10 February 2014

The Sno-Cats odyssey

The International Geophysical Year (1957-1958) ended a golden era of Earth exploration. From that year on, there were no more white spots on the world map, no more unknown territories to discover. A total of sixty-seven countries participated on the various IGY projects, focused on the Earth sciences.
The most ambitious of them all was, probably, the Commonwealth Trans-Antarctic Expedition.
Led, simultaneously, by Sir Vivian Fuchs and Sir Edmund Hillary, the expedition crossed the Antarctic plateau (in what became the first overland crossing of Antarctica, via the South Pole), on a journey of 3473 kms, from the Weddell Sea to McMurdo Sound, in just 99 days, from 24 November 1957 to 02 March 1958.
The narrative of the expedition (The Crossing of Antarctica, The Commonwealth Trans-Antarctic Expedition 1955-58, written by the two leaders) is, still today, an amazing piece of literature, on the expeditionary genre. A must-have book in any personal library.
Although the men involved and their team spirit were to be congratulated for such an extraordinary achievement, the fact is that this adventure would never be possible without the cooperation of an amazing vehicle, which name, from then on, became synonym with motorized polar explorations: the Tucker Sno-Cat.
So, why have I decided to write something about it? And doing so, give my two cents worth of conversation in a topic from which I know almost nothing?
Well, because in my early mountaineering exploits in Portugal's highest sierra, in the Winter of nineteen-ninety, and while doing an emergency bivouac in the Torre plateau, at 1993 meters above sea level - the highest point in the continental Portugal -  on the abandoned radar station nº 13 of the Portuguese Air Force, I could hardly imagine that I would see three of those machines, in complete abandonment, inside a vandalized warehouse.
In the Spring of 1990 this was the condition of one of the Tucker Sno-Cats previously owned by the Portuguese Air Force. Inside of the warehouse there were two additional vehicles, not portrayed in the picture. Also abandoned and vandalized. On the left side of the picture you can see a sledge, built by Tucker also, that used to be towed by the Sno-Cats.
The diagonal stripes on the picture are damages on the negatives due to poor storage over the years. Well, ignorance is a blessing... or not. And I've learned the hard way. By the way, that poor figure on the left is yours truly. Twenty-four years and kilograms ago. Pentax SF-1 and Pentax 50mm f/1.7 KAF standard lens. Film: Kodak Ektar 25 ASA negative colour film.
The prefix AM on their vehicle registration plates gave no margin for error. These were FAP cars, probably bought during the late fifties, when the radar station (built in 1957) was fully active. During those days, in strong snow storms, the radar station could be inaccessible by road for weeks. So, I imagine, the only solution to keep logistics running on the high plateau was the use of specific made vehicles for snow and ice environments.
Worldwide, at the time, there were only a few makers of these kind of machines. And even today their number didn't really increased.
But the Tucker Sno-Cats, built in Medford, Oregon, USA, are the ones by all the others are judged.
Technically speaking, what differentiates these machines from the others are their patented Four Articulated Track System. In a sense, it's the Egg of Columbus. But they thought about it and the others didn't. Kudos for Mr. E. M. Tucker, Sr.
 It's no surprise that they were in the crossing of Antarctica. And it's also no surprise that a visionary guy, in the Portuguese Air Force of the fifties, in a country without any tradition in polar explorations, and also mountaineering for that matter, decided that these were the best cars for the job.
And, err..., also, they are quite pretty.
Well, 1971 arrived and defense priorities changed, I guess. The Radar Station nº 13 was closed and these three marvellous machines were left to rust.
As far as I can imagine they all are, probably, ending their days in some anonymous scrapyard, in Cova da Beira.
More than ten years later, already in the 21st. century, this was the condition of the same Sno-Cat portrayed above. Outside the warehouse (by this time transformed into a shopping mall) and left to rust by the elements. From the other remaining two... no signs anymore.
Which is sad, since in a normal country, ruled by normal and responsible people, these cars should be recovered and placed in a museum. After all, they are public property. Belonging to all of us. Granted, they are not the nobles "Rock N' Roll", "County of Kent", "Haywire" and "Able" of the famous expedition. But they have, nonetheless, the same heritage.
And, to the best of my knowledge, only these three ever existed in Portugal. Now, you tell me: can you really imagine one youngster that wouldn't be amazed, after reading those juvenile books that made all of us dream when we were kids, to see, lively, one of these notable pieces of engineering achievement?
The former installations of the Portuguese Air Force Radar Station nº 13 are located in the highest point above sea level in the continental Portugal: 1993 mts, in the Torre plateau. According to several historians, the granite tower ("Torre") on the left side of the picture was built, by royal order, in the early XIX century, to reach the high of 2000 meters above sea level.