Icy Graves: Exploration and Death in the Antarctic

Haddelsey here explores the primary causes of fatal accidents and mistakes causing death in Antarctica: fire, sea ice, mechanical transport, mental illness, aviation, and hypothermia. It is not surprising that a book dealing mostly with sudden catastrophes does not pause to reflect on what reading matter the destined figures had with them. The author tells quite familiar stories extremely well, and ends with a short chapter on risks and risk-taking in Antarctica, a British shortcoming in their vaunted amateurism.

p. 30, in chapter on the managing of fire risk in Antarctica, and the need for a fire refuge: Of course, many of the early explorers were sailors who understood the dangers of fire at sea, particularly in wooden-hulled vessels, and the adopt of the necessary safety precautions seems to hav met with very little resistance. Night duties also provided for eading and for the sort of quiet, solitary reflection that otherwise proved so difficult in a hut filled with active young men, nd mny expedition diaries refer to the oasis-like tranquillioty of these; hours….

p. 32, on a shore fire during Operation Tabarin, Hope Bay February 1945: In addition [near Eagle House], they storeda selection of bedding, clothing, rations, and radio equipment in a Nissen hut built a short distance away, along with the expeditions precious scientific and survey reports. In the event of fire, these precautions, they hoped, would give them ‘a reasonable chance of replacing a part of our loss, and exist until spring for a relief ship to arrive.’ [In fact Eagle House did burn down in November 1948 with two deaths and all records lost.]

p. 41: At last, on the afternoon of 1 December, the blizzard relented and the shrouded bodies of Mike Green and Dick Burg could at last be placed in their shallow graves and covered with stones. ‘Elliott said a few words and a prayer,’ recorded O’Hare. ‘Sladen then prayed. The service was concluded with another short prayer and the Lord’s Prayer.’

p. 76, on health problems on sea ice: Overall, the doctor thought that the party seemed reasonably content, though he also noted that they ‘complained of boredom and lack of reading material’.

p. 130, on light deprivation: Almost without exception then, the early explorers had come to realize that the ‘long winter night, posed one of Antarctica’s greatest challenges. With every degree of southern latitude, the period of winter darkness increases until, at 90˚S, it lasts for a full six months, with the sun setting on 21 March and not rising again until 21 September. Deprivation of daylight can have profound effects, and expedition diaries and medical reports are filled with references to symptoms including insomnia, depression, irritability, reduced motivation, poor cognitionnd even a fugue-like state, often referred to as the ‘Antarctic stare’, or the ’20-foot stare in the 10-foot room’.

p. 132, on winterover madness: … winter-over syndrome is a physiological condition caused, primarily, by the absence of sunlight. Equally unavoidable aspects of Antarctic exploration—including, to name but a few, the absence of privacy, sex, thick moist air to breath and any vegetation larger than lichen—all have the potential to generate or exacerbate a range of other problems that are more appropriately categorized as psychological or ppsychsocial in nature. Chief among these factors are isolation and confinement.

p. 136, quoting Richard Byrd making a quiet case for going alone to Advance Base;

It doesn’t take two men long to find each other out. And, inevitably that is what they do whether they will or not, if only because once the simple tasks of the day are finished there is little else to do but take each other’s measure.

p. 138, an example of midnight madness from Mawson’s 1911-14 expedition and its unexpected second winter. The subject was a ship’s wireless operator, Sydney Jeffryes, joining the party as a new member and quickly becoming delusional: … the impact of Jeffryes’ malaise upon his companions—none of whom had either planned or desired to spend an extra year in the Antarctic—was profound. In later years, [Francis] Bickerton described another outburst. Typically, it had started with Jeffryes accusing him of plotting his murder:

He accused [me] at breakfast before them all. The Doctor had a talk with him and advised [me] to argue with him as though he were sane and try to prove calmly that [I] had not made any attempt to kill him. There was a long argument and then the madman asked. ‘Would you swear on the Bible that you did not and will not try to kill me?’
[I] of course said ‘yes, bring me a Bible’.
‘Would you swear on your mother’s Bible?’
‘Yes, if I had it.’
‘Swear by all you ever held truest and dearest?’
‘Certainly I would.’
‘Well, even if you did all that I wouldn’t believe you.’
[At least the case involved a book. Would there have been more used by Jeffryes.]

p. 218, in the final chapter on hypothermia and the ANARE expeditions of 1947 etc.: … great pains had been taken to ensure the comfort and maintain the morale of each year’s fourteen-man overwintering party, with the amenities including [by 1952] ‘a library, a radiogram, a piano, table tennis, regular film screenings and free issues of cigarettes and liquor.’