Westward ho!

The commencement of the Air-tractor Sledge Party
The commencement of the Air-tractor Sledge Party (Western Sledge Journey) from the Winter Quarters, Cape Denison. Mitchell Collection, State Library of NSW (Photo: Charles Laseron)
The Adelie Land MeteoriteMap of the Western Sledging Party's track

Western party departed Cape Denison 3 December 1912; farthest point 29 December 1912; returned 18 January 1912; distance travelled c 510km.

Frank Bickerton had enjoyed some success with the ‘air tractor’ in November, when it reached speeds of 30 km/h into a 25 km/h wind. By 3 December he felt he was ready for the big test – hauling four loaded sledges from the Cape up to Aladdin’s Cave and on to Cathedral Grotto – the outermost ice-cave which was to serve as a supply depot for a push to the west. With Bickerton were Leslie Whetter and Alfred Hodgeman.

But all came to a grinding halt just past Aladdin’s Cave. According to Mawson’s account in The Home of the Blizzard, the engine ‘developed an internal disorder which Bickerton was at a loss to diagnose or remedy’. Next day, on 4 December, he was on the verge of performing some serious diagnostic surgery when the engine decided matters for him, ‘without any warning, pulling up with such a jerk that the propeller was smashed’.

So that was that. What was to have been a comparatively comfortable walk for the three men was now to be a man-hauling expedition. The four sledges became one, with everything but absolute necessities left with the useless machine. Bickerton, Whetter and Hodgeman moved off to the south-west with six weeks’ provisions – enough to see them through to the 15 January deadline. Months later, the air tractor was dragged back to Cape Denison, but Bickerton found the damage to be irreparable.

On 5 December, in clear, bright weather, the party had just changed course to due west when they spotted a black object on the snow surface. It was a rock, about 13 cm by 7.5 cm by 9 cm, and it proved to be a meteorite [PDF]. Many more such discoveries have since been made – Antarctica is the best place in the world for sighting these extra-terrestrial visitors – but this was the first such find on Antarctic ice.

The meteorite discovery was a highlight in an otherwise difficult outward journey. Bickerton reflected a mood of gloom in his log: ‘This is a dismal rotten country,’ he wrote:

Here are we in the height of summer and with every right to expect the best weather, bottled up in a 6 ft circular tent in sopping wet sleeping bags and no prospect of a change. Even should it fall dead calm now, we should have use of the rottenest surfaces ever travelled over.

They had managed a few days of difficult marching over rough sastrugi (ice ridges formed by wind), when one of the runners on their sledge was broken in an accident. But Bickerton and Hodgeman, true handymen, fashioned a replacement using a bamboo depot pole, which lasted for the remainder of the journey. Mawson made a point of noting that the accident happened on a Friday – the 13th.

They were allowed a few days of fine weather and glorious views of the Adélie Land coast, but on 21 December the weather came down again. Christmas was memorable for all the wrong reasons, confined to their tent with rising snow outside pushing in the walls. The next day they finally turned back after enjoying a spectacular view to the north-west, sketched by Hodgeman.

The weather gave them little respite, but they found ways to combat their enforced immobility, as Bickerton recorded:

On January 1 and the two succeeding days the drift was so thick that we had to lie up and amuse ourselves discussing various matters of individual interest. Hodgeman gave us a lecture on architecture, explaining the beauties of certain well-known buildings. Whetter would describe some delicate surgical operation, while I talked about machinery. I also worked up the time-shots, and the hours passed quickly. If only our sleeping-bags had been drier we might have enjoyed ourselves at intervals.

The party adopted the habit of travelling at night, when winds fell off somewhat. But the constant snow-drift reduced visibility to the point where they missed both Madigan’s depot (established by the Western reconnaissance party in September) and Cathedral Grotto, which they overshot by over 20 kilometres. They discovered their mistake when they stumbled on a depot which indicated they were now east of Cape Denison. They finally reached the Cape, via Aladdin’s Cave, at 1.30am on 18 January – three days past their deadline.

With Aurora now anchored offshore, it remained only for Mawson’s Far Eastern party to return, and everyone could bid farewell to the home of the blizzard.

This page was last modified on July 2, 2014.