CHAPTER 9: The First Indian Wintering over the South Pole

The First Indian Wintering
over the South Pole

9.1 At the Soviet Antarctic Meteorological Centre Molodezhnaya’
The diesel-electric ship ‘Navarin’ finally reached the station ‘Molodezhnaya’, where I was supposed to work. The seas surrounding the Antarctic freeze for hundreds of miles off shore during the winter months. In summer, this ice melts and consequently breaks up to form pack ice, which under the action of prevailing winds and tides, is constantly changing in form and distribution. It constitutes a hazard to shipping and a barrier which makes access to the coast extremely difficult. The cargo ship ‘Navarin’, though specially designed as an ice-breaker took nearly a week to cover 1-2 km distance, due to hard ice conditions before it reached the coast of the station ‘Molodezhnaya’.
9.2 Molodezhnaya Station Description
Molodezhnaya was initially occupied in 1962-1963 and opened on January 14, 1963. The station is located at 67* 40' 03" S, 45* 50' 41" E, and its height above sea level is 42 metres. The main station is located on the crests of a series of east and west trending ridges of exposed bed-rocks which are separated by ice-filled valleys. Ridge crest elevations vary from 30 to 180 metres along the coast. Some of the ridges terminate in cliffs at the adjacent bay, Alasheyev Bight.
The major bedrocks are migmatized, granitized and pegmatized Precambrian gneisses of the crystalline basement of the Antarctic platform. Exposed rock and soil areas are abundant in a narrow (1-8 km) zone parallel to the coast, but are rare inland. Morainic materials in the station area are restricted to erratic and frost-churned mixed materials, but active moraines are present in association with the two nearby outlet glaciers Campbell and Hays.
Vehicular access to the more elevated coastal zones and the interior which is a very important consideration for extended field operations, is readily practicable. The scattered-off shore islands are accessible by foot and vehicles from May to late December or January and at other times by small boat, when one is available.
At Molodezhnaya, construction activities are still a major part of the Soviet programme there. The physical plant, at present, consists of some 30 to 35 permanent buildings of various sizes, from a single room to 320 square metres diesel-electric generation plant, and assorted materials, including wood, prefabricated concrete, aluminum panels over iron frames. There also are eight petroleum and gasoline storage tanks with a total capacity of 6600 square metres within the station complex.
The station ‘Molodezhnaya’ has now become continental headquarters for the Soviet Antarctic expeditions and has accordingly been given a new name as the ‘Soviet Antarctic Meteorological Centre’. Facilities have been provided there for carrying out the most diverse investigations, including the launching of Meteorological Rockets upto an altitude of about 100 km. The Meteorological Rockets ‘M-100’ are now fired weekly with some additional firings, from the station ‘Molodezhnaya’. During my participation in the Soviet Antarctic Expedition, I was the Project Scientist at the Soviet Antarctic Rocket station ‘Molodezhnaya’.
At Molodezhnaya, I was provided with a living room in the Rocket House where almost all the meteorological staff of the station was put up. Prefabricated buildings are commonly used in Antarctica. The technique being used by the Soviets in the construction of living quarters and technical laboratories in the Antarctic involves elevating the prefabricated building above the surface on columns. Even though most of the snow blows past beneath the building, some does gradually accumulate. When the summer comes, all the accumulated snow is removed using special tractor trains.
The rate of snow accumulation in Antarctica varies considerably from place to place. In 1929, Admiral Byrd installed a 75 feet radio tower at the Bay of Whales. Thirty years later only four feet remained above the surface. On the other hand, at the Soviet Antarctic Station ‘Vostok’ located on the plateau, there has been virtually no snow accumulation in 10 years. For small stations, vans called wanigans are often used. Looking like house trailers on skis, they are pulled into place by tracked vehicles. The Antarctic station ‘Vostok’ lying deep in the continent is an example of this construction. Because the wanigans can be moved, it is possible to relocate them on the surface as snow piles up. At the station ‘Molodezhnaya’, a few such wanigans are available for geological and geodetic surveys of the Antarctic inland.
An ‘Aerodrome on the ice’ is under construction at the station ‘Molodezhnaya’ and expected to be ready in the near future. It was Admiral Richard E. Byrd who posed the usefulness of the airplane in Antarctica when he first flew over the South Pole in November 1929, although, the first airplane flight above the Antarctic continent was made on November 26, 1928 by the U.S. pilot Carl. B. Eielson with the expedition leader Sir Hubert Wilkins aboard, who was the Australian leader of the Wilkins-Hearst Antarctic Expedition. The Russians are now using helicopters and small skied-aircrafts as airborne ground support to their Antarctic expeditions. With the construction of the ice-aerodrome, they are hoping to start the use of the wheeled jet aircrafts to and from Antarctica.
The other construction work going on at the station ‘Molodezhnaya’ included the installation of a Minsk-22 computer, principally for processing the preliminary ‘M-100’ meteorological rocketsonde data. Its building would be completed in the austral summer and the next Soviet Antarctic Expedition would do the installation work and later use the computer facilities.
9.3 Water Supply in Antarctica
There are numerous small freshwater and meltwater basins as well as two sizable lakes within a very short distance of the station ‘Molodezhnaya’. Some of the freshwater lakes adjacent to the station campus and near the sea receive minor seasonal pollution by man, the South Polar skua and the Adelie penguin, but the lakes and basins inland from the station and at higher elevations remain relatively uncontaminated. There is one deep water lake which forms a natural water resource for all the expedition members. Water is trucked from there to the station buildings. However, in winter when the natural pure water resources such as small ponds and some uncontaminated lakes freeze, other methods such as melting snow by heating it, have to be used.
Water from the snow melters is carefully rationed. Digging and carrying snow is arduous work, especially in nasty weather. Beyond that, all fuel to melt snow, heat buildings, generate electricity and to power vehicles and aircraft has to be imported into Antarctica over great distances and at considerable expense. In fact, fuel is the single item in the shipping of all the Antarctic expeditions. The diesel-electric power plant at the station ‘Molodezhnaya’ incorporates four generators two of which work at a time producing nearly 600 kw of electricity. This power plant consumes a few tons of fuel daily. Fuel is really one of the most expensive items in the Antarctic expeditions.
The scarcity of water makes fire a great danger in Antarctica, perhaps the greatest single danger. Fire can destroy the buildings that shelter men and the food that sustains them. For that reason, an Antarctic station usually consists of several separate buildings, and the supplies are stored where they will not catch fire.
Although, there is so much ice in Antarctica, there is almost no fresh water. Every other continent has at least one river over 2000 miles long but the closest thing to a river in Antarctica is a stream of meltwater from a glacier. Such a cold and dry area cannot support much life of any kind. On land, a few primitive plants exist and there are bacteria and some insects and similar small animals. By contrast, the cold waters between the continent and the Antarctic convergence abound in sea life, ranging from microscopic plants to giant whales. Around the coast, however, marine animals and birds, such as seals, penguins, polar skuas, snow petrels, etc., come ashore in large numbers to breed.
9.4 Wintering Team at Molodezhnaya in Antarctica
The wintering-team of the 17th Soviet Antarctic Expedition at the Antarctic Meteorological Centre ‘Molodezhnaya’ had 122 members in all, 116 from the USSR, 5 from the GDR (East Germany) and 1 from India. Dr. B.G. Averyanov from the Arctic and Antarctic Research Institute, Leningrad was the Expedition Leader. The Soviet team comprising of 116 members had 75 scientific staff members, 38 support personnel and 3 aviation technicians. I was the lonely Indian participant and the youngest member in the Expedition.
9.5 Winter Life at the Station Molodezhnaya in Antarctica and the Wind Chill Effect
On the trail or elsewhere, this is important for men in the Antarctic to dress for the occasion. On a calm day with the sun shining, men may be seen working outdoors in their short sleeves. Even a slight wind, however, will cause them to add outer garments as the wind literally blows away their body heat. The combined effect of wind and temperature is called the ‘wind chill’ effect. For example, when the thermometer reads 0o F (-17.8oC) and the wind is blowing with a speed of 10 miles per hour (4.47 metres per second), the effect on a man is the same as if the temperature were -21oF (-29.4oC) without a wind.
In the Antarctic exploration the term ‘wind chill’ is thus frequently used. Temperatures alone do not give a true indication of relative comfort for outdoor activities, some scale has to be used based on both temperature and wind. For this purpose, a ‘wind chill scale’ as developed by Dr. Paul A. Siple, the well-known Antarctic explorer, is used.
Human comfort is related to the rate at which heat is lost from the human body. The wind chill factor caused by any combination of wind and cold is defined as the number of calories that are lost under conditions of wind and temperature during one hour from a square metre of a surface kept at 330C, which is used to represent skin temperature.
There is a standard monogram to show this value for any wind speed and temperature. For example, a temperature of -60C with a wind of 18 metres per second has the same cooling effect as a -320C temperature with a 2 metres per second of wind speed. Both result in a loss of about 1400 calories in an hour and are, therefore, said to have a ‘wind chill’ factor of about 1400.
This scale does not take into account many important factors such as humidity, loss of heat in the breath, radiation from the sun, and the effect of lowered skin temperature. It is intended as a simple practical guide to show the conditions under which it is somewhat comfortable in Antarctica during its short summer and also the harsh conditions under which it is very difficult to work there, especially during its harsh winter when the sun does not rise at all for about six months continuously and when exposed flesh is liable to freeze and when special precautions must be taken against the extreme cold.
The following figures of the ‘wind chill factor’ explain briefly about the freezing conditions in the Antarctic continent:

Wind chill factor Prevailing conditions in Antarctica

100 Sunbathing pleasant (rarely found)
400-600 Cool to very cool
800-1300 Cold to bitterly cold
1400 Exposed flesh freezes
2000 Exposed flesh freezes in one minute
2300 Exposed flesh freezes in 30 seconds.
Scientific equipment, which unlike the human body or a running engine does not contain a source of heat, will cool to the prevailing temperature and the wind chill factor thus does not apply to such equipment, etc. It is only applicable for human beings working in the cold weather in any part of the world including Antarctica.
In general, the following rules apply to the operation of the Antarctic stations during periods of cold weather or restricted visibility:
(i) At wind chills of less than 2200 and/or 150 metres or more surface visibility, the stations operate normally.
(ii) At wind chills of 2200 and/or 150 metres or less surface visibility, precautionary measures have to be implemented.
(iii) At wind chills of 2250 or more and/or 90 metres or less surface visibility, all the essential station operations are implemented with utmost precautions for the safety of the scientists working under such hard Antarctic conditions.
9.6 Antarctic Clothing
Because of the effect of the wind, the outermost layer of clothing should be wind proof. Under this outer garment, a man should wear only as many other layers of clothing as he needs to keep warm. Air trapped between the layers serves as insulation against the cold, but two many layers may be dangerous as perspiration diminishes the insulating quality of clothing. Hands, feet, nose and ears are very susceptible to freezing and must be protected. Gloves are worn and if it is really cold, thick mittens are drawn over them. Several types of cold-weather boots exist that will furnish adequate protection. Caps are usually equipped with earflaps and coats and parkas have hoods which may be raised over the cap. Sometime a face mask is needed to protect the nose and cheeks.
Properly dressed and with modern equipment, men can live in the Antarctic under reasonable comfort. Antarctica remains, however, a dangerous and unpredictable land and a moment of carelessness can easily cost a life. To survive there, men must never relax their guard. yet men from many countries will continue to go the Antarctic in pursuit of scientific knowledge.
9.7 Monotonous Life in Antarctica
The daily routine under normal circumstances at the Antarctic station ‘Molodezhnaya’ is briefly described here. A seven-day-work week begins at 8.00 a.m. with a hearty breakfast of porridge and cheese. Lunch at 1.00 p.m. is actually dinner and the largest meal of the day. Soup is always a major course followed by a staple supply of meat and potatoes or rice. A stewed-fruit ‘Compote’ is served throughout the day in preference to melted snow water. Supper at 8. p.m. is substantial. Following supper is a general conversation hour and then the nightly movie. Quite often, a broadcast from Radio Moscow, especially programmed for the Antarctic Expedition of the USSR is on the air. Occasionally, an individual Soviet Antarctic station will be featured with special news from home including messages from loved ones. On festive occasions, such as birthdays or state holidays, most of the station personnel would dress in suit and tie and heavy Antarctic boots for a special dinner in place of the normal dinner and supper.
Housekeeping chores, shared generally by all, include dish washing and sweeping up after meals. this assignment is usually followed by a shower and personal laundering in a special bath house called ‘Baniya (Sauna)’. Water is obtained from a nearby deep water lake.
During the winter, the game of dominoes generates a great deal of enthusiasm. It is basically a game of chance. Chess, billiards, ping-pong and cards are also played. Authority at the station is supremely vested in a leader who has absolute control in every situation and who has no other responsibilities. For the Soviets, this system has worked well.
9.8 Emerquency Life in Antarctica
Normally, all the Antarctic stations are supplied with all the requisites during austral summer and fall, say from December to April, when the ice conditions are favourable, which are at their best in March. Besides carrying out the relief operations of the Soviet Antarctic expeditions, the diesel-electric ship ‘Ob’ was assigned the task of finding out a suitable site for a new Soviet station on the shore of the Amundsen sea.
After finishing this task, the ship ‘Ob’ was supposed to resupply the Soviet Antarctic stations Leningradskaya (69o 30* S, 154o 23* E ), Mirny (66o33*S, 93o 01E) and Molodezhnaya (67* 40*S, 45o 51*E) and Bellingshausen (62o 12*S, 58*W) also. Lenigradskaya and Mirny were supplied all right but on her belated voyage to the station ‘Molodezhnaya’ in May, the sea ice conditions had become quite unfavourable with the result that the icebreaker ‘Ob’ could not reach the station ‘Molodezhnaya’ where some important food provisions and other requisites were already exhausted and the station was running under emergency.
After putting in very hard endeavours, eventually, a temporary air-link between the station and the ship could, however, be finally established towards the end of May. The ship was anchored at a distance of about 200 km from the station `Molodezhnaya'. Special skied aircraft, transported the wintered-over personnel of the previous Expedition to the ship ‘Ob’ and during their return trips these skied planes would bring along some of the most urgent food provisions such as bread making stuffs, potatoes, sugar, milk, fruit juices and some other tinned food, etc.
As the ship ‘Ob’ herself was getting frozen fast due to the onset of winter, it was in great danger and was thus likely to be crushed by the drifting ice pack. The icebreaker ‘Ob’ had, therefore, to sail to Leningard without supplying all the necessary stuffs to the station ‘Molodezhanya’, thereby leaving all of us to our fate for facing the hardships of the Antarctic winter. The ship ‘Ob’ also got frozen on the way and kept drifting with the ice throughout the winter. We at the station were almost starving of hunger, while those aboard ‘Ob’ had enough to eat but continuously faced the danger of being crushed in the ice. This shows that even with the tremendous improvements in modern technology, the Antarctic still presents a harsh environment which is the most extreme and forbidding in the world.
An emergency was thus declared at the station ‘Molodezhnaya’ and we were asked to face all the anticipated hardships bravely. The quality of food, consequently, became utterly poor which could not be improved till the next relief party came to the Antarctic. There was nothing sweet at the station because all the sugar got exhausted. The sweet dishes became salty dishes and salt became the tooth paste of all the Expedition members.
The milk tins were already consumed presuming that the icebreaker ‘Ob’ would resupply all the exhausted food stuffs. No sugar, no milk but tea and coffee unlimited, made the hot drinks of the station bitter. The exhaustion of the white bread stuffs led to some exhaustion of the Expedition members who, consequently, lost more than 10 kg of weight. Towards the end of the winter, the station smokers faced a great problem because the cigarettes also got exhausted. As a result some smokers were often found searching for used cigarette butts.
All the Expedition members had rightly remarked, “In the Antarctic we all are the voluntary Prisoners of War, a war that we are fighting selflessly with a self denial of comfort against the most hostile environs of our planet earth in search of new scientific knowledge for the common good of all mankind”.
I still remember the day in Antarctica when we had to eat our favourite huskies (dogs) meat also due to an acute shortage of food. The meat was that of our huskies who had died while pulling heavy sledges in our Antarctic field work. We had to do it in order to survive in the harshest conditions of Antarctica !
Except for about five members, all the other Expedition members wintered over trouble-free. One member, Comrade V.P. Evanov from the station Construction group, had to be operated of an appendix trouble on 24th August after which he felt normal. One Russian member was found to be growing some mental troubles and becoming mad due to the long isolation from his family or possibly due to some other reasons. During the period from June to July, the station ‘Molodezhnaya’ very often encountered hurricanes, tempests and blizzards.
Once a very violent snow storm with wind speed of over 150 km per hour blew off a few station houses where members were at work. One of the houses was uprooted by the violent storm and dragged away to the sea alongwith the inmate Comrade K.A. Bezvikonny. A very timely help of our rescue party saved his life. However, he suffered a leg fracture and was admitted into the station hospital. After one month's medical treatment and rest he was alright and started working normally. Once, one of the Soviet skied aircrafts sank into the frozen Antarctic ocean while landing there alongwith its pilot and some Expedition members in front of our own eyes, but we could not do anything to save them because all this happened so fast and so suddenly that no rescue party could do anything about it.
9.9 Antarctic Accidents And fortune
I, too, was once in the jaws of death when on 14th March, I fell into a deep crevasse while walking by the sea side. I was hanging in the crevasse endeavouring very hard to come out but all in vain. Fortunately, my friends came to my rescue and pulled me out of the death-pit when I was hardly an inch away from my end. Due to good fortune, I survived in good health and high spirits. How to survive in Antarctica, I learnt by actually surviving and how to adapt to the hard climatic conditions, I learnt by actually doing so there.
Another serious accident occurred when I was trapped outdoors in a violent blizzard. Struggling for life, I fell from a 200 metres high ridge and was hit hard at the face with the rocks. I suffered a fracture in my legs and three of my teeth (two grinders and one front tooth) were knocked out on the spot. However, I did not lose courage. I recovered from the fracture in about a month’s time but was forever deprived of three teeth. The teeth I lost in Antarctica are now replaced by artificial ones and they always remind me of my hard and tough days in Antarctica. I met with several other accidents and hair-raising episodes, but I was, indeed, very fortunate to survive there and come home alive.
9.10 Flood in Antarctica
Melting snow on a Frozen lake in Antarctica touched off a flood that damaged the Russian Antarctic Research station ‘Molodezhnaya’ on the Christmas day on 25th December 1996 during a subsequent mid-summer in Antarcrica when the temperatures hit a balmy 5 degrees Celsius. That caused the snow on the nearby lake ‘Glubokoye’ to melt and set off a flood which washed over the Russian Antarctic station ‘Molodezhnaya’ located at about 1 km distance from the lake. Such floods are actually very rare which sometimes occur only once in a decade but cause lot of damage to the station requiring an immediate repair work and a fresh supply of all the food provisions and other necessary equipments and also reducing the size of the wintering team to the minimum possible.

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