THE PRINCE CHARLES MOUNTAINS SURVEY 1970 (PHASE 2)
by D.J. Lugg
In the summer of 1968-69, Phase 1 of the Prince Charles Mountains Survey was successfully completed (Aurora, June 1969). Last summer, Phase 2 continued the survey and geological work commenced the previous year. The area for this scientific work was the northern Prince Charles Mountains.
On 19 December 1969 the Nella Dan left North Wharf, Melbourne, for the annual relief of Mawson. On hoard were sixteen expeditioners bound for the Prince Charles Mountains. Among these men were a number who had had a great deal of experience in Antarctica. Six men from the 1969 Mawson wintering expedition completed the team. Three brightly painted Hughes 500 helicopters and a Pilatus Turbo-Porter fixed-wing aircraft were fastened on deck. These aircraft were the main support for the summer operations.
The voyage south was eventful. It was extremely rough and during the voyage the helicopters suffered saltwater corrosion to some of their alloy parts, necessitating spares being made in the engineering workshop aboard the Nella Dan. Helicopter engineers Dave King and Peter Smart fabricated these.
The helicopter flight of Peter Clemence (who was previously in command of an RAAF Antarctic Flight), Lance Yeates and Phil Cook, gained considerable experience in flying in polar conditions as the helicopters were used to fly a geologist to Davis from the Nella Dan, which was kept out to sea because of fast sea ice, and to establish a fuel depot on the blue ice slopes above Platcha in the Vestfold Hills. A full day's flying was also carried out in the establishment of the Amery Ice Shelf expedition, when over twenty flights were made from the ship to the ice shelf.
Due to bad weather, flying did not commence out of Mawson until 19th January - 8 days late. In the period prior to this, stores were taken to Gwamm (the airstrip on the blue ice above Mawson) which was the terminal for ferry flights between Mawson and Moore Pyramid. Moore Pyramid, the site chosen for the base camp for the summer operations, is approximately 200 miles south-east of Mawson.
The Porter fuselage was transported ashore in the new barge, across rotten sea ice, and later assembled by engineer Reg Mason and a team of willing helpers near West Bay. Pilot Geoff Lewis showed the outstanding short take-off characteristics of this high winged aircraft by taking off from the snow covered ice in the West Bay area and flying to Gwamm where stores were loaded and the aircraft fuelled. Around midday the second phase of the PCM survey was begun with the helicopters leaving Mawson shortly before the fixed wing aircraft left Gwamm.
On the first flight were Ian McLeod, who was making his sixth trip to Antarctica, as leader of the four man geological team from the Bureau of Mineral Resources, and Max Rubelli who was in charge of the three man survey team from the Division of National Mapping.
The base at Moore Pyramid had been partly set up by the 1969 Mawson Spring Traverse. It consisted of two caravans - one for use as sleeping quarters by the flying group, and the other had been fitted out as a kitchen hut, complete with snow melter and gas stoves. Three radio aerials had been erected, and food, fuel and supplies depoted. These stores had been subjected to large accumulation of drift and snow in the short time since the traverse team left Moore Pyramid, and in some places were up to five feet under snow.
The incoming team had to erect six polar pyramid tents and two Parcoll huts. The larger of the Parcolls was to be used as a mess and recreation area, but also served as an engine workshop and Powerhouse. The smaller hut became the radio shack and also housed the meteorological equipment for the observer.
The first taste of what the future weather might be like occurred on the morning of 20 January when very trying conditions were experienced as erection of the Parcolls took place. Fuel for the aircraft was dug out. Later on, this day, the Porter made a flight to Mawson and returned with three more expeditioners and supplies, and the helicopters flew to Mawson to remain there overnight. This overnight stay was to become an eleven day one, as the weather deteriorated, and for the majority of the time spent at Moore Pyramid, wind, drift and whiteout continually prevented flying.
The ten men left at Moore Pyramid finished establishing the base camp. Bill Cowell kept the morale high with excellent meals, while Mumbles Walker proved that life begins at forty with his tireless efforts in getting the camp shipshape. Although his job as photographer was curtailed by the poor weather, Mumbles kept everyone entertained when the weather was too bad for outdoor activities. Jack Dart, from his Radio Parcoll kept the group informed of development in the weather as forecast at Mawson, and also a steady supply of wyzzas. Every opportunity was taken for field work during the eleven day period, and the motorized toboggan was used by the geologists, Ian McLeod and John Bain, to obtain rock specimens from nearby outcrops including Moore Pyramid itself. At Mawson, local geology work was done as the weather permitted, while the rest of the team that was marooned there found a never ending list of tasks to keep them occupied.
On 31 January, the helicopters returned, and the Porter was able to ferry in more supplies and personnel. Field camps were set up and the geologists and surveyors who had remained at Mawson - Dave Grainger, Bob Tingey, Chris Hutchison and Ed Burke - hardly had time to see the base camp as they were flown in and straight out to field camps. Included with this group were John Major, Geophysicist, and Pat Moonie, Radio Operator.
Geology camps were set up in turn at Martin Massif, Mt. Bewsher, Mt. Woinarski and Mt. Seaton, and survey camps on Fisher Massif North, Mt. Woinarski and Mt. Hicks. Some of these camps were maintained for up to ten days as high winds, drift and whiteout prevented the use of the survey equipment or relief of the geologists who often had finished their work in several days.
Each day radio messages relayed the state of the weather and the frustrations of those expeditioners unable to do their work. Fifty knot winds at one peak often prevented link up with another station less than forty miles away where its occupants were basking in banana belt conditions. Despite all the setbacks, morale remained very high.
On 2 February 1970, the Porter flew to the Amery Ice Shelf to drop some equipment and arrangements were made to fly out the four man team headed by Max Corry who had journeyed in from the edge of the ice shelf and successfully completed their programme. Their evacuation took place on 5 and 6 February, when six trips brought all their supplies, sledges, toboggans and ice radar equipment to Moore Pyramid. Fuel depots were also established at Fisher Massif North and near T4 station on the Amery Ice Shelf. Norm Linton-Smith and Max Corry remained at Moore Pyramid and were to be integrated into the field teams, while Alan Foster and Trevor Luff were flown back to Mawson.
As the field camps were established, Horrie Down and Keith Martin fed the base camp in addition to their met and radio duties when Bill Cowell was moved into the field.
During this period unusual winds produced snow devils which were reminiscent of the dust devils in Central Australia.
February 11 proved to be our most eventful day. Early in the morning a flame out occurred in one of the helicopters, but fortunately no one was injured nor was any damage done to the aircraft. Later on the same day, the Porter was damaged during take off. Repairs were made to the aircraft, but it could not be used for further support work and so was ferried to Mawson.
All field camps were evacuated to Moore Pyramid over the next few days and later flown to Mawson by helicopter. Prior to the base being closed, on February 23, Mumbles Walker developed appendicitis and he was evacuated to Mawson where a successful operation was carried out.
Despite the sudden change in programme, the Moore Pyramid camp was methodically closed down and remains ready for occupation next summer if phase 3 is centred there. Upon return to Mawson, more local geology was done, including the Church Mountain, Scullin Monolith areas. The rest of the PCM Survey team busied themselves with work around Mawson until the red ship returned for the trip back to Australia.
In all, the 1970 summer operation was marred by poor weather. Some idea of the rapid changes in weather and conditions can be gauged from the fact that every possible combination of weather was seen in a period of five days in the three areas of Mawson, the plateau route and Moore Pyramid. Although only a small part of the proposed scientific programme was achieved, it was in no fault due to the geologists, surveyors, members of the 1969 Mawson expedition or support personnel from Australia, who cooperated very well, worked extremely hard in poor conditions, and remained enthusiastic until the conclusion of the operation.
As published in AURORA Magazine, June 1970, pp4-7.