The Winter Journey: Part III

A Slow and Very Heavy Plod

After two days of manhauling, the Crozier party had managed to pull their sledges a distance of 17 miles from Cape Evans and establish a foothold on the McMurdo Ice Shelf. However, the first signs of trouble appeared as the temperature plummeted to -47°F and Cherry-Garrard’s fingers were frostbitten. Lets do our morning check-in with the guys and get the first weather observation of the day for June 29th, 1911:

Position: Camp 2

Time: 09:00

Temperature: -48.3°F (-44.6°C)

Wind Direction: E

Wind Force (Beaufort): 1 (1-3 knots)

Wind Chill: -63°F (-53.8°C)

Sky Condition: Few clouds (Cirrostratus)

Overnight Minimum Temperature: -56.5°F (-49.2°C)

Remarks: Aurora fairly bright, curtain to N, altitude about 45°

British Antarctic Expedition 1910-1913, Meteorology, Vol. III Table 69

The first night on the ice shelf did not go very well for the men. Cherry-Garrard described the experience as “a baddish time,” and noted that the party spent a good deal of the night shivering in their bags (The Worst Journey in the World, pg. 242). The darkness of the winter night was also starting to take its toll, turning routine camp work into an hours-long ordeal.

As the men set off into the darkness from Camp 2, they were treated to bright auroral displays that lifted their spirits a bit. However, the decreasing temperatures and changing snow surface turned the days sledging effort into a backbreaking affair. The party only managed to gain 2.5 miles of ground before lunch, and could only muster another 2 miles after lunch. The temperature hovered around -50°F throughout the day, with Wilson and Cherry-Garrard both getting frostbitten on their feet. After 10.5 hours of heavy exertion in the brutal cold, the men called it quits for the day and pitched camp. The nighttime weather report from Birdie Bowers follows below:

Position: Camp 3

Time: 19:30

Miles Made Good: 4.5

Temperature: -49.7°F (-45.4°C)

Wind Direction: E

Wind Force (Beaufort): 1 (1-3 knots)

Wind Chill: -64.6°F (-53.7°C)

Sky Condition: Clear

British Antarctic Expedition 1910-1913, Meteorology, Vol. III Table 69
Crozier party progress after three days


Why did the pulling become so hard for the men once they got onto the McMurdo Ice Shelf? Why could they only manage 4.5 miles? The main issue was the temperature and its impact on the snow surface. Susan Solomon notes this impact in The Coldest March

The key factor was the temperature, which determines how readily a thin film of liquid water can form as the runners of sledges or skis glide over the snow beneath them…Formation of an optimal liquid layer lies at the heart of skiing, and temperature is a critical factor in the delicate balance of forces that makes skiing or pulling either torturous or easy.

Susan Solomon, The Coldest March, pg. 35

At -50°F, it is essentially too cold for the runners of a sledge to maintain the lubricating layer of water as snow crystals resist melting and increase friction along the surface of the runners.

How are things in the area of Camp 3 today? The most recent observation from the Willie Field automatic weather station (AWS) is -29.2°C (-20.6°F) – about 30 degrees warmer than what the men reported in 1911. The weather pattern has been fairly stormy across the Ross Ice Shelf as of late, and the increased wind has largely mixed out the coldest near-surface air.

How will the Crozier party fare during their second night on the ice shelf? Will they manage to stave off frostbite and get some rest, or will they spend another night shivering in their bags? Check in tomorrow to find out!

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