pith helmet
Tales from the Field


Frightful fieldwork
Vulnerable to volcanoes
Hepatitis and blue berries
Antarctic anxiety
Human hazards




























Behrendt almost crashed in a DC-3 like this.
Courtesy Dakota Squadron.

    Frozen trouble

Dogs watch the crushed Endurance just before she sank.

Ernest Shackleton's ship Endurance is crushed in the ice in November, 1915, nearly spelling a tragic end to his epic Antarctic journey. After months more on the ice, and a 700-mile journey across the stormy Southern Ocean in an open boat, the entire crew survived under Shackleton's inspired leadership. Unlike Robert Falcon Scott, a British explorer who also tried to reach the South Pole, Shackleton had the brains to bring dogs. Scott's ponies got bogged down in snow, and he died just before reaching camp.

Courtesy Sir Ernest Henry Shackleton.










John Behrendt has spent a lifetime studying the Antarctic and overcoming the hazards inherent in visiting that remote, hostile continent. In 1956, as scientists were preparing to explore the ends of the Earth during the International Geophysical Year, his research ship got stuck for 21 days in floating ice in the frozen Weddell Sea. At one point, the ice was 25 feet deep -- about as deep as floating ice ever gets, he says. "Ice poked a hole in the side, oil was spilling onto the ice, and the screws [propellers] were damaged. I suppose we were a lot closer to sinking than I, as a graduate student, realized."

Although Behrendt never fell into a crevasse -- a deep, deadly fissure in a glacier -- he did "fish a guy up from a crevasse."

map of antarctica showing location of Weddell Sea and also plane crashDuring the gung-ho early days of scientific exploration on the white continent, safety often took a back seat, he adds. "We'd fly on planes that had mechanical deficiencies, because the mission was so important." Behrendt recounted those days in "Innocents on the Ice" (see bibliography). Behrendt had his closest shave while surveying Earth's magnetic field from a propeller-driven DC-3 in 1960. The villain was not a mechanical problem but a cloud that obscured the ground while they were trying to fly through a 9,000-foot pass -- at 8,000 feet.

"It was probably the most horrific moment -- we saw the snow surface coming up, we banked back too steeply, and stalled [lost lift] four times," Behrendt says. The towed instrument package skidded along the ground for 17 seconds, and a wingtip got dinged by a boulder.

photo of a DC-3Still, the god of fieldwork must have been smiling, because Behrendt survived. (The Why Files covered airplane crashes.) Despite the danger -- or perhaps because of it -- the young grad student was hooked. "I was attracted by the romance and adventure, but adventure only happens when someone makes a mistake," says Behrendt, who's now a fellow at the Institute of Arctic and Alpine Research at the University of Colorado.

Did someone mention Homo sapiens? Can we ignore the top predator?



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