Exploration of the Antarctic - Part 9
See also Chronology of Antarctic Exploration.
The tragic race to the South Pole marked the peak of public interest in Antarctic exploration, but the heroic age had more in store. As Amundsen's team arrived back at Framhiem, a Japanese Antarctic Expedition was landing at the Bay of Whales to make a modest foray onto the Ice Barrier that would soon assume its modern name of the Ross Ice Shelf. Another party was landed on Edward VII Land east of the Bay of Whales and explored the foothills of the Alexandra Mountains.
As Amundsen's was planting the Norwegian flag at the South Pole in mid-December 1911, a Second German Antarctic Expedition was entering the Weddell Sea under the command of Wilhelm Filchner. At the end of January (1912), Filchner had probed far enough into the Weddell Sea to find a vast ice shelf (the Filchner Ice Shelf) fronting ice covered land rising several thousand feet (the Luitpold Coast). Between February 9 and 17 a winter base was established on the ice. On the 18th, the ice began to break up and a newly-formed tabular ice berg began to carry the camp into open sea. Flichner's expedition dismantled the camp quickly and retreated to their ship. By the time a second base was established on more stable ice, Filchner's ship became trapped. In June, Filchner attempted a mid-winter foray onto the ice shelf seeking land, but after covering only 31 miles retreated to find that his ship had drifted 38 miles while he was gone. In December, the expedition broke free of the ice and returned home.
Douglas Mawson, a geologist on Shackleton's Nimrod expedition who had ascended Mount Erebus and was one of the three members to reach the south magnetic pole, turned down an invitation to join Scott's Terra Nova Expedition—in favor of his own Australasian Antarctic Expedition. The goal of the expedition was to explore 2,000 miles of the Antarctic coast and its interior immediately south of Australia.
Mawson established his main base with 18 men at Cape Dennison in Commonwealth Bay, (142o40'E, just east of the Adélie Coast charted by the French explorer Jules Dumont d'Urville in 1840) and a second base with 8 men led by Frank Wild (who had been a member of Scott's Discovery Expedition and in Shackleton's Nimrod expedition) was established 1,400 to the west on the Shackleton Ice Shelf (100oE on part of the coast observed by Charles Wilkes in 1840). A third base was established on Macquarie Island which allowed a wireless communication to be established with Hobart, Tasmania. in searching for a landing place, Mawson, like James Ross Clark sailed over land charted erroneously in 1840 by the Wilkes Expedition.
Cape Dennison turned to be one of the windiest places on earth because there was no mountain range to slow the frigid katabatic winds that rolled off the the Antarctic Plateau. In May 1912, the average wind speed was 60.7 miles per hour, with gusts approaching 200 miles per hour. This required changes in tents and clothing over the winter in preparation for the various planned journeys in the spring.
After delays because of the terrible weather conditions, five parties, each of three men, struck out from Cape Dennison—and two more from the Shackleton Ice Shelf in November 1912. Three of the Cape Dennison parties, led by Mawson, Cecil Madigan and Frank Stillwell went east; a fourth, led by Eric Webb, went south east toward the magnetic pole; and the last, led by Bickerton, went west where it was hoped it would meet or overlap an east bound party for the Shackleton Ice Shelf. All parties aimed for about eight weeks of exploring before returning to base in order to be picked up by the expedition's ship, the Aurora.
Madigan's party traveled on sea-ice to explore 250 miles of the coast line of King George V Land
Stillwell's party explored and conducted geologic studies for about 60 miles on the land-side of the coast line of King George V Land
Webb's party, on December 21, arrived at 70o36.5' S 148o10'E, 175 miles from the location of the south magnetic pole as determined by David, Mawson and Mackay, two years earlier. Here, the compass dipped to with 16.5 minutes of vertical. Not quite the pole but as close as their food supply would allow.
Bickerton's party attempted to use an airplane that had been damaged enroute to Antarctica as a motor for their sledge but it broke down quickly. They discovered a meteorite while covering 158 miles inland, parallel to the coast.
Mawson's own party, with three sledges and two dog teams, experienced the greatest difficulty. One member, Belgrave Ninnis was lost along with his sledge, dog team and most of the food supplies in a crevasse near the extremity of their journey. Mawson and Xavier Mertz started back eating the dogs as they went. Unknown to them, the livers of the Greenland Eskimo dogs contained toxic levels of vitaman A—degrading their health and probably contributing to the physical and mental breakdown of Mertz and his ultimate death. Mawson continued alone in dire conditions, stretching out the food, and surviving numerous falls into crevasses, but ultimately reached Cape Dennison a few hours after the Aurora had left. Mawson and a party left behind, in case he showed up, stayed at extra winter in the Antarctic.
The Shackleton Ice Shelf party under Frank Wild explored east and west of its base along the Queen Mary Coast
|Route of the Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition. Red - The Endurance before trapped in ice; Yellow - Drifting with pack ice; Green - Party in three boats; Blue - the boat James Caird; Turquoise - Planned transcontinental route; Orange - The Aurora inbound; Pink - Drift and retreat of Aurora; Brown - Supply depot route. Source: Wikipedia|
Shackleton's Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition (1914-16) was a failure in terms of its goal of crossing the entire Antarctic continent from the Weddell Sea to the Ross Sea. The expedition had two parts. Shackleton led the main party on the ship Endurance into the Weddell Sea to land on the shore and begin establishing a base and depots to a party to trek across the entire continent to the Ross Sea. A second party led by Aeneas Mackintosh on the ship SY Aurora established a base at Cape Evans on Ross island and would lay depots across the Ross Ice Shelf/Great Ice Barrier to the Beardmore Glacier.
The Endurance, became trapped in the ice of the Weddell Sea on January 18, 1915. For several months, the ship drifted with the ice until it was finally crushed, forcing the crew to abandoned the ship. With the help of dogs, they began walking across the ice. They pulled three lifeboats until they found it too difficult and built a small camp. The dogs were killed for food and the expedition waited for the drift of the ice to carry them northward.
On April 9, 1916, after 164 days of drifting, the ice floe they were camped on finally reached the ice edge and began to break up. They boarded their three small lifeboats and sailed through rough seas, with little food or water, for seven days. Eventually, they reached small, uninhabited Elephant Island near the northern tip of the Antarctic Peninsula. For the first time in 497 days, the men stood on real ground. However, the island was small, unsheltered, and far from any sailing routes. The chance of being rescued by a passing ship was minimal. No one knew where they were, or even that they were in trouble.
Shackleton decided that the only hope of saving his crew was for a small group to attempt to sail to South Georgia Island, which had a whaling station and likely had a ship that could come back and rescue the rest of the crew on Elephant Island who would be led by the experienced Frank Wild. South Georgia Island is 1,287 kilometers (800 miles) to the east of Elephant Island, across some of the roughest seas in the world. Shackleton hoped to do it with rudimentary navigational equipment in the largest (6.7 meter or 22 foot) of the lifeboats. After 14 days of sailing in the boat James Caird, the crew ran out of fresh water. Fortunately, on the verge of dehydration, they reached South Georgia Island two days later. After a 36-hour hike across a steep and snowy mountain range, they reached the whaling station; their first encounter with civilization in 531 days.
Shackleton could not rest long at the whaling station. He needed to return to Elephant Island and save the rest of his crew. Even though he left immediately, it took three attempts and more than three months to rescue the crew because sea ice prevented the ships from reaching the island. Finally, on August 30, 1916, the rescue ship made it to Elephant Island. Amazingly, after 143 days on Elephant Island, 307 days since abandoning the Endurance, and almost two years after the beginning of the expedition, not a single person in the expedition perished.
The part of the expedition under Aeneas Mackintosh also encountered problems. Using dogs and ponies, depots began to be laid in early 1915. On May 15, the Aurora broke free of its mooring in a gale and became trapped in an ice floe that carried it north until it was able to break free nine months later on February 12, 1916. The Aurora made for New Zealand for repairs before returning to rescue the stranded land party. The ten-member land party lost important supplies and equipment with the Aurora, that was their main living quarters. One saving grace was the huts and materials lefts by the earlier expeditions of Scott and Shackleton.
Unaware of the fate of Shackleton and the Endurance, the land party continued its work of laying depots in the 1915/16 summer season. Suffering from divided opinions about man-hauling and dog-hauling of sledges, as well as the usual harsh conditions of Antarctica, depots were established all the way to the Beardmore Glacier by January 1916. The return trip was arduous and one member, Arnold Spenser Smith, died. In March, five members were at Hut Point and four at Cape Evans. In May, Aeneas Mackintosh and Victor Hayward attempted to move from the later to the former and were never seen again.
On January 10, 1916, the Aurora arrived with Shackleton on board and the seven survivors discovered the failure of the main part of the expedition and were rescued.
Shackleton was returning to Antarctica in early 1922 to undertake another expedition, this time to circumnavigate the continent, when he died. However, the Heroic Age of Antarctic Exploration had passed already when the catastrophe of the First World War (1914-1918) diverted the enthusiasm and resources needed for major expeditions.
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