Although somewhat pleasant indoors, outdoors was another matter. Snowstorms raged and other than her masts, the ship nearly disappeared in the snow. Temperatures dropped to -18°F resulting in cracked instruments and dozens of broken bottles of German beer! On the other hand, there were occasional good days and it was during these times that scientific data was collected. The men built a windmill to generate electricity while others went on hunting expeditions for seal and penguin: "Their hearts and livers made a most delicious ragout...we loved it better than our tinned food".
"By March the situation had stabilized so much that I thought it was time to start the sledging expeditions". The first expedition left on March 18th, lasting eight days, and resulted in the first physical proof of reaching the Antarctic mainland when crewmembers returned with pieces of volcanic rock. The discovery, about 50 miles from the ship, was named Gaussberg. (See top photo).
Drygalski became the first balloonist in Antarctica when he climbed aboard the balloon the GAUSS was carrying and rose to an altitude of 1600 feet. "It was so warm up there I could even take off my gloves...the sight from this altitude was grandiose. I could see newly discovered Gaussberg and...gave my description via telephone to the deck of the ship. It was the only ice-free landmark in the surrounding area".
In early April, a second sledging expedition returned from a 13-day trip to Gaussberg where the four men had built a temporary shelter for any further trips to this area. It was at this time that Drygalski decided to take part in a third expedition which was very nearly his last. Temperatures had dropped to -38°F by the time the men had reached Gaussberg on April 27, six days after leaving the ship. Unfortunately, upon their arrival they discovered the shelter in ruins from the previous storms. Many hours were spent rebuilding the shelter. The next few days were devoted to geological and magnetic surveys. On their way back to the ship another storm hit. Food quickly ran out and just as they prepared themselves to kill some of the dogs, they stumbled upon a dead seal that had been killed by the previous teams. They now had plenty of food but the weather was so poor they totally lost their bearings. However, good fortune followed them as they literally stumbled into the snow-covered GAUSS again.
Gaussberg, located at 66°40'S, was the southern limit of the expedition. Drygalski thought it possible to attain 72° or 73°S but abandoned the idea when spring arrived. As spring arrived, attention was now given to the purpose of freeing the ship from the ice. The ice had started to break up but they were still 2000 feet from the nearest stretch of open water. Holes were dug through the ice by hand and filled with explosives in an attempt to blast their way free. Steel saws, some 20 feet long, were used to cut through the ice beside the ship's hull but progress was very, very slow. The crew was beginning to wonder if a second ship would be sent from Germany to search for them. Hans Ruser, captain of the GAUSS, went so far as to suggest throwing empty beer bottles into the water with messages contained inside with a description of their position. Furthermore, he suggested 100 more bottles be dropped by the balloon when a next northerly wind came up. One day Drygalski was walking around the ship when he noticed an area where soot from the ship's funnel had landed and melted the ice beneath. He determined that the black color of the soot absorbed the light from the sun which then melted the ice beneath. Immediately he ordered garbage aboard the GAUSS be laid in a trail to the open water. "Success came immediately. The ice under the dirt started to melt. Within a month we had a long water channel almost two metres deep. Although there were still four to five metres of ice underneath, the channel widened constantly" which grew into a small pond. By the end of December, 1902, rain fell.
Christmas and New Year's Day passed and it was not until February 8, 1903 that "we suddenly felt two sharp jolts in rapid succession...it was like a revelation, and with a cry 'the ice is breaking', I jumped out on to the deck". With the ship free from the ice, the expedition started a slow voyage along the Antarctic coast. Traveling among the floes was dangerous and slow so on March 31 Drygalski ordered retreat. "It was a most difficult decision, certainly the most difficult one I had to make, but it was necessary. There was no safe place to spend the winter here..." They reached the tip of South Africa on June 9 where Drygalski sent a request to Berlin suggesting another wintering in the Antarctic. On July 2 his request was denied, probably due to the fact that the Kaiser was disappointed that no new territory of significance had been discovered. The GAUSS arrived in Kiel on November 23, 1903.
Regardless, Drygalski wrote "...we found new territory in the Antarctic itself...something we can look back to in full satisfaction". Drygalski spent many years documenting his expedition as he published 20 volumes between 1905 and 1931. In 1906 he became Professor of Geography at Munich and in 1910 took part in Count Zeppelin's expedition to Spitsbergen. He retired from the university in 1934.
The German South Polar Expedition 1901-03, by Erich von Drygalski.
Antarctica; the Extraordinary History of Man's Conquest of the Frozen Continent, by Reader's Digest.
Antarctica, the Last Continent, by Ian Cameron.
Antarctic Conquest, the Great Explorers in Their Own Words, by Walker Chapman.
The White Continent, by Thomas R. Henry.
Antarctica; the Extraordinary History of Man's Conquest of the Frozen Continent, by Reader's Digest, second edition.