Antarctic Exploration in a Golden Age


Dog Days on Ice Antarctic Exploration in a Golden Era by Peter Noble

“Dog Days on Ice” is the personal account of one man’s experience of a truly golden era for exploration. Much has been archived about the scientific achievements involved, but Peter Noble concentrates on the human experience of life on the ice in the 1960s. Through his account of a 600 mile dog sledge journey and two of the longest and biggest expeditions ever undertaken by the British Antarctic Survey, he tells of the pleasures and pitfalls, the humour and hardships, and also reflects on life back on the remote base of “Halley Bay”. His story is one of Huskies, of camping on ice, of blizzards and crevasses, of the cold, of amazing atmospheric conditions, of sledge building, puppy rearing and expedition planning, of remote mountains, of disappointment and ultimate success - of what it was like to live on the Antarctic continent for two years.

Perched on the floating Brunt Ice Shelf on the east side of the Weddell Sea, Halley Bay was ideally situated for not just its glaciological and atmospheric research but also for geographical exploration. Expeditions were dispatched many hundreds of miles to mountain ranges as yet unvisited, where most summits had never been seen before, and all were successfully explored, mapped and studied. It was an explorers’ paradise, for gone were the years of heroic gruelling journeys with inadequate equipment, minimal rations and high risk; expeditions were now well prepared and very well resourced.

The 60s provided a brief and precious period of sensible, self-disciplined adventure with dogs and tractors, but by the early 70s all major overland trips had been consigned to history. The significant reachable geographical objectives had been visited and, added to this, Huskies were declared an alien species. Dog travel dwindled to zero and the animals were either shipped elsewhere or culled, leaving just a couple as pets. The golden years were at an end; years when the men of Halley had been encouraged to exercise their enterprise and initiative in exploration; years when there was no one to blame if they got it wrong. They took care, acted sensibly and reached for a dream.

The clothing and equipment, though not yet as sophisticated as in later decades, were well researched and tested such that despite temperatures that could drop to minus 50°C there was no reason to become dangerously cold, and even outdoors in the depths of winter, frostbite was a rarity. The huts were well insulated and heated, they had electric lighting and many modern domestic conveniences; malnutrition was a thing of the past and they even had professional cooks.

Nevertheless, with a rather meagre budget the British were limited to servicing their bases once a year by sea rather than by air; as a consequence all personnel were shipped in for a tour of duty of usually two full years. This long term commitment directly generated what the author claims was another golden aspect of the era. Each base became a close independent community, isolated from the world, (and often unaware of world events) and this seemed to foster the spirit of pride and loyalty that exists to this day amongst the old guys. Later, when air transport became common practice so that scientists and maintenance staff could pop in for a few weeks or months, it is perhaps questionable as to whether the true “Antarctic spirit” could survive.

“Dog Days on Ice” is not just the story of Peter Noble’s field expeditions: it is essentially the story of everyone who made his achievements and his whole experience possible, and through his personal stories we get an absorbing insight into life at Halley Bay. The journeys themselves were the 1967 reconnaissance of an overland route to the Shackleton Range with dog teams and tractor support, and the 1968 expedition that proved the route with heavy tractors. They were to be the last major field expeditions from Halley Bay, or indeed by the British Antarctic Survey.

The Golden Age was over, but it was replaced by one of highly sophisticated technological development and significant scientific discoveries on, above and under the ice. In terms of man’s increasing understanding of Antarctica and its global importance perhaps that Golden era merely preceded the Platinum - but that is someone else’s story…


I surveyed the grey hair and balding heads, the lined faces, the stooped or halting walk of some, and the old protest song came to mind: “Where have all the young men gone?” It was October 2006 and the British Antarctic Survey Club was celebrating fifty years of “Halley”, the remote research base on the Antarctic continent. Along with four hundred other ex-Halley residents, I went along to the two day bun fight and chin wag noting the somewhat more luxurious accommodation than we had ever experienced “down south”.

It was a wonderful gathering, meeting near forgotten friends, updating about what’s happening in the twenty first century (that made us 1960s boys feel old!), but above all the inevitable reminiscences. As I listened and related my own stories, and particularly as I surveyed those ageing friends, I realised that in all too few years, an exciting and fascinating period of British exploration was to be forgotten.

True, there is an extensive archive at the British Antarctic Survey offices in Cambridge, but virtually all of this consists of formal reports; little is recorded about day to day living at Halley, of the now extinct experience of working with dogs, of camping on long expeditions, of the cold, of how it all affected the men who lived there. My own time and work at Halley built on the efforts and dedication of those who established and maintained the base in the years before our cohort arrived; and particularly on those who undertook the many early field trips. I was destined and privileged to work with the huskies, those lovely animals that featured prominently in explorations at Halley for scarcely a decade. From the humble beginnings of “Stumpy”, the base pet in 1958, an importing and breeding programme was started in 1962 that produced a peak of 69 animals (adults and pups) in 1968 but by 1972 huskies had been internationally declared an “alien species” and should be discontinued. I leave it to the reader to imagine what discontinued meant. A couple of dogs, demoted once more to base pet status, managed to survive the decade but the great days of dog travel were over. That other alien species “man” with his increasingly polluting tractors and aircraft was however deemed essential, but one is left whimsically wondering how many billion husky farts equals one minute of a jet engine exhaust!

The 1960s were I believe the golden age of exploratory expeditions undertaken by the British Antarctic Survey and this book presents a personal account of an amazing, exciting and life changing experience.

Review of Dog Days on Ice: Antarctic Exploration in a Golden Era by Peter Noble. Cheltenham, Reardon Publishing, 2008, 231 pp (paperback). ISBN 1 873877 89 7. Price £14.99.

Peter Noble was a General Assistant at the British Antarctic Survey (BAS) station Halley Bay for the 1968 and 1969 winters. This is his personal story of his time on base and in the field during those two years. The book comprises an introduction, 21 chapters, an Epilogue and six appendices. There are colour maps on the inside front (Weddell Sea region) and back (Coats Land) covers, the latter is also repeated in monochrome in the text, and a map of the Brunt Ice Shelf. Seven line diagrams illustrate topics mentioned in the text and there are numerous small line drawings scattered through the book. These last are not acknowledged so they are presumably by the author. Finally there are two sets of colour photographs, each of eight pages, illustrating various aspects of the book but mainly field activities.

The central theme of chapters 2 to 18 is the author’s return with Mike Skidmore and the Hairybreeks dog team from Point Touché, their closest approach to the eastern Shackleton Range on the reconnaissance journey to reach the range in the 1967–68 austral summer. On the face of it, this may sound a rather tedious tale but far from it. The author digresses frequently as events and thoughts during the journey are introduced to describe various other aspects and incidents of life at Halley Bay during his two-year stay. Some of these describe the minutiae of life on base or in the field, especially with respect to driving dogs, that are often omitted from other accounts. These provide the flesh to the bones of the story that will prompt memories of similar occasions in every Antarctic reader. Through the book nine of the author’s many “Poems, rhymes and songs” have been reproduced to provide a more humorous perspective on some of the events described.

Chapters 19 and 20 focus on base life during winter: preparation of Nansen sledges, tents, and general field equipment for the coming field season. They also tell of the frustration felt by the field personnel during the 1968 winter when the Shackleton Range was deemed to be too far to support mountain field parties in the same season and the proposed alternative, geology in Vestfjella, was later cancelled because the Americans had already agreed to fly a Norwegian field party to those mountains. Eventually it all came good. The Americans flew a survey and geological party from Halley Bay into the Shackleton Range while the author led a tractor traverse to the eastern end of the range. The tractor trip, the largest and longest ever undertaken by BAS is described in Chapter 21. Four tractors pulled 12 sledges loaded with up to 29 tonnes, including a living caboose with bunks for all six men. The total return distance travelled was some 1000 miles, although none of the vehicles were driven the full distance; the International Harvester bulldozers were depoted 395 miles from Halley Bay and the Muskeg tractors were carried on sledges behind the Internationals for 340 miles of the return journey. The result of the trip was the laying of an enormous depot in the eastern Shackleton Range that was a vital supply for field parties flown into the western end of the range in subsequent seasons. In addition, the map made of the area and the rock specimens collected provided valuable information for the geologists and surveyors until they could reach the area for themselves.

The appendices provide valuable supplementary information to the author’s personal story and also to the larger history of dog-sledging from Halley Bay. Appendix 1 lists the “Personae Dramatis of the Dog Days (1961–72)”; Appendix 2 lists “Field Expeditions from Halley Bay – 1957 to 1972”. Appendix 3 “Halley Bay Huskies”, comments on the practices of using dogs, lists all the Halley Bay dogs with a statistical analysis and a note on naming dogs. Appendix 4 “Field Rations”, lists the food box contents and suggested extras while Appendix 5 “PO Bag and P Bag”, includes lists of personal field living equipment and clothing that is normally carried. Appendix 6 is a useful glossary of terms used. An index would have been useful.

Describing the period as “a Golden Era” is a touch romantic but no doubt many who experienced it will agree. It was certainly a unique period that formed a link between the Heroic Era of Antarctic exploration and the modern era of scientific investigation with its rigid planning, financial constrictions and Health and Safety regulations. Some readers may prefer a stricter chronological account but this is a personal story and the style works well. There are criticisms of BAS but the strongest criticisms are reserved for the dog drivers, including himself, and the general treatment of the dogs. In most cases the latter are fully justified because practices founded largely on ignorance were passed on from year to year; nobody ever attended a training course for sledging with huskies. With hindsight, a school report on most dog drivers might have been marked “could have done better”. An irritation is the number of names of people and places that are spelled incorrectly.

All in all this is a good book that should be eagerly read by all those who were there at the time and by anyone who is looking for a personal account of living and exploring in Antarctica when dog-sledging reigned supreme.

Peter Clarkson November 2008

Book Review by Nick Webb Dog Days On Ice – Peter Noble

I think it was one of Terry Wogan’s TOGS who, with heavy irony following James Cracknell’s defeat in the South Pole Race, berated the underperforming representatives of Britain’s polar aspirations as we again came off second best to those plucky Norwegians from their advantageously ice-capped land.

Bridesmaids or not, it is a fact that since the heroic days of Scott and Shackleton, many Brits have punched well above their weight on the polar ice caps.

Now working in office or trade or retired are many unsung veterans of Antarctic adventuring and Peter Noble is one. He joined the British Antarctic Survey as a General Assistant (GA) and Mountaineer in 1966 and sailed south for a two year tour of duty at Halley Bay, one of six British survey stations. Peter has now documented his experiences in “Dog Days On Ice – Antarctic Exploration in a Golden Era”. The book comprises an introduction, 21 chapters, an epilogue and six appendices. The central theme is the story of Peter’s dog sledge return from Point Touché near the elusive Shackleton Range but it is interspersed with descriptions of a wide variety of elements of life on the ice-cap.

Peter’s GA versatility is again in evidence as he presents his record in maps, drawings, photographs, charts, poems, songs and well crafted prose where his professionalism, resourcefulness and attention to detail continue to shine through. Writing the book was self evidently a labour of love for a man who clearly treasured the opportunity to be part of such an exciting project. That so much can be gained from such a challenging and remote environment speaks volumes of man’s robustness and ingenuity. Whilst contemporary Britain appears to struggle to characterise its national identity, qualities which marked out previous generations abound on these pages.

One aspect of Peter’s memoir which is quite striking is the quality of the relationships which he was able to maintain with the other parties at the base, both human and husky! As an appointed “doggyman” Peter was responsible for the care and well being of the Hairybreeks team which hauled his sledge across thousands of miles of polar ice. During his tour of duty Peter clearly developed a special affinity with these remarkable creatures. His moving description of his farewell to the team illustrates just how special this partnership with man’s best friend was. But Peter also rubbed along very well with his two legged colleagues. He attributes this harmonious co-existence to “cooperation, consideration and commitment.” As one of many lessons learnt from his time on the ice, the three C’s have subsequently served him well in much milder climes and provide a useful blueprint for us all to reflect on. Whether you are an adventuring type of not, this genuinely human story is highly recommended.

South, in the crystal blue, South, where my dreams came true, Though frost may bite and fingers freeze It eases my heart to be, South where my spirit’s free.

Dog Days on Ice - Antarctic Exploration in a Golden Era by Peter Noble reviewed by Mark Hamilton

Dog Days on Ice is Peter Noble’s recollection of his two years service as a doggy man with the Falklands Islands Dependencies Service (FIDS, later known as the British Antarctic Survey or BAS), while stationed in Halley Bay, Antarctica in the late 1960s. Events from that stay are told as vignettes, intertwined around Noble's primary story of the return trip of a reconnaissance expedition that took Noble and three additional FIDS-BAS men south nearly to the Shackleton Mountains. The return trip from "Point Touché" – the location where the men were no longer able to find a safe route to the Shackleton Mountains – back to Halley Bay was 600 miles (966 km). Including the travel from their initial staging point, and the distance covered while searching for a route from Point Touché to the Shackletons, the dog sledding portion on this expedition totaled 984 miles (1,585 km). The entire journey took sixty-seven days.

Dog Days on Ice is a very enjoyable book, and truly a good read. Noble tells his story honestly, with an absence of pretense or affected humility. The reality of living in Antarctica in the late 1960s, the shared sense of duty among the Fids, the goals, frustrations, accomplishments and regrets are all detailed for the reader's edification. In particular, the two themes of duty and regret are continuing threads throughout the book.

Peter Noble treats his subject matter with great respect. Clearly his service in the BAS was, and remains of great significance to him, and his writing reflects the lasting bond he feels for those with whom he served and the dogs with which he traveled. I found the recounting of his experiences on the trail with the BAS huskies to have an intimacy and familiarity that brought the dogs "to life" for me during his telling. Many of Noble's expressed regrets involve the BAS huskies and their ultimate fate. Not surprisingly, the huskies, and what was accomplished with them, are the major focus of the book.

This is a book that both Inuit Dog enthusiasts and mushers of other breeds can read and take pleasure in. Also, people who read and study accounts of polar exploration can find Dog Days on Ice captivating and a source of first person information from that period. It is also a book that historians should read, as the history of the BAS effort in that era is primarily chronicled up to now in old field reports from that time.

Dog Days on Ice showcases some of Noble's original photography and sketches. The book offers six appendices, including a roll-call of the doggy men at Halley Bay at the time of Noble's book, field expeditions mounted from Halley Bay from 1957-1972, a roll-call of the Halley Bay huskies, a listing of the contents of a ten-day ration box, the issued contents of a post office bag and the personal bag and finally, a glossary of terminology.

Peter Noble Author

To Antarctic Section

To Book List

Back to Start