Memoirs of Stan Murcutt – an adventurous bloke who hadn’t had many adventures
By Stan Murcutt and daughter Raelene Strong
“Adventure! within 3 weeks I was experiencing adventure, and with the 2 major dog trips, man-hauling, mountain climbing, I had adventure, mixed up with work and some very mundane times at Mawson. ”
“For an adventurous bloke who hadn’t had many adventures, I had adventure now. ”
Stan continued his career as an electrical draftsman for the Collins Place twin towers, Melbourne, before retiring and moving to Rye and then eventually to Rosebud.
I think the highlight of his life was his adventure down south, and one he never regretted, although leaving a wife at home and 4 young daughters, it was something he vowed to do after first seeing a newsreel as a kid sneaking into the local theatre this is where he saw the news clip of Mawson’s expedition down the Antarctic. This caught Stan’s attention from a very early age, and he then got the book of Mawson from the local library to read.
We have selected some highlights of dad’s 1968 venture down south, many have seen the crashed Russian plane, My dad’s and the IOC George ‘ first-hand account, and also many have read about the 4 men left on the Amery Ice shelf, a very different way of travel to now. By the way, the ad Dad applied for was for the position of an electrician.
On Stan’s application for the Antarctic 1968, he writes, “I am an adventurous guy that has not had any adventure.”
He writes- Prior to leaving for the Mawson- I learned that ANARE was going to land 4 men for a year on the Amery Ice Shelf. I met their leader Max Corry a glaciologist and I worked under his instructions. I wired 2 Nodwell tracked vehicles and a couple of sled-mounted caravans and an ice drill, this drill was to drill through about 2000ft. of ice and to collect ice cores to study the ages when the ice was formed. I was later to be rewarded for my effort.
We have crossed the entrance of Sandefjord Bay, which has been formed by the breaking off of the 90 miles x 40 miles iceberg from the Ice Shelf. The Amery Ice Shelf is exposed on our Starboard side (right) and is exactly as I pictured it, towering ice cliffs, the edges are very rugged, being composed of icebergs in the process of being born, the top surface is ripped by large crevasses……………..
We actually are in waters which have been covered by the Shelf, as shown on the 1966 map – illustrating that the North Eastern corner has disappeared and that the entrance to Sandefjord Bay is now larger……
I am to go ashore here and go overland 35 miles to G1 (the name of the 4-man home base), in the Nodwells, the crew is Neville Collins (Fourth Time tripper), a very well respected ANARE man, a diesel mechanic, about 4 years ago he led a party from Mawson to Vostok deep in the interior, many hundreds of miles, Vostok is a Soviet base and has recorded the lowest Today’s temp ever. In private life he is a buffalo hunter.), Keith Watson (diesel mechanic, this is his 2nd. Trip, in later years he was to trip down here a couple of more times.) Frank Johnson (radio operator) and myself. I hope I go with Neville; he is a chap going for the 4th time and has loads of experience, I would go anywhere with him……
They reckon that the trip to G 1 from here is more like 60 miles and will take 3 days to get there and we will make at least 2 trips. This should take about 2 weeks…..
Well, the party from the island are also back, and the Danish flag can be seen fluttering away, apparently, they will leave it there, they have called it Bosun Island.
The Amery Iceshelf was so open, that it was more dangerous and the wind would speed across the shelf.
Initially, we dropped the cargo onto the shelf edge (which is undercut by the sea), to about 20 feet (6 meters) from the edge, that is there are about 20 feet of ice just overhanging over the water), but we took the heavy gear inland, as I said yesterday to about 4 miles (6.43 km) which we call camp 2. ………………..
There was a scare yesterday that the shelf was breaking up, there certainly are a few cracks, so it was decided that the Nodwells would transport the cargo that would normally be transported by helicopter to camp 2…………………
You have to take your cap off to Neville, he is a wonder, like an Indian Scout, he gets out and kneels down and with his hand to his eyes he scans the surface, looking for hollows that indicate a weakness. He then takes a crowbar and pierces the surface, on 2 occasions he broke through the surface.
every mile we put in a bamboo stake with a flag on it, this is so that if your track gets filled in, you can navigate from stake to stake. Neville notes in his book what bearing it is from stake to stake and he numbers the stakes, also as the stakes are about 10′ long, they won’t get covered by snow if we have a blow…………
Neville called me up and he hopped on behind me and we scouted ahead – trailblazing, but I was only the driver, as he knew what he was looking for. We scouted the land making detours around suspected hazards, and Neville got us back on course again. Neville is the brains of the outfit. ………………..
I repeat he is like an Indian Scout; from the rear, he even looks like one. He has his band of his glasses around his helmet with its flaps flying, he looks like an Apache……………..
I was the brakeman on our sled, running beside the old track and over the broken snow bridge Keith and I thought they were going to stop, Keith rolled off his sled and I was running on fresh air over the broken snow bridge, but I held on and was dragged over the broken bridge and to safety. …………..
Neville told Frank to give it the gun and Frank was safe, not so for Keith, he had fallen into the crevasse with only his head and shoulders showing, but he had dug his ice axe into the brink and it was this that was saving him. We came up and Keith said quietly “YOU WILL HAVE TO HURRY AS I AM SLIPPING”, Neville had a coil of rope wound around the handles of the sled, and he made a loop and threw it over Keith’s shoulders and pulled him to safety, it is no exaggeration to say that it was a life-or-death situation…………
G1, the base camp for the Amery party and is the last place on earth, at the time we were there only three polar pyramid tents were set up. Previously to the ice drill surveys, they would leave a 10-foot, Bamboo stick in the ice, and go back every year and see how far the pole moved and in which direction, for measurements of the ice shelf measurements…….
This group of men including myself are the first people to enter the Ice shelf from this route, the three previous expeditions came from Mawson. We entered where no man has ever been.
The party is Max Corry, leader and Glaciologist, Neville Collins, Diesel Mechanic, a doctor, and an Electronics Engineer. They did snow experience in the Victorian snowfields before they left and they all had their appendix removed before their departure.
They were snowed in before winter even started, so they had to construct tunnels between each caravan and let the snow cover them, conditions were far worse than anyone expected.
I was driving and after about an hour of driving, I “slotted” the fuel sled into a crevasse-
The track is getting cut up now and we were driving through the pothole section. Keith had passed over this crevasse with his Nodwell and train. Keith passed no worries, so it is my turn. I passed over the section with my Nodwell and the first sled that did not have the fuel on passed over no worries.
The fuel sledge I was towing second, weighed about 4 tons and it crashed through a snow bridge and exposed a 5 feet wide hole. We were in no danger as we were strapped inside the Nodwells and about 50 feet away. However, it was down and we had to get it out. I took some photos and then tried to get them out but I couldn’t, so Keith came back to help us. We brought Keith’s Nodwell at right angles to the “slotted” sledge. I dug a hole in the ice beside the sledge to drop a rope into the crevasse. Neville passed down the rope which I hooked and tied around the drums, and then we fished the rope from the other side to encircle the sledge. Keith hooked on his winch from the side and I drove forward to release it from its hold, finally, it was out.
After attaching the rope to Keith’s winch and we were able to move it away from the crevasse.
We restacked the fuel drums and secured them, this whole exercise took about 3 hours, and then back on our way.
About 9.00 pm. the drums shifted and 2 drums fell off and the last 2 sledges run over them. We refueled the Nodwells with 1 of them and found room to stack the other drum. I guess we had only gone about 100 yards when CLUNK-CLUNK, so we stopped and hailed Neville to have a listen. We unhitched our load and we went a little further, and he thought the trouble was in the differential.
While Frank and I got lunch and tea, Neville and Keith had a better look took off the cover of the diff. They found that the CROWN WHEEL had stripped some teeth and we haven’t a spare in Antarctica. Neville is quite resigned that he will have to work with 1 Nodwell and this one will have to be abandoned. (They cost about $ 15,000)
ANARE had enough spare parts to rebuild an engine, but no transmission parts.
The Nodwell stayed there all year and was repaired by the 1969 party, and brought to Mawson.
The territory we had traversed is virgin land, so it was a thrill to be among the first of a group to traverse it.
The trip to G 1 was 65 miles, 47 miles by air, but it is no tourist resort.
Stan was also present when the Russian plane crashed, he recalls in his diary.
At dinner a radio signal was received from our Snotrac that 9 Russians were coming over and staying the night, so we rushed around and tidied the place up. I made up 9 beds – 6 in the DUKW caravan and 3 in Balleny, we have 3 flag masts so we raised the Australian, United Nations, and the Russian flags in that order.
Well, they arrived about 8.00 pm, they are a mixture, some big and some small, they also had a journalist type with a movie camera, he was also the interpreter, they had 2 chief pilots, radio operator, navigator, engineer, and 2 hangers-on.
After a few drinks, they were generally a bit reserved, except 1 we named Boris. After they had tea, they handed out some souvenirs, I received multiple little Russian dolls, a badge, and 2 envelopes.
Then Geoff and Chas brought up their guitars and sang a few folk songs, 1 of the Russians then took a guitar, and Boris who now was quite drunk did a Russian dance, but when it came to the squatting and kicking part he fell on the floor.
Monday 23rd. December
Well, there is still a little doubt as to whether our chaps are going with the Russians, they had breakfast with us and now have departed in the Snotrac, even some on the roof.
Blue and Boris had 2 cans of V.B. and 3 bottles of wine for breakfast. They put Boris to bed 4 times last night, Blue was saying later, that he was a bit uneasy when Boris kissed him.
Ron was saying that from Guam the sea looks about 12– 18 miles out, this is a bit more promising for the Nella. Not much is being done today.
This afternoon, word has come through that the Russians have crashed their plane, whilst taxiing for take-off, our scientists were aboard, hoping for their trip.
Apparently, they did a dummy run, but there wasn’t enough blue ice, and the snow caused too much friction. They turned around and went back, but the wind took control and they finished up on the side of a dome (most domes are badly crevassed), they then turned around to make another run, when the Starboard ski broke through into a crevasse and sank up to its wing and bending the propellor tips.
After tea Don, Geoff, and myself drove up in the Snotrac and the V.W. I was radio operator on the way up. They fired a Very pistol 3 times to attract our attention, as we made a wide detour around a gaping crevasse.
When we got there, they allowed us into the plane, and to take photographs. I sat in the cockpit and tried to talk to them, they forced on Geoff and myself a taste of jellied cherries and other foods in a string bag. (The string bag is now Mary’s souvenir)
They all crowded into the vehicles, I drove the V.W. and towed over the soft snow, but when we struck blue ice, I took off the tow rope and I took off, I skirted the snow patches, which made me drive up the domes slightly. At 1 time I saw a crevasse too late and bumped over it, I crossed a few diagonally, but we managed to get back all safe and well.
We believe that the Russians have a 4-engine plane, but they crashed that one on takeoff too. Bill Ware who has worked with the U.S.N., R.A.N., and R.A.A.F said he has never seen a more casual pre-flight check, they also have 2 smaller aircraft.
It would appear that we will have them for about 4 days, they will be flown out, and maybe their icebreaker “OB “will come in to salvage the plane. (About 5 years ago I saw photos of the plane, it is still there and is a twisted wreck)
After tea, a film was shown, but Boris wanted to see Blue, (Blue can’t get rid of him)
I am on Night watch and called in at Blue’s donga at 1.00 am, and was talking to them, then Boris put his arm around my shoulder, and to my surprise kissed me, he caught me unawares again later, he and his mate don’t like bed, it was 3.00 am before they retired.
George Hamm version
Monday 23rd December 1968
Russians awoke at 0800 and had breakfast. Left Ma.wson in Snow Trac and VW (Beetle) for the airfield. Arrived there about 12.30. They had very crude Herman Melon-type heaters – just huge blowlamps for warming up engines. Brought gifts, etc to be taken back to Dr. Maksutov at Molodezhnaya. Got engines started and prepared to take-off. In the aircraft with me were the pilot, 2nd pilot, radio operator, chief engineer, Soot (interpreter & correspondent) Ware (MET. OIC), Smith (geophysicist). At about 2 pm as he was taxying, a strong gust of wind caught the plane and blew it up onto a slotted dome behind the Russian fuel dump. Pilot at last moment revved the motors in an attempt to prevent total disaster – I had the rear door opened and was ready to jump with the others when at last moment he managed to face back towards the painted peak and suddenly we broke through a large crevasse – damaging the starboard wing and propeller. Great catastrophe – pilot cried; all Russians depressed later sitting in Oicery [building housing the Officer in Charge ]. He told me he might get the axe over this. Thank God he didn’t want political asylum. What a day! No sleep – just tried to calm Russians down.
Christmas Eve Tuesday 24th December 1968
Quiet day – slept in very tired – many signals back and forth from Mirny and Molodezhnaya. Russians here are quite depressed except Anders Soot – the Estonian who I think would like to stay. Advised their planes from Mokolazev were coming and they arrived at 9.25 pm. Both landed at Gwamm which chief Russian pilot told me was a far better landing strip than Rumdoodle. One plane immediately flew back up to the damaged Russian aircraft near Rumdoodle while they refueled the other at Gwamm. We had to say goodbye to them at 11.30 pm as I wanted to (be) back at the station for Christmas.
Most enjoyable but disastrous visit. Many souvenirs were exchanged –the chief pilot gave me his beautiful fur cap.
the 1968 station leader George Hamm, at his home in central-west Victoria where he works as a surveyor. George continues to be in touch with the Estonian interpreter “Soot”; who advised that the pilot was dismissed from the Soviet Antarctica program and sent to Siberia. His fate beyond that is unknown.