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Andrew Taylor (1907–1993) was one of Canada’s foremost polar explorers. An immigrant to Canada from Edinburgh, Taylor earned his engineering degree from the University of Manitoba in 1931. Before joining the Canadian Army, he was town engineer in Flin Flon.
In Two Years Below the Horn, Taylor vividly recounts his experiences and accomplishments during Operation Tabarin, a landmark British expedition to Antarctica to establish sovereignty and conduct science during the Second World War.
When mental strain led the operation’s first commander to resign, Taylor — a military engineer with extensive pre-war surveying experience — became the first and only Canadian to lead an Antarctic expedition.
As commander of the operation, Taylor oversaw construction of the first permanent base on the Antarctic continent at Hope Bay. From there, he led four-man teams on two epic sledging journeys around James Ross Island, overcoming arduous conditions and correcting cartographic mistakes made by previous explorers.
Preparations for the sledge journey began as soon as the base was safely established. We had no mechanical transport or dogs, so we knew that it would be a manhauling journey. The party would be comprised of four men with Marr as leader, Lamb as botanist, Davies as handyman, and myself as surveyor. The preparations were largely made by Marr and Davies, who manufactured much of our equipment from canvas and thread, using the well-known sailor’s palm and needle to make intricate manhauling harnesses, ground sheets, and tarpaulins.
Preparing food supplies also occupied much of their time. I was told that they used (failed South Pole explorer Robert Falcon) Scott’s 1912 ration schedule but increased his 33.3 ounces per man-day to about 41.
The ration had little variety, but was comprised of staple foods with high nutritive values and minimal weight including pemmican, biscuits, fats, sugar, oats, chocolate, milk, cocoa, peaflour, bacon, and Marmite (varying in the order given from eight ounces a day of the pemmican to 1.1 ounce of the Marmite).
Every item was repacked into tins and fitted into boxes that were about a foot square on their end sections and wide enough to fit across the sledges. Each sledge carried four 55-pound boxes containing about 35 pounds of food. In actual practice, we consumed about 28.7 ounces per man-day and a single box sustained two men for ten days.
Lamb and I assembled the two twelve-foot Nansen sledges. They were made entirely of wood and most of the joints were bound together with rawhide lashings with a few connections made with steel clamps. A semicircular "cowcatcher" protected the front of the sledge, and the stern had a pair of wooden handlebars.
The runners were about five inches high, and the slatted deck gave approximately five inches of clearance above the base of the runners. There were also grablines along the side for lashing loads. Each sledge had rope brakes that ran under the runners and bit into the snow when in use. When completed, each sledge weighed about 70 pounds.
The sledge Lamb and I used also sported an ingenious ten-pound sledge meter devised by Ashton. It measured distance by counting the movement of a paddle wheel tripped by each revolution of a bicycle wheel.
It worked satisfactorily most of the time, but occasionally jammed without our noticing it. We consequently tried to check the distances of our courses by other means whenever possible.
The party was equipped with quite an elaborate quantity of scientific equipment — more than would normally have been necessary for the journey we were about to make.
The purpose of taking this additional equipment was to test out plans that contemplated using the Scoresby to make a survey of West Graham Land through a series of astronomic fixes at intervals along this coast.
The plan entailed using two parties leapfrogging each other as we proceeded up the coast, with the ship surveying the intervening shoreline. Upon each landing, the survey teams would complete their work as soon as possible and use the remaining time before the ship returned to study their surroundings’ biology and geology.
The plan intended that we occupy a station on the east coast of Wiencke Island to make a complete series of observations of the Danco Coast across the de Gerlache Strait. From this station, useful estimating information could be gathered in addition to the survey itself.
If our plan to occupy Hope Bay did not materialize, we expected to execute this scheme as an alternative operation.
When the sledges were completely loaded, each weighed in excess of 500 pounds. Marr set a tentative starting date of Monday, 18 September.
On that dull afternoon, with the temperature just below freezing, we moved our sledges toward the rookery over sea ice sticky with salt.
There was no wind and it was comparatively pleasant pulling over the level sheet of ice.
No sooner did we encounter the slopes of the rookery than we discovered that two men were not sufficient to haul each sledge’s weight.
We doubled up, and Farrington also gave us a hand getting the sledges to the base of the Knife Edge. Davies wore a pair of truger (miniature snowshoe strung with string instead of gut) on his feet.
I wore the sealskin covered skis while Lamb and Marr went "barefoot" to determine which was the most practical footwear for the trip.
The sledges were unloaded box by box and taken up the steep 150-foot slope of the Knife Edge and along its razor-like spine for the couple of hundred feet it took to reach the lower slopes of the Channel Glacier. Then we hauled up the two empty sledges and reloaded them.
The next morning, we awoke to a gusty wind, a light snowfall, with evidences of fog here and there.
The Boss decided to go on with his plan to pull the two sledges up the glacier toward its summit, establish a dump of stores, and lighten the sledges for the journey ahead.
The weather deteriorated rapidly as we skied over the sea ice. By the time we reached the point on the glacier where we left the sledges, the falling snow had thickened and the driving wind made it impossible to see beyond a couple of hundred feet.
We would have been travelling blind along the verges of the 200-foot ice cliffs, so Marr decided to return to the base. A strong north wind whipped our faces as we skied down the slopes of the rookery blindly. Fog set in that night.
On the morning of 20 September, we started out to do the job we had intended to do the previous day before a storm broke around us.
The six inches of snow that fell during our absence from Knife Edge greatly improved the skiing but impeded hauling the sledge.
Hooking onto the sledge at 10:40 a.m., the five of us started from the Knife Edge up the comparatively gentle slope of the Channel Glacier. The weather had been fine when we had left Goudier Islet, but a bank of fog lay over the glacier, and we soon penetrated it as we gained elevation.
At 11:45 we reached an altitude of 610 feet, and Marr decided to make a dump about two miles from the Knife Edge. The temperature was -23 F with a slight wind.
We left the base to begin our trip at a quarter past ten on Friday morning, 22 September. The fog lifted off the glacier and the sun shone brightly upon Goudier Islet.
Ashton again accompanied us to lend a hand with the initial part of the day’s hauling. A good depth of snow lay over everything, making it beautiful for skiing.
As we stood upon the Knife Edge, we looked down upon the ice of Port Lockroy and saw our tracks standing out like a highway from the air. We ran into fog, however, before reaching the dump, and visibility dropped to about 400 feet.
Our sledge was the heavier of the two, so Ashton gave us a hand as we swung gradually in a wide arc toward the south, keeping as near as we could judge to the base of the Wall Mountain.
It was difficult to keep a course in the fog, but we did not get far before Back—who was following our tracks—caught up with us and helped on the other sledge just as the sun began to break through the fog.
He pushed at the stern and they passed us with Back’s feet moving in short, quick strikes so that the truger threw up a continual spray of snow behind him like water from the stern of a paddle-wheel steamer.
We frequently crossed crevassed areas that were carpeted deeply in snow, over which one could hear the hollowness of his tread as we crossed the ice bridges.
The Manhauling Journey of 1944 — Excerpt from Two Years Below the Horn: Operation Tabarin, Field Science, and Antarctic Sovereignty, 1944-1946. By Andrew Taylor, edited by Daniel Heidt and P. Whitney Lackenbauer.