Across the Top of the World - excerpt
By Sir Wally Herbert
On the 15th April we pitched our camp feeling sure that we must be within two miles of the Pole. Overnight a blizzard blew up which obscured the sun altogether; there was no chance of a fix. In the very early hours of the morning, however, the wind died down, the sun came out and every couple of hours I'd go outside and do a sun shot. I could not compute these fixes - Allan had all the tables in his tent and I didn't want to wake him up. I felt in any case that there would be time enough later that morning to confirm the position, and sent out by radio the following message to Her Majesty the Queen:
I have the honour to inform your Majesty that today, 5th April, at 0700 hours Greenwich Meridian Time, the British Trans-Antarctic Expedition by dead reckoning reached the North Pole 407 days after setting out from Point Barrow, Alaska. My companions of the crossing party, Alan Gill, Major Kenneth Hedges, R.A.M.C., and Dr Roy Koerner, together with Squadron Leader Church, R.A.F., our radio relay officer at Point Barrow, are in good health and spirits and hopeful that by forced marches and a measure of good fortune the Expedition will reach Spitzbergen by Mid-summer's Day of this year, thus concluding in the name of our Country the first surface crossing of the Arctic Ocean.
(Signed W.W. Herbert, Expedition Leader.)
Allan came across with the computed position just after I had finished transmitting and had switched off the radio. I was shaken to find that we were seven miles short of the Pole, instead of only about a mile and a half. Feeling that one ought to be at least within two miles of the Pole before saying that by dead reckoning one has reached it, we packed up immediately, broke camp and got going to try and put ourselves where we had said we were. It was about 9a.m. We had several hours to go before the G.M.T. date changed, and there was a pretty good chance that in that time we'd get to the Pole.
Navigation in the vicinity of the Pole is a problem. If your calculation of the longitude is slightly out, then the time at which the sun crosses your meridian - in other words that time at which the sun is due north - is wrong, and so you head in the wrong direction. And of course, if you head in the wrong direction, you increase your errors in your dead reckoning longitude. Your azimuth then is thrown even further into error and you increase your errors progressively until you spiral into almost a complete circle. This is what happened to us on this particular day.
We set off and travelled for what we estimated was seven miles and stopped. We set up the theodolite, did a rough calculation, and found that we were still seven miles from the Pole. It was unbelievable. We had used up a lot of our time in getting there - the G.M.T. date was going to change within the next seven hours and we were still seven miles short of our goal. We couldn't understand where we had gone wrong. How could one travel seven miles in the direction of the North Pole and still be seven miles from it? The only possible answer was that we must have been travelling parallel to the dateline and were thus passing the Pole. We concluded there must have been something very wrong with our azimuth taken from the position we had computed that morning; so we went into the computations again, and found an error in the longitude. We did another series of observations, all of which took time, and set off again. We travelled hard for three hours, set up a theodolite yet again, and found that we were three miles south of the Pole and on longitude zero. With Spitzbergen as our goal and being still three weeks behind schedule, we should really have carried straight on and not gone back.
But one cannot with a clear conscience say one is at the Pole when one is three miles short of it - more especially since we had told Her Majesty that by dead reckoning we had reached it. So we set off yet again, travelling on a very precise azimuth. We chopped through every single pressure ridge that came our way, cutting ourselves a dead straight line due north. But it was slow progress and the drift was going against us. We were, in fact, hardly making any progress at all. After about four hours we'd come less than a mile.
In desperation, we off-loaded the sledges, laid a depot and took on with us only the barest essentials, just enough for one night's camp. It was a risk, the only time during the whole journey that we took such a risk. But it paid off. With the lighter sledges we made faster progress, and after about three hours estimated that we must surely be at the Pole, possibly even beyond it. So we stopped, set up our tents, and did a final fix which put us at 89159' N, one mile south of the North Pole on longitude 180. In other words, we'd crossed the Pole about a mile back along our tracks. But the drift was now with us, so we must surely cross the Pole a second time as we drifted overnight. We got into our sleeping-bags and fell asleep.
The pad marks of thirty-five Eskimo huskies, the broad tracks of four heavy Eskimo-type sledges, and the four sets of human footprints which had approached the North Pole and halted one mile beyond it on the morning of Easter Sunday, 1969, no longer mark the spot where we took our final sun shots and snatched a few hours' rest. For even while we were sleeping, our camp was slowly drifting; and the Pole, by the time we had reloaded our sledges a few hours later and set course for the island of Spitzbergen, lay north in a different direction.
It had been an elusive spot to find and fix. At the North Pole, two separate sets of meridians meet and all directions are south. The temperature was minus 351 Fahrenheit. The wind was from the south-west, or was it from the north-east? It was Sunday, or was it Saturday? Maybe it was Monday. It was a confusing place to be - a place which lay on our course from Barrow to Spitzbergen and which had taken us 408 days to reach.
Trying to set foot upon it had been like trying to step on the shadow of a bird that was circling overhead. The surface across which we were moving was itself a moving surface on a planet that was spinning about an axis. We were standing approximately on that axis, asleep on our feet, dog tired and hungry. Too tired to celebrate our arrival on the summit of this super-mountain around which the sun circles almost as though stuck in a groove.
We set up our camera and posed for some pictures - thirty-six shots at different exposures. We tried not to look weary, tried not to look cold. We tried only to huddle, four fur-clad figures, in a pose that was vaguely familiar - for what other proof of the attainment could we bring back than a picture posed in this way?
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