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Picture Library catalogue: South Georgia Survey 1951-57

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South Georgia Survey 1951-57

In 1951 the island of South Georgia was still largely unmapped. Conflicting national interests in the area meant that it was imperative that a comprehensive survey took place. The four South Georgia surveys between 1951-57 led by Verner Duncan Carse concentrated on mapping land features, and the journeys which took them over most of the island also enabled them to explore and record the biological, geological and glaciological make-up of the island.

The first of the surveys, a small private expedition in 1951-52 and organised by Carse and set out to explore and map the island. The expedition was sponsored by the Royal Geographical Society and the Scott Polar Research Institute with equipment borrowed from the War Office and the Ministry of Supply. Gordon Smillie and John D. Heaney were the surveyors, Alec F. Trendall a geologist, Walter Roots a mountaineer and Kevin Walton the deputy leader. The intention was to spend one summer on South Georgia with the primary goal of surveying and gathering geological specimens.

Sailing from Glasgow on 16 September 1951 on board the Southern Opal, a whaling tanker the party landed on 1 November and established a base in the unoccupied prison at Grytviken. The group began reconnaissance of the area and discovered that there was a break in the Allardyce Range – the high mountain backbone that runs the length of the island. This break ran to the southwest coast and from Royal Bay to Cumberland Bay.

In December the expedition moved to Royal Bay to begin the major sledging journey, the intention being to cross the island quickly and work down the south-west coast, mapping the shoreline from overlooking peaks and headlands. During this trip they had much bad weather, at Christmas spending 11 days in one camp trying to find a suitable point for a triangulation station, eventually settling for less accurate but faster surveying. Unfortunately, on 1 January 1952 Trendall fell down a bergschrund, and badly injured his knee, and had to be taken back to Britain for treatment.

Later in the season on 25 January the remaining party of five landed at the head of Fortuna Bay. They travelled southwards on extensive glaciers and ice fields, man-hauling their sledges. Again they had problems with the weather, the high peaks of the mountain ranges being rarely free from cloud. However, by the end of the journey they had a general picture of the island from King Haakon Bay to Novosilski Bay.

In March they repeated the southern journey as a four-man party as Walton had returned home due to personal problems. They landed in Royal Bay with the intention of completing the work which was cut short on the previous year as a result of Trendalls’ accident. This repeat trip had its own problems, a depot left on the previous attempt could not be found, and it was presumed buried by the deep snow. Short of supplies they were forced to return to base without covering any new ground, and on 18 April 1952 the men once again boarded the Southern Opal and sailed home.

The second of the South Georgia Survey expeditions in 1953-4 comprised a smaller party of four: Carse as leader, Smillie, Trendall and Keith Warburton (doctor). They sailed in the Polar Maid and once again occupied Grytviken prison on 10 Oct 1953, with optimistic plans to add to the previous season’s work with only three short journeys: north-west of the Kohl-Larsen plateau, south-east of the Spenceley glacier, and south-west of the Allardyce range. However, they were hampered by misfortune just as the first season. Firstly they were delayed by bad weather and then they made slow progress due to depleted manpower, as Warburton was suffering a suspected duodenal ulcer, and after a short excursion to the north was invalided home in January 1954. With such a small party the second and third journeys were unlikely to succeed. Upon reaching Drygalski Fjord conditions prevented them sledging any further and they were forced to retreat to Cooper Bay where they were picked up by a passing catcher and returned to base. The team were further impeded soon after when Smillie was forced to return home due to personal problems. However, the first 2 weeks in March were spent with sealers and they had some success in surveying the coast and also made three successful landings on Annenkov Island. Unfortunately, their efforts on the Cape Charlotte Peninsula were hampered by more bad weather, and on 17th April sailed for home in the Southern Opal.

In both expeditions although misfortune and sickness severely hampered efforts their work provided invaluable to the improvement of maps for the island. The 1953-54 season built on the previous seasons results and offered further evidence of the overall slimming of the island, a better understanding of the area around the Drygalski Fjord and the complexity of the Salvesen Range and also produced more comprehensive geological results than they had expected. In subsequent years, Carse returned to the area, with larger parties, to continue the work and fill in gaps in the mapping of the island that still remained.

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Data in this catalogue was last updated on Tuesday, 13th June 2023.