Private Norwegian expedition ends in tragedy:
USAP dispatches SAR team to retrieve party of four

Responding to an urgent request for assistance from a private Norwegian expedition, on 28 December 1993, the U.S. Antarctic Program (USAP) sent a seven-person search-and-rescue team (or SAR team) from its science support facility at McMurdo Station to the accident site in Shackleton Mountains, more than 1,200 nautical miles (2,224 kilometers) across the icy continent. The victim was a member of a private Norwegian expedition group led by Monica Kristensen. The four-person group was south of the 81st parallel when the accident occurred. According to reports received at McMurdo Station, the four had been crossing a heavily crevassed region when the victim fell into an unseen crevasse.

The request was received from the U.S. Department of State at McMurdo Station by the Senior U.S. Representative in Antarctica at about 8:15 p.m. local McMurdo time on 28 December (about 3:15 a.m., 27 December EST). At that time, U.S. officials were informed that the victim had been trapped in the crevasse for about 30 hours.

Rescue preparations and planning

Immediately after receiving the request, the Senior U.S. Representative notified the coordinator of the U.S./New Zealand SAR team. After reviewing the available information, SAR coordinator, LCDR Charles Gaston of the Naval Support Force Antarctica (NSFA), called together the U.S./New Zealand team, and the group began planning the rescue mission. The group decided that seven members of the lO-person SAR team, along with two U.S. Navy corpsman. would fly by ski-equipped Hercules (LC-130) airplane to Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station. Knowing that the area near the accident site was heavily crevassed but not knowing whether they could find an adequate landing site for the LC-130. they decided to wait to decide whether or not to use the LC-130 or one of USAP's leased Twin Otter airplanes, which are much smaller than an LC-30.

The team, with about half their usual 11,000 pounds of field equipment, left McMurdo Station for the geographic South Pole at 11:45 p.m. on 28 December-3.5 hours after learning of the emergency. While enroute, they were informed that the smaller, lighter Twin Otter would be used to shuttle personnel and equipment to and from the site. Upon landing at South Pole, the SAR team leader Steve Dunbar, an Antarctic Support Associates (ASA) employee, and three other team members boarded the Twin Otter. LC-130 continued on to the accident site to conduct airborne weather reconnaissance and locate a suitable landing site for the Twin Otter.

Rescue actlvltles

After flying about 927 kilometers (500 nautical miles) the Twin Otter arrived at the accident site at about 7:40 a.m. on 29 December (1:40 p.m. EST, 28 December) and landed about 3.2 kilometers from the site. Flying above the landing site, the SAR team could see numerous collapsed snow bridges and the distinct tracks of four snowmobiles crossing the crevasse field. The Norwegian camp was in sight, but no signs of life were evident. About 90 meters from the camp, the team saw a crevasse with ropes going down into it.

Despite the large number of crevasses that were apparent from the air, the pilots of the Twin Otter and the SAR team were not fully aware of the severity of the crevassing until they had landed. Although the pilots successfully and safely landed, they soon discovered that crevasses surrounded them. A quick evaluation of the situation brought an equally quick decision-the Twin Otter pilots would only take off from the spot; they would never land there again. All hope for shuttling the remaining SAR team members from the South Pole and getting additional equipment and assistance was gone.

At 8:30 a.m. local time, the rescue team, dragging a stretcher filled with first aid supplies and minimal crevasse rescue gear, began its approach on foot to the accident site. Within 30 meters of the Twin Oner, SAR coordinator Steve Dunbar fell into a 1-meter-wide crevasse-an event that foreshadowed the difficulties they were yet to encounter. The 3-kilometer traverse took them 4 hours during which members of the rescue team fell in crevasses more than 20 times. The closer they came to the camp, the bigger and more chaotic were the crevasses. They also found that, despite the generally flat terrain of the area, they could not navigate by line-of-sight. Two 3-meter-high rises between the camp and the airplane forced them to use GPS navigation (navigation aided by Global Positioning Satellite).

Arrival at the camp presented them with an additional surprise-a second man had been injured earlier when he rode his snowmobile into a crevasse and had fallen more than 70 meters. While the Navy corpsman examined this man, who appeared to have a concussion and several cracked ribs, the rest of the rescue team made radio contact with South Pole Station and prepared for the final 90-meter traverse during which they encountered four more large crevasses.

The victim had fallen through a 1.2-meter-wide hole in a snow bridge. A quick visual evaluation of-the site revealed that a snowmobile had crossed and broken the bridge earlier about 9 meters to the left of the fall site. With his rope anchored to one of the Norwegian snowmobiles, SAR team leader Dunbar began his descent into the crevasse. He was able to rappel about 38 meters down the side of the crevasse. Here, the crevasse had narrowed to a width of only 20 centimeters; the temperature was nearly -35C. About 1.5 meters below him, Dunbar could see the victim's arm protruding through snow that had fallen down the crevasse and buried him. Near the body, a sleeping bag, lowered to the victim by his companions, lay untouched. There was no discernible sign of life. Because the narrowing crevasse prevented him from reaching the fallen man, Dunbar determined that they would not be able even to extricate the body.

Returning to the Norwegian camp, the SAR team informed South Pole Station that the Norwegian was dead and that they would not be able to retrieve the body. Their next task was to prepare the surviving Norwegians for the traverse and explain the principles of roped travel to them. Because of the difficulties that they experienced during their trip to the camp and because of the airplane's weight restrictions, they took with them only the most essential gear. After a 3.5-hour traverse, they arrived at the landing site at which point the SAR team abandoned all gear except their survival equipment and a few pieces of SAR gear so that the Twin Otter could take off more easily. At 1:00 a.m. on 30 December, the SAR team, the Norwegian survivors, and the two Twin Otter pilots landed at Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station, the rescue mission completed.

U.S. policy and private expeditlons

The policy USAP follows when dealing with private expeditions and tourist groups was established by the U.S. National Security Council more than a decade ago. This policy states that "the clearly defined objectives of the U.S. Antarctic Program (USAP) and the logistics constraints and operational demands upon it are such that the United States Government must limit assistance to non-USAP activities in Antarctica to cooperative programs between USAP and the antarctic programs of other governments." The U.S. government, however, has responded and will continue to respond to emergency requests for humanitarian aid in life-threatening situations, as required under the Antarctic Treaty and as is supported by the other Antarctic Treaty Consultative Parties. If private organizations do approach the National Science Foundation, which manages USAP, about supporting expeditions, they also are cautioned that USAP expects private groups to be operationally prepared and self-sufficient while working in Antarctica.

Carrying out any project in Antarctica can be hazardous. Given the continent's rugged terrain, harsh climate. and unpredictable weather, many accidents are unavoidable. The unfortunate fate of the Norwegian expedition, however, could have been avoided. The observations made by the U.S./New Zealand SAR team indicated that the Norwegians were unprepared to navigate the crevasse fields that they encountered. They had neither adequate training nor experience to meet the demands of the environment. The consequence was that they put not only themselves but also USAP and New Zealand Antarctic Program personnel in grave danger. Further, the rescue attempt diverted resources (two airplanes) essential for supporting the U.S. research program. Research time and resources are at a premium in Antarctica, and this kind of diversion can delay--and sometimes preclude--research efforts that may well have been under way for years. The airplanes involved in the rescue mission, for example, had been scheduled to support the setup of an automated geophysical observatory.

The above article appeared in the June 1994 issue of the Antarctic Journal.