Primus in Antarctica – passages from Roland Huntfords “Scott and Amundsen”


27-01-10 11:14 AM – Post#142031

Scott and Amundsen by Roland Huntford
Hodder & Stoughton 1979

Also published in 1985 and thereafter under the name “The Last Place on Earth” after the title of the series produced for Central TV. Currently available in the original title in soft cover via…

p 307

There was on board a seaman called Ludvig Hansen, who had been selected for his skill as a tinsmith. A fortnight out of Funchal, he started making paraffin tanks for the sledging journeys.

On the North-West Passage, Amundsen had observed that paraffin has a capacity to “creep”. Tins left in depots were inexplicably depleted after a few weeks, something to do with the behaviour of petroleum products at low temperatures. Then it had merely been an annoyance, but in the sterile fastnesses of the south, it might be a matter of life and death. Thus warned, Amundsen decided to have tanks specially made up from galvanised iron sheet. To make them absolutely tight, all seams were to be brazed, and the contents eventually sealed in by soldering the spout. Hansen made ten tanks in all, holding fifteen litres each.

Amundsen refused to entrust his work to a commercial enterprise. He could only trust the workmanship, if it was in the hands of someone spurred on by the knowledge that on his skill and conscientiousness depended the lives of his companions. The faith in detail; the knowledge that every little item of equipment can be trusted absolutely, is an essential part of the psychological armour in a hostile environment. Doubt is a dangerous travelling companion.

On the heaving deck, Nodtvedt, the second engineer, a skilled blacksmith, set up his forge and, off watch, produced countless gadgets, like patent shackles for the dog harnesses.
There was a reason for this uncharacteristic flurry. For his original Polar drift, Amundsen intended having much of his sledging equipment made on board during the long winters in the ice. He could not alter this without giving himself away. Instead of pleasant immobility in the pack, his craftsmen now had to work on a ship that everlastingly lurched and rolled in the ocean swell. But at least the voyage was now filled with useful work, creating a mood of urgency and purpose from the start.

P 352

Amundsen had viewed the way Scott and Shackleton marked their depots as verging on criminal negligence. That, too, he pro¬posed to avoid. The problem was an awkward and vital one in a featureless desert. The method he adopted was a line of black pennants on short sticks running east-west across the course. Twenty were laid out half a mile apart; ten on each side of the depot, making a transverse marking often miles in all. This was well within any conceivable instrumental error, so that even in thick weather, the chances of missing a pennant were small. Each pennant was numbered, giving the distance and bearing of the depot.

Onwards from the 80th parallel the temperature dropped to 30-40 degrees (C.) of frost. The difficulty, as in most skiing, was not freezing, but sweating. Running with the dogs, they were kept all too warm. In deep cold, sweat condenses in its passage through the clothing, forming a deposit of rime, which then melts with horrible discomfort. Amundsen had to sit up late, drying his Netsilik reindeer fur kamikks over the Primus stove. But there are no complaints of feeling cold, which suggests that food (especially the supply of Vitamin C) was in order.

On March 3rd, they reached the 81st parallel, or to be precise, 81° 1′. There they put up the next depot, containing half a ton of dog pemmican. Hassel, Bjaaland and Stubberud then turned home. Amundsen, Prestrud, Helmer Hanssen, Wisting and Johansen continued south to try to get to 83°.

Until 81°, the going had been reasonable. The animals were tired and hungry, but willing. The only casualty was Odin, one of Amundsen’s dogs, chafed by an ill-fitting harness. He was put on a sledge and sent home tale. Johansen’s diary for March 6th sums it up: with the returning party.

P 383

There, in a snow cave, with a few boards laid on a snow shelf for a workbench, Bjaaland turned out his little masterpieces of the ski and sledge-maker’s art. The wood he used was hickory; tough, pliable, well seasoned; the same hickory that Amundsen had so prudently bought in Pensacola a decade before* With primus stoves and tin plate from old paraffin tins, Bjaaland made the steaming chamber to bend the runners. In another workshop, Wisting and Helmer Hanssen assembled the sledges with rawhide lashings. This is a little craft in itself; upon it depends the elasticity of the sledge, and hence the ease of running. Helmer Hanssen, who had driven sledges for thousands of miles had the particular touch for this work; he knew how a sledge ought to behave.

The old Fram sledges were adapted to difficult ice, Bjaaland’s for speed on level snow. The former were intended for the glaciers leading to the Polar plateau. Once that climb was over and mobility was at a premium, they would be depoted, and Bjaaland’s light¬weight models would continue. These weighed twenty-four kilos to the renovated Fram models’ thirty-five, and Hagen’s seventy-five. Bjaaland also prepared two pairs of skis for each man, one for running, and one in reserve, to be stowed on the sledges. The work was finished by July 20th.

In deep cold, Amundsen wrote with his wry humour, “if one is not properly shod, one can soon be without feet, and then, you see, it’s too late to shoe yourself properly”.
For the third time the ski boots, having still proved too small, were eviscerated and enlarged with a wedge in the toecap – each man his own cobbler – emerging big enough for two Eskimo reindeer fur socks, plenty of sennegrass, a thick woollen sock with space to move the feet inside, essential to avoid freezing. The original stiff canvas uppers were now replaced with thinner material. After almost two years, the original concept appeared finally to have been realised, and a boot emerged that was rigid enough to control the skis and be used with crampons, but flexible enough not to impede the raising of the heel or (it was hoped) to constrict the circulation.

Because of all the work, recreation was necessarily limited. Prestrud gave an optional English course to a few of the men, teaching in the kitchen to avoid disturbing the others. Bjaaland started making a violin, but found that he did not have enough free time to finish it in the course of the winter. In the end, he took it back to Norway, where it was finished by a professional craftsman, and turned out to be a very good instrument.

For the rest, there was a little reading – mostly Polar literature, of which a small but comprehensive library had been brought – some desultory card playing and, craze of the early winter, darts. This game was new to most of them; a present from Malfred, Gustav Amundsen’s wife. Amundsen organised a competition, presenting a pocket chronometer as prize.

To prevent ennui, Amundsen broke the weekly routine with little occasions to look forward to. On weekdays, there was no drinking with meals, but every Saturday there was hot brandy toddy, every Sunday, holiday and birthday, aquavit for dinner. The idea was partly to nip quarrels in the bud: among Scandinavians there is a ritual significance in drinking spirits. The skdl is a pledge of friend¬ship.

Saturday was sauna night. That, too, was a kind of ritual; a ceremonial cleansing of body and spirit. A small sauna had been rigged up in an igloo, heat and steam provided by two Primus stoves under a metal tray. A naked sprint through an icy communication tunnel in the Barrier to the hut did duty for the obligatory rolling in the snow.

In many ways, circumstances favoured Amundsen in his concern for morale. Although most of his men lived in towns, they were still Northern country-dwellers under the imperfectly urbanised surface; men of simple tastes, adapted to isolated habitation and, indeed, without being recluses seeking isolation as relaxation and uplift. In their separate workshops under the snow, they were alone for much of the day, so that by evening they were positively glad to see the old, familiar faces. And the dogs were always there as a diversion, as they banished monotony on the march.

Each man had fourteen or fifteen dogs to tend and feed- seal meat (and blubber) and stockfish on alternate days. By midwinter they were fed up with stockfish.

p 415

The party swinging southwards into the drift, slowly rising and falling as they followed the undulations of the Barrier, like a squad¬ron of warships speeding over the swell, represented the culmination of an era. The men were clad in Eskimo garments, the dogs tearing away with them over the snow were harnessed in Eskimo fashion; but the sledges, the skis, the food waiting at 80° South, the sextants and Primus stoves, tents and all the impedimenta, were the products of Western ingenuity. It was the marriage of civilisation and a primitive culture. The technique was already on the point of obsolescence. Aircraft and tractors were waiting in the wings. This was the last classic journey in the old style; and it was to end the era of terrestrial exploration that began with the explosion of the human spirit during the Renaissance.
Everything turned on the personal quality of the men riding placidly on their sledges towards the south. They were the best of their kind; embodying a formidable combination of physical and mental qualities. They were tough, resourceful, inured to cold. But, beyond that, they had been through their trial; weaknesses had been ruthlessly eliminated. They now unreservedly accepted Amundsen’s leadership, since he had shown himself in command. Once their dogs had been hitched to the sledges and fanned out in full cry, the
dismal atmosphere of Framheim was swept away by a gale of action and self-confidence. It was a small, cohesive undivided party now speeding over the snow, hurrying to the attack, this time with an indefinable sense that the gods were with them. They were soon required to put this confidence to the test.

P 436
Forty-five dogs were now left, pulling just under eighty pounds each. They scampered off, the sledges coming away easily; and hour after hour they moved in their tireless trot, tails in an upward curve, and accompanied by the nostalgic sounds of panting breath, paws pattering, the quiet creak of the sledge and the silk-like rustle of skis on powder snow.

Amundsen deliberately selected the intervals between the cairns to rest his animals every hour. Dogs need frequent rests to preserve stamina; they work best in a succession of sprints. So do their drivers, at least if they happen to have the Norwegian temperament. Amundsen had got his animals and his men working in tune.

They followed a routine devised for economy of effort. When they stopped for the day, the tent was first unloaded. Amundsen would then crawl inside, erect it with the single pole and while his companions drove in the pegs and arranged the guys outside, he got the Primus going and started supper. Getting the food was a matter of opening the small lid of a provision case like a tea canister; the sledges were left permanently lashed and loaded.* The dogs were unhitched, fed with their pound of pemmican and allowed to roam free until harnessed the next day — the best for their comfort. Bjaaland then detached the ski bindings, bringing them into the tent for the night to avoid their disappearing into the dogs’ stomachs: the Eskimo dog will devour anything. A low snow wall was thrown up to stop the dogs urinating on the fabric of the tent. In an hour, camp was made, men and animals fed.

Under Amundsen, each sledge-driver was responsible for the supplies he was carrying, keeping a precise tally in a combined provision and navigation book as each meal was served. This meticulous accounting was absent from the British expedition, with fateful results.

In their tent at night, the Norwegians were silent, not from surliness, but because it was their nature. The evening meal was eaten quietly; the roar of the Primus, the dull clink of pemmican being scooped out of the saucepan, broken only by an occasional remark.
Bjaaland was the chatterbox; as in the dark days at Framheim; he brought a touch of humour to the tent.
“It’ll be Dad himself who first sees the mountains!” he said, in his idiosyncratic way, the day after leaving 82 degrees.
“Why do you think that?” asked Amundsen, with a glint in his eye. “Because you are so ridiculously tall”.

P 450

But the sheer scale of things discouraged scouting. Even with dogs, it would have taken days to move from the mouth of one glacier to another. The contours were so broken that, from where Amundsen stood, all directions seemed equally impenetrable. He could afford to look neither to right nor left. He had no guarantee that another route existed. The only realistic alternative was forwards.
“Men are the doubtful quantities in the Antarctic”, Amundsen liked to say. The Norwegian character is not adapted to defence or holding ground; it must attack or give way. Amundsen took a risk going up the Axel Heiberg Glacier. He would have taken a bigger risk not to, because he might have demoralised his men. They were not made to linger in uncertainty. They had to ride on their momen¬tum or they were lost. They were happier carrying the ice falls by storm. And, in the event, the Axel Heiberg, with its short, concentrated strain, matched the Norwegian temperament. Amundsen had surmounted his chief obstacle in the style that became him best.
He was in no doubt to whom the credit was due. “It was a sheer marvel, . . that the dogs accomplished today,” he wrote in his diary on the evening of November 21st, at the edge of the Plateau, “17 miles, with 5,000 ft. climb. Come and say that dogs cannot be used here.”
As soon as they arrived, the dogs were put down. Each man shot his own – that had been agreed. Amundsen, having no team of his own, was excused. As usual, being cook, he was first into the tent. But
what went faster that evening than usual was to get the Primus going and pump it to high pressure. I hoped in that way to make the most noise possible and avoid hearing the many shots that soon would sound . . .
It was hard, but it had to be. We had agreed to stop at nothing to reach our goal . . . There went the first shot. I am not nervous, but I admit, that I started. Shot now followed shot – it sounded gruesome over the wastes. A faithful servant lost his life for each shot . . . The festive mood which should have reigned in the tent that evening – the first on the plateau – did not come. There was something oppressive, miserable in the air; we had grown so fond of our dogs. The place was called “The Butcher’s Shop”.37
At least Amundsen made no attempt at self-delusion, nor did he resort to sentimental cant. He faced the fact that, for his own ambitions, certain creatures had to pay the price. He could also truthfully say that, from the moment they arrived at Kristiansand from Greenland, eighteen months ago, his “faithful servants” had lived a good life. They had eaten, slept, made love and drunk to their hearts content.

P 457

The next day, December 2nd, Amundsen described how
the plateau over which we are now travelling resembles a frozen sea – a domed cupola of ice … excellent going for a skater, but unfortunately unsuitable for our dogs and ourselves. I drag myself with my sticks ahead on skis. It is not easy. The dog drivers are without skis, at the side of their sledges, ready to help the animals.

Bjaaland solemnly headed his diary that day, “The Devil’s Nameday”. Besides the assortment of other miseries, they were travelling in the teeth of a Force 7 gale, with thick snow and drift so that
we couldn’t see in front of our nose tips, and our faces were white and hard as wax candles . . . Wisting’s jaw looks like the snout of a Jersey cow. Helmer [Hanssen] has thick scabs [from frostbite] and skin as rough as a file. It was a damned hard day, the hounds slid on the ice, and stopped when the sledges hit a sastrugi, but we forced our way 13 miles against the . . . wind which burned like a flame, oh, oh what a life.46
Looking back, Amundsen chose “The Devil’s Nameday” to por¬tray a typical picture of tent life:
“It was a Saturday evening. . . Outside the Sou’Easter howled [but inside] it looks cosy enough. The innermost half is occupied by 3 sleeping bags. The respective owners have found it most conve¬nient … to go to bed . . . nearest the entrance . . . Wisting and Hanssen are still up. Hanssen is cook . . . Wisting is his sworn friend and helper . . . Hanssen appears to be a careful cook. He doesn’t like to scorch the food. The spoon goes round uninterruptedly in the contents of the saucepan . . . cups are filled with [piping hot] pemmican [which] disappears with amazing speed [and then] everyone clamours for ice cold water [which] disappears in vast quantities . . . the Primus roars gently during the whole meal, and the temperature in the tent is quite pleasant. After the meal . . . the polar travellers are observed to tidy themselves for the coming Sunday. Beards are cut short with clippers every Saturday evening . . . Lumps of ice easily form on a beard. For me, a beard on such a journey seems quite as impractical and uncomfortable as, for example, to walk with top hats on your legs.47

P 502

Reaching the depot, they loaded the contents on to the sledge, after first giving their dogs a double ration of pemmican, and eating a little chocolate themselves. Without delay, they then began the return journey which, as Bjaaland said, “went like a bomb. . . .After 10 hours on the march we were back at the camp [and] now we are rich in provisions.”
Amundsen stayed up the whole time waiting for them, restlessly prowling up and down in the snow, watching the weather anxiously, searching the distance with his telescope, unable to rest. When, at last, he saw them reappear on the crest of a frozen wave he rushed into the tent to wake Hassel and Wisting, who had prudently turned in. “They must have found the depot,” he said, unusually excited, “for neither is sitting on the sledge. They’ve got something else to carry on it.” He immediately started the Primus in order to melt snow, so that there was plenty of water ready to slake their thirst, and then to boil up the pemmican, for they would surely be ravenous. He was beaming when they arrived, and insisted on taking care of their dogs.

Bjaaland and Helmer Hanssen, he recorded, had done forty-two miles with no rest and very little food “at an average speed of 3 miles an hour! Come and say that dogs are useless in this terrain.”

Now it was about five days to the next depot, and Amundsen had ten days’ food for men and dogs, besides emergency reserves. He was, as he put it, “on the right footing” again.

He now discovered why he had been lost. Through some error of navigation, he had been one and a half points (17 degrees) off course. But that had been a blessing in disguise, since it had steered him away from land, and led him to the easy crossing of the Devil’s Glacier. With a rational explanation, Amundsen was calm again.

He now had to make for the Butcher’s Shop, and find the start of his route down the Axel Heiberg Glacier. He had an urgent desire to see around him when he did so. Since the weather now was fine, he logically made a dash while the going was good.

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