Ghengis - a personal recollection (Graham 'Frisby' Wright)

Halley Bay GA/ doggyman 1969-70

by Mike (Muff) Warden, Halley Bay 1970/71 - 26 Dec 2020


I have the fondest of memories of the most provocative person you could ever meet. If Ghengis said anything, you had to think twice and you never quite knew whether to believe him or not. He often started with "I think everyone should " and then he would come out with the most preposterous of suggestions, keep a straight face and look you in the eye to watch your reaction.

Once met, you never could forget him. How could you? He looked like Genghis: high cheek bones, slightly slit eyes and a brownish hue, always questioning about every little thing. If you suggested some different way of doing anything, he would always suggest you try it, and never expressed any doubt even if he personally thought it was mad or impractical. Why? Because if you fell on your face, first it was funny and second, you'd learn. That was a very Fid approach and it suited Ghengis. "We must cut some seal". Be careful. He would turn up, start, then say his knife/axe/chain saw needed sharpening and disappear till the job was done, when he'd return with a grin on his face.

When I first met him he was probably the worst of the last years' Fids. Remember how taken aback we were on arriving at Halley Bay when the huddle of Fids on the sea ice swarmed up the ladder lowered over the bow, nearly every one resembling the chimney sweep's boy, thick black oily windproofs from a mixture of coal, oil, ashes, and blubber. Well a doggyman's were worse from their day-to-day relationship with seal blubber, dogs and of course dog poo. That was Ghengis. Relief over, with a grin he presented me with a pair of well soiled second hand windproofs: the hand me downs of a previous doggyman, already double skinned, a new pair sewn inside an old pair to cover the wear and holes. Nice gift.

A tough little bugger, with incredible patience. He never ordered or told you what to do. He would show or tell you, but then he had the ability to stand back and let you learn for yourself the hard way, be it cutting seal meat, carrying a husky down the ladders into base, or harnessing a dog team after breakfast. They'd all had their constitutional, eaten it, and now wanted to give you a kiss.

He had that unusual gift to lead from the rear, and in so doing his rookie sledging companions were made to take responsibility, learnt and grew quickly into the job. I was delighted to read Mike Taylor said Ghengis took him through the Bob Pi crossing and "taught me all I know about dog sledging". Mike T became a valued dog team driver in his own right, managing the dogs with Bruce Blackwell that were left after the mountain teams had gone, with the gorgeous Frosty as his leader.

After sorting everything out after a late relief, Ghengis took me on my first dog trip through the Bob Pi and on to survey the position of tip of the Dawson Lambton glacier. A bloody cold trip, especially taking theodolite readings, my job not his! With Balasuaq retired and gone to the Peninsula, we put his son Seletar to lead. So unsure of himself, Seletar would run in any direction which meant repeated running out to one side or the other to try and bring him back to the bearing, or running to the front and dragging him physically back on to the line. Of course Ghengis "delegated the running". Seletar's other trick was to turn round and start a punch up. In this chaotic way we progressed in the general direction of the Bob Pi, but slowly, slowly Seletar got the right idea.

One day he left the tent with the bog roll. A short while later I heard "Muff, Help". An alarm rang in my head. It wasn't his usual tone of voice. Far from it. An urgent call, more like a strangled plea. I shot out of the tent, rushed round the back to see a head level with the surface and two outstretched arms, one either side of a crevasse. One of those shelf ice ones with parallel sides disappearing down into the darkness. Sad to record, he lost the bog roll, but he said the joy with wearing long johns was that you had four clean sides to go at.

On our return, first we set to, dug out the old P&S soaked floor of the dog tunnel, enlarged it, and extended it to cater for the extra dogs. Bigger and even more sparkly when finished, I know those whose inspiration had built it last year would have approved . We excavated "St Pauls", a huge domed roof underground store at one end of the tunnel in which to store the winter supply of seal meat. Then temperatures dropped to minus 30C so it was time to dig up the now frozen seal meat, cut it up with a chain saw and store some 4,500 dog dinners in St Pauls for the winter.

Someone came out with a camera to record the scene. Ghengis, with his sledging mitts on, put one hand outspread on the seal, and with the other hand he revved the chainsaw and very slowly and deliberately cut off the thumb. The photographers face went ashen. Ghengis stood up, extracted his hand from his mitt, looked at his five fingers, and grinned.

Mark Vallance and I were the two rookie GAs for Halley Bay. I was in total awe of Mark, a very skilled and experienced mountaineer and climber, widely educated too. He knew all the hierarchy of the mountaineering world personally, had climbed or been on expeditions with some. Mark had applied to BAS encouraged by a climbing partner who'd been a Fid. By comparison I was a rather simple farm boy who had climbed at only at a mediocre level for a few years in the UK and the Alps.

We were split into sledging store or dogs. Mark knew all about equipment and so looked after the sledging gear under Bloke's tutelage, all boring technical knowledge and logistics. I became a doggyman under Ghengis.

I owe everything to Ghengis for selecting me over Mark to be the other doggyman to go to the Shackleton Mountains. I never expected to be selected. Mark was the expeditioner. I was the one who had driven tractors and ploughed fields.

Before going to the Shackletons, Ghengis had one burning ambition: to explore an alternative route onto the inland ice from Base, a possible route that he had seen from the plane when returning from the Shackletons the previous summer.. The Bob PI had deteriorated and was now impossible to negotiate with tractors. Ghengis also need a decent leader. He had taken a shine to Bunny but even Ghengis had to accept that Bunny wasn't up to the mark, so he took Changi, an aspiring leader I had been training double-headed with Seletar, his brother. Both chips off Balasuaq, their father's block.

This trip is brilliantly recorded by Hoof (Hwfa Jones) in his booklet The Doggy Men (see Z Fids 1971) of doggying as seen through the eyes of a novice. I was completely unaware of the impact of our activities on Hoof: it was a lesson to me that others can see and experience things completely differently. We were successful and this alternative route to the inland ice was called the Wright Line. Remember what I said about Ghengis leading from the rear? I led the route from start to finish!

After breakfast one morning Ghengis rushed out of the tent, again with the bog roll. A rather urgent call. A while later there was a stream of expletives. He hadn't had time to tie his mukluk laces and they had been trailing. We made him take his boots off before getting back in.

Then Ghengis and I were on the Hercules C130 en route to the Shackleton Mountains with Rocky (Peter Clarkson) and Bob Wyeth, another geologist. The plan was from the landing depot for Ghengis and Bob to geologise in the Western Shackletons and for Rocky and I to go in the opposite direction eastwards, both returning to the depot at the end of each month. During the flight the pilot invited us onto the flight deck for a coffee, and asked "what happens if you have an accident?" We hopped from one foot to the other and looked at the deck, rather stumped. The two parties would be hundreds of miles apart. Ghengis had never given it a thought. But Ghengis was comfortable with that. Which explains a lot about Ghengis.

At relief Ghengis continued down the coast on the maiden voyage of the RRS Bransfield with Bunny, the dog, and Sir Vivian Fuchs to visit Shackleton, the old TAE base and eventually returned to the UK. But the following year on our way down the Peninsula, there was that smiling, rather bronzed face of Ghengis at Palmer Station. He had just burnt down Anvers, the old British base. The story he told me was that he and Mick Pawley had been blow lamping the old paintwork on the interior or the building; had gone off for a brew, only to discover that some of the swarf between the planks had ignited and presto, one base ablaze and no water to put it out.

For a whole year we lived in each other's pockets sharing the tasks of looking after our 50 huskies, breeding, training , nursing and running them. We stripped all the sledges, dogs and cargo, and rebuilt them . We talked into the night in the Bondu Bar, the doggyman's and cook's hideaway, as we sewed harnesses, spliced traces. In all that time we never fell out, never a word in anger or spite.

When I said I owe everything to Ghengis, it was his influence and steer that made me, having once chosen an objective, to work with obstinate determination to achieve that goal. I will remember him this New Year's Eve, the 50th anniversary of our rendezvous after a month apart in the Shackleton mountains with Rocky and Bob when we had a mother of a party in that traditional Fid way, with Snoopy's Christmas cake and a 50/50 mix of whisky and Drambuie in enamel mugs - followed by an enforced rest day.

Muff


[Genghis died on 18th December 2020...Ed.]

28 December 2020


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