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Interview: Colin Monteath talks about Erebus The Ice Dragon



Colin Monteath is a widely published polar and mountain photographer and writer based in Christchurch. He has spent 32 seasons in Antarctica, from 1973 to 1983 working as the field operations officer for the New Zealand Antarctic Research Programme at Scott Base with science parties, rescue teams and huskies. He has written and contributed to numerous books and maintains a polar, mountain and exploration reference library that is available to researchers, expedition planners and publishers. He also runs Barking Mad Books, a bookshop selling antiquarian material.


You’ve visited Antarctica many times as a mountaineer and a photographer, as well as working at Scott Base. What was your role there?

As the Field Operations Officer for the New Zealand Antarctic Research Programme during the 1970s and early 1980s, I attached myself to different field parties during each of my ten summers at Scott Base. This approach helped greatly to become a better administrator by improving my understanding of what scientists were trying to achieve, to appreciate new geography and to improve the logistic support and equipment needed to run a safe operation. I’ve now had 32 summer seasons in Antarctica, spanning 1973 to 2020, though, sadly, I have not wintered over.

Why a book specifically on Mount Erebus?

Erebus forms a spellbinding backdrop for all who work at Scott Base. The volcano looks friendly and benign from sea level yet working near the summit poses a unique set of challenges and dangers. As a mountain person, Erebus proved to be irresistible, hence my three expeditions associated with Kiwi geologist Dr Philip Kyle from Victoria University that culminated in going into the Inner Crater in 1978. In writing Erebus The Ice Dragon, I not only wanted to record the long human history of a very special volcano but I was determined to stimulate the next generation of Antarctic workers which is why I included the detailed science chapters plus the extensive bibliography and further reading as a starting point for young polar students.


Your company is called Barking Mad Books — do you have to be a bit mad to work in Antarctica?

Barking Mad Books is my home-based antiquarian bookshop specialising in polar, mountain and exploration material which operates as an adjunct to my main book and image reference library (used by writers, publishers, expedition climbers). But, yes, perhaps you do have to be a little barking mad to work in Antarctica, but therein lies one of its great joys . . . for assuredly, you’ll meet many exciting like-minded characters who have a zest for discovery and who are driven to work as a team while following their passion, be it a trade or a branch of science.


What are the particular challenges of mountaineering in Antarctica and climbing Erebus in particular?

Each season at Scott Base I employed between 8 and 14 mountaineers to support science parties and to form a rescue team. We had an unwritten rule whereby they were encouraged to climb mountains whenever possible (usually at ‘night’ as it doesn’t get dark) as long as they were back at ‘work’ next morning. This policy paid enormous dividends to keep enthusiastic climbers motivated and, importantly, in tune with what was for them a strange new environment.


The NZARP (now Antarctica New Zealand) safety record in the field speaks for itself. Even with modern air support Antarctic peaks are remote (even Erebus), so it is always important to climb well within one’s technical limits.


You were the first person to descend into the Inner Crater of Erebus, an active volcano. What was running through your mind as you went over the edge?

As a mountaineer I needed to make sure the rope and pulley system we had rigged up on the lip of the Inner Crater worked efficiently before allowing Werner Giggenbach to embark on his quest to capture uncontaminated gases from a fumarole close to the lava lake. Clearly, it was a madcap adventure, but I think the whole team was carried along by Werner’s passion and drive to achieve his goal. ‘What did I think, going over the edge? Gulp! Surely, this is not on my Public Service job description!’


Science is very much to the fore in the book and is clearly something you are especially interested in.

Though now scattered around the globe, I greatly enjoyed reconnecting with past Erebus scientists, many of whom are still working on volcanoes. One, Philip Kyle, has now had 44 seasons on Erebus, unparalleled elsewhere in Antarctic research. It has also been a great joy to communicate with and receive help from many younger scientists who have been drawn to Erebus. Unprecedented in any other sphere of Antarctic science, 39 students have now done a Masters or PhD thesis on Erebus.


And was there anything in the science that particularly interested you?

It has been very exciting to appreciate the sophistication of modern volcanology: an ability to measure escaping gases, the use of satellite technology to monitor change, experimenting with robots, fascinating ‘hot soil’ biology inside the fumarole towers clustered around the summit. Also, aspects of Erebus science are proving crucial to learning how to operate on extreme extraterrestrial environments.


The stories of early Antarctic exploration captivated people at the time, and they still do today. What is your favourite story of discovery?

Chapters on the first ascent of Erebus in 1908 by geologists from Shackleton’s Nimrod edition and the second ascent in 1912 during Scott’s Terra Nova expedition are vital to understand the emerging fascination of Erebus volcanology: why is Erebus, an active volcano, located here on the frozen continent of Antarctica. But 70 years before these two Heroic era ventures, Englishman Captain James Clark Ross’s three voyages to Antarctica, starting in 1841, make for exciting reading. As part of the Magnetic Crusade to make observations close to the south magnetic pole, the story of Ross’s adventures aboard Erebus and Terror is quite incredible. With no engines to aid propulsion, Ross somehow manoeuvred his vessels through formidable pack ice, breaking into the heart of what is now the Ross Sea. There lay Ross Island and, blocking all passage further south, what he called the Great Ice Barrier. There was also a massive erupting volcano, which was named after his ship. The discovery of an active volcano at 78 degrees South astounded the European science world.


Of course, for many New Zealanders, Erebus will forever be associated with the tragedy of the Air New Zealand crash. You were part of the recovery effort. How hard was it to decide how to approach that chapter?

Throughout the writing of Erebus The Ice Dragon I knew that I had to create a chapter on the 1979 air crash. Nervous about what was appropriate to say 43 years down the track, I kept pushing the chapter to the end in my mind. Then the idea hit me of involving three other friends, Rex Hendry, Hugh Logan and Harry Keys, each of whom also played a vital role in the recovery operation. The resulting four essays are very carefully worded and I feel powerfully complementary. Hopefully they will help readers to understand what actually happened in the build-up to those tourist flights as well as the recovery phase controlled by Scott Base and McMurdo.


At what point did you decide to include the wonderful chapter on the art of Erebus?

Erebus The Ice Dragon is the first Antarctic book to focus on a single mountain. I had to cover many aspects of the volcano’s history from its discovery in 1841, the early climbs and science during the Scott and Shackleton era then on through the evolution of more sophisticated science starting in the 1960s. Paintings, poetry and photographs of Erebus are featured in the early chapters. Even the air crash chapter concludes with a very evocative modern painting. And so it seemed logical to balance the final modern science chapters by finishing the book with a chapter dedicated to the diverse array of Erebus art in its many forms. Adele Jackson (now a curator at Canterbury Museum) had just finished a PhD on the value of art in Antarctica at the University of Canterbury so I immediately asked her to research Erebus. The resultant chapter is beautifully written and illustrated: a blend of her research skills and deep knowledge of artists, both past and present.

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