BBC Home
Explore the BBC
Search ON THIS DAY by date
Front Page |  Years |  Themes |  Witness
About This Site | Text Only
1958: A radio lifeline for Antarctic explorers
US Navy radio operator Ron Semingson was based in McMurdo Sound, Antarctica, when Edmund Hillary and his team set out to travel overland to the South Pole.

His job was to keep in touch by radio with the Trans-Antarctic Expedition as the team journeyed from Scott Base to the South Pole, relaying vital information about the weather as well as receiving progress reports.

Nearly fifty years later, he still looks back with pride on his role in such an historic event - it was "a great honour", he says.

"Having read about Hillary in his expeditions to Mount Everest, I thought, wow! Here I am, a farmer's son from North Dakota, given the opportunity to work with the Hillary team as they journeyed to the South Pole.

At this point, it really hit home. This world renowned person was relying on me to pass his communications to the outside world. This was not just weather information, but communiqués regarding the progress of the team and the efforts they were encountering as they went up the Beardmore Glacier and its crevasse fields establishing the supply depots on the way to Depot 700 where they were to meet Dr. Fuchs.

We also relayed information back to Hillary regarding the progress and the difficulties of Dr Fuchs team as they traversed from the Weddell Sea to the South Pole.

White-out conditions

Often atmospheric conditions dictated whether or not contact would be made with the Hillary team.

White-out conditions were common and a definite hindrance to radio communications, as well as travel. Not only could you not see anything, radios were of no use whatsoever, as the signals just seemed to disappear for hours and days. That was an eerie feeling of emptiness in the radio waves.

In a normal situation there were ample noises to drown out the strongest of signals. Atmospheric conditions often dictated the quality of our conversations, either through Morse code or verbally, some days it was like we were in the same room, others we would test our hearing to pick out the message, not knowing if it was an emergency or a daily status report.

Each unsuccessful attempt at radio contact with the party left an empty feeling that we had missed a chance for the party to share their problems or ask for assistance and help.

Sir Edmund's plan was to meet Dr Fuchs at Depot 700. Dr Fuchs however, was being delayed by bad weather and tough terrain. So Sir Edmund decided to meet Dr Fuchs at the South Pole.

When Sir Edmund arrived at the South Pole, well ahead of Dr Fuchs, he and his group became the first to reach the South Pole overland since Sir Robert Scott in 1912.

Dr Fuchs was quite disappointed that Hillary was at the Pole waiting for him to arrive. I remember the radios were buzzing with information that a falling out had occurred between Fuchs and Hillary over the latter reaching the Pole first.

An urgent call

After a brief rest period, Dr Fuchs party struck out for Scott Base on the final leg of the journey. This leg seemed to be more treacherous than the Weddell Sea to the South Pole trek.

Some 200 or 250 miles from the South Pole, the expedition radioed Scott Base that a "weasel" had been damaged and had to be abandoned. The weasel vehicle was a tracked machine that was capable of traversing the terrain.

Close to Depot 700, I received an urgent call from the TAE party requesting the US Navy to fly some oxygen to the party, as one of its members had suffered carbon monoxide poisoning. This was Geoffrey Pratt a British seismologist with the expedition.

The message was given to the air wing of the navy contingent at McMurdo, who dispatched an aircraft to the party and dropped oxygen as requested. Our communications with the party changed from every four hours contact to a constant monitor of the frequencies until Geoff Pratt had recovered.

Not too long after this incident and prior to arriving at Depot 700, the expedition had further difficulties, when two Sno-cats fell into crevasses. Both machines were recovered.

Equipment failures were becoming very common at this stage of the trek. The TAE joined Sir Edmund at Depot 700 on February 7, 1958.

After the parties' departure on 8 February 1958 from Depot 700, our communications were routine. The weather was fine and on February 27, 1958 the party had arrived 160 miles from Scott Base.

In the afternoon of 1 March we communicated with the TAE party for the last time, bid our farewells on the radio and expressed our excitement at meeting them tomorrow.

The initial arrival time of the Trans-Antarctic Expedition was somewhere around noon, so we were all at Scott Base waiting for the party to come over the horizon. We saw them about 45 minutes out of Scott Base. They seemed to move so slowly. Tired from the long trek, both men and equipment worn out.

When the party arrived, all equipment pulled up where the people had gathered and stopped. Out came the party members, tired and exhausted from this long trek. I can remember the grins and excitement they all had, just seeing new faces and some friends they had not seen in many months.

Fuchs and Hillary got out of their vehicles and were greeted by the Scott Base and McMurdo Sound leaders. All of us had our cameras, recording this momentous event. The weather was clear with the sun shining, but cold. Many cameras froze and were not able to record photos or movies. Mine worked fine and I got some great shots.

In order to add to the festivities, the McMurdo contingent organized a musical treat. A band was formed. "The McMurdo Sound Symphony" played the national anthems of the UK and US. It was said the Brits could hardly recognize their anthem.

Altogether, there was probably in the area of 50-60 people greeting the party when they arrived. The next day, Scott Base held a dinner for the Trans-Antarctic Expedition party. I had brought over some communications for Sir Vivian and Sir Edmund. I was invited to stay for the dinner and spent the evening listening to stories of the trek from the party. I am not much of an autograph hunter, but I did get a number of the party's signatures, as well as Hillary and Fuchs.

On 4 March 1958 the American contingent held a dinner party for Sir Edmund, Sir Vivian and the TAE party at McMurdo Sound. Bunny gave a talk on the expedition and a movie was played after the discussion.

After the movie, the expedition leaders spent the evening with the camp leadership and a group of the party came to our hut where we had a rip roaring party. It was a great evening of getting acquainted and the telling of the experiences we all shared. Beer flowed freely - but only after first thawing on the stove. .

The Trans-Antarctic Expedition was winding down and they were in the process of loading the equipment on their ship, The Endeavour, for transport to New Zealand and ultimately Great Britain.

The Endeavour left fully loaded. At 1900 hours that evening, she received a seven-gun salute as she passed Hut Point on her way home. The seven-gun salute consisted of seven sticks of dynamite, since no weapons were allowed in the Antarctic.

Forty-eight years after this historic event, I still marvel at the feat these men accomplished. My involvement in the communications with the party brought this to the forefront as a world class event, unequalled by no others. It was a great honor to be involved in such a project."

 E-mail this story to a friend

Trans-Antarctic Expedition pictured from Scott Base
The expedition took two hours to cover 23 miles from this point to Scott Base

In Context
Radio operator Ron Semingson was based in McMurdo Sound with the US Navy as part of a team of about 300 people.

They were compiling weather information provided by members of the Antarctic Treaty Organisation for scientific research as part of the International Geophysical Year (IGY), 1957-58.

After completing his tour of duty in the Antarctic, he was posted to London and remained with the US Navy based in Europe and the US until 1968 when he returned to civilian life with a wife and two children.

He has spent most of the remainder of his working life managing and running nursing and retirement homes and he also runs a legal advice service for the elderly.

Witness Stories

Web Links

The BBC is not responsible for the content of external internet sites

Search ON THIS DAY by date

^^ back to top
Front Page |  Years |  Themes |  Witness
©MMVIII | News Sources | Privacy & Cookies Policy