The Fan Hitch Volume 5, Number 2, March 2003

Newsletter of the Inuit Sled Dog

Table of Contents

Editorial: The Blind Men and the Elephant
The Return
Dogs in Greenland
The Contribution of Dogs to Exploration in Antarctica
Page from the Behaviour Notebook: Raising Raven
Antarctic Sketches
Physiology of Sledge Dogs
The Qitdlarssuaq Chronicles, Part 2
News Briefs:
Thesis update
Blue Eye update
Product Review: DirectStop®
Book Review: Carved from the Land
Tip for the Trail: Re-lining Water Jug Caps
IMHO: Preservation vs. Saving

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              Editor: Sue Hamilton
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Chena,  British bred “problem dog” for her original owners, 
rescued by David in 1973.                      Matthews photo

The Return

by David Matthews

This true story really belongs to Claire, a ten-year-old "Husky" bitch with several fine litters to her credit and a sledding career longer than that of most dogs in the harsh Antarctic conditions. She was born in 1957 at Hope Bay, a British scientific station at the northern end of the Antarctic Peninsula. By the time of this story, in 1965, Hope Bay had closed and Claire transferred, along with several teams, to the station at Stonington Island a thousand miles or so further south, a journey that could never be repeated now that the Larsen Ice Shelf, along which the sled route lay, has completely broken up and disappeared. - And so too the dogs - Ed. Note

At that time, Stonington was a small British scientific station, permanently manned throughout the winter by a staff of ten or twelve. It was the third such station to be built on the island since 1946 when both American and British teams first arrived in Marguerite Bay.

The story begins in early February - high summer, although, at 6000 feet above sea level, not what you would call warm, probably around minus l0°C. Two men and two teams (17 dogs in all) were returning to base at Stonington at the end of a six-month journey that had taken them from spring travel on the sea ice, up major glaciers until by summer time they had reached the high plateau of the Antarctic Peninsula.

For Claire, her last journey was almost over and she would certainly be retired if not put down before the next winter came. Already too old, this last grueling day returning to base was proving too much her, coming after 180 days on dried rations and over 1000 miles of pulling. The men were pushing hard to reach home before a threatened spell of bad weather moved in, making this a day which eventually found its way into the record books.

After thirty tiring miles with heavy loads in seventeen hours along the undulating surface of the plateau, we took a brief rest to unload the sleds and leave a depot of all unused ration and dog food boxes. After this came the prospect of the final twenty-six miles running light and downhill all the way. The younger dogs were still setting a fine pace, and impending bad weather did not encourage any further delay. So, after unloading, old Claire was taken off the trace and lifted onto the back of the sled astride the tents and gear, where she tried to maintain her dignity, though dropping with exhaustion. With only a light load to pull, the rest of the team would run too fast for her to keep up.

Descending from the plateau edge down to Stonington Island was a formidable undertaking at any time. The route consisted of four thousand feet of steep, dangerously angled glacier and a seemingly impassable icefall down which the sled route took a sinuous line into a huge natural amphitheater. It then followed a long, awkward left hand traverse through the center of the icefall, culminating in a straight 500-foot plunge down a gradient of around 1:2.5 to the valley glacier below.

The dogs behaved well. These were teams and drivers who had been through a lot together and the dogs seemed to sense that it was an especially tense moment. The precariousness of the route was not the only danger. The ice fall was notorious as a breeding ground for bad weather and fierce storms which plagued the area, a natural cauldron where winds could build up in minutes to a strength which could (and had) at times meant death to men and dogs. 

No sooner was the difficult descent begun than tell-tale streamers of snow began to appear on the tops of the surrounding peaks and the wind rapidly increased to a local gale. It was hard to believe our bad luck. Less than a mile below us on the valley floor it was still a fine, calm evening, while at the plateau edge we had difficulty seeing our lead dogs forty feet ahead through the rapidly increasing drift. The snow surface was hard to see too - almost a white-out. 

Mac, the sledge dog David took back from Antarctica, 
was holder of the BAS distance record, 14,400 miles. 
Born in 1959 and first run in a team, "The Terrors", 
formed at Hope Bay.    Dave took over and ran "The 
Terrors" from 1964-67.                  Matthews photo

By the time we reached the amphitheater, conditions were hazardous, but this was no place to camp and wait for an improvement. As we turned left onto the long, narrow oblique line of the traverse, standing on the uphill runner of the awkwardly side-slipping sledges while at the same time trying to keep the foot brake hard on, we shouted a continuous Rrrr, Rrrr - left, left - to keep the dogs high on the left side of the traverse. To let them head too steeply down to the right would lead to almost certain disaster in the broken chaos of the main icefall. 

Then the inevitable happened. On the icy surface being exposed by the wind, one sled tilted on a small hummock, slipped violently sideways, and then tipped over onto its side. For the driver this is always highly dangerous moment. Even with a lightly loaded sled it is a problem to sort out. For the luckless Claire, it was the last straw. Thrown violently from her perch astride the load, she staggered to her feet, dazed and shaken, and then set off up the slope, deaf to all shouts and entreaties. In no time she was just a white shadow in the drifting wilderness of snow. Then she was gone. Neither she nor her tracks were visible. "She has gone to die," someone said. Searching for her was out of the question. There were other lives at stake now and with heavy hearts we turned our attention to the urgent task of our own dangerous situation. With two teams and two sleds still to be extricated from the slope, the complications and risks of starting a search for a single dog did not even bear thinking about. Throughout the rest of that long descent there was no time to spare for recriminations. At the end of the traverse there were rope brakes to fit for the final hair-raising plunge to the valley floor. The number of turns of the rope around the sled runners depended on the depth and consistency of the snow. Getting it wrong meant trouble.

The moment of commitment arrived. Like starting an abseil down a cliff face, there was no turning back. The dogs hung forward in their harnesses, their weight inevitably adding to the strain on the foot brake. The sled hurtled downwards, almost over-running the dogs, and kicked up blinding clouds of snow from the rope and foot brakes. Just as men and dogs were at the limit of their endurance, we reached the runout onto the more level valley glacier and, on my sled at least, the ropes frayed to within one strand of parting by the icy crust hidden beneath the surface powder snow. 

After hours of intense effort and with easier gradients and not too many crevasses in front of us for the final twenty miles, most of the tension drained away and there was time to relax and take in the grandeur of our surroundings. The wind howled impotently across the cliffs above and behind us, and while the sleds and skis hissed over a hard surface and the teams ran at an exhilarating speed through the long sunset of the polar summer night, we thought about Claire. It was a dramatic way to meet her end. Perhaps she fell into a crevasse or perhaps she curled up and went to sleep in the storm. In either case, her end was not without a certain sense of "rightness". 

After our safe return to base, the bad weather developed into two whole days of storm over the area, obliterating all our tracks and making us heartily glad not to be pinned down in our tents on the plateau edge. Normally, we might have kept an eye open for a stray dog to return, a young dog perhaps, returning over the sea ice where there was food in the form of seals and penguins. But an old dog lost in an icefall miles up a difficult crevassed glacier with no food and no tracks to follow ... there was no point. Besides, there were all the delights for us of a return to relative luxury. A bath - if you filled the melt tank - and the rare experience of a whole year's mail to read. The teams had to be settled onto their summer spans and fed fresh meat and blubber to bring them back to condition. So the days went by, soon running into weeks.

It was five o' clock one morning that several of us heard more noise than usual from the dog spans, but not enough to get us out of bed to investigate. The spans were a quarter of a mile away and there were over a hundred dogs there. Probably an inquisitive penguin or something had caused a bit of excitement. It did not sound loud enough for a fight or a loose team. Those of us who heard it, turned over and went to sleep again. 

As luck would have it, the first person out of bed at the more normal breakfast hour was the driver of Claire's team. No one knew her better and yet he hardly recognized her where she lay by the hut door in the morning sun. She could hardly stand up to be greeted or to accept food and she looked no better than a furry skeleton. She submitted to being fed a little and fussed over before turning away from us and settling in to a long, long sleep in the warm sunshine. The two of us, still blinking with surprise and emotion, crept back indoors to consult a calendar. It was eighteen days since that epic descent when we had lost her. 

The story might have ended there. Claire took food only slowly and appeared to regain little of her condition in the weeks following her return. It was decided that she had earned a chance to survive the oncoming winter at a more northerly base so she was retired to what was at that time the Antarctic's closest approach to a rest home for old dogs, where she would be treated well and where she might be used occasionally for short recreational journeys. 

One year later I saw her there and once again could hardly believe my eyes, such a sleek and contented-looking animal came to greet me. Only a trace of stiffness in the legs and a tinge of gray around the muzzle gave her away. By then she was eleven years old. Few huskies lived to such an age in those days in that part of the world. 

David Matthews served with the BAS as a geologist and drove dogs at the Stonington Island base from 1964-67, returning to his home in the Scottish Highlands with Mac, a record-breaking  dog from his team. He then spent a number of dog-less seasons in Spitsbergen, North Norway and East Greenland in the 70's for geology and general 'exploration'. In 1971, as part of an expedition to the Watkins Mountains in East Greenland, David managed to make the second ascent of Gunnbjørn's Fjeld, the highest mountain in the Arctic and today a popular objective for parties flying in to the edge of the ice cap). "We did it the hard way, man-haul sledging from sea level!" Now 'retired', and for the last twenty years running a small furniture and wood-turning business, he is currently working on the translation of the book 1000 Days with Sirius by Peter Schmidt Mikkelsen, a fascinating account of two years in the life of the Sirius Patrol in Northeast Greenland in 1978-79. The book is to be made available through Whippoorwill Press.

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