On May 29, 1969, after 476 days and 5,987 kilometres battling ice floes, disorienting weather, and injuries, the four members of the British Trans-Arctic Expedition and their pack of 40 sled-dogs completed the first surface crossing of the Arctic Ocean by its longest axis. Dr. Ken Hedges served as medic on the expedition — along with members Sir Wally Herbert, Roy ‘Fritz’ Koerner and Allan Gill — which traversed the polar ice cap from Point Barrow, Alaska, to the Norwegian archipelago of Svalbard via the geographic North Pole, becoming the first undisputed expedition to also reach the Geographic North Pole on foot.
In honour of the expedition’s anniversary, the former member of the British Special Air Service, Honourary Colonel for the Canadian Forces Health Services, Fellow of the Royal Canadian Geographical Society and recipient of the Society’s prestigious Capt. Joseph-Elzéar Bernier Medal, has donated the Nansen sled, tent and wolf-skin parka he used on the expedition to The Royal Canadian Geographical Society to display at its headquarters at 50 Sussex in Ottawa. Here Hedges gives insight into this perilous expedition now billed the “last great journey on Earth.”
On how he became part of the 1968-69 British Trans-Arctic Expedition while working for the British Army’s Special Air Service
The Royal Geographical Society had requested — required, actually — that the proposed expedition have a trial run on Ellesmere Island in the Eastern Arctic the previous year to test equipment. At the end of that obviously very trying experience (of which I had no knowledge at the time), one of the team members withdrew. So on short notice the expedition committee in London, which included members like John Hunt, the leader of the first ascent of Mount Everest, and Vivian Fuchs, the leader of the first crossing of the Antarctic continent, needed to find a fourth person for the crossing party.
They approached the British Ministry of Defence, where I was a medical officer with the Special Air Service. I received a phone call one day from the general asking if I was interested in going on an expedition to the Arctic. At the time, bearing in mind my ignorance about such things, it conjured up the idea of sitting in a hut analyzing urine samples — I thought it would be really boring. I declined, but he told me to think about it. I had an old Polish Army corporal as my sidekick, and he shared with me an article he read about the expedition in the Sunday Times. The article titled “The longest, loneliest walk in the world” was a thumbnail description of what the proposed expedition was going to attempt to do, make the first crossing of the surface of the Arctic Ocean in foot. That piqued my interest, so I called the general back and I told him I’d be honoured to take part.
I had an interview with Wally Herbert, the expedition leader, at a pub in London. All I remember about that whole time in the pub was the responses I gave, “Gosh! Wow! Gee whiz!” I came away with no expectation whatsoever of being selected, because I had no Arctic experience. But I was shortlisted in any case and called back for an interview at the Royal Geographical Society. I was really surprised to get a phone call in the end saying, “you’re it.”
On the purpose of the expedition
The primary purpose of the expedition was to follow in the momentum of polar history and make a first crossing. Of the world’s five oceans, the Arctic Ocean had yet to be crossed. And so I suppose you’d have to categorise it as an adventure. I remember the RGS asserting that for them to endorse such an idea in that day and age, there had to be a legitimate element of scientific purpose to the expedition. So Wally Herbert invited Fritz Koerner, who had spent a couple of years in the Antarctic, earned a doctorate in glaciology spent quite a bit of time on the icecap on Baffin Island. He was the scientific basis for the RGS to approve the expedition.
What Koerner did on the expedition was really quite incredible. He undertook a series of manual determinations of the depth of the ice the entire way across the ocean — over 250 manual drill samples through multi-year flows that were up to three metres thick. After a full day’s sledging, he’d start boring through these ice flows. It was certainly the first such study of its kind on the continent. He established the first record of a total transit of the Arctic Ocean in terms of ice thickness, which did at least two things: they confirmed any remote-sensing devices that later explorers used to measure the thickness of the ice, and they provided a baseline for later determinations of climate warming and its impact on the sea ice. What Koerner achieved was remarkable, and it was commendable too because he stuck at it all the way across. How many people would have done that?
We also studied the Coriolis effect by accident (Ed. —The result of Earth’s rotation on weather patterns, ocean currents and objects in motion). We didn’t set out to study it, but we were a victim of it. As we got closer to the axis of rotation of the Earth, evidently it got increasingly magnified. So routinely, we were being knocked off course to the right in a sort of clockwise direction.
On the structure of the expedition that started in Alaska and ended in Svalbard
The expedition was planned by Wally Herbert to have five phases. There would be three sledging phases and two periods of drift. We would set out sledging from Alaska until the summer arrived, when we would have to drift on an ice floe for a couple of months, waiting for the cold weather to freeze the water again. Then there was a second sledging phase from the end of the summer to the arrival of the Arctic night, followed by five long months of overwintering. And then at the end of that, there would be a final sledging phase to get from our winter quarters to Svalbard, our desired goal.
But at the end of the summer, Allan Gill sustained an incapacitating back injury. It skewed our second sledging phase — we lost it completely. We had to retreat back to that same ice floe and spend the next five months on it through the Arctic winter. All together, we were on that one ice floe for seven months. As far as I know, other than a few static expeditions, there was only one other Arctic expedition that ever planned to overwinter in the Arctic
On his role as doctor on expedition
If you looked at the medical logs, you’d see all the things you would expect. Someone suffered a bite from one of our sled dogs; and Allan Gill’s back was a major medical issue, of course. Chronic hypothermia was a major factor for Fritz Koerner, to the point that he became disoriented. He was a long-distance runner and had a very slender build, and the cold got to him. There was one occasion where if he’d been on his own, I think he would have suffocated.
We were wearing these big heavy wolf-skin parkas and, in order to stop the air from pumping out from the bottom, we used the Inuit technique of tying ropes around our waists. So Fritz had this rope around his hips, and he came into the tent and tried to pull this huge heavy parka over his head. The rope just jammed under his ribcage, and he was struggling. He couldn’t get in or out of it at that point. I had to actually throw myself on top of him and yell at him to keep still while I undid the rope. If he was alone in the tent, the outcome could have easily been bad. That’s the kind of insidious effect that hypothermia can have on a person.
I also dealt with snow blindness, as well as dental issues, which can be truly incapacitating. I had to do a dental filling for Wally Herbert. I’d had all my back teeth removed before the expedition on the advice of the consultant in dentistry to the Royal Army medical corps. He said, “Captain Hedges, you are trained in emergency dental care. You have these ugly looking dental forceps to take people’s teeth out and you know how to use them. But if you allow anyone else to approach you with those things, they’ll break your jaw. You have quite a few fillings in your rear teeth, if you were to lose one in the extreme cold and develop a dental abscess, life would be pretty darn miserable for you, or even short.” So their advice was to have all my rear teeth removed as a precaution. You know, I was really committed to going once I had made that decision!
On whether he’s returned to the Arctic since
Not if I’ve been able to help it [laughs]! But I have been back. At one time I was medical director for Shell Canada, and in that capacity I went up to Tuktoyaktuk, N.W.T. I stood on the shoreline there and was fascinated that I could look out over the Beaufort Sea and see no ice as far as the horizon. Otherwise, I was medical director in Rankin Inlet, Nunavut, for a short time. There was no hospital there; just a walk-in clinic.
On the intersection of science and exploration
There was not enough communication between the scientists and adventurers then. And I’m not sure it’s caught up yet, but hopefully it’s steadily improving in this day and age. The other area where we really need to improve communication is between science and the Indigenous communities of the north, because of their invaluable local knowledge. During the expedition, we didn’t cross paths with Inuit communities or hunting groups. They are a coastal people, whereas our expedition was to venture so that we couldn’t ever see land. That was the fundamental difference in our mindsets. However, we were of the same climate, that lethal cryosphere that can kill you in an hour if you’re not careful.