Thursday, 28 June 2012

Airship over the Pole by Garry Hogg Pt.6: The Trek.

The morning of May 30 came.  This was the day when the trek across the ice was to start.  No one had slept well the night before: there was too much speculation in every man's mind, too much anxiety in every heart.  Nevertheless, now that the decision had been made it was not only the trekking party but their six companions who were anxious that the trek should get under way.

They would not after all be taking the sledge so laboriously constructed by Cecioni.  Wisely, Malmgen had said he would test it with a brief trial run before they committed themselves to using it,  perhaps loading it with more than they would otherwise have taken.  It was just as well that he did.  Trojani and Zappi went out with the sledge, lightly loaded, and deliberately hauled it across the roughest ice they could find.  The result was as had been feared by Cecioni while he was constructing it.  The flimsy framework of ill-assorted tubing soon broke up.  The two men returned to the tent with what resembled a cat's-cradle rather than a sledge.

So, the hundred pounds and more of provisions had to be divided up among the three men and humped on their shoulders.  Each man would be carrying nearly forty pounds of food and equipment to keep him alive during what would be at least a two weeks' arduous trek across unknown ice, and quite possibly considerably more than that.  They were to carry a length of rope, clumsily made of control lines and other cord salvaged from the wreckage.  This would be indispensable if one of them were to fall into a crevasse in the ice floe and have to be hauled out be his companions.  They took two containers of fuel, and the wherewithal to make small fires for boiling water for pemmican soup.  The revolver was being left behind in the tent, but they took an axe as well as their knives.  One odd piece of their equipment consisted of a roll of varnished fabric salvaged from the wrecked control cabin.  It might come in handy for lying on, or be used as a screen against the wind when they settled down for a rest.

Each man had a windproof suit, through these had not been designed for conditions such as they were likely to encounter on open ice.  Waterproof boots included three spare pairs, since the rough ice would be hard on them as they slogged across it.  In addition they took a pair each of the Eskimo-type overboots, the finskos.  They wore the thickest socks they could lay their hands on, reindeer-hide gloves, jerseys of Iceland wool and sheepskin waistcoats.  On their heads they wore bonnets of heavy wool with earflaps and visors that could be pulled down over the eyes and nose.  Luckily there had been a supply of these garments in the emergency sack that Arduino had thrown out to them from the drifting airship.

One item of equipment which they lacked, and which no polar expedition or mountaineer would ever omit today, was dark glasses to protect the eyes from the glare of ice and snow.  Strangely enough, in the whole marooned party there was only one pair of these, the property of Cecioni.  Very generously he agreed to Nobile's urgent request that he should give the glasses to Malmgren, who would be leading the party across the ice.  It was absolutely essential that at least one member of the party should be able to protect his eyes, whatever might happen to the others.  So, evening came; and it was time for farewells.  It was no moment for sentimentality.  A firm handshake was exchanged between the men who remained behind and each of the three men about to depart.  For Nobile, an emotional Italian who had some difficulty in controlling his feelings, this was the worst moment since the week before, when he had had to accept the fact that his prized dirigible Italia was doomed.  He had already written down a message to be delivered to his wife and family in the event of Malmgren's party effecting contact with the outside world.  The others had all done the same.  Malmgren, Zappi and Mariano left the tent with a handful of these loving messages; but with no certainty in their minds, or even probability, that they would ever be in a position to deliver them.

Before the actual moment of leave-taking, Malmgren had had a session alone in the tent with Nobile, explaining exactly what he proposed to do.  They would make for Foyn with the best possible speed.  From there, he assured his leader - perhaps with more conviction than he really felt - it would be relatively easy to make their way to Spitsbergen and even to King's Bay.  There, he would get in immediate touch with the Tromso Geophysical Institute and establish exactly what the rate and direction of drift had been, so that the site of what they referred to as the Red Tent would be pinpointed accurately.  There would then be no problem in locating it, by air or by sea, better still, by both.  He added a recommendation: that Nobile should expend a few more of his glass containers of red dye and mark out, with dyed material of some sort or other, a square not less than two hundred yards along each side, with the tent exactly in the middle.  This would form an unmistakable landmark for any air rescue party approaching the otherwise barren wilderness of ice.

He added another recommendation.  But this was one that Nobile could not bring himself to accept.  It was that the radio transmitter should be switched off altogether, since it was obviously ineffective.  It had been transmitting, he pointed out, for almost a week without any response.  Bette, therefore, to conserve the precious batteries for the time when contact was established and it became essential to transmit a steady sequence of instructions to the would-be rescuers for locating the site.  If, when that time came, the batteries were exhausted the occupants of the tent would be in a pretty fix.  Nobile nodded, but made no reply.  This was a decision which he and he alone - not even the loyal Biagi - would have to make.

The moment of actual departure came.  The nine men confronted each other with dry throats.  There was so much to say, and at the same time so little that could mean anything.  Malmgren had the last word.  Holding his leader's hand, he said, "Always remember, General, that most lost expeditions have been saved at the eleventh hour!"  It was a remark that was to comfort Nobile and his five companions and sustain their faith for many long weeks to come.

Four men -Trojani, Behounek, Viglieri and Biagi, who had temporarily deserted his transmitter for the occasion - stood and watched as the small trio, with makeshift haversacks weighing down their shoulders, trudged off southwestward in single file.  Professor Malmgren was in the lead, wearing Cecioni's dark glasses against the glare of the ice.  From the tent opening, Cecioni and Nobile, with little Titina in his arms, watched them too, until they were lost to sight.  Biagi returned to his transmitter.  it was five minutes to seven in the evening, time for yet another attempt to transmit their distress signal: "S.O.S. Italia! S.O.S. Italia!" 

Pehaps if they had known how much farther north the Red Tent was pitched on the ice floe than their calculations had suggested, the three men would never have set out on their desperate journey on foot.  Or, if they had set out, they would have done so with even less hope of success than they had hinted at.  Malmgren had estimated the one-all distance at about a hundred miles.  At an average of six miles a day - the best they could really hope to achieve unless the ice conditions improved considerably as they journeyed southward - this meant two weeks of hard slogging.  In fact, the distance between the Red Tent and the nearest land, one of the small islands lying off the north coast of Northeast Land, was very much greater than he had estimated.  Possibly the instruments they used for calculating their position had been damaged when jettisoned from the airship.

Neither Zappi nor Mariano, of course, knew this, nor did Malmgren.  As promoter of the enterprise and leader he may have deliberately appeared more optimistic than he felt, but he was certainly not a happy man.  The thought constantly nagged at him that it was he who had said so positively that the wind would drop as they got further south from the Pole; it was on his professional advice that Italia's engines had been run at full power for so long in order to clear the bad weather near the Pole.  Rightly or wrongly, his conscience sorely pricked him.

The three men tripped and stumbled over the hummocks and jagged lumps of granite-hard ice, or laboriously worked their way around them, checking their route by compass so as not to add any more distance, even measured in yards, than was unavoidable.  They trudged in complete silence, husbanding their strength.  Malmgren's silence was one of sheer unhappiness.  His thoughts were in turmoil.  His advice about the return route from the Pole had proved to be bad advice.  He had urged on his two companions this trek on foot, and it had been resented by the majority of the party.  He had recommended that the transmitter be abandoned - and felt resentment of Biagi, and the meaningful silence of his old friend Nobile.  As for Mariano and Zappi, they trudged manfully along, lost in their own speculations, concentrating on the hard fact of a gruelling ordeal ahead of them.  Neither of them knew just how gruelling it was to prove.

Malmgren was suffering more than just those pangs of conscience - which he need not have been experiencing anyway, for he had acted in good faith.  He had injured his shoulder and upper arm more seriously than he had been prepared to admit to the other members of the party in the five days they had been licking their wounds after being catapulted from the airship.  It is true that he had no actual broken bones, like Nobile and Cecioni; and for that he was thankful.  It was the realisation that others were more gravely injured than he was that enabled him to make light of his own injuries.

But they had not been marching for more than a few hours before Zappi became conscious that their leader was in trouble.  They were walking, as usual, in single file.  Zappi was immediately behind Malmgren; Mariano brought up the rear.  Both men noticed after a while how clumsily the Swede was moving.  He carried one shoulder lower than the other, walking lopsidedly, and gave the odd impression that he was trying to ease that side of himself by using a nonexistent stick.  An hour or so after Zappi and Mariano noticed this, Malmgren called a halt.  They would, he said, make better progress if they eased up at regular intervals.  These regular intervals were to come closer and closer together throughout the remainder of that first day's march.

It was Zappi, the toughest member of the trio, who after several of these halts brusquely told Malmgren to unload his clumsy haversack so that its contents could be redistributed.  He himself would take an extra twenty pounds on his own back.  Mariano quickly agreed to do the same.  Malmgren protested hotly: he was all right, he assured them; it was only that in his experience better time was made over rough going with regular halts.  Zappi spoke with unaccustomed bluntness: better, he said, to redistribute the load so that all three of them should reach journey's end than that all three should be held up because one member could not carry his allotted load.  With extreme reluctance, Malmgren gave in.

They covered barely six miles in that first day's march.  They covered no more on the second day, even though they were longer on their feet.  It was on the third day that Malmgren, now travelling light, fell heavily, his boot having caught against a spike of rock-hard ice half covered by snow as a result of a blizzard that came on during the night.  Soon afterwards he fell a second time, and was slower to get to his feet.  Zappi and Mariano, trudging sombrely in his wake, became more and more concerned about him; and, because of him, about their own prospects.

On the fourth day, they awoke to heavy snow which, unlike the previous day, did not let up at all, but increased until it was a raging blizzard.  They stumbled blindly into it, their heads bent to protect their eyes, from which long thin icicles began to hang as their breath froze on leaving their nostrils.  Before long, the blizzard was so intense that visibility was reduced to no more than a yard.  Further progress became impossible.  This time Mariano took the lead by halting in his tracks and declaring firmly that it was dangerous folly to try to walk any farther.  If, as was always possible, there happened to be a crevasse lying across their route, they could easily fall into it and that would be the end of the expedition once and for all.

Without a word, Zappi took his axe from his belt and set to work to chip out a hollow in the ice and snow.  He used the larger lumps excavated to erect a makeshift wall along the windward side.  The three men consolidated the lumps as best they could, and laid across them the piece of varnished fabric they had brought with them.  It would at least stop up some gaps and protect them a little from the full fury of the wind borne snow.  Then they crouched down, as close together as possible, their heads tucked between their knees, hugging themselves against the bitter cold.  The blizzard had already lasted for hours; it might last for days.

This was the worst experience they had had to date.  At least the Red Tent afforded shelter, cramped as it was inside.  Here on the open ice, however, with nothing more than a shallow pit reinforced with a crude ice wall, they were truly at the mercy of the elements.  It was impossible to light a fire under their cooking pot - one of the small fuel cans that had been adapted for the purpose - so strong and relentless was the icy wind.  A mouthful or two of soup would have been a godsend, but it was out of the question.  They each chewed a knob or two of the hard, unyielding pemmican and a morsel of chocolate, and settled down to what might prove to be a long and bitter vigil.

For the better part of twenty-four hours, they squatted behind that inadequate wind break, becoming colder and more miserable with every hour that dragged by.  Now and then one of them would remark in despair that they might as well break camp and continue on their way as sit there and freeze to death.  It would be no worse to die on their feet, or drown in a crevasse.  But there were always two others to turn down the suggestion as soon as it was made.  To march on in the face of this blizzard, with visibility zero, was to court certain death.

In time the blizzard showed signs of easing a little.  As soon as visibility improved sufficiently, they rolled up their sheet of canvas, stamped their feet on the snow-covered ice to restore circulation , and set off once more, shoulders hunched, their limbs stiff from the long ordeal.  Before the blizzard began they had told themselves that they could see on the far horizon the shape of land, which must be Foyn - their landmark and objective - even though they could not be positive that it was anything more than a delusion.  But now they could see it no longer - if it had been there at all in the first place.  It was infinitely depressing.

A day or two later, Malmgren collapsed, without warning.  He had seemed to be swaying on his feet and walking more erratically than ever.  Suddenly he tripped, fell, and remained motionless where he lay.  When they closed in around him he cried out that he wanted only to be left where he was.  He could carry on no longer.  They must go on without him.

Mariano took charge again.  Saying nothing, he set down the fuel can, filled it quickly with snow and  got a fuel-soaked rag burning under it.  While it was coming to the boil he extracted some pemmican from his haversack and dropped it into the can.  Soon it was reasonably hot.  Still without a word he handed some of it to Malmgren, lying twisted and shrunken on the snow, supported by Zappi drank some of it.  And finally Mariano swallowed what was left.

It had the required effect.  Tasteless as it was, the hot soup put new heart into all of them.  Malmgren, looking a little shame-faced at his outburst, assured his companions that he felt fine.  It had been, he said, just a momentary flagging of muscle and determination.  Now they must push on, and make up for lost time.  And they did.  For several days more they staggered forward across the limitless expanse of snow-covered ice towards a goal that was never in sight.  They had no means of checking whether the drift was being maintained, though they felt confident that they were moving in the right direction.

But they were moving so slowly.  They walked for twelve hours a day, and sometimes longer, with occasional brief halts to brew up soup and ease their loads, but the actual distance they were covering, each member of the trio knew, was a good deal less than what Malmgren had optimistically predicted to Nobile.  The ice conditions instead of improving seemed to become steadily worse.  When they could walk no farther, they simply dropped down where they were, reached for their food supply and gnawed a lump of pemmican raw, unless one of them - usually Filippo Zappi - sufficient strength and determination to light a small fire and boil it into soup.

At that time of year, early June, there was no clear-cut division between night and day.  Only their watches enabled them to know the time - to within an hour or so; but they were never quite sure whether the hour was that of so-called daylight or so-called dark.  It made no difference anyway.  While they had sufficient strength, they trudged forward across the ice; when they could march no more they dropped down and fell asleep.

Marching became progressively more difficult.  The ice floe was often seamed by open patches of grey-green water where the ice had cracked under the pressure of the restless currents underneath.  Some of these "leads" were narrow enough for the men to jump across, though with their half-frozen limbs and heavy packs this entailed an enormous effort.  On these occasions, Mariano always insisted that they should link themselves together with the rope they had brought for the purpose.  This slowed down progress even more; but it was some sort of guarantee that if one man fell into the water the other two would be able to haul his out.  The thought of actually plunging into water as cold as that must have filled them with foreboding.

Some of the leads were too wide to be spanned by jumping.  The only alternative was to work their way in one direction or the other in the hope of finding a point where the edges of the ice floe were close enough for a jump.  With every one of these enforced detours, not only did the distance to be covered increase but it became more difficult to be sure that they were holding to their true course.  There were no landmarks whatsoever to guide them.

They had now been footslogging for ten days since leaving the Red Tent.  With the passing of each interminable and exhausting day they made less and less progress.  Malmgren was asking the to stop more and more frequently.  He had by this time surrendered the whole of his shoulder-load.  For several days he had not spoken a word, but simply trudged on, chin down, his eyes half-closed behind dark glasses, moving like an automaton.  He fell, and struggled to his feet; fell again, and struggled again to his feet, but a little more slowly and painfully each time.  The only sound that ever came out of him was a half-stifled groan.

On the twelfth day -or perhaps it was the fourteenth: they had almost lost count of time - he fell on the ice again, and this time made not the slightest attempt to get up.  As they had done several times before, Maiano and Zappi bent down, thrust their gloved hands under his armpits, and tried to get him on his feet again.  But this time he positively resisted their attempts to raise him, showing greater strength than they would have expected.  In a choked voice, he begged his companions to leave him there to die.  He was certain, he said, that for him death was very near.  It was better that he should be left to die so that they could push on southward without the handicap of a man almost as incapacitated as Nobile or Cecioni, back in the Red Tent.

Mariano and Zappi argued with him,  but in vain.  It is possible that Malmgren knew the story of Captain Scott's Antarctic tragedy of just sixteen years earlier.  Did not Oates get up one day and walk out of the tent with the casual remark that he "might not be back for some time" - a deliberate gesture to relieve his sturdier companions from the drain on their resources that he had been causing for so long?  In any case, Malmgren now made it plain to his two companions that he positively had no intention of getting on his feet again and continuing the march.  While they hovered uncertainly around him, he quietly removed one of his snow-boots, to show that his foot and ankle were "dead" from frostbite.  The other foot, he told them soberly, was the same.  To walk any farther was out of the question.  The men could surely see that for themselves?

They could.  What Malmgren, their leader, had told them made sense.  He was obviously doomed.  If they waited with him, they were doomed too.  And as they well knew, those in the Red Tent at this very moment depended on them for their chance of rescue and survival.  Silently, they assented to Malmgren's request.

They laid him tenderly on his own piece of blanket, with a small ration of pemmican and chocolate within easy reach.  They had abandoned the cooking gear anyway, as it was too much to carry since three men's loads had to be carried by two.  Then, without words - for what was there that they could say? - the two men left.  They did not turn around as they walked away, for neither of them felt they could bear the sight of their leader lying there desolate on the ice with death hovering above him like an invisible vulture.  They were abandoning him: at his insistence, admittedly; but such an action went sorely against the grain, with their naval tradition behind them.

They found it impossible to leave the spot completely.  With mutual, unspoken agreement, they broke their march a few hundred yards from where they had left Malmgren, but he was screened from view by a long, jagged hummock of ice.  Perhaps, they thought, after a few hours Malmgren will have a new surge of resolution and, despite the agony in his feet, make an effort to continue on this dreadful march.  How terrible for him, if he were to make that supreme effort - and never manage to catch up with them!  So, for twenty hours and more the two men lingered within range, trying to relax in the bitter cold, gnawing on their hunks of pemmican, swallowing mouthfuls of snow to quench the thirst that had accompanied them now for so many days and nights.

But next day there was no sign of what they had hoped for.  They were not surprised.  Possibly they were relieved.  They knew in their hearts that Malmgren was finished.  So, they moved off southward once more.  Snow had ceased to fall, the wind had eased a little; for this they were grateful.  But low cloud now covered the sky.  They trudged on beneath its menacing roof, step by step, painfully, without much hope that things would become better.  By Mariano's reckoning it was the fourteenth, or possibly the fifteenth, of June.  It was two weeks since they had said farewell to their companions in the Red Tent.  It was the date by which Malmgren had confidently expected to reach dry land and be in a position to summon help.  For all they could see, after this enormous expenditure of effort they were little nearer their goal than they had been when they set out on the last day but one of the month of May.

And their troubles were by no means over.  Only a day or two after they had abandoned Malmgren, Mariano was struck by that terror of polar exploration: snow blindness.  In spite of everything he could do, disaster had befallen him.  He was suddenly conscious of a violent, searing pain in both eyes, as though a white-hot razor blade had been swiftly drawn across his eyeballs and had then proceeded to saw backward and forward across them.  It was the most agonising pain he had ever experienced.  Unable, for all his naval training and discipline, to control himself, he screamed in agony.

Swiftly, Zappi tore off a strip of material and wound a bandage tightly about his companion's head.  The pressure on his eyeballs increased, and for a few minutes Mariano believed he could not endure it.  He wanted to tear off the bandage and wrench out of their sockets the eyeballs which were burning in them as though they were molten metal.  Zappi, foreseeing what he intended to do, had to restrain him by pinioning his hands behind his back until he could be made to accept the situation.

Snow blindness attacks more suddenly that it recedes.  For the next three days Mariano had to walk blindfolded;  to have removed the bandage now would almost certainly have meant that he would be blind for the rest of his life - if he survived at all.  But so terrible was the pain he had to endure that there were many times when he felt he would prefer permanent blindness to the agony he was suffering.

Zappi was able to comfort him a little by announcing on the second day after the onset of snow blindness that he thought he could discern once again a land mass that must, he felt sure, be their objective, Foyn Island.  What he had not the heart to add was that, if if was land at all, it was certainly no nearer than the land they had thought they could see soon after leaving the tent.  This suggested that the sideways drift of the ice floe was even greater than they had feared.

They had set out with provisions for two weeks or perhaps a little longer.  Already they had been on the trek nearer three weeks than two, and supplies had dwindled to a dangerously low level.  Zappi, wearing wearing Cecioni's dark glasses, handed over to him by Malmgren, kept a continuous watch for the possibility of a seagull's egg or two, or even a bird, which they could kill and eat uncooked.  But he saw no eggs at all; and the only seagull he spotted was too elusive to capture.

Their progress became slower and slower.  Now that he was having to lead his snow blinded companion laboriously by hand, cautiously guiding his clumsy footsteps among the hummocks of ice to where channels of water intersected the ice and instructing him how far to jump in order to cross them, progress was little more than a crawl.  If they did as much as two miles between the start and the finish of the day, that was all.  When at last they stopped, they were utterly exhausted.

Conditions were deteriorating rapidly.  The leads were becoming more and more frequent, and wider and wider.  As a result, they often footslogged all day long, and finished up little if any farther south than when they had started walking that day.  More than once Mariano slipped into the water and had to be laboriously hauled out by his companion at the end of the rope they had providently brought with them.  As a result, his boots became completely waterlogged, and the day soon came when he told Zappi that he knew he had frostbite in all his toes and in one complete foot.  Neglected frostbite, not medically treated, leads inevitably to gangrene; and gangrene, if not medically treated in time, means certain death.  Mariano knew this.  Zappi knew it too.  There was nothing  he could say to reassure his companion.  They remembered the condition of Malmgren's foot.

One day, possibly the twenty-first or twenty-second of June, when they had been interminable weeks on the march, the first ray of hope dawned for the two men.  Mariano, his hearing sharpened perhaps because of the temporary loss of his eyesight, stopped in his tracks.  He had heard, he said, the unmistakable note of an aircraft.

Zappi halted too; but he heard nothing.  He turned angrily on Mariano, upbraiding him for raising false hopes.  But Mariano was insistent: he was as sure as he could possibly be that the sound he had faintly heard was not just the eternal whining of the wind over the tortured expanse of the pack ice they were struggling to cross, but that of an aircraft's propeller.

And he was proved right.  A minute later, Zappi not only caught the sound but actually spotted the plane: it was a mere speck in the sky, miles and miles away.

Swiftly he dropped his pack on the ice and fumbled with clumsy hands for their small reserve of fuel.  He tore off some strips of rag, snatched at the container of matches they had hoarded for just such an occasion as this, and, almost too excited to control his movements, attempted to set fire to the rags.

Fate was against him.  The rags were wet; the matches broke off short, hardly producing a spark of flame.  When they touched the fuel-soaked rags, instead of there being a flame, the rags simply smouldered like tinder: a small glow-worm of red light being all there was to see.  Enraged and frustrated, Zappi poured on more of the precious fuel, struck matches in twos and threes.  The result was the same: not a hint of a true flame.  He tried again, this time risking the loss of all his precious fuel in one mighty blaze that must attract the attention of the pilot, who had undoubtedly been sent out to search for the castaways.  But still he could not obtain a flame.  He threw down his matches in a fury of frustration and despair.  When he next looked up, the plane had banked away and was heading swiftly eastward, farther and farther away from them, obviously unaware that any castaways were within the pilot's range of vision.

It was a bitter moment for both men.  Never in their lives had they felt so entirely at the mercy of Fate, so utterly helpless.  A plane had been sent out.  By luck or good management it had headed in the right direction.  And it had turned and headed away from them, apparently satisfied that there was no one in need of help in the region it had covered during its search.

They tried to console each other by speculation.  If one plane had been sent out, Mariano said, then there would undoubtedly be others; they would be luckier next time.  Zappi said that since the Red Tent was so much more conspicuous than they were, the plane would probably have spotted it.  Perhaps that was why it had seemed to swing away so positively.  When it made contact with the tent, Nobile would tell his rescuers about the party trekking south; it would only be a matter of time before rescue was at hand.  So they speculated, and tried to draw comfort from their theories.

It was hard to bear the thought that a plane had been so near, and yet turned away without spotting them.  The fact made them feel more isolated than ever.  Mariano's guess that the plane might be the first of several proved to be correct.  During the next day or two they both heard planes in the distance, and Zappi believed he actually saw one; but the planes all circled high overhead and then wheeled away, to vanish over the southern horizon.  It was a bitter irony that some of them should come so near and yet be so remote and impossible to communicate with.

Bitter as the experience was, worse was to come.  Mariano's eyes had begun to improve; he could remove the bandage now for an hour or two at a time.  But the very day that his eyes really seemed to be on the mend he tripped on a jagged spar of ice and fell heavily, with one leg awkwardly twisted underneath his massive frame.  He was unable to restrain a yelp of agony.  He was convinced that he had broken his leg.

Zappi dropped to his side, whipped out his knife and cut a slit down the side of Mariano's trousers.  The flesh, he was horrified to see, was vey much as Malmgren's had been.  It had that sinister dead-looking hue that goes with frostbite.  Tenderly, he felt his way up the leg, from ankle well up to the thigh.  He was immensely relieved to find no sign of a break.  Nor did Mariano particularly wince as his hands touched him: another good sign that the damage was not serious.

With Zappi's help, he tried manfully to stagger on to his feet again.  But the leg would not take his weight.  He was one of the heaviest members of Italia's crew, and even the short rations and hard exercise of the march had not greatly reduced his weight.  The frostbite had taken all the strength out of his leg; it was obvious not only to him but to his companion that he could not walk any farther, even with Zappi's remarkable strength bolstering him like a living crutch.

There was nothing to do but to remain where they were and patiently await rescue or death - whichever might be the first to come.  So far as Mariano was concerned, he was in such pain, had suffered so much, that the thought of imminent death was almost a relief.

It was now June 27.  They had been on the march for exactly four weeks.  Almost two weeks had passed since they had had to abandon Malmgren.  Now it looked as though their own end was at hand.  Zappi, still surprisingly strong, resolute not to abandon his companion, set about looking for the best site for their final stopping place.  It must not be far from where they were, for Mariano was obviously incapable of walking more than a few yards.  For all his strength and toughness, Zappi knew that he was not capable of carrying his companion over the ice.  Just the same, the spot where Mariano had fallen was not a good one: there seemed to be channels of water all around them; to have any real chance of survival they must somehow get on to a more substantial ice floe.  There they would settle down, to await what might come.

He found an ice floe near enough for Mariano, now in extreme pain, to be dragged.  There they sat down, sharing the piece of varnished cloth they had been carrying.  They placed between them their now almost non-existent store of pemmican and chocolate.  Having made Mariano as comfortable as possible, Zappi set off to undertake one more task.  He had collected as many fragments of cloth and other material as could be spared.  These he laid out on the ice in the form of clumsily shaped lettering as large as he could make it.  With luck, it might be spotted from the air next time a roving plane came within reach overhead.  He had sufficient material for just three words:


There was nothing more that he could do.  He returned to his companion and the two of them crouched in the lee of a hummock of ice, to await what the future might bring.  Neither man had any real hope in his heart; but neither of them would admit as much to the other.

They were to sit there, not for a matter of a few hours; not even for a matter of a day or two.  With frostbite crawling up their legs, hunger gnawing incessantly at their vitals, thirst swelling the tongues in their mouths, and sinking deeper and deeper into a mood of utter despair, they were to remain there well into the early part of the mont of July.