In This Issue....From the Editor: Expeditions
My First Winter Trip in Antarctica
Canadian Animal Assistance Team in Pond Inlet
Sledge Dog Memorial Fund Update
In the News
Book Review: Dog Days on Ice
Behavior Notebook: Transitions
Product Review: The Tick Key
Tip: Flammable Food
IMHO: The Next Great Thing
Navigating This Site
Rob and the Admirals at Rothera Point Photo: McGlone
My First Winter Trip in Antarctica
by Rob McGlone
In 1992, I decided I'd had enough of life in Scotland and the mundane routine of existence – you know, the 40-hour-a-week job you couldn't stand and the workmates whose only adventure was walking to and staggering back from the pub at the week's end. A change was needed.
As fate would have it, an old friend of mine had just returned from Antarctica. He told me about the British Antarctic Survey (BAS). It sounded interesting so, to cut a long story short, I applied for the job as base carpenter. I was successful and in September 1992, I sailed for Antarctica from Hull (on the east coast of England) on board the Bransfield. The trip, via Uruguay and the Falkland Islands, took almost six weeks. We arrived at Rothera Base at the beginning of November.
Rothera Base is located on the southern point of Adelaide Island. It is a beautiful mountainous island, 130 km long by 40 km wide (81 x 25 mi) on the Antarctic Peninsula. The base is the biggest British research station in Antarctica. It can have over a hundred people in the summer, and, in 1993, there were fifteen technical staff that over wintered. These included a carpenter, plumber, electrician and a doctor, plus mechanics and general assistants (GAs) whose winter job was to see that the base remained in good working order for the following summer. Summer in Antarctica begins in November and ends in March. From March to the following November you were on your own and had eight months of winter to amuse yourself.
During these winter months each base inhabitant had the opportunity to get off base for two, two–week adventures. You could choose your activity, such as skiing, climbing, travel by snowmobile or by dog team; and you got to choose the GA you wished to travel with. GAs were the guys who made sure you stayed safe in what was a very dangerous environment. It was important to choose a GA with whom you felt you could get along, whose temperament was compatible. For my first winter trip I chose to go with the dogs and with the base "doggy man", John Sweeny. John, a fiery Irishman, had a reputation for being a little bit temperamental. Being a Scot, however, I felt we would get on just fine. During the winter of '93 we were fortunate enough to have the company of the last (before all non-indigenous species were "treatied" off the continent in '94) Antarctic dog teams, the Huns and the Admirals.
Onward to the Sighing Peaks with the Admirals. (Inset) Rob
mugging for the camera. photo: McGlone
A little bit about my background: I'm a carpenter by trade and had no mountaineering or skiing experience prior to going to Antarctica. So I knew I was in for a steep learning curve on my first winter trip. Before we set off, John showed me some basic climbing and skiing techniques and we went on some short trips with the dogs. I noted with bemusement on these trips that the dogs liked to fight, the bitches in particular. When a fight broke out (usually at the front of the line) John was always quick to react, laying into them with boot and thumper. The fights, when they did occur, were very brutal. John explained the importance of breaking the dogs up as quickly as possible, otherwise they could do some serious damage to each other. He explained that there was jealousy in the ranks especially if one of the younger bitches was the lead dog, and this was most often the cause of a fight. After the initial shock of seeing these fights between the dogs, some doubts appeared. Was this the best winter trip for a novice like me?
The winter trip approached. It took quite a bit of preparation. You have to pack enough supplies to last for a month just in case you get caught in bad weather. Your sled would be packed with the following: tent, radio, fuel, clothing, food for dog and man. The dog food we carried and used in the field came in compressed blocks of meat and fat weighing, I think, about about 0.5 kg (about 1 lb) each. A 32 kg (70 lb) box of blocks would last a nine-dog team five days. The food's trade name was Nutrican, abbreviated to Nutty by the dog drivers. After a few days of preparing our "kit", we were ready to go.
Google earth image of our route. It's just over 40-km (25 mi) round trip.
We set off up Reptile Ridge, a rather steep ramp. Once up the ramp, things flattened out a bit and the dogs got into their stride. We set off at a fine pace although my skiing was still pretty terrible. John had attached me to the sled with a rope so with a left hand on the sled and my right on the ski stick, I was half dragged half pulled for the first 10 km (6 mi). Stumbling and skiing, I must have looked pretty funny from a distance. The dogs were very well behaved and, if memory serves me correctly, there were no skirmishes on this trip.
As we glided along, I got the impression the huskies loved to be on the go. I had to pinch myself at times to believe that I was really doing this. Here I was in Antarctica, thousands of miles from anywhere in what has to be one of the most beautiful untarnished parts of the planet. Things were, however, to change quite soon.
We reached our destination, a valley (more of a mini-glacier) flanked by the "Sighing Peaks". As we arrived in the beautiful valley, the weather started to close in. John had wanted to go a little farther down the valley towards the bay but we stopped and pitched our tent. The weather had changed dramatically. In Antarctica the weather can change very quickly indeed. We put the dogs out on a trace and gave them their well-deserved Nutty.
We had to move quickly to set up our radio, cut snow blocks for our water and secure the tent. The wind had picked up considerably and was now gale force. It was getting dark. We got into the tent and into the sleeping bags. I was knackered. The wind was now hurricane force. Sleeping was impossible. The noise of the wind on the tent was deafening. The wind, growing stronger, raged all night. The dogs were howling. It seemed to me that the stronger the wind blew, the more the dogs howled. It never let up for a minute. The winds had to be blowing at over 161 kph (100 mph) and the temperature outside must have been at least -70°C (-94°F) with the windchill factor. I thought to myself that no creature could survive outside in that. I feared for the dogs' safety. First thing in the morning we got up to check the dogs who had howled most of the crazy night. The wind was still strong. John explained that we had to dig the dogs out and make sure that they had not got entangled on the trace as there was a danger of strangulation. As I emerged from the tent, I fully expected that the dogs must be dead. All was silent and when we looked around it was almost a white out. The dogs were nowhere to be seen. They were buried under the snow and ice! We dug them all out and freed the trace. They were all okay, such hardy creatures! I couldn't believe it. Amazing. We gave them two blocks of Nutty and retreated into our tent as the weather once again began to deteriorate. This was to be the routine for the next nine days. Thank God I'd brought a decent book with me. The hurricane blew for eight days solid. We had to check that the dogs were alright about every four hours, to dig them out of the ice and free the trace.
On one memorable night the wind blew so hard that the tent buckled to a remarkable degree. I was convinced it was not going to stay up. John suggested we get into our Zarsky sacks (emergency bags). In the event that your pyramid tent should blow away, you would maybe have a chance of surviving inside the sack. Inside the Zarsky sack I decided that this Antarctica place was maybe not such a great adventure after all. We had picked a wind tunnel to pitch our tent that, in retrospect, must have been the worst place on the island to set it up.
On the ninth night the wind finally died down. We looked out of our tent to see the full moon shining through the clouds, illuminating our valley. John decided we should take advantage of the break in the weather and head back to Rothera, and we did just that. By moonlight we packed up and headed for the base. John suggested that I "ski" on ahead of the dogs to encourage them to pull as they were very sluggish, not surprisingly, after eight days in the storm. So I skied on ahead as best I could till I reached level ground at the top of our valley (we had camped on a slight incline in the valley) where I waited for John and the dogs to catch up. We headed back to Rothera guided by the light of the full moon. The moonlit Antarctic landscape was truly magical. It was amazing how bright it was. The dogs did not seem to mind a bit.
Nineteen kilometers (12 mi) later, at about 5:00 am, we arrived back at base all safe and sound and very tired. The first winter trip was over – a trip never to be forgotten.
The Admirals at Marguerite Bay, with Wendy at lead.
Rob lives in Bremerhaven, Germany. He moved there from near Glasgow, Scotland thirteen years ago. In addition to writing about his experiences in Antarctica, Rob assembled a lovely video about the last BAS husky dog teams on the continent. You can enjoy it on YouTube.