From Heels to Mukluks

Edith "Jackie" Ronne
(Mrs. Finn Ronne)
Member of the Ronne Antarctic Research Expedition, 1946-48

"Roald Amundsen should see us now," I said to my husband in December of 1971, as we settled into the bucket seats of the Hercules C-130 turbo jet flying us to the South Pole. Once, the Norwegian explorer had driven his dog teams across the Ross Ice Shelf, over perilous crevasses, up steep glaciers to the 10,000 foot high polar plateau. It took Amundsen's party two months of difficult sledging to reach the South Pole on December 14, 1911. Now, sixty years later, we retraced the route in three hours - about and hour and a half of flight time for each month of their tortuous struggle.

Although the round trip from McMurdo Sound on Antarctica's icy coast to the geographical South Pole can be achieved by air in one good flying day, women who have made the trip are more scarce than penguin chicks at a zoo. Many women have crossed the Antarctic Circle via tourist ships in recent years, but you can count in an ice tray those who have contributed to on-the-spot history of the Continent. The pristine icy scenery we were surveying from the relative warmth and safety of the huge ski-equipped Navy plane's cockpit was not new to me. It was my third venture to the Antarctic Continent, although my first directly to 90 degrees South, where all the meridians meet.

When my husband, Captain Finn Ronne, first organized the Ronne Antarctic Research Expedition in 1946, I readily gave a helping hand to the enormous amount of tedious planning such an undertaking required. So familiar had I become with the background of the expedition, that it had been my intention to handle its affairs Stateside, while they were away. It was a hectic departure, and while bidding my husband good-bye, he asked if I would go with his ship as far as Panama to help with the last minute details. My two week leave of absence from a challenging State Department position was hastily extended. (Actually, I never did return to it.) My suitcase contained little more than a good suit, a good dress, nylon stockings and high heeled shoes. Little did I realize this was the beginning of a series of events that led me to be the first American woman to set foot on the earth's seventh Continent and to spend my third and fourth wedding anniversaries there.

Not only did my husband ultimately persuade me to accompany the expedition as Historian and Correspondent for the North American Newspaper Alliance, but he permitted the wife of one of the other members to go, so as to quell any qualms I had about becoming the "first and only". We selected the most appropriate size clothing from the large supply sent with us from the Quartermaster Corps for cold weather testing.

Although I had lived through previous Antarctic adventures vicariously since first meeting my explorer husband, I was completely unprepared for the truly magnificent scenery of that desolated southern continent. Once within the Antarctic Circle, our 183 foot, wooden hull ship slowly made her way through the light pack-ice belt that surrounds the Continent at all times. Under the brilliant sun, the shimmering icebergs and the snowcapped mountain peaks stood in great contrast to the vivid blue sky and cobalt sea. Heavily crevassed glaciers descended through the majestic mountain passes ending in a 200 foot high frozen ice shelf which, with few exceptions, encircles the 5,200,000 square mile land mass.

Once our ship was securely anchored in a cove off Stonington Island, sheltered by a curving glacier in Marguerite Bay, we began transporting scientific equipment, food for two years, dogs, three airplanes, gasoline, 30 tons of coal and innumerable other materials ashore. Within weeks, the specially constructed and insulated buildings were ready for occupancy and we moved in. Meanwhile, ice had formed aroundthe ship and soon she was intentionally frozen-in for the winter. With my husband, I shared a small hut, about twelve feet square, connected to the mess hall bunk house by a short tunnel.

During the long winternight that soon come upon us, I learned first hand of the tedious hard work required to carry on investigations in twelve branches of science under harsh polar conditions. Later, I assisted our geophysicist in some of his routine work while he was away from the base. Meticulous preparations also were necessary for the aerial exploratory programs and surface geographical survey teams planned upon the sun's return. Usually, I wrote an average of three articles a week describing our progress for radio transmittal to the N.Y. Times receiving station. For relaxation, we had motion pictures several times a week. Classical and modern music could be heard throughout the isolated camp most any hour of the day. There were, of course, endless discussions on all imaginable subjects, as well as an occasional card game, however, when all the candy bars had been won, the men ceased playing poker. But the library with its great variety of subject matter most appealed to me. Thus, the winternight passed quickly. Even so, all hands were certainly glad when the sun's rays finally returned to the northern horizon and the men were able to tackle their outside investigation.

With my husband as navigator, his carefully planned flights gradually discovered new land and mountain ranges far south in previously unknown areas. Months later, upon our return, the U.S. Board of Geographic Names called the newly discovered area, which was about the size of the state of Texas, EDITH RONNE LAND. It remained on the maps for twenty years, until the Board again decided to name the second largest ice shelf in the world the RONNE ICE SHELF for all three Ronnes, each of whom had spent more than a year in Antarctica.

Martin Ronne, my husband's father, had been a member of Amundsen's expedition. He made the small tent Amundsen left at the South Pole signifying his December 14-17 arrival. Martin remained with Amundsen through twenty years of polar exploration and subsequently became the only member of Admiral Richard Byrd's first expedition who had ever been to Antarctica before. Upon Martin's death in 1931, his son, Finn Ronne, immediately followed in his father's footsteps as a natural extension of his Norwegian heritage.

In recognition of our family's long involvement in Antarctic exploration, my husband and I were invited by the Department of Defense on a flight to the Pole in December 1971, in remembrance of Amundsen's 60th anniversary of his reaching the Pole. This was my husband's ninth (and last) journey south over a 38 year span, including four overwinterings of 15 or more months duration. To our knowledge at that time, Finn Ronne had sledged more miles behind a dogteam than any other man and was well aware of the grueling effort involved in advancing Antarctica's frontiers.

Below us, the polar bound tracks of Amundsen, Scott, and Shackleton had long since been obliterated by the shifting winds. Not only were we on our way to pay homage to the remarkable feats of willpower, stamina, and courage of these early pioneers, but we intended to observe the great progress that had taken place since.

The majestic and terrifying beauty of the Beardmore Glacier defies description. Bordered on either side by high mountains, this wide flowing frozen river moves its ice masses from the high polar plateau precipitously down to the Ross Ice Shelf. As we flew southward, numerous dense crevassed areas disrupting its surface could be seen from the safety of our vantage position in the cockpit of the plane. With brilliant sky overhead and only a few scattered clouds on the distant horizon, the sharp ridges and black rock outcrops stood in distinct contrast to the dramatic ice panorama of our flight track below. Continuously, we climbed up the steep glacier, so formidable to the early explorers, until we reached the edge of the 10,000 foot high polar plateau. An eternally white virgin surface stretched as far as the eye could see. For the next 200 miles we scanned the endlessly white horizon for the Pole Station. Finally, we spotted movement on the distant snowy surface where men were preparing for our arrival. Soon we were on the ground at 90 DEGREES SOUTH!

It was bitterly cold! We noticed it at once, particularly on our faces. The chill factor was 80 degrees below 0, Fahrenheit, although the temperature was a mere minus 20. We marveled at those who had made it the hard way. Never could we know the feeling of those intrepid men who had endured so much hardship and incredible sacrifice. For us it had been spectacular and embarrassingly easy.

Newcomers are ushered directly to the Pole, a few yards from the makeshift runway. We had just become the first husband and wife team to set foot there. I was the seventh woman to stand at the pole, the first six being woman journalists who jumped simultaneously from the airplane together during the command of Admiral George Dufek in the late 1950's. The South Pole is about ten feet high and decorated like a barber pole. It is surrounded by the fluttering flags of the sixteen signatory nations to the 1959 Antarctic Treaty. The treaty "froze" national claims and opened the Continent to science and peaceful purposes only. As we staved off frostbite, the photographers recorded my husband's presentation to Deep Freeze's commanding officer, Admiral Leo McCuddin, of two historic photographs, one of Amundsen in December 1911 and one of Scott a month later, both at the Pole.

Hurriedly, we ducked into the entrance of our Amundsen-Scott base and carefully descended the chiseled icy steps to buildings and their connecting tunnels buried some twenty feet beneath the surface. As we toured the station, the various scientific research programs came alive. Geological, biological and upper atmospheric information is being systematically inventoried at all of our Antarctic bases, along with similar occurrences in other area of the world. Some immediate applications of the results already obtained provide us with more accurate predictions in long-range radio transmission and weather forecasting, not to mention some legal and political problems connected with the already known mineralization of the continent. In a somewhat lighter vain, a fascinating three year study of the sleep and dream patterns of personnel was being conducted to help understand human adaptation to isolation.

Our stay at the Pole station was concluded with a leisurely meal of steak, cafeteria style, after which we made a short-wave radio broadcast to Lowell homas, a friend of many years. m e three and a half hour flight back to McMurdo (our main U.S. staging area) was uneventful, but for me the day will remain forever the most memorable of my life.

The next morning we flew to Cape Royds. We intended to spend only an hour or so at the hut used in 1907, by British leader Sir Ernest Shackleton when his party attempted to sledge to the Pole by manhauling their heavy loads. They came within 97 miles of their hard fought goal before adverse conditions forced them to turn back. It would have been impossible for them to have reached the Pole and return alive.

After viewing the austere conditions of a polar camp from yesteryear and photographing many nesting penguins in a nearby rookery, we climbed into the two UH-1N helicopters and strapped down for takeoff. Suddenly, our previous 20 mile visibility changed so rapidly that after five miles of flight we ran into whiteout conditions. There was no visible horizon and no depth perception. Sea ice, glaciers and sky all appeared as one and made us feel as though we were maneuvering in a bottle of milk. As both helicopters swung around, they informed Ground Control at McMurdo that we were returning to Cape Royds. I was a lone woman with seventeen men at Shackleton Base and we were marooned!

Also, we were hungry, tired and generally uncomfortable. Soon the efficient crew brought out their only survival gear and lit a small gasoline stove to prepare a meal. It took a while to melt the several million year old hard blue ice chipped from a nearby glacier. Into the uncontaminated water went a combination of chicken, spaghetti, beef, and everything else readily available to make the most delicious 18 cups of 'hooch' any of us had ever tasted. Then we made another try.

The pilots followed along the coast, hoping we could stay close enough to the glacier fronts and rocky outcrops abutting the sea to find our way back to McMurdo. But again, the curtain of white dropped. In a flash reaction we made a sharp bank towards the last visible crevasses at the edge of the ice barrier. As we jolted around 180 degrees, I thought we were going to crash into the glacier front, but the skillful pilot righted the craft and we returned again to Cape Royds.

By now we had seen more of the volcanic ash, penguins and Shackleton's hut than we cared about. It was easy to conclude we really didn't want to become heroes after all. Walking 40 miles back to McMurdo was out of the question. In our path lay mountainous terrain dotted with crevasse filled glaciers pouring down the valleys from Mt. Erebus. Nor could we reach the base over the sea ice pierced with wide open water leads quite impossible to cross. Our return depended solely upon the two helicopters and our next try would have to be successful as there was insufficient gas left for a third abortive attempt.

Left momentarily to our individual reveries, I had no difficulty imagining the men of the top Command back at McMurdo figuratively tearing their hair. Innocently enough, I had become a good example of why, in those times, the U.S. Navy had to swallow hard each time it permitted a woman to enter its once exclusive Antarctic domain. Long ago, I had broken this tradition on my husband's 1946-48 private expedition when I spent a year on the other side of the Continent. But, now my safety was clearly the Navy's responsibility. Mentally, I cringed at the sticky situation, and could only surmise the assessment that must be taking place.

As time wore on, the dingy hut took on new dimensions. In spite of a New Zealand Government notice cautioning all visitors from removing any item whatsoever from the historic shrine, we began to eye the corroded cans of Bird's Egg Powder, Cabbage, Ox Tongue, weathered boxes of hard tack biscuits, and suspected bottles of brandy with more than casual indifference. Only a musty bottle on the medical shelf labeled as the remedy for diarrhea and dysentery provided the necessary restraint.

Dirty torn socks, worn mukluks, inadequate shoes, old blankets, well used pieces of canvass and unappealing seal skins, covered with layers of volcanic dust had been fascinating testimony to the hardships of long past era when we first arrived. Now, the longer we remained the cleaner the surroundings appeared. Subconsciously, each of us picked out a corner or niche on a hard bench which might possibly afford some relative comfort during the forthcoming night. Every 30 minutes or so we had to move around to keep our circulation going. There was a stove. Had there been fuel, a note indicating the old relic did not function property dissuaded us from the probable fire hazard. Clearly, an overnight experience under these conditions would separate "the men from the boys."

Fortunately, no one was put to the ultimate test. During one of our forays out for exercise, we noticed a small break in the dense cloud cover. Slowly, the patch began to grow. We were enthralled. When the sun finally broke through, eighteen elated visitors bounded up the volcanic slag hill to the waiting helicopters without a backward glance. Someone up there had delayed our moment of truth. Forty-five minutes later we were thawing out in McMurdo's familiar surroundings. The episode made a believer out of me. Never again did I go further than the mess hall without taking my own survival gear.

My husband died in 1980, and although, I continue to give spot lectures, as before, there was every reason to believe my active Antarctic "career" was over. However, some twenty-three years after having accompanying him to the Pole, I returned to the Base on Stonington Island, Palmer Peninsula, where we had spent a year on the Ronne Antarctic Research Expedition forty-seven years before. I was the guest lecturer in February 1995 on Abercrombie and Kent's tourist cruise ship Explorer. Their unpublicized objective was to get me back to our Base, which had recently become the First American Historic Site in Antarctica. Ice conditions being what they are in that area, I gave them a thirty percent chance of penetrating the pack ice. We were unbelievably lucky, and made it, within that year's two and a half week ice free span.

I had never expected to get back and gaze upon that magnificent scenery again. But, what made it doubly thrilling, was that my daughter, Karen Ronne Tupek, was with me, becoming the fourth member of the Ronne family to visit the world's most spectacular continent.

The trip reawakened and renewed my interest. I am planning to return in January and February 1996, as a guest lecturer, (along with Sir Edmund Hillary), when Orient Lines ship Marco Polo, will semi-circumnavigate the continent from Palmer Peninsula to McMurdo Station in the Ross Sea and from there to Christchurch, N.Z. Currently, I am preparing a manuscript of my Antarctic experiences by utilizing my diary, which graphically depicts my historic year there in 1947 - 48.


The following article appeared in The Washington Post, April 5, 1995

Memories, Frozen in Time

Jackie Ronne's Return Trip to an Antarctic Wasteland

by Judith Weinraub, Washington Post Staff Writer

Women do things for love they might not do in their right minds: Ignore infidelities. Raise other women's children. Rob banks.

Edith "Jackie" Ronne spent 15 months in a 12-by-12 hut in Antarctica.

She went there in 1946, two years into her marriage to a drop-dead handsome naval officer and explorer. Finn Ronne, who had two previous polar expeditions to his credit, returned south after World War II to survey the last unknown coastline in the world, a 650-mile stretch along the east coast of the Antarctic Peninsula.

Somehow, he talked his reluctant wife into accompanying him on a six-week voyage to the land of icecaps, seals and penguins.

"I was ready to do anything for him," says Ronne of her husband, whose father, Martin Ronne, was also a polar explorer.

In late February Jackie Ronne, 75, a widow since 1980, extended the family saga by taking her daughter Karen on a cruise to the base camp that housed her husband's expedition. Although she'd been back to Antarctica, she hadn't seen the camp since they left in the spring of 1948. "It's an extremely difficult place to get to," she says. "The icy conditions make it hard. You have to hit it just right.

"I never thought I'd return," she says, for it was more than the ice and cold that made life difficult -- so difficult, in fact, that she'd never reread her Antarctica diaries.

Jackie and Finn Ronne (pronounced "Ronnie") met on a blind date in wartime Washington. He was 42, Norwegian-born, divorced, glamorous -- a man who had driven dog teams hundreds of miles across the Antarctic, exploring uncharted sections of the continent. She was 22, a George Washington University graduate living with her aunt and uncle in Chevy Chase who bused downtown each day to a typing and filing job at the State Department and worried that nothing exciting ever happened to her.

She was making her way through the ranks when friends matched the two up because they both skied -- though Jackie was just starting and Finn was a competitive ski-jumper. They courted for a year, hiking along the Appalachian Trail, biking when gasoline was scarce, rolling back the rug and dancing on her aunt and uncle's highly polished hardwood floors. March 18 would have been their 51st wedding anniversary.

When they married, Finn promised her he'd never go back to the Antarctic. "Fortunately," says his widow, "I didn't believe him."

The land -- with its earthquake shocks and rocks, its trying temperatures -- was his obsession. And he wanted to command his own expedition.

A trained geographer and naval engineer, Finn Ronne began raising money as soon as the war was over, but it was a struggle. And his former expedition leader, the renowned (and influential) Adm. Richard E. Byrd -- by then a rival -- was not supportive. To this day Jackie Ronne holds Byrd accountable for unexpected minefields her husband encountered establishing the expedition, and for its shoestring budget of $50,000. (He had originally hoped to raise $150,000.)

The dangers of the expedition were real: the blizzards that could kill a man in an hour, the hidden crevasses, the icebergs, the way the white landscape could trick the mind. But newspaper stories about Ronne's plans prompted 1,100 volunteers. Ronne chose 21, some with polar experience, some with much-needed flying, medical or mechanical skills, others with a taste for adventure.

Jackie Ronne didn't share their daring. She agreed to accompany the explorers to Beaumont, Tex., where their boat was waiting, but that was it. "I was sad," she recalls. "I expected him to be gone for 15 months, and I knew I would miss him tremendously, but I was comfortable with the arrangement."

In Beaumont, Ronne persuaded her to stay with the group until it got to Panama. But as the ship made its way down the Chilean coast toward Cape Horn, Ronne urged his wife to commit to the whole trip. Because English was not his first language, Ronne needed his wife's help writing the articles he'd committed to for the North American Newspaper Alliance, which had provided some funding.

Even now, almost 50 years later, she recalls the arguments she made in a hotel room in Valparaiso -- the last place she could change her mind.

"No woman had ever gone that far south, and the crew was suspicious," she says. "And my family was very conservative. They would never go after headlines. My aunt was frantic. . . . And I was afraid that if I went with him, people would say he took me along for the publicity.

"But he was very, very persistent."

When she finally decided to stay with him, Jackie Ronne realized that all she had brought along to wear were cocktail dresses and nylon stockings -- "everything I would have had for two weeks in Texas."

So, in Punta Arenas, Chile, she disembarked to purchase nightgowns, slippers and a robe, ski boots and general necessities, plus knitting wool and needles to while away the evenings during the long antarctic winter. (The Army Air Corps had supplied cold weather clothing that it wanted tested.)

"I was in love with him," she says simply. "I would have done anything to support the expedition, even stay behind. I would have gone to the moon. It was the moon." Every night throughout the 15-month expedition, she recorded the day's activities and challenges -- and her own comments. She filled three notebooks -- the first in a school-size copybook, the next two in ship's logs.

But until three months ago, when she began preparations for her recent trip, she hadn't looked at the diary in 47 years. "I didn't want to be reminded of the pain," she says.

"I wasn't prepared for the bickering and in-fighting," she says sadly. "People don't get along well in isolation."

The stresses of the expedition were apparent almost immediately. In isolation, emotions festered, and without warning, small disagreements became serious disputes. In particular, tensions emerged with a young pilot and his new wife who was the second woman in the group. "We never exchanged a harsh word," says Ronne now, "but there was a period where we didn't speak at all."

The physical challenges were more straightforward. Even though Finn Ronne headed for familiar territory, his old base camp on Stonington Island, it was a demanding, stormy place, with blinding winter blizzards and inaccessible, ice-packed harbors. And the days were filled with difficulties and dangers.

Reaching Antarctica just before the winter freeze, there was a great deal to do. The base was uninhabitable for humans or dog teams without repairs. Supplies, including three small planes, 100 55-gallon drums of high-octane gas and all their scientific instruments, had to be unloaded and stored.

And after dark, there wasn't much to do except play cards, watch movies, study navigation and worry.

"I was constantly worried," Ronne says. "The Antarctic is a dangerous place. You can turn your back and find somebody in great difficulty. The door to our hut was open 24 hours a day to report emergency situations. . . . One of our men went down a crevasse and was stuck upside down for 12 hours before help came. Until the rescue team got back, nobody slept. Nobody thought he would ever come out alive. Finn was beginning to worry about what he should do with the body."

Beyond the immediate challenges, the Ronnes' underlying concern was the success of the expedition. "I was always worried about it," she says. "But actually the tensions didn't affect it very much. My husband had a firm hand over what was going on."

When the year was over, she was proud: proud of the success of the expedition, proud to have been the first American woman to set foot on the continent, proud that she and Finn were the first couple to reach the South Pole and that she was the first nonroyal woman to have an antarctic site -- an ice shelf -- named after her.

But she was glad to leave it behind. "When I saw the Statue of Liberty on my return, I felt the same as any immigrant. The sight was a relief and release to me." Jackie Ronne has lived quietly since her husband's death, traveling, spending time with her family and using her antarctic expertise lecturing and writing encyclopedia articles. The embassy dinners and parties disappeared immediately, of course. "But I don't crave social Washington," she says. "I've been there."

Her home in Bethesda has the understated look of a house designed to set off memorabilia. The framed photographs and maps. A toy-size hickory sledge her husband made to pass the antarctic hours. A radiogram from Byrd asking him to join the admiral's second expedition.

And penguins everywhere. Mounted and stuffed, in the living room hall. On pendants and earrings. Potholders. Refrigerator magnets. The shower curtain. "Most people don't even know that penguins are from the southern hemisphere," she says.

She knew about antarctic cruises but never wanted to go on one until late last year when she was asked to plan "an ultimate field trip" for a group of college scientists. The Society of Women Geographers signed on too, and the Washington branch of the Explorers' Club.

Ronne worked with the Chicago-based Abercrombie & Kent agency, which regularly tours the area, to plan the trip. Together with daughter Karen, 44, as the stars of a well-heeled group of 92, a different Jackie Ronne set off than the explorer's young wife -- an older woman who swims to stay in shape and delighted in finding penguin rookeries and buying T-shirts for her grandchildren.

The journey was not for the faint-hearted. The weather was just as difficult and the ice as treacherous. "The wind was incredibly strong, a gale force," says Ann Hawthorne, a photographer and family friend who was on the trip.

The access to the Stonington Island base was just as unpredictable. "We had to get through pack ice to get in," says Ronne. "But the captain and crew were determined to get me there."

Since their ship was too large to get through the icy coastlines, land was reached by large, hard-to-maneuver rubber rafts. When the rafts couldn't get any closer, the stalwart walked the rest of the way, wearing several layers of clothing, parkas and high boots. "And the clothes got really heavy when they got wet," says Ronne.

Her ultimate goal was the 1946 base camp and the hut she had shared with her husband. Ronne was determined to show her daughter where she'd spent those long months. As the two climbed the 100-yard hillside to the camp, they had to negotiate thigh-high snow, and almost turned back. To propel them forward, Hawthorne told jokes when they fell.

"It was important to get Jackie to that base," she says. "It was a walk of discovery back in time."

Was Ronne reliving her life? "To a certain extent," she says now, describing with dismay the uninhabitable buildings she discovered. "When a base is left, it's legitimately considered abandoned in the high seas. But I wanted to fix up what was broken, iced over, ripped out. And I wondered what happened to our 5,000-pound galley range and curtained bunks." And she hadn't anticipated the images of "hurdles and vicissitudes" that she says came flooding back.

When Ronne left the camp a few hours later, she closed the door firmly, shutting out the wind and snow and -- perhaps -- some of her memories. "I wouldn't have given up that experience for a million dollars," she says. "Nor would I ever have done it again."

But she just might take another cruise there. One that heads on east into South Georgia tempts her. "There's something about the Antarctic that draws you back," she says. "You might have had it up to your eyebrows, but after a while, the raw, icy magnificence brings you back."