Chapter - 14: Exploration of Antarctica

Chapter - 14
Exploration of Antarctica
14.1 Introduction
The long and dark winter of Antarctica with temperatures as low as -40 to -90*C and winds as strong as 200 km per hour has now finished and relatively pleasant spring has set in which is marked by the arrival of the polar skuas and the penguins. Thus the beauty of the Antarctic nature has got multiplied.
I had a long-standing longing of trekking the frozen seas surrounding our station ‘Molodezhnaya' because the trekking of the Antarctic deep inland towards the South Pole was already done. Today is 1st of November and it is a serene day. I, therefore, decide to undertake a long adventurous walk on the sea-ice up to a giant iceberg about 100 km distant from the station. I had told about this to my Estonian friend Enn Kaup but still I leave a chit in my room saying, “I am going out for a rather long walk of about 200 km. I shall be going to the giant iceberg about 100 km or more distant from the station complex and hope to return shortly’.
14.2 Crossing the Highly Crevassed Sea Coast
Thus, I prepare myself for this daring adventure, put on the special thermal suit, take some tinned food and leave for the long Antarctic trekking with the hope of coming back soon about which, of course, I myself was not sure. It is now 1.00 a.m. as per the Moscow time when almost everyone else is sleeping in Antarctica and everywhere else except for me, the lone Indian participant in the 17th Soviet Antarctic Expedition. On reaching the sea coast, I sit on a rock for a while to reconsider my decision because the weather is likely to turn bad at any time on the way. I see the blue sky glowed by aurora australis getting cloudy and the dark clouds moving overhead...!
With my eyes fully opened, mind fully alert, I cross the highly crevassed sea coast by using my hand-stick almost at every inch. Around 1.45 a.m., I could get at a place where the sea ice is not that much crevassed. Here, I wait for a while to work out my detailed programme. Certainly, I overlook all the ‘Ifs’ and ‘Buts’ being not afraid. ‘Death’, this word exists in the life dictionary of the cowards only, say myself to me and thus march on the trek.
14.3 Penguin - My Antarctic Trekking Guide
After having walked by foot up to about 10 km, I hear some unrecognisable sounds as if somebody were calling me. I stop here to minutely study what has happened but could make out nothing except for the presumption that it may either be my foot-fall or stick sound. But when I cover another kilometre, I find somebody wearing a black and white suit running towards me from ahead. Due to the most hostile conditions and the severe cold of Antarctica, it should be difficult for the ghosts also to reside here, although some dead explorers’ ghosts could perhaps be there!
But this does not bother me because when I was a child I used to walk up to the cremation ground of our village around mid-night in order to make myself psychologically strong.....! Then suddenly it occurs to me that it might be a penguin. My guess comes out to be correct. I now decide to take help from my penguin friend as a guide to the remote iceberg. Now, no longer I am all alone. I have found a companion with this penguin who knows Antarctica better than I do.
14.4 Inscribing Our Country’s Name ‘India’ on the Frozen Sea of Antarctica
Now I stop for a while, and write on the sea ice with the help of my stick, the name of our motherland ‘India’. This will help the tracers in case of a tragedy. Surprisingly even for me, I trek some of the distance barefooted with the boots off in order to get used to it, if the situation so demands. This leaves my footprints on the soft snow recently fallen giving a clue to a rescue party, if so needed. Walking barefooted on the frozen sea ice is quite difficult. After having covered some distance barefootedly, I feel some frost-bites on my feet and find the fingers almost freezing. I immediately put on my thermal boots and lie down for taking some rest. By now I have covered about 50 km.
14.5 Reaching the Trekking Destination
Ultimately, I reach my destination, the remotest and the biggest iceberg about 100 km distant from the station which no other Soviet member had so far trekked. Here, I find a few big weddel seals lying outside on the sea-ice-floor and the young pups sleeping in their lees. Both the mother seal and her pups are sleeping carefree when a foreigner from India reaches there to disturb them. The pups seem to be recently born because they have not yet opened their eyes fully.
Because of the severe cold some of the seals are found dead. I drag them near to the crevasse in the sea ice from where the sea water is oozing out and throw them in the water as food for whales. The major reason why I throw the dead pups in the sea water is that they are smelling horrible and are thus polluting the pure Antarctic atmosphere which is the neatest and the cleanest in the world.
14.6 Discovery of an Indian Elephant Iceberg
On reaching the giant iceberg, I inscribe the name of our motherland `India' there and give an unofficial name to it as ‘Indian Elephant Iceberg' because of its giant size and elephant-like structure. I circumscribe this Indian Elephant Iceberg and make some important observations here on the habits and behaviour of Antarctic birds and animals.
The weddel seals, in general, are very inactive and easily accessible. They have two fins at the tail and two near the neck. They have dark round eyes and two nostrils which they open and close continuously. I find the Adelie as well as Emperor penguins there. Adelie penguins are smaller than the Emperor penguins but are more charming. Both prefer to eat live fish and not the dead ones. Both the species are domesticated and easily accessible.
After having circumscribed the ‘Indian Elephant Iceberg’, I take my lunch from the tinned cans which I had carried with me. But unable to quench my thirst, I eat some soft ice on the sea which catches my throat. Now what to do as I am left with only a few toffees with me. I take two of them and after having struggled hard for the normal breath, I go to sleep for some time.
Being extremely tired because of the arduous trekking, I get a rather sound sleep on the ice. Imagine, people in India may be sleeping on the sofa beds and the poor Indians in their huts with a mat bed, while I am sleeping on the sea ice bed where the surface temperature is about -40OC or below. When I get up, I feel quite fresh and fit for undertaking the return journey.
14.7 Return from the Indian Elephant Iceberg in Antarctica
Around 1700 hours, I start my return journey. Everything goes fine and I have now covered about 50 km but suddenly the weather, earlier quite favourable, now starts getting worsened. Also, the sun has set and all around there is prevailing a ‘white night’. I am hearing whistling sound of the storm nearing to me. I am now worried because there is no shelter nearby or even if it is there I cannot see it because of the ‘white night’ of which light is only as much as a full moon-lit night in India. I do not get discouraged and I march ahead.
Short ‘white nights’ in the polar regions occur during the spring period sometime in September-October when the sun does not go much below the horizon and its scattered light makes the night glow as if lit with full moon. From the state of the sky covered with dark clouds, perhaps of misfortune, I could forecast the bad weather and the difficult time ahead. To reach a safer place on the frozen sea bed, I start running.
14.8 Rupture of Frozen Antarctic Sea Ice and Narrow Escape
It is now that I stop for a while because the strong winds have already reached me. Now starts the misfortune. I am feeling very thirsty and unable to walk further. If I eat ice I may get cough as earlier and it may then become still difficult to face the blizzard marching towards me. Then I think of having some snacks from my bag and open it sitting all alone far off from the motherland on the frozen Antarctic sea bed. There are some seals in my vicinity.
Suddenly, I hear a big noise near me and the sea ice is broken into pieces. I see the rupture of the frozen sea bed continuing and proceeding towards me. Leaving everything as such, I run from there at the fastest speed I could and luckily could reach a relatively safe place but all my tinned food packets and some fruite juice cans are left at the rupture site which, consequently, fall into the sea.
After coming into normal sense, I find to my greatest surprise that I am wearing only one boot and the other foot is bare. I recall that I was putting off my thermal boots and that I had removed one of the boots for taking out ice-water from it at the place where the rupture occurred. So, along with the food stuff one of the boots also falls in the sea. I could do without food but how to do without the other thermal boot perturbs me a lot.
This accident happens because of a giant whale being in search for food. The whales are capable of breaking 3 to 5 metres thick ice while moving underneath the frozen sea bed and they often hunt the seals sitting outside by breaking the ice with a strong blow from underneath. This is what had happened here also, and the ice rupture which started from one end of a nearby crevasse to the other had trapped me and perhaps would have doomed me had I not immediately run from there to a safer place on the other side of the crevasse.
This is another major accident in which I had a very narrow escape. Well, the problem does not end here but it becomes multiplied as I walk further with one leg wearing the thermal boot and the other one barefooted, and I have yet to cover about 30 km more in order to reach the station complex after having already covered a distance of about 170 km or more..
14.9 Trapping in the Antarctic Snow Storms
Five days have already passed since when I had left for this trekking. It is now 0100 hours and I am struggling for my life in the blizzard. After escaping from falling into the sea during the ice-rupture created by a killer whale, I now get trapped in the strong snowstorm, winds blowing with a speed of about 200 km per hour with absolutely no visibility. I am unable to walk, unable to see anything and unable to get any help from anywhere.
My barefoot is paining me a lot. I remove one of my gloves and put it on my barefoot tying it with a small rope I had in my pocket. I presume that if the strong blizzard does not stop, death will be inevitable but still I should keep walking or even crawling somehow, in order to keep the body warm.
I do not know which direction I should move. Thus I forget my way and start a blind walk and crawl aimlessly. I reach a small iceberg having a typical depression in it. Blindly I guess that it could give me some shelter and may save my life. I enter into this depression and take shelter in its lee. But if this ice also gets ruptured, I will directly fall the sea and get drowned there.
While sitting in the lee of that small iceberg, I take out one of my upper garments, a jersey and tear it off in order to make a suitable protection for my bare foot. I keep waiting for about a day there till the blizzard subsides. I am feeling extremely hungry and thirstily but have got nothing to eat and drink. I, therefore, start eating the ice in order to quench my thirst.
14.10 Barefooted Trekking on the Frozen AntarcticaSeas
The snowstorm now subsides and becomes less intense. However, the violent blizzard still continues with a wind speed of about 100 km per hour. Now since the sun is already up in the horizon and the snowfall also stops, I am able to locate my position and decide which direction I have to move for reaching the station. After having made it sure and also when the violent storm subsides further, I once again start moving towards the station.
The station from here seems to be more than 30 km away because the distance I had blindly covered had taken me somewhat 7away from the station. I have to cover it on one leg because one of the boots is lost and it is difficult and painful to walk barefooted. The special types of socks which I had myself made from my jersey become a victim of another invisible crevasse when my right leg goes deep into the sea and the left leg wearing the boot remains outside. With all my strength, I remove my right leg from the ice fissure but the jersey-socks fall into the sea water. Still I do not lose heart.
I now remove the socks from my left leg and keep only the boot on. These socks I wear on the right foot. With this arrangement, I could cover some distance. Now I find myself having gone weaker without food and with the strenuous footsore walk. The socks on my right foot are torn with their extensive use. I, therefore, exchange the only boot and wear it on the right foot. With the left foot now totally barefooted I somehow cover another few kilometres.
Being terribly hungry I fall on the ice and feel from the heart of my hearts that I will not be able to survive any more. I lie unconscious for sometime. In that extremely sorrowful state, all of a sudden, I regain consciousness and become very happy when I find two toffees left saved in my pockets. I chew one toffee and the other I keep in reserve with great care because this is the only food and life tablet left with me now. I cover a little more distance by crawling.
14.11 Suffering from the Frostbites in Antarctica
I am still about 10 km away from the station and the sun is about to set. By now I have suffered so many frostbites on my feet, face and hands. Nails from my toes have fallen due to severe frostbites and exhaustive barefooted walk. I am in a position to feel that I may now reach the station safely since I could see the lights from there which give me a satisfaction of being near the station complex. The remaining distance happens to be rather too long since it takes me about one day to cover that through crawling and very slow walking.
My feet are swollen with the frostbites, legs do not seem to be actually mine as if artificial ones and the face totally red. After more than a week, I somehow reach the station complex and straight away go to my room. I do some first aid, change the dress and eat some snacks comprising of black bread with jam which I had kept in my room for difficult times. When I return, the expedition members are sleeping. Thus I complete more than 200 km of Antarctic trekking single handed on the frozen sea just for pure scientific adventure.
14.12 Reaching the Base Camp at Molodezhnaya after Successful Accomplishment of Solo-Trekking in Antarctica
For such a long trekking, generally a group of at least six persons is sent who are fully equipped with tents, sledges and sufficient food and other necessary stuff. A medical doctor is also sent along with but I did it single handed in order to test my stamina and self confidence and really see the Antarctic as a daring adventurer and explorer scientist with a keen and intense desire of exploring the unexplored regions of the world in Antarctica.
While in Antarctica, I always put myself to difficult tests at the cost of my life with the sole objective of possibly leading an Indian Expedition to the South Pole in the near future. This is in fact what drove me to risk my life in the most hostile South Polar region.
Initially, the Soviet Antarctic Expedition leader and its other Expedition members became very angry as I returned to the station after exploring the Indian Elephant Iceberg due to the fear of what would have happened had I not returned alive, but later they became very happy with my achievement of having accomplished this daring scientific adventure successfully and having returned alive.
14.13 Soviet Compliments for Adapting to the Winter Conditions in Antarctica
On my way to the Antarctic, I was frightened by some Russians that I might not be able to adapt myself to the extreme climate of Antarctica because I had not undergone any medical tests which everyone has to pass before participating in an Antarctic Expedition. In fact, there are very many physiological and psychological examinations which are conducted to determine one's adaptability to the hard, harsh, hostile, cryogenic and tempestuous environments of Antarctica before one's final selection as member of an Antarctic Expedition.
Very interestingly for the Indians and very surprisingly for the Soviets, I wintered in Antarctica quite trouble-free except for inevitable frostbites and some other injuries. All that I lost while wintering in Antarctica was 10 kg weight and three teeth.
Our Antarctic station medical Doctor Comrade U.F. Bachaev remarked after seeing my excellent performance in the Antarctic Expedition, ‘You kept a good health under very difficult circumstances in such a harsh climate with scanty food. This all reveals that you have good physical and mental stamina and you can work even under the most difficult circumstances of the world. Amongst all our Expedition members working here, I have found that you are the only member willing and capable of rewintering in Antarctica’. He further added that ‘All the Indians seemed to be capable of adapting themselves to the hard climate and difficult circumstances, possibly due to the fact that they practised so many Yogas’.

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