Monday, 2 July 2012

Airship over the Pole by Garry Hogg Pt.9: The Sledge Party.

Among the advance arrangements made by General Mobile before setting out for the Pole was the establishment on Spitsbergen of a squad of the famous Italian Alpini.  It consisted of eight members of the Sixth Alpine Regiment: men specially trained for action in mountainous and icebound terrain.  In addition to their ordinary military training, they were all expert skiers, accustomed to moving fast and continuously in the worst possible conditions.  They were capable of functioning in circumstances that would bring ordinary soldiers to a complete halt.  They had the toughness and sense of initiative and independence allied to discipline that characterises the commandos of today.  Their commanding officer was Captain Gennaro Sora, known throughout Italy as one of the country's most expert skiers.  He acted as ski instructor to the Alpini when no on active service.

Like everyone connected with the Italia expedition, he had the highest respect for Nobile - respect amounting almost to reverence.  Stationed near the hangar from which he and his men had helped to launch the airship, he became more and more certain during those long days of mysterious silence that something was amiss with Italia.  At intervals he suggested that a sledge party ought to go out across the ice to try to find out what had happened.  When the days extended into weeks, he could restrain his impatience no longer.  News had at last reached the base ship that the expedition had run into real trouble: that six men had vanished altogether, one had died, six were marooned in a tent, and three others had set out on a trek across the ice in search of help.  Captain Sora decided that this was the time for him to set out northward with the objective of meeting the smaller group and then of bringing help to the main party in the tent.

Meanwhile, however, the weather over Spitsbergen had deteriorated badly, so he had to content himself with making preparations for a sledge party when the weather would permit.  Because he was a serving officer, he first asked permission for this trek from army headquarters in Italy.  To his surprise and anger, his request was turned down.  His place, he was told, was at King's Bay, where General Nobile had given him a job to do; it was not up to him to act on his own initiative.  Sora fumed: this was a typical example of deliberate blindness among those not on the spot, who could only act according to rules laid down.

He was determined to undertake the trek.  As an officer, under army orders, he knew that he risked court-martial if he disobeyed those orders.  Nevertheless, so positive was he that it was his duty to attempt a rescue that he was prepared to ignore the risk of a court martial.  But he could not involve the soldiers under his command.  So, though they would willingly have accompanied him, and indeed begged to be allowed to do so, he ordered them to remain at the base.  He would have to find men from some other source to accompany him on his trek.

He first approached the master of the whaling ship Braganza, then at anchor in the bay.  The master willingly agreed to take him and his party as far north as possible, to the edge of the pack ice.  He then set about enlisting volunteers to accompany him.  Two would be sufficient, he thought.  And two were very readily forthcoming: a Dutchman named Van Dongen, a veteran explorer with plenty of experience of northern waters, and a Dane with the curious name of Warning.  Both men, like Sora himself, were men of fine physique and thoroughly fit.

On June 18, three days after Malmgren was left behind by Zappi and Mariano, and incidentally on the same day as Maddalena arrived at King's Bay in his S-55 Savoia hydroplane, Sora and his two companions were disembarked at the northern-most tip of Northeast Land.  They had with them a Nansen-type Norwegian sledge that had been tested out and was in excellent condition.  It was to be hauled by a team of nine huskies.  On the sledge were packed ample provisions, not only for the sledge party but for the men they hoped to find.  There was also a wide range of medical supplies, and Sora, like most Alpini officers, had some knowledge of how to use them.  Finally, the sledge carried a collapsible boat.  The three men knew well that by the second half of June there would be many wide leads to negotiate, and a boat was essential in they were to make any real progress.

During the first two days, they covered considerably more ground then Sora, in his most optimistic mood, would have dared to hope for.  Though the ice varied in quality and condition, and there were many soft and treacherous patches, the Nansen sledge rode it well, and the huskies pulled willingly.  Van Dongen and Warning appeared to stand up to the demand on their energies as well as the leader himself, who always kept himself trained to the highest pitch of fitness and did not carry an ounce of superfluous flesh on his muscular frame.

But on the third day out, just when they seemed to be moving fast and well, the Dane suddenly pitched sideways onto the ice, groaning with pain and clutching his stomach.  Sora at once brought the sledge to a halt, handed the reins to Van Dongen, and dropped to his knees beside the stricken man.  Warning groaned, and in between groans muttered that he had a stomach pain so violent that it doubled him up.  Sora suspected appendicitis, and had a moment of panic.  He had a good knowledge of first-aid, but this would be something outside his experience.  All he knew was that appendicitis neglected could develop into peritonitis; and peritonitis, if not swiftly and expertly treated by a professional, led inevitably - to death.  It was a frightening thing to have to face, out there alone in the wilderness of ice.

But Warning's attack ended as suddenly as it began.  He sat up, apologised for what had happened, staggered a little uncertainly to his feet, and declared that he now felt as right as rain.  He must, he said cheerfully, have eaten something that did not agree with him.  Sora was not as relived as he would have like to feel.  However, he tried not to show that he was worried, and took over the sledge again from Van Dongen.  the three men set off again, trying to make up for lost time.

Then for the second time, Warning collapsed suddenly, clutching his stomach,  unable to stifle the groans that came from his compressed lips.  Again the attack ended after a few minutes just as suddenly as it had begun.  But throughout all of that third day he continued to have these violent spasms, and Sora noticed with dismay that the intervals between the attacks became shorter and shorter as the day wore on.  And it was a long day: in the second half of June there was little of no difference in that latitude between the hours of darkness and the hours of light.

Reluctantly Sora decided that they had better break their journey completely for twenty-four hours.  This would enable the Dane to rest and recuperate.  After that enforced rest they started off again.  And in little more than an hour the Dane collapsed again.  There was nothing for it, if they were to continue their trek, but to put him on the sledge and let him be hauled by the huskies until he recovered - if he was going to recover.  Warning protested, but Sora curtly reminded him that, though he and Van Dongen were volunteers, he was the leader, and his orders must be obeyed.

Warning was a massively built man and unfortunately his weight was too much for the sledge in addition to the load it already carried.  It was not that it was too frail to take the load; it was simply that the ice was soft and the runners bit so deeply into it that the huskies were brought to a standstill time and again.  The only alternative was to remove as much as possible from the sledge and for the two men still on their feet to carry the load on their backs  - lightening the sledge by nearly the weight of the man who had to be carried on it.  As a result the sledge rode better; but Sora and Van Dongen were weighted down by almost intolerable loads, their boots sinking deep into the soft ice with every step they took.

Progress became so slow and laborious that Sora's optimism sank to a low ebb.  He could see no solution to their problem.  Even if they turned around, they would simply be faced with a four-day trek back to where they had disembarked from the whaling ship; and their mission would be a failure.  On the other hand, if they tried to continue at this slow rate they were unlikely to succeed in their rescue attempt either; moreover, with the passing of each day the ice was becoming more and more treacherous both for men on foot and for the huskies.

Finally the Dane himself made a decision.  Quietly but firmly he expressed his wish to be left behind, while the two fit men continued northward.  They could leave him, he said, with adequate provisions, his sleeping bag and other essential equipment.  When he felt well enough, he would turn around and make his way back to base as best he could.

Reluctantly, Sora agreed with the proposal.  He was realist enough to recognise that this was the only possible solution.  The Dane was sufficiently experienced to be able to look after himself.  He could subsist for two weeks on the rations they would leave him; and in that time he was certain to have recovered sufficiently to make his way back to within reach of help from the base.  One proviso, however, Sora did make: on no account was Warning to attempt to overtake them, no matter how soon he might begin to feel well again; those were his orders, and he made the Dane promise to obey them absolutely.  

So, on June 24, the day after Nobile had been taken from the Red Tent by Lieutenant Lundborg, Sora and Van Dongen whipped up their dog team and set off again, leaving the Dane with his store of provisions and such medicine as might be of use to him.  Also a revolver, in case he should be found by a bear.  They had shaken hands all round.  Whatever Warning may have been feeling, he was careful to give no indication of it as he said goodbye to his companions: they would all three meet again, soon, he said, in happier circumstances; he was only sorry he had proved such a failure and was no longer able to play his part in the rescue.

This was the first setback Captain Sora's small expedition was to suffer.  Unhappily it was by no means the last, as they discovered within two hours of saying their farewells.  They were overtaken by a blizzard that sprang up quite unexpectedly and blew with ever-mounting fury.  Visibility fell to a yard of two, and the huskies reacted accordingly.  They came to an untidy and tumultuous halt.  It was impossible to make and headway at all, and Sora accepted the inevitable.  The dogs were tethered to an iron stake and, as is their custom, curled up close together in a circle with their noses to the middle, well aware that for the time being their work of hauling the sledge was at an end.  Sora and Van Dongen made themselves such shelter as they could in the lee of the sledge, crawled into their sleeping bags and settled down to weather the blizzard.  Both men knew it was a bleak prospect.  Even in June, an Arctic blizzard could blow for days on end.  At least they were a little better off than their companion, as they had the sledge and the dogs, and there were two of them to exchange grumbles and speculate about their prospects.

The blizzard raged for two long days and nights.  To venture out from their makeshift shelter was an ordeal they went through as rarely as possible, though it was necessary at intervals to feed the huskies as well as themselves.  Sora was by no means easy in his mind about the dogs: when he went out to feed them there was a feel in the air about them that disturbed him.  When on the third day the blizzard had abated sufficiently for them to start out again he found that one of the huskies had a badly injured leg.  Possibly the sledge had run into it when they stopped suddenly at the onset of the blizzard.  Another husky seemed to be ill: it crouched motionless, almost lifeless, instead of springing into action as sledge-dogs usually do when the order for departure is given.  There was only one thing to do.  Sora took out his pistol and shot the two dogs, taking them some distance from their companions before doing so.  He knew that the effect on the others was unpredictable, and might hinder their progress.

So they started off again.  Now they had only seven dogs to haul the sledge, in worsening conditions.  On top of the already softened ice there was a thick blanket of snow which dragged at the sledge runners like a myriad tiny hands determined to impede its progress.

They had been on their trek for nine days.  Two of those days had been wasted while they sheltered from the blizzard; another full day had been lost while they tried to restore the Dane to health so that he could continue with them.  Before that, owing to his indisposition, they had been making slow progress anyway.  And, with a heavy sledge and only seven dogs to haul it, they were making even slower progress.  Two days later two more of the huskies fell sick and had to be destroyed.  A Nansen sledge, loaded with provisions and equipment, is not designed for hauling by only five dogs, however willing, even in good ice conditions.  Sora and Van Dongen had to put their shoulders to the sledge and help the huskies for hours at a time when the going was at its worst.  This additional strain took its toll of the two men.

Next day they were surprised to hear the sound of a plane coming up behind them.  It bore Norwegian markings.  A small package was dropped from it that contained cigarettes.  In the package was a note to the effect that the ice to the north of their route was badly intersected by leads; they were advised not to push on any farther.  Captain Sora was curiously annoyed at being given this advice, though it was obviously well-meant, and as a result of intelligent reconnaissance.  He felt, however, that since he was down on the ice he probably knew as much about it as anyone else.

So they pressed on.  But the ice was becoming more dangerous, more treacherous.  Not only was much of it broken, a lot of it had become heaped up in jagged reefs which the dogs, even with the help of the two men, had the utmost difficulty in negotiating.  Then suddenly, and without warning, the ice cracked across, with the leading pair of huskies on the far side and the three others, immediately harnessed to the sledge, on the near side.  Van Dongen was with the lead dogs, Sora with the sledge.

Sora yelled to his companion to jump back, hanging on to the lead dogs, before the gap became too wide.  Van Dongen attempted to obey, took a flying leap and landed safely beside him.  But in the confusion all five dogs spilled into the water.  Their harness began to break under the furious tugging among them.  It held long enough, in spite of the strenuous efforts of the two men, for the dogs to drag down the sledge into the water with them.  Still hanging on wildly to the sledge, Van Dongen too was dragged off the ice and into the water.  He sank until his head was barely above the surface.  The dogs milled frantically all about him.

Sora dug his heels into the ice, to get what leverage he could, and lay back on the part of the harness still in his hands in a desperate attempt to save his companion and, if possible, the sledge and the remaining dogs.  Fortunately the sledge, buoyed up by the sleeping bags, remained afloat.  Sora hung on for all he was worth, lying back like the anchorman in a tug of war team.  Van Dongen, by some miracle, managed to get a grip on the edge of the ice and, with superhuman strength, dragged himself bodily out of the water.  Then there was a jerk on the harness as the dogs milled about behind him, and he vanished below the surface for a moment.

Relinquishing the harness he had been hanging on to all this time, Sora deliberately plunged into the lead to help him.  Between them they managed to scramble out on the ice before their limbs froze stiff.  But it had meant letting go of the harness.  Three of the huskies disappeared and never came up again.  They managed somehow to drag back two others on to the ice.  With the dogs' help they managed eventually to haul the sledge back on the ice as well.  But this was largely because, as a result of the accident, much of its cargo had slipped off and had sunk out of sight.  The sledge was much lighter than it had been, but a large part of their provisions and equipment was lost forever.

Half-frozen by the icy water that had penetrated their thick clothing and boots, the two men assessed what was salvaged out of all that splendid cargo of provisions and equipment.  One sleeping bag; some spare socks; a sealed container of matches; a canister or two of drinking water; a supply of ammunition for Sora's pistol; and about a week's supply of pemmican and chocolate - if they rationed themselves severely.  It was a major disaster to the expedition.

They decided to abandon the sledge.  The supplies that were salvaged they could carry in packs on their shoulders.  There was no need for the cumbersome sledge.  Anyway, it was too heavy for the remaining couple of dogs to haul.  They debated as to whether to shoot the huskies.  Sora decided against it: the dogs could always provide food "on the hoof" if  the worst came to the worst, though husky meat did not make good eating.  Van Dongen was surprised to learn that Sora proposed to continue the trek, as ill equipped as they were, but he did not protest.

They erected the Nansen sledge so that it would be conspicuous.  Sora wrote a note on the cigarette package giving the date, July 1, and stating that he and his companion were heading northeastward; that the third member of their party, at his own request, had been left behind.  There was always the very real chance that their troubles were not yet over; it they ran into anything worse, and had to be rescued also, the information would be of some guidance to rescuers.

For the next couple of days, they slogged purposefully on across the ice, which steadily deteriorated.  Time after time they stepped into puddles that were invisible below the blanket of snow, sometimes up to their thighs, sometimes waist-deep in icy water.  They were careful to leave a space of a yard or two between them, walking in single file, so that if the front man fell in the other could stop in time and help him out.  With growing alarm Sora noticed that his companion became slower and slower in recovering from these frequent falls; he rarely spoke, not even answering remarks made to him.

On July 4 it was quite obvious that Van Dongen was not merely feeling the strain but was a sick man.  There was an unnatural brightness in his eyes.  He walked with the curious, uneven gait of a man whose limbs were not co-ordinated.  Once or twice he fell, and responded very feebly to Sora's efforts to get him on his feet again.  Then came the time when, having fallen, he simply refused to move.  Quite possibly he was physically incapable of getting up, but he has also lost all will to do so.  Sora coaxed him, then bullied hime, but without success.  The man had become as much of a casualty as the Dane had been when they eventually abandoned him two weeks earlier.

Van Dongen's condition grew steadily worse. It was apparent that unless a miracle were to take place, he must die.  With his clothing soaked through, unable to move about to keep his circulation going, there was little hope for him.  Sora himself had been feeling the strain, fit as he was and accustomed to hardship in grim conditions.  He had the strength to fend for himself, but precious little in reserve to support a sick companion.  He was glad he had left that note behind with the sledge: it seemed as though they would be as much in need of rescue as the others on the ice.  Their supply of food had dwindled to practically nothing.  The two dogs, which they had intended if necessary to kill for meat, had mysteriously vanished during one of the short spells of fitful sleep the two men had managed; so that last hope had gone.

By now the Dutchman was delirious.  His mind wandered.  He spoke of sighting planes, of lavish banquets, of sunny climes and a life of ease and pleasure.  All the things, in fact, remotest from the two men's grasp.  He had rare moments of lucidity, and talked quite normally with his companion.  But these would end abruptly, and he would be away in his dream world, talking again in a frightening fashion.  Sora felt desperately alone; perhaps more alone than he would have felt if he had been on his own and not tied to a companion who was out of his mind.

They had not the facilities for making any sort of camp.  Their clothes were so wet they gave almost no warmth.  They had one sleeping bag, wet from immersion, and not large enough anyway for more than one of them at a time.  Sora gave it to his companion, and hugged himself close alongside him, a prey to the wind that blew everlastingly about them.  Every now and then, he staggered to his feet and tried to take enough exercise to stimulata a little circulation; but on a poor diet and in such intolerable weather conditions the effort was too much for him, tough as he was.  Soon he was crouching down again beside Van Dongen, without hope.

Four days after Van Dongen's collapse, during one of his rare moments of sanity, both men heard the unmistakable sound of a plane overhead.  Sora scrambled to his feet and raked the sky.  Yes, there it was: a German Junkers, but with Russian markings on its wings and fuselage.

Sora made his way, tripping and stumbling, to a plle of ice, scrambled up to the top of it, taking off his anorak as he did so, and stood swaying there, waving his anorak like a banner over his head.  He even shouted aloud, startled at the hoarseness of his croaking voice and not realising how impossible it was for him to be heard.  Of course he was not heard.  Nor, apparently, was his violent waving seen.  For soon afterwards the plane swung away from its original direction, which would have taken it right overhead, and vanished over the horizon.

It was a savage disappointment to the two men.  Perhaps for the first time in the twenty days since they had started out, even Sora abandoned hope.  He could not know that the Junkers, flown by the Russian airman Boris Chuckhnovsky, developed engine trouble at the very moment that the pilot spotted them. He had turned hurriedly back, and subsequently crash-landed.  Sora can hardly be blamed for losing hope.  All the responsibility had been his.  He had undertaken the expedition at the risk of court-martial.  He had had to leave Warning behind.  For some time past he had had to do everything for Van Dongen as well as for himself; this had included the demoralising business of listening to the Dutchman's interminable delirious ramblings day and night.  He was now feeling ill himself, and pretty well at the end of his tether.  Nor was there anything else that he could do.

For three days he crouched there alongside his sick companion.  He scanned the sky by the hour for a sign of a returning plane.  None appeared.  Every few hours he gnawed a morsel of pemmican, making it last as long as he could so that the interval before the next "meal" would be that much shorter.  He continually wriggled his toes inside his boots, as though to assure himself that the anticipated frostbite had not yet attacked him.  He was tempted to urge his companion, in a moment when he was not delirious, to do the same.  But he realised that if Van Dongen was going to succumb at all to that bugbear of polar explorers, there was nothing whatever he could do about it.

By July 12, three and a half weeks since disembarking from the whaler, when they were both numbed by exposure and weekend by lack of food, so that they had virtually given up all hope of surviving, Sora's faith in miracles was unexpectedly rewarded.  Somewhere, far out across the pack ice which had defeated them, he saw, or believed he saw, a column of smoke - the last thing he had ever expected to see amid such desolation.

With a sudden access of strength and energy, Sora scrambled to his feet and made his way, more painfully this time, to the top of the hummock of ice from which he had tried to attract the attention of the pilot of the Junkers four days earlier.  Shading his aching eyes against the ice glare, he looked, and looked, and looked.  Yes it was unmistakably smoke.  What is more, it was smoke form a ship's funnel.  It must be an icebreaker, he thought.  Only an icebreaker could have penetrated so far into the wilderness of ice that surrounded the Pole.

He called excitedly to his companion, who at that moment was enjoying one of his lucid intervals.  Van Dongen struggled to his feet, new energy flooding his near-paralysed system.  Somehow he managed to stagger to the top of the ice hummock on which Sora was standing.  Sora reached out and steadied him as he reached the top.  Now both men could see the smoke, which definitely came from the two funnels of a vessel.  As they looked, there came a blast of a ship's siren.  They realised that they had been spotted by the lookout in the crow's nest.

Exausted as they were, they almost danced on top of that slippery hummock of ice.  Then they stood still again, striving to see what was going on.  They saw someone waving a flag.  It was the Russian flag, which confirmed Sora's belief that it must be a Russian icebreaker.  Only icebreakers could move where any other type of vessel however powerful would be brought to a standstill.  So, they were saved!  It would be only a matter of hours before they were on board.

For a moment or two they toyed with the idea of starting across the ice towards the vessel.  But Sora clamped down on the suggestion almost as soon as it entered his head.  The distance between them and the vessel was certainly much greater than it appeared: distances over ice were notoriously difficult to estimate.  What was more, there would almost certainly be wide leads along the way.  In fact, her very presence, with her powerful engines turning propellers, would set the ice floes in uneasy motion, breaking up the less solid sheets.  It would be folly to try to reach her on foot, without a sledge or a boat.

Better by far to stay where they were and await developments.  The ship's master would know best what to do.  He might attempt to bring his vessel nearer.  He might decide to put a shore party on the ice, with a sledge and dog team, to fetch them.  The important thing was - that the two castaways had been actually seen from the vessel; their presence was know to the crew.  It would only be a matter of an hour or two, or a little longer; they could afford to wait, and to wait patiently, knowing they had been located.  Unlike an aircraft, a ship would not turn around and vanish over the horizon!

They watched keenly.  For a time the vessel, with the pall of black smoke which had first attracted their attention, seemed to be moving slowly towards them.  Then, without warning, and to their bitter disappointment, she altered course.  Half an hour later she was farther from them than she had been when they first spotted the smoke.  Then even the smoke was so thin that it was no more than a smoke ghost.  Van Dongen and Captain Sora looked at each other in silence.  It was impossible to believe that such a thing had happened.   But it was true: it had happened before their very eyes.