Steak and onions Vostok style (1962)
14 July 1994
An Australian expedition set out from Wilkes in 1962 to reach the evacuated Russian base of Vostok, the coldest place on earth. The trip remains one of Australia's most historic traverses, an epic journey of 3,000 kilometres!
When the Australians finally arrived at the Russian base, they discovered it had been evacuated in a hurry 12 months before.
Neville Collins, the diesel mechanic on the journey, recounted to Tim Bowden how they prepared and ate their first meal.
So, we arrived, turned on the generator and all the lights went on. We went into the kitchen and there was an electric range they cooked with … and the table there was laid out for three people They'd made a pot of tea in a beautiful china teapot, but the tea had frozen in the pot and busted it So, it looked like a hasty departure.
There was a pan full of steak and onions on the stove. So, it looked like the Russians were just sitting down to a feed, in came the aircraft to pick up the last three blokes, they said, 'Well, we're bailing out', slammed the door, shut down the engine and off they went. So, we took over from there.
With mouths watering at the thought of a decent meal after weeks of living on traverse rations of tinned food and pemmican, the hungry expeditioners wasted no time in taking up where the Russians had left off. They switched on the generators, started up the stove and finished cooking the snap frozen steaks! One of their number even found a cook’s hat and an abandoned Russian chef's uniform, donned the garments and presided over the stove!
The meal was generally hailed as one of the best!
Interview with Neville Collins and Tim Bowden 14 July 1994, ANARE Jubilee History.
[Text: This film gained an honourable mention in the Australian Film Awards 1964 – "As a valuable record of Antarctic Exploration".]
[Title: Vostok 900]
Antarctica, a vast continent of ice and snow. A land of exquisite beauty. Of hills and valleys. Of great mountain whose mighty peaks break through the deserts of snow which cover them.
But apart from its beauty there is little here to comfort man. From great mountain peaks the vast plains scarred by savage wins this inhospitable land offers a challenge to mankind.
Against this background of cold beauty, men have come from many lands to explore Antarctica. But Antarctica is not easily explored.
Ice and snow provide a formidable barrier to those who come from the north. Although the continent, which is larger than Australia is circled by scientific stations, much of it remains unknown and uncharted. Every major traverse across the face of Antarctica helps to open up its secret and build up our knowledge of it.
This is the story of one such traverse. The story of six men of the Australian National Antarctic research expeditions who made a four-month journey across 900 miles of snow from Wilkes to Vostok, the coldest place on earth.
The traverse party of six included four Australians. Alastair Battye, glaciologist and official photographer. Don Walker, geophysicist. Pancho Evans, driver and mechanic. Neville Collins, senior mechanic. From America there was Danny Foster, meteorologist and from New Zealand, Bob Thomson, navigator, radio operator and the leader of the party. This then is their story.
Wilkes station, September 17, 1962. Following months of preparation we were leaving on the Vostok traverse.
The Russian station of Vostok was 900 miles inland near the geomagnetic South Pole. There are 23 men stationed at Wilkes, and today they turned out to lend a hand and see the six of us off.
We were in high spirits on this pleasant Antarctic day. There was an exchange of good-humoured banter with the mates who are being left behind and he would have been months before we saw again.
Most of the morning had been spent in organising tractors and sledges. There were nine sledges including two caravans. They carried our food, fuel supplies, drilling gear and scientific equipment.
Each of us was responsible for specific equipment and supplies. Heaven help us if we overlook anything for there could be no turning back.
We left Wilkes behind and began the slow steady climb up the plateau. As we climbed the temperature dropped and soon we were 4000 feet above sea level.
For the first 300 miles of the traverse we would follow a line of markers placed every mile by a party which had established fuel dumps along the line last year.
We had to find these fuel supplies, and that wasn't always easy. Snow drifts often covered the oil drums and whiteouts reduced visibility.
Often during those first weeks travel came to a stop as we ran into heavy blizzards. During the first month we lost 24 days of travel although every attempt was made to keep moving.
Sometimes we were reduced to a mile an hour by rough surfaces. Refueling was a regular chore or transferring diesel oil from the bulk tanks to the tractors.
The use of motor vehicles in the Antarctic has increased the amount of gear you can carry and the distance you've can cover in a day, but it's done little to listen the physical effort of traveling, for the vehicles themselves require a great deal of work to keep them going.
But still the weather was against us. More days were lost as we were blizzard bound again. We lay in our banks waiting, waiting, waiting for the weather to improve.
Temperatures dropped as low as −82 degrees Fahrenheit. One night our alarm clock stopped at 20 to four in the morning, frozen stiff.
When the weather did clear we had to dig out every tractor sledge and weasel and get them moving. The engines had to be preheated before we could start them. This sometimes took up to seven hours.
Our days started early, sometimes at half-past three in the morning.
An important part of a scientific work was the seismic survey plan to give us contours of the rock surface thousands of feet under the ice. A tractor was used to drive the drill 240 feet into the ice cap.
We were now 381 miles from Wilkes and over 9,000 feet above sea level. Daytime temperatures were below −50, working conditions were pretty tough.
When the bore hole was finished, thermometers were lowered down it and temperatures recorded at different levels. These figures would give an indication of past climatic conditions – a slow and painstaking job.
Then Don Walker would lower the dynamite down the hole. A series of microphones were laid out on the surface and when the dynamite was exploded the shock waves reflected by the underlying rock were recorded through these microphones. The recording equipment was set going and the countdown will begin.
[Sound of explosion]
Another heavy job was digging ice pits 10 feet deep. As glaciologist, this was Alastair Battye's domain, although occasionally talk one or other of us into giving him a hand. Once the hole was dug he studied the ice densities and took temperatures at various levels. These gave us a fairly detailed picture of past weather conditions.
So far the journey had gone well except for a few minor mishaps, but on October the 29, 505 miles from Wilkes we had our first major breakdown.
After traveling all day in −70 degrees one of the tractor engines had sheared an oil pump pin. Repairs were extremely difficult. The heavy bottom plate had to be removed, the oil sump taken off, and the pump repaired.
For two days, our mechanics Neville Collins and Pancho Evans worked temperatures below −60 with a constant wind of 15 knots. They both suffered from frostbitten hands and faces.
Frostbite can happen very quickly, you have to be extremely careful. In these very low temperatures, you should never allow bare skin to come into contact with metal. But at times you just can't avoid it. You can't replace a small screw wearing heavy mittens.
The first thing you feel is a slight numbness around your fingers. Unless you can get inside quickly and warm your hands, you suffer badly.
While repairs are being made on the oil pump and we took the opportunity to carry out minor repairs on the other vehicles. We were anxious to push on and we were happy to get underway again.
At 572 miles out from Wilkes we had a vital rendezvous. The American Air Force was to drop fuel supplies. Bad weather had delayed the flight for three days but at half-past four in the morning will awaken by the roar of the U.S. Globemaster overhead. We rushed outside smack into a temperature of minus ninety nine.
Well down came the fuel supplies. One parachute failed to open. The drums on it were smashed in the oil lost, but the rest landed intact.
This fuel drop was crucial to the whole operation. We couldn't carry sufficient fuel to take us from Wilkes to Vostok and return. This generous assistance from the Americans based at McMurdo Sound had made the whole traverse possible.
The oil for most of the drums was to be transferred to our bulk tanks. The rest of it was left here together with food supplies for our return journey.
We were traveling now through completely unknown land. Astro shots were taken regularly and checked against our compass bearings.
We'd been climbing steadily to an altitude of 11,000 feet. There are no landmarks of any kind of guide us. Just this rugged icy plain covered with sastrugi and carve bridges of ice up to five feet high.
Everything depended on accurate navigation. We traveled in a single file spread out over five miles and by using a special mirror system in the leading weasel the whole convoy was kept in a straight line and on an accurate course.
Around us spread this featureless plateau but always we were buoyed up by expectancy. What lay over the horizon? Mountains valleys, crevasses, who can tell?
Driving conditions improved and we were able to maintain a steady average of thirty miles. The altitude was nearly 12,000 feet and the average temperature was in the −30s.
On the morning of November the 18th, just over two months since we began the traverse, an astro check of our position showed that we were just 40 miles from Vostok. Our navigator Bob Thompson had done a remarkable job.
All day we pushed on. We received a message from the Russian Antarctic leader at Mirny, offering us full use of Vostok, which was then un-manned. We were looking forward to a change from our daily routine.
It was a strange, almost eerie feeling when we first arrived at this deserted place. We were a few miles from the geomagnetic south pole in the very heart of Antarctica. It was like a ghost town. Snowdrift all but covered some of the buildings and it took us over an hour to find the entrance.
These large vehicles are the ones which had been used by the Russians during their traverse to the South Pole in 1959.
Now they stood like giants asleep, and giants they were. They dwarf the weasels that have brought us here.
As for the station it stood 11,000 feet above sea level on ice 12,000 feet thick. It had recorded a record low temperature of −127 degrees Fahrenheit in 1960, by far the coldest place on earth.
One of the first things we had to do was to use the hot air machine to raise the inside temperature of the station which was −70 degrees when we arrived and it's colder on the inside then it was on the outside.
Once we were in we were able to relax and enjoy a few home comforts. After our cramped quarters of the past two months, it was good to have more space to stretch out in. And thanks to our absent hosts there was Russian food and wine to be enjoyed.
And then came the greatest luxury of all for the first time in two months we were able to take off our clothes and have a makeshift bath. Yes it was almost like Christmas.
And then like all explorers we held a ceremony to raise the American and Australian flags and to take the traditional group photograph.
Here we were, six men of widely different interests, linked in this moment in time with some of the most illustrious names in Antarctic history. Shackleton, Scott, Amundsen, Mawson, all of them had at some time or other raised their flags and posed for their cameras – just as we were doing now. It was one photograph he would always prize.
But now our days at Vostok were coming to an end. They've been busy days as we service our vehicles and equipment for the return journey of 900 miles. In addition to working on their own gear we had to maintain the station, running generators for heat and light, keeping a 24-hour fire guard and fending for ourselves. And we were looking forward to the return journey.
On Sunday November the 25th we left Vostok station. But before we did so, we all signed a note of thanks, which we left for our Russian hosts. We had reached Vostok all right but our job was only half done.
Navigation now presented little trouble. Our old tracks stretched out in front of us and were quite easy to follow. We made good time, and before long we arrive back at our last fuel dump.
Our fuel position was causing us some concern. Each of the tractors was getting only one and a half miles to the gallon and the weasels two and a half.
When 719 miles from home we found that a drum leak had lost 30 gallons of precious fuel. This represented most of our surplus. Great economy would be needed for the rest of the trip.
Most of our scientific work was to be done on the way back, but now the weather was fine. The sun shone for 24 hours a day and this continued for 46 days without a break.
Every 30 miles we made a seismic survey to measure the ice thickness. In between these seismic shots we took a gravity reading every mile. The greatest thickness of ice we recorded was over 15,000 feet. We would then move on another 30 miles and repeat the whole process.
Every six hours our American meteorologist Danny Foster made up his detailed weather observations. These were the encoded and transmitted to Australia and to all other stations in Antarctica.
Then there were the many tasks that had to be done every day to keep us going. Refueling from the bulk tanks, preparing meals and the paperwork in which we recorded our days observations.
We were nearly halfway home. They were busy crowded days but our morale was high. It was surprising how well we all got on together. We'd become a close-knit team and they'd been remarkably little friction. No doubt having plenty to do helped a lot.
All was progressing well – perhaps too well; for on Monday the 17th December we had a major breakdown 477 miles from Wilkes. A pre-combustion chamber had blown up and we had no spares. For a time it looked as if we might have to abandon the tractor and leave some of the sledges and scientific equipment behind. But thanks to the ingenuity of our mechanics, a repair was made and after a day of anxious waiting we were off again.
The last few weeks of our traverse were particularly pleasant. Apart from a violent blizzard which struck us on December the 24th, giving us a very white Christmas, temperatures were warming up to −10 as we came down the plateau towards the coast.
There was an unexpected airdrop of mail from home. Quite suddenly thoughts of home began to quicken. Soon we'd see our colleagues at Wilkes. The Thala Dan was lying close in shore ready to take us back to Australia.
Soon all of us would be left behind. Civilization would claim us. But no matter where our future might take us we would always remember these four months of exploration, of hardship, of comradeship which we'd shared.