Deep Freeze

Antarctic explorers on an ice ridge

A long-ago journey that still inspires us today.

The sun didn’t rise for 125 days. Forty-two men, ninety-nine dogs, and three planes lay buried under the snow waiting for the dawn. This was life in Little America, Antarctica, in the winter–May, June, July, August–of 1929.

I watched in fascination as this saga unfolded. I was seated comfortably in the spacious community room of a retirement home in Los Altos. Around me were those who remembered the momentous occasion when Admiral Richard E. Byrd first flew over the South Pole, dropping an American flag weighted with a small memorial stone honoring Amundsen, the man who had first stood upon that most desolate spot seventeen years earlier. The drama was no less gripping seventy years later.

Setting out on two ships from New York on August 25, 1928, the expedition that finally conquered the Pole was entirely made up of volunteers except for two ace cameramen. One of these two, Joseph T. Rucker, was the father of Joy Morin, the woman who had graciously consented to show me the amazing footage that had been put together decades ago by Paramount Pictures from thirty miles of film shot by the pair.

Men and supplies had been deposited on the Ross Barrier, an ice shelf over water two miles deep, just in time for the ships to depart before being locked in for the winter. Everything needed for a two-year stay had been loaded on the supply ship. This included dogs, food, and three airplanes. Before the sun set and winter plunged this “white, silent, dead” continent into impenetrable darkness, two permanent huts were sunk deep into the snow, cloth covering their walls. A tunnel built from crates of food connected the two main houses.

After enduring the monotony of the long winter, both men and dogs greeted the first glimpse of the sun with wild abandon, leaping jubilantly in the snow. Now the rush was on. Amidst sudden unpredictable blizzards, unforeseen obstacles, and necessary daily routines, the expedition prepared for the final push for the Pole.

An emergency landing station, established at the base of the Queen Maude Range, came upon the cairn left by Amundsen seventeen years earlier. The plane for the final flight, able to carry no more than five thousand pounds, was readied. At last Byrd and his crew left for the sixteen hundred mile, eighteen hour flight to the Pole.

Dodging storms and fighting for altitude to climb up the giant glaciers to reach the Antarctic Plateau required lightening the load. Two hundred pounds of emergency rations were sacrificed as an offering to this demanding land.

At 1:55 a.m. on November 29, 1929, the mission was accomplished.

Life is much different now seventy years later. But it is also much the same. Joy Morin was nine years old in 1930 when her father won an Oscar for his role in bringing this drama of conquest and courage to the world. His vision illustrates in the black and white, x-ray-like images of Antarctica the bones of our lives in a world grown complex. Strip away the trivial and there still remains in each of us a longing for both conquest and courage.