Sunday, 4 January 2009

More Boys Toys...

As a young boy I was an avid reader, revelling in stories of daring and adventure, and in the boy's magazines and comics of the 1960s, I first saw pictures of the Tucker Sno-Cat. (Made by the Tucker Co. of Medford, Oregon).
These were used in Sir Vivian Fuchs' Trans Antarctic Expedition of 1956/7. Four of these vehicles were used by Fuchs' team, nicknamed "Rock'n'Roll", "Haywire" and "Able". The fourth, "County of Kent" was lost forever in a crevasse, along with its driver, Lieutenant Thomas Couzens.
These vehicles, dragging heavy sledges, made the first crossing of the continent, coast to coast. Crevasses were the greatest danger, yet somehow, they all except Lt Couzen's vehicle, were recovered from the brink. It looks a severely troubling (original words deleted!) activity to me.

The MV Magga Dan was a specially built polar supply ship, as a child, I saw her and her sister ships loading at Grangemouth on the Firth of Forth in Scotland. I was fascinated to see these brightly painted ships, and to hear of their journeys into the white south.
I'm not sure how it happened that I never signed on as crew. There was a time, following my marriage's break-up when I was seeking a life that might mix danger and solitude. The furthest I got then was Greenland, and if I could have figured out a way to stay there I would have. As it was, I took off on my own, up onto the Kvanefjeld plateau, set up my tent on the ice, near the mouth of an abandoned uranium mine, watched icebergs break apart and roll in slow motion below me on the cold november waters of the fjord, I had my few days of solitude, but also I had an airticket out toward denmark.............
To get to the "airport" oh yes, Narssassuaq International Airport. Hahahahahaaaaaa!
The terminal is a wooden shed. At one end of the runway is a nice big mountain. At the other is an icy fjord with sheer rock walls on the other side.
"If you haven't landed at BW-1," (Narsassuaq) writes army pilot George James of his ferry flight in a twin-engined B-26, "you have missed one of life's biggest thrills. We were briefed for hours with talks, movies taken from the nose of an airplane, and a topographical model. The reason for what might seem like overkill is that BW-1 is 52 miles up a fjord with walls several thousand feet high, numerous dead-end offshoots, no room to turn around, and usually an overcast below the tops of the walls. You had to get it right the first time."
To get there from Narssaq, the place I had gone to, (for no particular reason), required a day's journey on the MV Disko, I opted for a bunk in a shared cabin, deep below the bows, near the waterline, and directly above the bow thrusters. Cruise passengers are advised to avoid such a placement. On an ordinary journey it might just be a little tedious. Through an ice infested fjord in fog, breaking through pack ice and shouldering aside "bergy-bits" it is a recipe for no sleep at all. My eskimo cabin-mates were very cheery, offering me tasty bits of seal blubber, carved off with a crusty knife. Eventually I abandoned all hope of rest, and went topside to look down at the ice. Eventually I found a warm vent near the funnel and huddled there until I fell asleep. In the morning dark, I woke as we crashed into the dock.
Rambling again, mr soubriquet.

Sir Edmund Hillary led another team, setting up supply caches for the main group, his team were equipped with little more than slightly modified ferguson farm tractors, yet Hillary reached the south pole first.

Hillary, of course, is the man who a couple of years before, along with Sherpa Norgay Tensing, became the first man to stand on the summit of Mount Everest.

Snow cats are still used in Antarctica, though they've evolved a lot.


  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

  2. When I was a small child-around 3 to 4 years old, right before my parents divorced and my older brother 'disappeared' to live with his dad; (tmi )my brother who had to be 10 at the time had this great blue metal ford pick up truck circa late 1950's.... i believe what i felt in my pure but now sin filled heart was pure lust and envy.

    I HAD TO HAVE THAT TRUCK. My plottings were quite advanced for a 3 to 4 year old. I'd sit on the sofa pretending to watch TV as he sat on the floor rolling his truck around. Inevitably, something on the television captured his interest - and I was quick! Truck in hand, i FLEW to my bedroom where i immediately threw the truck into my toy chest and then sat on top of the chest, arms crossed.

    He was a screamin' a hollerin' up a storm about me, come on guys - an itty bitty 3 year old ?? -stealing his favorite truck. i loved it: mom's tired reply was always the same: whatever is in her toy box belongs to her. Quite a wise adage I think. I hate the decency to smirk, lock my door and spent hours playing with my truck. Eventually i would make amends and give it back to him (muttered threats and all.) Just for the thrill of knowing he and I would dance the same dance again, soon. I've always wondered where did that beat up ole metal blue truck ended up .....

    long story (phew) with short point: i can definitely appreciate boys and their toys .... and being a boy's toy and he mine ... ;)

    couldn't resist that one - the post was begging for it.


  3. I can see it... I'll bet you were a scary opponent for a ten-year-old boy. I can see the attention diverting tactics, the grab, the sprint, the slam of chest lid, and the look of challenge...
    I think you should tell us more about the exploits of the Red Dirt Child.

    I see you had a toy chest then. What sort of chest do you have now?

  4. Oh. And I see it was a BLUE pick up truck. Yet in later years and about three blogs ago you confessed to a RED pickup truck yearning. When did you realise a red pickup was the one for the grown-up you?

  5. Hmmmm...... exploits of Red Dirt Child. With a brain (that i'm learning) is designed for memory draining--these memories just pop up whenever a trigger exists. i'll have to think hard about my other stubborn exploits. maybe i should share one about the stranger's fur coat ...

    uhhhh..... i still have a toy chest. heh. some things NEVER change. :)

    well, honestly i'm still partial to a blue pick up truck - though it would be a curvier, earlier model than my fantasy red 'muscle' truck of the early sixties. 3 blogs ago??? was it really that long ... ??? if you asked me how many blogs i've killed this year, i honestly could not tell you.

    sometimes i'm a blue mule.
    sometimes i'm a fiery red mule.
    it's a dichotomy, i know.
    but i'm often of two minds ...


  6. The photo has the Thala Dan, not the Magga Dan

  7. Anonymous: How did you know that?
    I've seen most of the Lauritzens fleet, at various times, but can't tell which is which without reading the names.
    How does Thala differ from Magga?

  8. Perhaps you should mention that the loss of "County of Kent" did not occur during the TAE but late in 1959 whilst in use by a New Zealand team. Thanks otherwise for a most interesting article.

  9. Anon, I must confess I didn't know that. Thank you for that comment, it led me to find out what happened, and to find a very interesting book by Dr Bernard M Gunn, who was sitting beside Couzens when the Sno-Cat broke through into the crevasse.
    You can find the book here to read online:, and the specific incident here:

  10. "Now I had once sworn I would never ride in one of the Sno-cats, especially after seeing the horrific pictures taken by the Crossing Party of this same machine suspended over gaping chasms. The ground pressure was reputed to less than that of a man on skis, but the machine still weighed six tons. Never break your own rules. Then I had long ago decided that the Cats would stay out on the level shelf and only the dog sleds move up into the mountains, and though the way seemed flat enough, the snow was surprisingly deep, a least a foot of loose stuff which can hide a great deal of what lies beneath.
    I almost asked Couzens to let me drive, but reflected that the machine was his responsibility and did not want to put him in the awkward position of having to obey an order that he might do only reluctantly. We laughed and joked in a carefree way and then suddenly appeared to be precipitated into another dimension. We were falling, upside down, iron clanging off walls of ice. I had the slightest impression of seeing the right front drive pontoon shoot up in the air, of a roll to the right and a crunch of snow against the sno-cat body and a long fall. I had time to think, “Must be a crevasse !“ and then, “If we survive this one, we will be lucky !“ and then came a monumental crash.
    It was about 10 oclock in the morning. I came to, pinned upside down in a cramped fashion in a tiny space between the seats and instrument panel. What had been the Cat roof was flattened to within a foot of so of the seats. My knees were in my face but I was able to wriggle into a more comfortable position.
    “Now, think sensibly” I thought. “The others will come, sooner or later, don’t get frostbite, try to get out.” My balaclava had come off and my ears were already painful. I could not get a hand up but was able to wriggle it back over my ears, so I still have them. Lucky, that. I kicked at the crumpled door of the Cat, it seemed totally unyielding and in fact was hard against an ice wall and the jolt sent waves of pain up my mashed-up spine.
    There was a groan and Lowery came to. He was pinned in more tightly than me but Couzens did not move and it later appeared he was killed instantly by the steering wheel. Above my head on the drivers side, light filtered in and ice gleamed a few feet away.
    “If I can get out,” I assured Lowery, “I’ll get an ice-axe out of the back and cut us out of this damned thing.” Sheer braggadocio, the gear shift had me trapped and in any case I was not to walk again for many months. Snow began to sifter down, the heat from the engine faded, the cold crept in as the hours passed.
    “They’ll never find us !“ said Lowery at one point, but I made cheerful noises. “They won’t come tonight,” I had to admit. “Not with this snow. They’ll think we have stopped waiting for it to clear. But they’ll get up at eight tomorrow and if its clear, Murray will come looking! Till then keep wiggling your toes !“
    “What if it doesn’t clear?
    “Well, in that case, we’re dead!”
    “I suppose we could pray,” he said at one point.
    “Why?” said I, shortly.
    “Well, its kind of the traditional thing to do.”

  11. My scientific background was not that easily put aside.
    “Look,” I said. “Whether we are rescued or not is already decided. If we had a weather map we could see it. If this snow passes over, Murray will be here at eight, and it doesn’t clear we’ve had it. Simple isn’t it?”
    “I don’t think I can last that long “ said Lowery weakly and indeed after eighteen hours or so he began lapsing into unconsciousness and finally admitted he could no longer feel his feet.
    After about twenty hours I suddenly came to, realising that I had dozed off for fifteen minutes and I had no feeling below the knees. I cursed myself for this weakness and kicked and wriggled toes for half an hour but the feeling never came back. We had on canvas mukluks with a half-inch felt lining but one generates little warmth lying still.
    I found the horn button on the dash and amazingly there was still power, though the batteries were leaking acid over our clothes, but my SOS’s echoed up the ice walls and probably could not be heard a hundred yards away.
    It was eight am on the following morning when I hear a rumble which could only be an approaching Sno-cat and I tooted on the horn which was heard from above. A long pause and a voice called down “Are you blokes alright?”
    “Jim and I are, Tom’s dead!” I called back.
    There was a long silence, then a voice I recognised as Captain Hunt, in a voice devoid of any emotion. “Will you confirm Couzens is dead ?“
    “He hasn’t moved for twenty-four hours !“ I shouted, somewhat impatiently. “We are pinned in, you’ll need tools to cut us out and ropes to winch us out. Get on with it !“ Lowery had sunk to a point where his life expectancy was measured in a handful of hours and many a man has died in the very act of rescue.
    Then another long delay, it proved Murray Robb had to return to camp to get climbing ropes, shovels chipped away a ramp and snow lumps clattered down. Then the sound of footsteps and slouching along the floor of the crevasses came, why, Charles Wise of course, looking as unconcerned as if he was picking up the morning milk. His bearded face peered in.
    “G’day, Charlie!” I said ironically.
    “How y’ doin’?” he said affably. “Have a nice night?” he looked about for something to sit on, and Couzens’ frozen body was lying half out of the door. Charlie shrugged and sat-on it.
    “You could plck a better seat!” I said, grimly.
    “Aw, I doubt he minds,” said our deliverer. “And, look after the livin’ first is me mottoe!” He produced some tools and began unscrewing the door. “Soon have y’ out. Yeah, we sort of wondered why y’ were takin’ so long’ but the vis was bad, so we thought, “Oh, well, they’re just holin’ up till it clears”. Yeah, lucky the snow cleared off!”
    “Just get us out, Charlie!” said I, in the knowledge that all brave talk aside, I didn’t have many hours left in me either.
    “Yeah!” said Charlie, unconcerned, spanner clanking on metal.”Had some fun on th’ radio while Murray was off gettin’ the ropes. Couldn’t raise Base, we missed th’ mornin’ sked, an’ McMurdo must have had th’ gain turned way down as usual, but I talked to the seismic traverse party goin’ up th’ Skelton, they’re in real bad crevasse country too, fact they tell me they had a pontoon down a hole at the moment I was talkin’ to them. They talked to a Herc flyin’ inta th’ Pole an’ they called McMurdo and asked them to, for Chrissakes turn their Gain up a bit, so I told them th’ story. They got a chopper on th’ way a ready.”
    He pulled out a last stud and the gearshift lever came out. “Gotcha!” said Charlie. He took me by the shoulders. “Yell if it hurts !“ and pulled me out of our prison of the last 24 hours.

  12. My sleeping bag had been thrown down and he stuffed me in though my feet felt like blocks of wood. For an hour I leaned against an icewall in comparative comfort as Lowery, who was undoubtedly in much worse shape was got out and winched up between the ice-walls in a stretcher.
    The green-blue walls to the crevasse were only about 10 feet apart and I could see scores gouged by our tracks on the way down. Had we met it at right angles, we probably would have passed over.
    Finally it was my turn, and as I was being lashed in a strange flickering caused me to look up and a helicopter passed over the small rectangular patch of blue through which we had fallen. On the surface, anxious bearded faces gathered round.
    “Where’s Murray?” I demanded harshly. It seemed I should make one last effort, and soon his hard lantern-jawed face was staring down.
    “You take over and carry on the work “ I directed. “I’ll be back as soon as I am OK. Get Tom out and bury him here under a snow mound, got it? He’ll be in good company round here.”
    “Alright!” he said briefly, and I gather he did, but some bureaucrat over-ruled my order and had Tom’s body flown home in a rubber bag, an utterly gruesome thing to do.
    The sky was now clear and blue and as they lifted me in the stretcher I made one last violent effort to sit up. It was impossible, but I raised my head enough to see, a few miles away, the blue and black barred massif of Albert Markham. Well, I had at least seen the mountain we had striven so hard to reach and I fell back exhausted.
    In the chopper a doctor gave an injection of morphine, and I lay in pleasant euphoria as the sun streamed in and the blades flickered round and in a few hours was carried back over the route we had taken weeks to cover. By the time we arrived at McMurdo it was wearing off and I seemed to be enclosed in an envelope of numbing pain. Also I was ravenously hungry but the doctor decreed no food, I might have internal damage.
    “Garbage!” said I, and caught the eye of Dick Walcott, a geologist recently arrived down and who later took my place in the field party. “Dick, for the love of mike, get me something to eat !“
    I was still lying in the open on the stretcher waiting for the vehicle when he returned with a can of fruit salad which he fed me on a plastic spoon. I remember it yet, thank you Dick!
    In the small Navy hospital they wrapped me in a plaster cast and I lay sleeplessly all the next night. A young man from near Boston came to see me, and with rare insight quietly sat talking for hours of his home, family and boyhood in New England. It made the long sleepless hours infinitely more bearable. The Admiral ordered the Super Connie to be flown down from Christchurch especially for us and the young doctor who was to winter at the Pole station came back to Christchurch with us, along with a competent orderly. We had nothing but kindness at their hands.


Spam will be reported and swiftly deleted. I will put a curse upon you if you post spam links.