This is the beginning of October. But lets hike back 100 years and imagine the tension around two expedition camps — Framheim at the Bay of Whales on the eastern edge of the Barrier ice and Terra Nova at Cape Evans on the western side of Ross Island in McMurdo Sound. At Framheim, the Norwegian Roald Amundsen was champing at the bit wanting to begin his run at the South Pole. At Cape Evans, the British Captain Robert Scott was methodically preparing his teams (ponies and motor toboggans) for his quest to reach the South Pole . Each party wanted to be first.
The challenge between these two expeditions has defined south polar history. Amundsen and his team returned victorious. Scott and his men succumbed in their tent in a bitter Antarctic blizzard, just 12 miles short of a plentiful supply depot. Earlier, and filled with disappointment, Scott diaried at the Pole: ”Great God! this is an awful place and terrible enough for us to have laboured to it without reward of priority.” Amundsen had beaten the Brits by some 34 days.
When Amundsen first saw the sun in late August after the long polar night, he was itching to get underway, believing that Spring would be something akin to his Arctic adventures. The Antarctic really does not have those shoulder Spring and Fall seasons. It’s either sun or no sun. He hung around Framheim and believing warmer temperatures were coming headed out on September 8 in something like -41degC. The mercury went the other way, plummeting to -57degC. On September 12, his team headed back home quickly but it did cost them a few dogs and almost the lives of a couple of his men.
The Norwegians waited till October 19 ( NZST time) before finally pointing their dog teams south to the Pole.
Meanwhile, over at Cape Evans, Scott and his men continued preparing their ponies and testing motor toboggans. The motor group left on October 24 and the ponies headed south on November 1. At this point Amundsen was already some 300 km ahead.
Fast forward 57 years to the 1968-69 New Zealand Antarctic Research Programme when October was also an important month for my colleagues and I. In a year of economic restraint, our task was to assemble a tractor train and head northwest on the frozen surface of McMurdo Sound to the dry Wright Valley with materials to assemble New Zealand’s first mainland Antarctic winter over station. We billed ourselves as the last of the great tractor trains — a 12-year-old Tucker Sno-Cat and a D4 Caterpillar bulldozer each pulling three sledges, and two track-fitted Ferguson farm tractors, each hauling a rubber tired trailer.
This remarkable event is highlighted in my book Tide Cracks and Sastrugi: An Antarctic summer of 1968-69 which will be available through Amazon.com and others in late November. Copies will be printed here in Calgary and available through email@example.com. The B&W version sells for $25 CAD and the colour $35 CAD.
As the northern hemisphere slowly wraps up for winter, the southern hemisphere opens up to summer. It ‘s the same on the continent of Antarctica. But this year holds special significance as a centennial year to reflect on those who pioneered the way.