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During the twentieth century, motor transport was introduced as a new form of surface transport in the polar regions. Today, we think nothing of seeing a snowmobile rush along the ice, but many of the initial experiments which have allowed the development of motor transport in fact happened during the heroic age.
The First Car in Antarctica(top)
Shackleton took the first car to Antarctica on his British Antarctic Expedition 1907-09. The hope was that the Great Ice Barrier would have a hard enough surface and the car could be used on the southern journey to transport stores. The 12-15 horsepower new Arrol-Johnston car was fitted with a specially designed air-cooled four-cylinder engine and a Simms Bosch magneto ignition. A small jacket was placed around the carburettor and the exhaust gases from one cylinder were passed through this so they could warm the mixing chamber before passing into the air. The exhaust from the other cylinders was passed into a silencer that was also used as a foot warmer.
They took plenty of spare parts with them, as well as specially designed non-freezing oil from Messrs. Price and Company. In addition, they took several types of wheel to see which would suit the surfaces best, they also took wooden runners to be placed under the front wheels when on soft surfaces.
When they unloaded the car and tried it out, the men discovered that the car would require an extensive reduction in weight if it was to accomplish anything. The car was stripped down to a bare chassis carrying the engine and one seat for the driver. They also had problems with parts of the car freezing, and had to spend time thawing parts before they could get started. Shackleton discovered that the men fixing the car were liable to sustain cuts and bruises when handling the car at low temperatures and in difficult situations.
The car had problems in driving through deep snow; the tyres would fail to grip the surface and would sink. Furthermore, the men had to watch for cracks in the ice, as weak areas of ice would risk the car falling through and so time had to be spent finding alternative routes.
Whilst the car was not an outstanding success, it was one of the first examples of mechanised land transport on Antarctica. At the end of the expedition the car was loaded onto the Nimrod and shipped back to Britain.
On the British Antarctic Expedition 1910-1913, Scott took the first motorised sledges to the Antarctic. Amundsen viewed this motorised transport as a real challenge to his animal transport; but unfortunately for Scott, the motorised sledge did not prove to be successful. One was lost before they even began, it as it fell through the ice whilst being unloaded from the ship. Scott was always very anxious about the capabilities of the motor sledges and feared that they would not justify the time and money spent on them. Scott was very confident in the future of motor transport at the pole but was cautious not to rely on these prototype models. He used the motor sledges chiefly for the parties who were laying the advanced depots for his southern journey.
The motor sledge team had problems with chains slipping when on hard ice, and also with the engines getting either too hot or too cold. The motor sledges constantly needed the attention of the mechanics and this eventually used up their stock of spare parts. On the southern journey both machines did break down, and as lack of parts prevented their repair the men continued on foot. Scott noted that the current engines were not suitable for the polar climate, but that this was a problem that could be overcome in future expeditions. Scott recorded in his diary that:
“A small measure of success will be enough to show their possibilities, their ability to revolutionise Polar transport”
He believed that a motorised sledge would work in the polar regions, but he also believed further trials needed to be carried out as it had not yet met its full potential.
Developed during the Second World War, tracked snow vehicles were to be used for reconnaissance and cargo carrying in difficult terrains. After the war, polar explorers used these to speed up the process of depot laying. Whilst they sped up the process and reduced the need for man-hauling or dog driving, the Weasel was not always a comfortable ride – as it had an open cab the driver could become very cold on long drives.
The Norwegian British Swedish Expedition (NBSAE) 1949-52 used Weasels extensively for the purpose of depot laying. At the start, the expedition members had been a little apprehensive about their use, as no one on the expedition had much experience with the vehicles. However, they proved to be extremely successful. When used in depot laying, each Weasel was loaded with half a ton of supplies, plus a driver and passengers, as well as hauling a sledge of over two tons in weight.
As these vehicles are heavy, care had to be taken when driving while heavily laden. At times during NBSAE, men would ski ahead to seek out a safe route for the Weasel to drive over. Charles Swithinbank (whose photographs form part of the Freeze Frame collection) took the first Weasel across a crevasse-ridden area when on a depot laying journey. Swithinbank used a system of ropes and spikes so he was able to steer the Weasel from outside its cab as he skied alongside it. This ensured that if the Weasel did fall down a crevasse he would not go with it.
Unfortunately at times the Weasels did fall into crevasses and it was a slow process to free them, as all their supplies had to be unloaded and the Weasel manoeuvred out. Sadly three of the expedition were to perish in a vehicle accident. The men had journeyed out to collect seal meat from the quay on a fine night. Whilst they were out, the weather suddenly changed and a thick fog descended around them. Unable to see ahead of them, the men lost their bearings. Unbeknown to the men a huge piece of the quay had earlier broken away and suddenly they were close to the edge, driving down the slope at fifteen miles an hour. Only then did they notice that the sea was only fifty feet in front of the Weasel, which careered off the ice cliff carrying the men with it.
Only one of the four, Stig Hallgren, was to survive. He was able to swim two hundred yards to an ice floe, but realising that it wouldn’t hold his weight, dived back into the freezing water and climbed onto a larger floe, levering himself up using a sheath knife. He spent thirteen hours walking round the ice floe to keep warm, knowing that if he sat down that night he would freeze to death. He drifted out with the tide and was later spotted some miles distant. Once rescued, Hallgren insisted on walking unaided the whole way back to the base.
The overland transport of the United States Navy Antarctic Expedition (Deep Freeze) was almost entirely motorised. This allowed the expedition to undertake the major construction work vital to establish a permanent base in Antarctica. They took a variety of caterpillar tractors with them to transport large loads. However, such large tractors transporting very heavy loads had problems with ice weakness and crevasses. Two men were to die in tractor accidents, one when the driver unwittingly drove onto an ice bridge, which then collapsed under the weight, and the second when a 35-ton tractor was driven into a crevasse. Although there was a policy of tractor doors being locked open both accidents happened very quickly without the men having chance to jump out and both died.
There have been times when expeditions have chosen to use dogs or man-hauling over mechanised transport. The British Graham Land Expedition 1934-37 took dogs to use for general transport rather than tractors. Dogs are able to travel to places inaccessible to tractors and just about go everywhere a human can, for example up mountains and across rough or broken sea ice. The Deep Freeze expedition also took dogs with them to use in the rescue of personnel where tractors were not suitable to travel. Sir Ranulph Fiennes also felt that dogs would be superior to machinery. However, Sir Wally Herbert, one of Britain’s most experienced polar travellers, advised him that unless he could devote significant time to learning how to handle dogs he would have serious problems, and so he used snow machines instead.
Ranulph Fiennes, having been advised against dogs due to his inexperience, used snowmobiles for his crossings of Antarctica and the Arctic. In Antarctica, a three-man team would travel for ten to twelve hours per day by snowmobile (Ski-Doo) pulling the sledges along. Each man would be harnessed with a mountaineer’s harness either to the sledge or the snowmobile – whichever the individual believed safer.
Sir Ranulph Fiennes and Charlie Burton also used snowmobiles for their crossing of Arctic, but they ran into a number of problems. The snowmobile moved very slowly across the terrain, which was slowing their speed. As they only had a limited time in which to cross the Arctic Ocean, this was obviously very problematic and so they were abandoned. In the interim, two pulks (sledges) that could also be used as canoes were dispatched to them whilst they waited for more powerful snowmobiles. It was planned to fly replacement snowmobiles out to the men, but unfortunately a fire at the expedition’s base camp destroyed them. The Canadian firm Bombardier kindly replaced the snowmobiles and they were flown out. However, they were too light to tow the sledges and so the snowmobiles they had abandoned earlier needed to be collected from Markham Fjord. With these, they made good progress until Ranulph’s fell through the ice taking the sledge with it. They managed to rescue most of a survival kit, but were left without a tent and food. A plane left Alert with replacement gear, reaching the men the following morning.
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