Chronicle of
Antarctica Expeditions
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Lincoln Ellsworth (1880-1951) was lucky enough to have a rich father and thus the freedom to realize his dreams. His inherited millions secured him independence. As a passionate flier he knew also the challenge that awaited him in the Antarctic. Ellsworth proposed to combine Shackleton's idea and Byrd's technique in a crossing of Antarctica by aircraft: 'The last great adventure!' He wanted to fly from Bay of Whales to the Weddell Sea and back again. This stretch was 5,500 kilometres. Ellsworth went shopping. First of all Hubert Wilkins organized the provisioning and equipping of the expedition. Flying experience brought in Bernt Balchen, Byrd's pilot, who was to steer Ellsworth's aircraft. Ellsworth economized neither on the ship, which he as a Western fan christened Wyatt Earp, nor on the aircraft, a special manufacture, which for its time flew at the remarkable speed of 370 kilometres per hour. Ellsworth gave it the name 'Polar Star'. In January 1934 he and his team set down on the Ross Shelf Ice.

Scarcely had the aircraft landed on the ice when the ice sheet disintegrated. The 'Polar Star' was salvaged but damaged. Ellsworth returned to the USA, had the machine repaired and set off for the second time. This time he set course for the Weddell Sea, so as to fly from there to Bay of Whales.

The expedition set up their base on Deception Island. However, bad luck dogged the millionaire. Immediately on first trying to start, a bit of frozen oil smashed the connecting rod in a cylinder. In camp there were all sorts of spare parts, except a spare connecting rod. Cursing, Ellsworth dispatched the Wyatt Earp to South America to procure the necessary part. The airline Pan Am did its best. Ellsworth footed the bill. By the end of November 1934 the 'Polar Star' was ready once more.

Bad weather now interfered with Ellsworth's plans. For the whole of December the team was obliged to wait. At last on 3 January 1935 Ellsworth gave up, unnerved, and ordered the retreat. The weather promptly improved. Ellsworth and Balchen climbed aboard the aircraft. After some hours' flying Balchen suddenly turned away. He had observed cloud formations on the horizon which heralded a storm. To him that was risky. To his incensed employer he explained that he had no desire to commit suicide. This meant breaking off the expedition: Ellsworth was furious. By March 1935 the Wyatt Earp was back in the USA.

Regardless of the amounts which his obsession cost him, Ellsworth financed another attempt. He engaged a new pilot, Herbert Hollick-Kenyon from Britain, and in November 1935 they travelled to Antarctica. This time base camp was erected on Dundee Island. From there to Bay of Whales the best route one could follow was reckoned at 3,700 kilometres. They estimated they would need fourteen hours to fly there.

On 23 November 1935 the pair flew off. In fourteen hours non-stop they covered 2,900 kilometres. Then extremely bad visibility forced them to put down. They waited nineteen hours. However, after the second start they were able to fly for only half an hour. This second enforced wait on the ground lasted three days. When they took to the air for the third time their flight was to come to an end after an hour. A snowstorm pinned them down for eight days. With the first calm weather they dug the 'Polar Star' out of the snow and started a fourth time. With relief, they flew on for four hours. Two hundred kilometres still separated them from Bay of Whales. For the last time the two lone fliers set down on the ice desert to refuel.

Next day there was wonderful flying weather but their petrol ran out and, 16 kilometres from 'Little America', Ellsworth and his pilot made an emergency landing. Abruptly, the weather worsened, mist closed in. The real adventure began. For eight days the two 'adventurers' marched without orientation in visibility of 30 metres until at last they found the 'Little America' base. It was 15 December 1935. Three days later the Wyatt Earp arrived. The expedition was not cheap but had been successful. Ellsworth, when asked whether it had been worth so much money to him, replied that he didn't regret a single cent.

A Note about the photographs,
The illustrations in this section are historical portraits of the expedition leaders and their vessels. The color photographs are of Northangerís successful sailing/climbing expedition of Mount Foster in Smith Island. (The Northanger Expedition).

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Text © Reinhold Messner - All Rights Reserved - Picture Credits: Wade Fairley, Ricardo Roura, Greg Landreth, Frank Hurley; Picture Locations: South Georgia Is., Smith Island, Antarctic Peninsula, McMurdo Sound, Southern Ocean - Reproduction or redistribution of this article or pictures is strictly prohibited without permission - Web Production and Design © 1996 OneWorld Magazine - OneWorld Site is hosted by The EnviroLink Network - Read Important Information