The Big White South Long Ago—On The Edge In Antarctica, Talk By David Harrison, January 7


Reporter: Ian Harford

This was a talk with a difference. As the lights went down, a strange figure walked in wearing canvas mukluks up to the knees and an ancient anorak with a fur lined hood. A ghost from the past? Only a nose showed until the figure stripped off to reveal what clothes, boots and goggles were like for explorers and scientists in the Antarctic in the 1950s.

Our speaker for the night was SCoM member David Harrison - assisted by his modelling wife, Ruth - who had come to describe how the men who went on the 1957 Royal Society International Geophysical Year Expedition to the Antarctic learned to live on the white snowy edge.

A young student completing his Physics degree course at Manchester University, David had seen an advertisment in the department, "Wanted - research worker for a two year project in the Antarctic". 'Why not?' he thought.

He applied and a few months later after an interview at the Royal Society in London and lots of preparation, he was standing in a dirty old warehouse on the Thames, where some red carpet had been hurriedly laid down the previous day.

Impatient to be off, he was asked by the young Queen Elizabeth what exactly he would be doing for his Royal Society research. "Like many others", he observed with his dry sense of humour, "she soon moved on when I started on the technical details!" So began David's fascinating talk at the January meeting.

Aided by excellent photographs he had taken over the two years for his radio echo research study of the Aurora Australis, David was able to bring to us an extraordinary story of life in some of the most gruelliing weather conditions known on the planet.

The sea journey down in the MV Tottan had its sunny moments with stops in Madeira and Montevideo. But after a while the freezing conditions south of the Falklands brought ice and floating icebergs in the Weddell Sea. To our surprise we learnt that the ship was set up to allow Captain Jacobson to climb to the crow's nest to steer the safest course for the ship through the pack ice.

Landing on the Antarctic shelf at Halley Bay is not like we normally associate with a sea or river journey. With the ship wedged into the ice the team worked long hours through the continuous light to unload the provisions, equipment and oil drums they would be needing for the coming months. And these all had to be ferried up to the site on the ice shelf - no easy task, particularly with the oil drums - where there was an advance party already established.

Then came a picture of the members waving a last farewell to the departing ship as it disappeared behind a huge iceberg. In the days before email, contact from then on was mostly by morse code although the BBC did on one occasion arrange a telephone link to allow a brief conversation about life in the Antarctic.

David and his colleague had convinced the expedition organisers that they would need a separate building for their research to avoid possible electrical interference. The sections for this had been prefabricated and there were intriguing photos, developed on site, of the stages in the building of their Echo Hut.

The wind-blown snow first collected round the structure and Items stored outside, then rose month by month. After the first year it was totally submerged with access only available down steps into the structure through the roof! Thin ropes attached to poles between huts helped people from getting lost in blizzard conditions.

Another part of the research project involved erection of a large rotating aerial, which stood out in many of the photos of the site. We saw pictures too of the tractors needed for construction work and of the light Otter planes that were used by the American teams to ferry essential items to other areas, where research was being undertaken for the wider expedition.

Observations for the research took up a fair bit of time, but there were lighter moments too. Lack of risk assessment policies enabled David and others to walk off down to the sea in what potentially were dangerous conditions. There were superb photos of penguins lining up to watch the researchers; and of them queuing at the waters' edge before slipping in to find food. The reason for their delay, David explained was that awaiting them were seals - also looking for food!

For the record SCoM members were glad to hear that David managed to slope off a few times for a spot of skiing with the resident doctor as companion! His return home in February 1959 was captured in a series of fascinating pictures of expedition members; and of the boat as it was lashed by massive waves in the Roaring Forties and crew members lurched across the deck.

An interesting selection of clothing used by David was also on display - all still in excellent condition - which we could examine in the break. Wool and silk now coming back into fashion for the outdoors, was strongly evident. The mukluk canvas boots still had the clear printed instructions, "Take care not to overlace and restrict circulation". A vote of thanks for an excellent evening was given to David.

A small selection of the photos shown by David can be seen here.