Times Past, Pausing to Remember

Part I

Mt. Erebus

Once, the continent of Antarctica was a mysterious place and a magnet for explorers and adventurers. One such was James Clark Ross, born in England in 1800. He entered the Royal Navy at the age of eleven, and by eighteen, he was exploring the Arctic. After five expeditions north, he turned in the other direction and went as far south as his ships would take him. That turned out to be further than any other person in recorded history, and he planted a flag and his name in a great many places. Hence, we have the Ross Sea and Ross Island and the Ross Ice Shelf. We don't have Mt. Ross, because he named the peak pictured below after one of his ships, Erebus.

He and his men were the first humans, as far as we know, to view this southern-most volcano. James Clark Ross described it as follows:
With a favourable breeze, and very clear weather, we stood to the southward, close to some land which had been in sight since the preceding noon [26 January], and which we then called the 'High Island'; it proved to be a mountain twelve thousand four hundred feet of elevation above the level of the sea, emitting flame and smoke in great profusion; at first the smoke appeared like snow drift, but as we drew nearer, its true character became manifest.

Mt. Erebus was first climbed in 1908 and has been scaled many times since. The peak offers no technical difficulty but a great many people collect mountains, and some collect the highest peaks on each of the seven continents. Mt. Erebus is part of that tour.

The mountain did some collecting of its own in 1979, the lives of everyone aboard Air New Zealand Flight 901. Early on the morning of November 28th, 1979, the jet departed Auckland carrying 237 passengers and 20 crew members. This was no ordinary flight however. Flight 901 was to carry it's passengers on a 12 hour Antarctic journey, flying over either Ross Island and Mt. Erebus or the South magnetic pole and Ninnis glacier, dependent on weather conditions upon arrival before returning to Auckland. The flight was set up with a party-like atmosphere, a bar and catering were provided and passengers were invited to roam the aircraft in search of the best views. Flight deck visits were encouraged and experts on the Antarctic were on board to provide commentary.

For various reasons that were not the fault of the crew, the plane was not where it was thought to be, and a kind of "whiteout" obscured the landscape at a crucial moment. This was one of those "controlled flight into terrain" situations, and the aircraft flew into the slopes of Mt. Erebus. There were no survivors. It was 12 hours before the crashsite was located.

To Southern Climes, Part II