As each of us was engaged with our own thoughts, I rested my head on the sheepskin which had served as a mattress for the past 476 days. Almost imperceptibly, I became aware of a melodic whistling through the ice. The pervasive silence of the Arctic was transmuted into the pristine farewell song of a whale pod as if confirming a universe that did not come into existence by happenchance, any more than our own lives and what we do and how we live are destined to be bereft of significance.
If there is a story to tell, it is of a journey described by Canadian author Farley Mowat as “an epic and perhaps the last of its kind in the history of polar passion,” in which we trod the pathway of common experience in company with the beliefs and dog-driving skills of the Inuit, the exploits of seafarers spanning four centuries and the outstanding services of those who had provided our lifeline.
There were and remain hard-learned lessons, harvested more by our failures than our successes. It is a mindset nurtured by that fourteen-year-old boy at Vesle Tavleøya, Norway, in the late 1700s, who grew up to become Vice Admiral Horatio Lord Nelson. Nelson’s famous encoded message of confidence in the fleet under his command on October 21, 1805, off Spain’s Cape Trafalgar as they closed for action, was run up the yardarm of HMS Victory: “England expects that every man will do his duty.” Just moments earlier in the seclusion of his cabin, Nelson had recorded the basis for that guiding principle in what would become his final prayer as he mustered on deck and was mortally wounded by sniper fire.
May the great God whom I worship,
Grant to my country and for the benefit of Europe in general,
A great and glorious victory.
And may no misconduct, in any one, tarnish it:
And may humanity after victory be the predominant feature in the British fleet.
For myself individually, I commit my life to Him who made me
And may His blessing light upon my endeavours for serving my country faithfully.
To Him I resign myself and the just cause which is entrusted to me to defend.
Amen. Amen. Amen.
* * *“A bridge of ice” is reprinted here with the very kind permission of the Royal Canadian Geographic Society and Dr. Ken Hedges. Buy your print copy of the September/October 2020 issue of Canadian Geographic Magazine here.
* * *
Be sure to watch Across the Top of the World, a 1 hour 11 minute documentary about the BTAE which was originally aired by BBC TV in 1969.