Text © Michel Barré, reported by Frédéric Di Gallo, translation and images by Guillaume Dargaud.
Michel Barré was born on May 8th, 1919 in Paris. After studying in Janson-de-Sailly, he enters Navy school in 1938. Upon graduation he embarks on a destroyer in 1940. In 1943 he joins the Free France, via Spain, after the scuttling of the fleet in Toulon. In 1948, ship lieutenant, he boards the Commandant Charcot as a communication officer, also in charge of scientific observations by the National Laboratory of Radio-Electricity. He's part of the 1948-49 Antarctic campaign which, having left the country too late, did not have the time to find a way through the particularly abundant ice pack of that year. Still on board of that ship he's part of the 49-50 campaign which left André-Franck LIOTARD and his team in Port-Martin. In 1950 he goes back to take responsibility for the 1950-1952 winter-over. He tells of this winter-over in his recently re-edited book Blizzard (ISBN 2-7373-1657-X) which you can find at the AAEPF or the AMAPOF.
You first need to remember that at the beginning of the polar expeditions in Adelie Land, the team was totally isolated for a year. The ship Commandant Charcot was coming only once between the end of December and the beginning of February; there was no such thing as an intervention by airplane or ship outside of that period. In case of surgical problem, we would have to rely on ourselves.
Fortunately, the expedition doctor, young intern of the Paris hospitals, Jean Cendron, proved he had great qualities as a surgeon. He later became the best french specialist in children's urology. The first signs of the problems that led to this operation started at the beginning of the winter-over: Claude Tisserand, the radio operator, had a bowels obstruction that worried Cendron, but things solved themselves. Unfortunately it happened again in the middle of the winter; after several days of treatment, the drugs having been useless, Cendron came to tell me that we had to consider a surgery.
Right: Xav, an electronician come surgeon, at the start of an appendicitis surgery in 1993.
My mother having almost died during a surgery for bowels obstruction by a famous doctor, I was particularly distressed at this possibility. I asked Cendron if he had already performed this operation and his answer was: "No, but I've seen it done, and I read all the documentation available here". The frankness of this answer didn't relieve me much.
We went to tell our decision to the main character, Tisserand, whose reaction was frankly negative. The idea of having his belly open on the kitchen table seemed totally crazy to him. After some thinking we went back to see him because Cendron was positive. I asked Tisserand to write down his refusal of the surgery, so as to clear Cendron's responsibility in case he died of his obstruction. Cendron insisted that the chance of dying was far superior if he didn't operate than if he did (if you can use the word 'chance' in such a situation).
I still break in a cold sweat thinking that the surgery could have turned out badly.
Tisserand finally accepted the operation. From this point on a high fever took on all the members of the expedition to prepare the operation for the best. Cendron went in his mess to get all his gear out: a mobile anesthesia machine lent by the army, a folding table, and also all the tools for cutting, pinching or bending of his trade. Those, like the towels, had been sterilized prior to departure in France and stored in large metal containers. Upon opening one of them, Cendron found a sheet of paper with:
"Don't panic, guys !"
The nurses of Cendron's hospital in Paris, who had prepared the equipment, knew full well that those boxes would be open only in case of dire emergency. Rateau, the other radio operator who was to be the anesthetist, was setting up the table; Mayaud who was the designated nurse was in the kitchen getting all the tools ready; Imbert was to take the pressure regularly; Dubois and Dova, in the tool shed, were making sure we had electricity; I was to be the assistant and Bouquin, behind me, was to replace me in case I didn't feel too well. I took out some clean sheets and we tied them up to the walls and ceiling.
Everything was ready and Tisserand came to lay on the table; he didn't look too healthy and our other friends were a bit pale too. Cendron injected him with some pentothal and asked him to count: 1...2...3...4...etc. At 50 his tongue slowed down and Rateau started the anesthesia. I really don't feel qualified to give you details of the surgery; my participation was just holding instruments and pull strings. I'll only tell of what I saw. Cendron started a long cut from the belly-button. Immediately the intestine, inflated like a bike tire, escaped from the cut. At that same time we saw the feet of the patient move. Cendron asked Rateau to increase the gas flow. He answered that the faucet was full on: there was a leak in the tubes ! We had to close back the opening in emergency but the dilated intestine refused to go back to its place. During a time that seemed to stretch forever we tried with 4 hands to push it back, but like an overblown balloon it escaped from side to side. In the end Cendron punched a hole in the mesentery and it deflated. A few minutes to mend it back and Tisserand woke up in his bed. Only benefit of the operation: Cendron thought he saw a small tumor. Besides that, we had to do it over again.
Right: Dr. Leonid Rogozov removing his own appendix in Antarctica, 1961 (Novolazarevskaya Station)
Rateau dismantled the rubber tubes of the anesthesia device and put them in a bucket of water like a simple flat tire. He found a hole and put a tap. We could have checked this before leaving Paris. We now had to restart again the next day. It is strange that Tisserand was a lot less worried than the first time; he was smiling and joking. It's the opposite for the others; we've been very impressed by the first surgery and we think it's already a miracle that he made it. The idea of waiting for another miracle is like tempting the devil. While the second operation was starting I had the feeling that God's phone was working full time.
And everything went well: with his skillful fingers Cendron found the tumor; but he said he wasn't equipped to remove it and decided to do an artificial anus on the intestine hoping that it wouldn't be cancerous. So be it: the tumor wasn't malignant. Tisserand went back to France with this contraption and was operated in Lyon for a full rework. He was to die 30 years later, and his death had nothing to do with this adventure.
Cendron was warmly congratulated for the success of the operation executed in the conditions you just saw while he was only 30. And everything went well under his skillful fingers.
We are in 1951, shortly after the war. The means available to us were more or less them same than the great explorers, Mawson or Scott, 35 years earlier: no means of localization of the raids, no satellite links, no rescue means be it boat or helicopter, no airborne parachuting of vital items. Also nobody had ever attempted a raid on sea ice, in winter, in darkness, to explore the shore. The main goal of those raids were the study of emperor penguins (discovered by the team of Valette the previous year) at the time they lay eggs which had never been seen.
Right: Bougnat & Georges driving a 50 year old weasel.
The first raid was scheduled for June, in full winter, in almost complete darkness and constant bad weather. The only possible route was the sea ice at it seemed (and still seems) impossible to go through the Plateau at that time of year. The distance involved in a straight line wasn't more than 80 kilometers but two floating glaciers were blocking the way as far as 15km from the shore, prolonged by many scattered icebergs between which you had to find your way. Those glacier outputs seem to have all but disappeared today. It was also out of the question to use dogs and sleds as it wasn't convenient to drive them in darkness and blizzard. We had to use the weasels, small vehicles from the American Army. Those weasels had come out of the war rather tired: they used to be seaworthy but were no longer waterproof, and we had added a wooden roof for shelter against the elements.
Our main mistake was not having questioned the solidity of sea ice. Frozen since april and more than a meter thick near the base we thought it's be even thicker in june. We left with two weasels pulling two sleds loaded to the rim; in total darkness and a covered sky. The headlights were giving a very white vision and we had to be careful of hummocks and small icebergs embedded within the sea ice, white on white.
The first surprise, somewhat expected, was the discovery of 'rivers', that is to say long breaks within the ice caused by its motion under the push of sea currents and tides. The first ones were narrow (30 to 60 centimeters) with thick ice on both sides. We were carrying long wooden planks (bastings) to use as bridge. They weren't needed at first but essential later on. The next day, towards the noon dawn, we were to discover another annoying feature: during the night we had passed a glacier tongue which we called Penola, and we were arriving at Cape Jules where some of those 'rivers' had very thin lips, forcing us to wander far from the shore before we could continue back west. This was surprising and worrying: the thickness of the ice varied thus a lot from place to place on the sea ice.
Towards midnight near Cape Bienvenue, in total darkness, we had an ugly trial: one of both weasels broke through the ice into sea water, when the driver, Jacques Dubois, gave an immediate acceleration allowing the threads to grip the opposite lip of the river, the weasel jumping up and barely falling on the proper side. Dubois, as we'll see, would have to repeat the experience. After a few hours sleep within the weasels we had to sidetrack towards the tip of the second ice tongue that we called Terra-Nova [Translator's note: which is indeed the Astrolabe glacier] without being able to see a passage in the dim light of noon between the tongue itself and the ensuing maze of icebergs. That's when the dreaded blizzard started. Impossible to continue, stop on sea ice away from any shelter above 400m of water... uncomfortable.
Right: Departure for D-10 in two fifty year old weasels and a more recent Bombardier track vehicle.
The blizzard eased the next morning but the night had been restless. Our motor oils were pretty sensitive to the temperature and we had to start the engine every 3 hours to keep it warm. There was a leak in one of the exhaust pipe that lead to a carbon monoxide poisoning in one of the weasels. Fortunately the doctor Jean Cendron was part of the raid and detected the CO before its grave consequences. We came out of it weakened but the engine, stopped for several hours, refused to restart in the morning and we had to tow it with the other to start it up. The corridor between the tip of the glacier and the first iceberg was crossed in darkness with many rivers in every direction. That's when the second weasel chose to break its engine transmission. Obliged to stop in this dangerous place we waited anxiously for Dubois to fix it.
After about 20 minutes we resumed our route with a sigh of relief and we finally arrived in the Pte Geologie archipelago before midnight. An unforgettable show greeted us: the moon was lighting the black rocks of the islands and the glittering white of the sea ice on which a large flat dark thing looked like a very flat rock. Coming closer we discovered rookery of sleeping emperor penguins, gathered close to one another with their head placed between the shoulders of their front neighbors; like in a roman legionnaire 'turtle' defense position or a rugby brawl. We were probably the first ones to see this show, now familiar to our successors.
We were to stay a week on the spot; Cendron the biologist and doctor, helped by Tabuteau, was busy with the emperors, Perroud was working on cartography, Dubois and me were doing some exploring in the archipelago. No need to talk too much about that time, the emperors by themselves would need an entire conference. I'll only mention one thing that later proved important: there had been no wind during the stay and it had snowed a lot.
The return trip took a dramatic turn. The snow stuck to the threads which were doing scary noises but what stroke us most was the fog raising from the snow hiding the rivers like a bad omen. It happened to be worse than we first thought.
After crossing back the passage between glacier tip and icebergs we dove in a deep darkness towards south-east and Cape Bienvenue. We thought we were on our way back but we hit an area of hummocks (leftovers of a broken iceberg) that threatened our threads and forced us to some long side trips, loosing us completely along the way. Note that without stars the navigation could only be done with the wind coming usually from south-east, or by 'dead reckoning' thanks to the uselessness of compass that close to the magnetic pole. Suddenly I had a sharp sensation of humidity on the face without any change in the temperature (about -25°) and a few seconds later the other weasel called for help: its headlights were lighting the sky, the surface had collapsed under its weight.
We got close cautiously, the other weasel bathing in a mix of seawater and rotten ice. We took out a long tow line, still thinking that the accident had been caused by a snow covered river, and pulled it out of its dangerous position. On second thought we decided to check the thickness of the ice before restarting: our probe dug effortlessly within the snow and kept on going with the same ease to the water. When we pulled it out water rushed up and infiltrated the covering snow. We'd just discovered an unexpected and disastrous phenomenon: the snow was forming an isolating layer between the sea and the cold atmosphere; the ice below was rotten. Unfortunately it wasn't just a localized even. From 10pm to 5am both weasels wandered in search of a solid surface, without success near the shore and then trying farther out north. Things even seemed to worsen. The sky was clear and I asked the geodesian Perroud for a position check; I remember that during his theodolite measurements I could see water seep around the threads of the weasels. No need to tell you my state of mind. It was probably the only time of the winter I was really afraid and felt guilty to have taken my comrades in such a perilous and hazardous venture... And all this for a bunch of penguins !
Towards 5am we felt a slight slope under our feet; a test with the probe showed a hard layer underneath and we collapsed into our sleeping bags under the watch of the untirable Perroud. With the first glimmer of down we discovered we were on the snowdrift of a welcoming iceberg, a few kilometers away from Cape Jules. After a few minor and expected problems with the rivers of the Cape, we were back at the base during the night.
After this adventure that could have turned out worse, there are a few additions: first one was 3 months later, after the ice got covered by a thick layer of wind hardened snow, Bertrand Imbert started with two weasels for the same Geologie Archipelago. He was hit by a blizzard after the first glacier and met the same surface conditions than in June. After a horrendous night during which he had to move the weasels every half hours in cotton fog in fear of seeing them break through the ice, he turned back to the base. Later, during a spring raid after a lengthy period of sub 30 temperature we were astonished to discover a sea entirely free of ice from the shore to the north and as far as to the western horizon as the eye could see, behind Pte Geologie. Then the next year, Marret, who was wintering over at Geologie, was surprised when the entire sea ice in front of the islands disappeared, carried away in one night in the middle of winter.
Our adventure finished well, but the least to say is that we were really lucky and I hope our successors will draw the conviction that sea ice is not a healthy place to be. Even today, setting up a rescue to recover a team stuck on ice floating away towards the north would be something extremely difficult to organize before the ice breaks away and disappear under the action of the waves...