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25 Years of Antarctic Exploration
Special> 25 Years of Antarctic Exploration
UPDATED: April 20, 2009 NO. 16 APR. 23, 2009
Snow Heroes
Chinese scientists recollect death-defying stories from their Antarctic expeditions

On the night of November 27, 2008, Xu Xiaxing, the 58-year-old chief of China's Antarctic Zhongshan Station, came within seconds of being trapped in an icy grave.


ICE PROBE: Members of a Chinese research expedition explore ice seams in the Grove Mountains (ZHANG ZONGTANG)

While driving a 7-ton snow truck from his team's expedition ship to the station, the hard ocean ice above which he was traveling suddenly broke apart and plunged him into the water. His teammates cried out, knowing from former expeditions that falls through ice holes entailed a survivability potential of zero.

Sinking into the freezing ocean, Xu moved over to the passenger's seat, which had more space to maneuver. With his left hand pulling the window on his side, he pushed with his right hand against the skylight. He forced the skylight open and got out of the truck, but one of his snow boots got stuck in the opening, which was less than 50 cm wide. In a panic, he kicked out of the boot. He swam up the five meters he had sunk down. "I felt the top of my head hit the ice sheet," said Xu. "I broke through it with my hands and my head and finally got out of the ocean. The temperature of the Antarctic is so low that my body temperature also dropped to a very low level." As he struggled to get free of the water he also heard the hoarse voices of his teammates coming over his radio.


FOND FAREWELL: China's 24th scientific expedition team leader Wei Wenliang (first from left) says farewell to Xu Xiaxing, head of China's Antarctic Zhongshan Station on March 9, 2008 (ZHANG JIANSONG)  

They gave him some oxygen and several teammates hugged him closely to lend him their body heat. One grasped his feet and rubbed them vigorously. After two or three hours, Xu finally felt pain in the feet: a good sign. "It works," the doctor said excitedly.

A 53-hour rescue

But the heroics were not over for Xu and his team. Last year they also conducted a 53-hour rescue.

On July 1, 2008, eight members of Australia's Davis Station were doing research near Zhongshan Station. Of the two snow trucks they were using, one lost power and couldn't move on. Xu asked the head of the Russian Progress Station to help the Australians make it home safely. After they received clearance from Chinese authorities, Zhongshan Station sent out a snow truck and two sledges. But on the way back to the Australian Station, the three teams disagreed on the proper route to take. The Chinese and the Russians said the best way back was over 100 km of ocean ice, but the Australians said there were too many cracks in the ice that would increase the possibility of falling into the ocean. They wanted to follow a route over land ice that would extend the trip by 400 km. The Chinese had never driven that distance under the hardest Antarctic conditions: the temperature below -30? and roaring winds exceeding 30 meters per second. But they finally agreed to make the journey.

With sledges running slowly on the ice cap, Xu could only see the red backlights of the truck in front of him. He could not judge the snow drift's height above ground and they relied solely on Global Positioning System (GPS) navigation. The teams scattered in the snow several times and couldn't find each other.

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