Horseshoe Island sea ice loss


Sledging party lost on sea ice, Horseshoe Island May 1958

On 27 May 1958 three men, Stanley Black, Dave Statham and Geoff Stride left Horseshoe Island to sledge the 37 miles across the sea ice to visit the emperor penguin rookery on the Dion Islands to observe the eggs, that would have been laid earlier in the winter, hatching. They took two sledges each pulled by seven huskies. The trip had been planned for four out of the six men on base but at the last moment Ray (Paddy) McGowan, the radio operator who was having trouble with his transmitter decided to stay behind to mend it. It saved his life. The three-man party was never seen again. Apart from Ray McGowan there were only two others on the base, David McDowell, senior meteorologist whose recollections can be read here and John Paisley, meteorologist and base leader. The hut is still there and preserved as a historic monument.

In Of ice and men, Sir Vivien Fuchs, recounts the extensive and dangerous search that was mounted to find these men, the mystical premonitions of the base leader and the dogs that returned, some with their traces cut as if they had been released to fend for themselves at a moment of maximum danger. In reading this account the reader should be aware that in these latitudes at this time of the year there is no sun. It is night for 24 hours of the day. The sun was to return to blink over the northern horizons for a few moments before setting on 9th July nearly six weeks after the men were lost and whilst the search for them was still going on. Sir Vivien Fuchs wrote:

The inexplicable

"There are many records of inexplicable or mystical events occurring to people in times of great danger.  John Paisley was then Base Leader at Horshoe. and at two o'clock that afternoon (27 May) he watched his party apparently negotiating a lead about a mile-and-a-half from Pourquoi Pas Island without misgivings.

A few minutes after nine [that evening] I was overcome by an unbelievable feeling of calamity. The force of this was such that contrary to my nature I was compelled to get onto my knees and pray. Such a compulsion has never happened before or since.

John Paisley's Journal

Many months later when Paisley returned home, he was shown a letter dated 28 May 1958, written by his aunt to his mother saying 'John has been involved in a terrible accident with loss of life. but he is safe himself'. His own experience in the field was vivid enough to cause him intense anxiety when the sledging party did not come up on the radio on the 28th or 29th.  On the 30th he had written:

Paddy woke me early and confirmed a horrible premonition that has been with me since the night of the 27th - the ice has gone. I walked to a good view point along the Rocks All the way I was thinking what I might see, but in spite of that I was totally unprepared for the shock. I was appalled . . . that ghastly expanse of black water from the ice edge to the horizon. I returned to the hut stunned.  Only that they had reached their camp site was the whole world. . . . But for my feeling of concern last Tuesday night I should not doubt their safety I tried the radio again tonight but without luck.


The search

"Next day SECFIDS (John Green) in Stanley (Falkland Islands) was told of the situation and he, rightly ordered Paisley to take no immediate action because the three men at Horseshoe with only one dog team would be too weak a party to mount a search. All bases were alerted to keep a radio watch, but nothing was heard. On 2nd  June John Rothera, based at Danco and surveying in the Arrowsmith Peninsula area to the northeast, broke in on the radio 'sched' to say that his party would search Laubeuf Fjord. By the 4th they were travelling along the north shore of Pourquoi Pas Island but found nothing

"On the night of the 6th 'Yona', a bitch from the missing teams, returned to Horseshoe exhausted and still wearing harness. For hours they searched for her tracks with lanterns, but it was only next morning that they could follow them out into Lystad Bay where they disappeared. She seemed to have been coming from the south, which was ominous for it might indicate that the lost party had drifted in that direction on broken sea ice.
By this time the Stonington field party had got  back to their base, and Paisley asked Gibbs for help. His response was immediate, but it was a daunting undertaking for winter darkness was upon them, and the sea ice was in a very treacherous condition. They knew there was open water only sixteen miles to the West and a wide lead extended from Pourquoi Pas Island to Camp Point, which could cut them off from Horseshoe.

"Gibbs, Procter and Wyatt searched northwards, their first stop the Argentine station on the Debenham Islands where they learnt that two dogs had been seen but could not be caught, when men approached they ran off towards Millerand Island. They decided to invcstigate that area first and soon saw the dogs, but they in turn were unable to get near them. An Argentine field party camped on Millerand reported that six days earlier `Chloe' had arrived, ravenous and very iced-up.

"Quickly moving on they next sledged to Randall Rocks, Stipple Rocks and Pod Rocks in very treacherous ice conditions. Everywhere there was heavy new pressure ice and at any moment a shift of wind could have set it in motion. Nothing was found and by the 15th they were back on the mainland coast at Cape Calmette, where they heard that `Elma' had now returned to Horseshoe.

"Joint plans were made between the two bases to search the rest of the mainland coast and the east side of Adelaide Island. On the 17th the two uncatchable dogs seen at Millerand arrived at Stonington, turning out to be `Ruth' and `Angus'. Both were wearing harness, but Angus' trace had been cut or bitten while Ruth's harness was complete with trace and attaching ring. It is possible that the ring twisted clear of the cliphook, but more likely that she had been released. If so, it followed that the traces of harnesses on the other dogs had probably been cut by men, not sheared by dogs' teeth.

"On the same day Gibbs found `Cocoa' and `Umiak' in Square Bay, well to the north of Stonington. Cocoa was in fair condition with two bits of ice on his coat but wearing his harness, which had been chewed in two places and the trace cut six inches from his collar. Gibbs remembers that two or three other dogs which returned also wore harness (though he did not see them), so it could be deduced that an accident occurred while the party were travelling, but the trace clipped to Cocoa's collar, not to his harness, indicated that the men had stopped for some reason.

"At that time a custom had developed of leaving the dogs in harness overnight, which would account for both the trace and the harness being bitten through. But the fact that the traces were clean cut raiscd the question of whether perhaps the men had had time to cut the teams loose from whatever danger was threatening them - we shall never know for certain.

"On the 29th 'Bessie' and `Cocky' came back to Horseshoe. This made nine animals home out of the fourteen that had set out as two teams - six from one, three from the other. When a search of the islands and fjords in northern Marguerite Bay revealed nothing, the parties turned their attention to eastern Adelaide Island and thc Dions to the south, where again the sea ice was precarious. No clues were found. Beyond lay the Faure Islands, right in the path of any ice blown out by northerly winds - clearly the last hope for the lost men.

The order to stop the search

"By now instructions had been received from Stanley not to risk life by extending the search over areas of new ice. The two Base Leaders called their parties in, but could not accept the order personally. They felt strongly that at least the two of them must make the attempt - a very courageous decision in view of the darkness and unstable ice. It was 8th July, forty days since the party had disappeared, and even if they were on the Faure Islands it was doubtful whether they could have survived so long. Yet there was just a chance in a thousand - and it had to be taken. Both were determined to make sure that no doubts remained.

"On 9th July Paisley and Gibbs gingerly made a four-mile test run onto the thin ice and then returned. Next day, with 800 pounds on the sledge, they set out. Good weather held, and apart from some new pressure ridges, they covered the first eleven miles fairly easily. But the last five took two-and-a half hours of manhandling the sledge over heavy pressure ice by a circuitous route, constantly having to find gaps between old rafted floes.

On approaching the nearest islet they found the way blocked by great pressure belts, but ultimately they forced a way through and camped inside the island group with considerable relief. As they rested, the sun just peeped over the horizon for the first time for many weeks, shedding a low golden light across the frozen sea, `its warmth felt through the eyes rather than the body'.

Next day the wind rose to gale force and driving drift made any sort of search impossible. Conscious that any blow could break up the new ice, and prevented by thick drift from seeing what effect the wind was having, the men suffered an anxious time, their minds concentrating on food problems: `Unless we find seals we will be hungry in three weeks' time.'

"The following day was very cold but the wind dropped and they immediately broke camp, sledging through the maze of some fifty islands, islets and rocks, but found no sign of the missing men. The great risks they had so willingly run only proved that the party had never reached the islands. This last effort had failed, yet at least they had done everything possible. Now it was high time to look to their own safety.

The return of the search party

"Sunday 13th July was the day they were to return to the Dions, but once again the weather was deteriorating and a decision to travel gave them much to ponder:

.I woke up, the tent a web of ice crystals, lit the primus and waited until they had melted away. I then sat up and put snow in a pan to melt, and was adding the oats when my mother came in through the sleeve entrance of the tent. She looked at me and said quite calmly that she knew I was very concerned about the journey back. She admitted not knowing what my worry was, but if I left here today then everything would be all right.

John Paisley's journal

"Today Paisley recognises that many may think this episode fanciful, but for him the reality of it still remains. Whatever view one takes, it emphasizes the stresses which he and Gibbs were experiencing. They had an anxious discussion on whether they should risk the weather, but Paisley confidently insisted they must go.

"Breaking camp, they sledged cautiously back through the labyrinth of pressure (ridges) until reaching the level ice five miles out, they found it had cracked into large floes during the gale that had held them in their tent, and this meant that it was liable to go out with any strong wind.

With ten miles to go we were therefore taking a large chance on trying to press through; a chance, too, on not meeting any wide leads between us and the Dions. The alternative of returning to the Faures and sitting-out the ensuing bad weather, with the strong possibility that it would clear the ice and maroon us there, equally did not appeal. So praying for luck we sledged on as fast as we could drive the dogs. A crack had opened up in a line from the Faures to the Dions, and at right-angles to this we crossed two leads four feet wide, where the dogs behaved very well. The visibility decreased, as we knew it would, but fortunately no wind sprang up.

Peter Gibbs' Journal

"Three hours after setting out they reached the safety of the Dions. It had been a gallant attempt. The two Base Leaders had deliberately taken severe risks, and one can only admire their persistence and cold-blooded courage in face of such very apparent dangers, tragically to no avail.

  "So ended the last hope of finding the lost men and we shall never know exactly what happened to them. There is little doubt that circumstances, perhaps the darkness or rising wind and drift, forced them to camp before reaching the coast of Adelaide Island. Then, possibly very suddenly, high winds could have broken up the sea ice into individual floes separated by ever widening leads of open water, and they would have been unable to break camp and get moving in the short time available. They probably cut the teams free to fend for themselves and the dogs jumped the leads in the general direction of home.

Conjectures about the cause
"My reasoning as to the cause of this terrible accident is based on an occasion nine years earlier when five of us were sledging out to the Dions from Stonington to establish a camp at the emperor penguin rookery so that Bernard Stonhouse could study the birds. Some thirteen miles from the islands we found ourselves in an area of very hummocky ice, and on 3rd June 1949 I had written:

. . . we struck an area of what once had been heavy brash and had now become frozen and drifted up in ridges at right-angles to our course. As the windcrust on the ridges was so hard that it would not break down under the sledge, we were continually hauling steeply up till the sledge was poised on the six-inch to a foot wide apex, the runners arching ominously before the whole load crashed down on the far side. So far we have covered nearly four miles of this, which is hard going for men and dogs - besides being very bad for the sledges.

4 June ' . . . by lunch time we had covered less than three miles . . . the sledge continually getting stuck on the steep drift slope, which are windcrusted to such a thickness that it is impossible to break them down with shovel and ice axe. The first catastrophe was Dave Joncs being thrown backwards over Spivey's sledg-wheel, which had something of thc comic strip about it as Jones sat there among the debris with a bemuscd smile on his face and a mangled wheel  and twisted fork around his neck . . . then Dalgliesh's sledge quietly 'sat down' and refused further service. Every one of the bridges (holding the runners to the top surface of the sledge) on either side had broken and the runners lay limply outwards.

"In 1949 these conditions had resulted from winds whistling down Laubeuf Fjord and breaking out an embayment in the edge of the fast ice, which later filled with hummocky brash that refroze and became snow covered. Such an area would remain unstable in gale force winds and similar conditions could be repeated in any year. Anyone caught in a break-up of this kind of ice would find it virtually impossible to escape quickly to safer surfaces.

"Twice later these conditions are known to have been repeated. In 1960 Peter Forster and Dr Tony Davies, sledging from Horseshoe, reported a nine-mile wide belt of brash and bergy bits frozen into the ice southwest of the Guébriant Islands. In October 1963 Jim Shirtcliffe, Ivor Morgan and David Nash, sledging from Adelaide to Horseshoe, also encountered pressure ridges and refrozen leads in the same area.

"After the tragedy a cross of-oak was made in Stanley on which a brass plate commemorates the names of Stan Black, Dave Statham (meteorologists) and Geoff Stride (diesel electric mechanic). It was several years before we were able to reach the Dion Islands by ship, but it was finally erected high on a stone cairn, an isolated memorial in a vast panorama of ice, to remind those who come later that these islands were the objective of three gallant young men in their last great adventure.

There is always a certain risk in being alive, And if you are more alive there is more risk. Ibsen

Horseshoe Island, Marguerite Bay, West Graham Land (67°49'S 67°18'W) 



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