University of Minnesota Alumni Association


On Ice

In the late 1950s and early ’60s, teams of researchers from the University of Minnesota made pioneering treks to Antarctica, where they named a formation after Pillsbury Hall.

The geological map of Antarctica is speckled with evidence of visitors from the University of Minnesota. Familiar names dot a pair of mountain ranges in the western part of the continent: Gopher Glacier, Minnesota Glacier, Pillsbury Tower. Alumni of the geology classes of 50 or 60 years ago will recognize the names of past professors and teaching assistants in other Antarctic landmarks in the Ellsworth and Jones ranges, like Mount Craddock, Anderson Massif, the Rutford Ice Stream, and Splettstoesser Pass—all proof that U geologists spent a good deal of time trekking at the bottom of the globe in the formative years of scientific exploration in Antarctica.

Investigations of the southernmost continent flourished in conjunction with the signing of the Antarctic Treaty in 1959. The treaty, between a dozen countries, stipulated that the continent be used for peaceful purposes, that freedom of scientific investigation continue, and that scientific observations be shared. Funding became available from Washington, D.C., for geologists to do survey work in the Antarctic. So, why not scientists from the U?

University teams embarked on a series of explorations. The first, in 1959, included three intrepid souls, including expedition leader Campbell “Cam” Craddock, then assistant professor of geology, who conceived of the mission. The other members of the trek through this virtually uninhabited continent, where the South Pole is located, were geology graduate student John J. Anderson (B.S. ’62, M.S. ’62) and geography graduate student Robert Rutford (B.A. ’54, M.A. ’63, Ph.D. ’69). All but Rutford are deceased.

Craddock had “never been south of Las Cruces, New Mexico,” says Rutford, who served in the U.S. Army in the mid-1950s, navigating the glaciers of Greenland in big, treaded trucks as part of a transportation unit. That made Rutford the most experienced polar hand in all of Pillsbury Hall—where geology was located—in 1959 and a valuable asset to the journey.

The route from Minnesota to the Antarctic that year was not exactly direct. When the research team left the snug confines of the Minneapolis campus to spend a polar summer researching, they flew first to Washington, D.C., where they listened to cautionary lectures from Navy officers, National Science Foundation experts, and various scientists with Antarctic experience about what they might expect at America’s Antarctic base, McMurdo Station. These included real-life tales of vehicles breaking through the sea ice and the crash of at least one C-124 cargo plane into a mountain while making a supply drop at an Antarctic camp.

With these sobering warnings in mind, the Minnesota contingent left D.C. for San Francisco and then flew to Honolulu, the Samoa Islands, and New Zealand. Christchurch was the staging area for all expeditions to McMurdo. There, the three boarded one of those big, slow-moving C-124s they’d just heard about for the 2,000-mile, nine-and-a-half-hour flight to the Antarctic. The plane was so cumbersome, says Rutford, “we could have walked to McMurdo as quickly.” About halfway there, they passed what was called the “point of no return,” beyond which there wasn’t enough fuel to get them back to New Zealand.

Robert Hoxie Rutford—who would return to the Antarctic dozens of times—was the son of longtime U College of Agriculture faculty member Skuli Rutford (the family is of Icelandic descent). Robert grew up in St. Anthony Park next to the St. Paul campus. He delivered newspapers in the neighborhood, played quarterback in football, and ran track well enough at Murray High School to earn a scholarship to the U, where he lettered in each sport twice while earning degrees in geography and geology.

While studying at the U, Rutford also coached freshman football and coached Hamline University’s football and track teams. This was all before he climbed aboard that lumbering cargo plane with Craddock and Anderson. 

The C-124 landed safely at McMurdo, at the time a three-year-old station abuzz with personnel, scientific and military, and housed on the ice in a huddle of Quonset huts and portable structures known as Jamesways. The Jamesways were shipped to the continent in large wooden boxes that, when opened, served as floors for the structures. Packed inside the boxes were metal arches and canvas, which served as frames and walls. “They were really quite toasty when they got buried in snow,” Rutford says.

Explorer Robert Rutford.

The Minnesota group quickly acclimated to the surroundings. Rutford got his first taste of Antarctic travel while working on a geophysical survey to establish the continental margins of the McMurdo Sound. There were no “motor toboggans” yet employed at the camp, so he learned the struggles and techniques of polar man-hauling on the ice. Rutford was his own beast of burden, dragging his equipment on a sled behind him. 

Temperatures in the coastal regions during summer approximated the weather at the depths of winter in Minnesota, according to Rutford. Gore-Tex had yet to be invented, so the researchers wore U.S. Army gear. Traveling tents were based on the same design used by Robert Falcon Scott in the earliest days of Antarctic exploration: a center-poled, pyramid-shaped tent rising above an 8-foot-square floor. 

These may sound like hardships, but the U team enthusiastically returned to the Antarctic in 1960 with five more U colleagues. They set up a base camp in the newly named Jones Mountains and begin in earnest to put a Minnesota stamp on the continent by surveying the range. Rutford and others in the Minnesota group saw patterns of glaciation in the mountains that ultimately helped more accurately determine the age of the continent.

Research by the Minnesota contingent a year after that, in 1961, was aided immensely by the addition of snowmobiles, which afforded the group new mobility. Craddock made an epic circumnavigation of the Ellsworth Mountains on a sled and the ability to move quickly to different sites aided in the discovery of Permian Age plant fossils in the range. These remnants from hundreds of millions of years ago linked Antarctic mountains to ranges in corresponding landmasses in the Gondwanaland supercontinent that once comprised much of the dry earth. The Minnesotans were back again in ’62, ’63, and ’64. (Other U teams followed in later years.)

Rutford had no idea, on that first C-124 flight to the continent, that he would pass the point of no return on more than 25 trips to Antarctica in a lifetime of research and scholarship. After earning his Ph.D. from the U, he served as chair of the Department of Geology at South Dakota and chair of geology at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. He directed polar programs at the National Science Foundation in Washington, D.C., and served as vice chancellor for research and graduate studies back in Lincoln. In 1982, Rutford was appointed president of the University of Texas at Dallas, a position he held until 1994, when he returned to the faculty as a chaired professor of geology. He retired in 2007. 

Through the years, he kept his hand in Antarctic study and research. In 2007, he received yet another spot on the map when the U.S. Geological Survey named the highest peak in the Craddock Massif of the Ellsworth Range after him: Mount Rutford.

At age 85, Rutford still traces the geological map of Antarctica with his fingertips from his home outside of Dallas. 

Tim Brady is the author of five books, including His Father’s Son: The Life of General Ted Roosevelt, Jr. He lives in St. Paul.

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