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Eugene Rodgers on: The Dangers of Antarctica
Eugene Rodgers Q: Byrd seems to have been down there, he claims they never lost a man. But it seems that at every turn they could have. I mean it was incredibly, incredible luck that they survived. There were crevasses, there was frostbite, people got lost. It was incredibly dangerous. And quite miraculous that people didn't die there.

ER: Antarctica is a very inhospitable place. I think it's something like Mars, it's as close to another planet as we can get on earth. It's the driest place on earth, the coldest, the windiest. There are no plants there, no animals to live off of. It's desolate, desolate with a capital D, and dangerous. Antarctica has killed men. They've fallen off mountains, fallen into the sea and drown, froze to death, gone mad. It's a terrible place to live. And yes, Byrd was very lucky. Certainly one of the great accomplishments is the planning and the preparation that went into his expeditions. He tried to make sure that he didn't lose a man, and he didn't. But there's some luck to this. On the first expedition to Antarctica, the men were unloaded the parts to the big Ford airplane that Byrd intended to fly to the South Pole in, and the ice cracked as the big plane got on the ice, and the floes teetered, the men were in danger of falling off the ice floe. But they didn't, everyone survived, the plane survived. But later on, Byrd had one of his two ships tied up to this vast ice cliff, that towered higher than the ship. And suddenly part of the cliff collapsed, it collapsed right onto the ship, and almost turned it over. The ship went way over, it's, it's keel almost came out of the water. It was roped to the other ship so it didn't quite go all the way, and then it, then it righted itself. Byrd could have lost all that, many men. In fact, on that incident one man did wind up in the water who couldn't swim. The water was much colder than water around here, and you could freeze to death in minutes. So the man was either going to freeze to death or, or drown. Byrd saw this and immediately plunged in after the man. Byrd was personally a very brave man. And they rescued this man, Byrd and others. Byrd never lost a man or even had anyone seriously injured, and avoided any of the mental strains that caused others to go stir crazy during the winter.


Q: How much of a risk of frostbite and how much experience with frostbite did these men have? They had to work outside in killer conditions. They were off on expeditions in tents.

ER: Frostbite was a constant danger to Byrd's explorers, as it is today. You have to be very careful down there. And the men on Byrd's expedition would watch one another. As the subfreezing air struck your skin it tended to freeze. And frostbite is nothing but frozen skin. And when it freezes it forms a white patch. So men were constantly looking at each other's faces and hands to see if they could detect white, white patches. And if your friend said hey, you've got a white patch on your cheek then you'd go up and you'd rub it and make sure you didn't get frostbitten. Otherwise gangrene would follow, so it was a constant threat.


Q: And what about crevasses?

ER: Crevasses are a great danger in Antarctica in some areas. Wherever there's land under ice and the ice has to flow over land it sometimes bends and cracks. And that's what crevasses are. There was submerged land just south of Byrd's base, and this formed big crevasses there. So the field parties, during the summer had to cross over these crevasses. And you can do it, I mean ice bridges over the crevasses and provided it's strong enough a dog team and a man can go over it. But you're never quite sure whether it's going to hold up or not. So they're very dangerous. At one point a sled did go into a crack. This was on sea ice, when the sea ice started to crack up during the summer. And Byrd's supplies were still on the ice and he had to get it to Little America. And the ice started to crack and open. And sleds did start to fall down. And men had to run out and help the drivers pull the sled back up. So yes, it was very dangerous. Men were always living on the edge of death. And they had to be very careful all the time. There's no doubt about it, Byrd was very lucky that he didn't lose anybody.


Q: Why did these men put up with it? Do you think they got down there and said, they're trapped? I mean it seems like such an ordeal to go through day after day. I mean particularly out on the geological parties when they're exposed outside for three months.

ER: It was a very tough life down there. Particularly the men on the field parties, the geological parties who were out for three months driving dog sleds. But don't forget, these were young men, adventurous. They don't think about the details of how bad it's going to be. They think about the, the, how, how good they'll seem to people back home. They'll think about the advancement of their careers, they'll think about the sheer fun of it all. And they went through hell but they were young and they could take it. They survived.

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