Memories, Frozen in Time: Jackie Ronne's Return Trip to an Antarctic Wasteland

Judith Weinraub
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, April 5, 1995 12:00 AM

Women do things for love they might not do in their right minds: Ignore infidelities. Raise other women's children. Rob banks.

Edith "Jackie" Ronne spent 15 months in a 12-by-12 hut in Antarctica.

She went there in 1946, two years into her marriage to a drop-dead handsome naval officer and explorer. Finn Ronne, who had two previous polar expeditions to his credit, returned south after World War II to survey the last unknown coastline in the world, a 650-mile stretch along the east coast of the Antarctic Peninsula.

Somehow, he talked his reluctant wife into accompanying him on a six-week voyage to the land of icecaps, seals and penguins.

"I was ready to do anything for him," says Ronne of her husband, whose father, Martin Ronne, was also a polar explorer.

In late February Jackie Ronne, 75, a widow since 1980, extended the family saga by taking her daughter Karen on a cruise to the base camp that housed her husband's expedition. Although she'd been back to Antarctica, she hadn't seen the camp since they left in the spring of 1948. "It's an extremely difficult place to get to," she says. "The icy conditions make it hard. You have to hit it just right.

"I never thought I'd return," she says, for it was more than the ice and cold that made life difficult -- so difficult, in fact, that she'd never reread her Antarctica diaries. Jackie and Finn Ronne (pronounced "Ronnie") met on a blind date in wartime Washington. He was 42, Norwegian-born, divorced, glamorous -- a man who had driven dog teams hundreds of miles across the Antarctic, exploring uncharted sections of the continent. She was 22, a George Washington University graduate living with her aunt and uncle in Chevy Chase who bused downtown each day to a typing and filing job at the State Department and worried that nothing exciting ever happened to her.

She was making her way through the ranks when friends matched the two up because they both skied -- though Jackie was just starting and Finn was a competitive ski-jumper. They courted for a year, hiking along the Appalachian Trail, biking when gasoline was scarce, rolling back the rug and dancing on her aunt and uncle's highly polished hardwood floors. March 18 would have been their 51st wedding anniversary.

When they married, Finn promised her he'd never go back to the Antarctic. "Fortunately," says his widow, "I didn't believe him."

The land -- with its earthquake shocks and rocks, its trying temperatures -- was his obsession. And he wanted to command his own expedition.

A trained geographer and naval engineer, Finn Ronne began raising money as soon as the war was over, but it was a struggle. And his former expedition leader, the renowned (and influential) Adm. Richard E. Byrd -- by then a rival -- was not supportive. To this day Jackie Ronne holds Byrd accountable for unexpected minefields her husband encountered establishing the expedition, and for its shoestring budget of $50,000. (He had originally hoped to raise $150,000.)

The dangers of the expedition were real: the blizzards that could kill a man in an hour, the hidden crevasses, the icebergs, the way the white landscape could trick the mind. But newspaper stories about Ronne's plans prompted 1,100 volunteers. Ronne chose 21, some with polar experience, some with much-needed flying, medical or mechanical skills, others with a taste for adventure.

Jackie Ronne didn't share their daring. She agreed to accompany the explorers to Beaumont, Tex., where their boat was waiting, but that was it. "I was sad," she recalls. "I expected him to be gone for 15 months, and I knew I would miss him tremendously, but I was comfortable with the arrangement."

In Beaumont, Ronne persuaded her to stay with the group until it got to Panama. But as the ship made its way down the Chilean coast toward Cape Horn, Ronne urged his wife to commit to the whole trip. Because English was not his first language, Ronne needed his wife's help writing the articles he'd committed to for the North American Newspaper Alliance, which had provided some funding.

Even now, almost 50 years later, she recalls the arguments she made in a hotel room in Valparaiso -- the last place she could change her mind.

"No woman had ever gone that far south, and the crew was suspicious," she says. "And my family was very conservative. They would never go after headlines. My aunt was frantic. . . . And I was afraid that if I went with him, people would say he took me along for the publicity.

"But he was very, very persistent."

When she finally decided to stay with him, Jackie Ronne realized that all she had brought along to wear were cocktail dresses and nylon stockings -- "everything I would have had for two weeks in Texas."

So, in Punta Arenas, Chile, she disembarked to purchase nightgowns, slippers and a robe, ski boots and general necessities, plus knitting wool and needles to while away the evenings during the long antarctic winter. (The Army Air Corps had supplied cold weather clothing that it wanted tested.)

"I was in love with him," she says simply. "I would have done anything to support the expedition, even stay behind. I would have gone to the moon. It was the moon." Every night throughout the 15-month expedition, she recorded the day's activities and challenges -- and her own comments. She filled three notebooks -- the first in a school-size copybook, the next two in ship's logs.

But until three months ago, when she began preparations for her recent trip, she hadn't looked at the diary in 47 years. "I didn't want to be reminded of the pain," she says.

"I wasn't prepared for the bickering and in-fighting," she says sadly. "People don't get along well in isolation."

The stresses of the expedition were apparent almost immediately. In isolation, emotions festered, and without warning, small disagreements became serious disputes. In particular, tensions emerged with a young pilot and his new wife who was the second woman in the group. "We never exchanged a harsh word," says Ronne now, "but there was a period where we didn't speak at all."

The physical challenges were more straightforward. Even though Finn Ronne headed for familiar territory, his old base camp on Stonington Island, it was a demanding, stormy place, with blinding winter blizzards and inaccessible, ice-packed harbors. And the days were filled with difficulties and dangers.

Reaching Antarctica just before the winter freeze, there was a great deal to do. The base was uninhabitable for humans or dog teams without repairs. Supplies, including three small planes, 100 55-gallon drums of high-octane gas and all their scientific instruments, had to be unloaded and stored.

And after dark, there wasn't much to do except play cards, watch movies, study navigation and worry.

"I was constantly worried," Ronne says. "The Antarctic is a dangerous place. You can turn your back and find somebody in great difficulty. The door to our hut was open 24 hours a day to report emergency situations. . . . One of our men went down a crevasse and was stuck upside down for 12 hours before help came. Until the rescue team got back, nobody slept. Nobody thought he would ever come out alive. Finn was beginning to worry about what he should do with the body."

Beyond the immediate challenges, the Ronnes' underlying concern was the success of the expedition. "I was always worried about it," she says. "But actually the tensions didn't affect it very much. My husband had a firm hand over what was going on."

When the year was over, she was proud: proud of the success of the expedition, proud to have been the first American woman to set foot on the continent, proud that she and Finn were the first couple to reach the South Pole and that she was the first nonroyal woman to have an antarctic site -- an ice shelf -- named after her.

But she was glad to leave it behind. "When I saw the Statue of Liberty on my return, I felt the same as any immigrant. The sight was a relief and release to me." Jackie Ronne has lived quietly since her husband's death, traveling, spending time with her family and using her antarctic expertise lecturing and writing encyclopedia articles. The embassy dinners and parties disappeared immediately, of course. "But I don't crave social Washington," she says. "I've been there."

Her home in Bethesda has the understated look of a house designed to set off memorabilia. The framed photographs and maps. A toy-size hickory sledge her husband made to pass the antarctic hours. A radiogram from Byrd asking him to join the admiral's second expedition.

And penguins everywhere. Mounted and stuffed, in the living room hall. On pendants and earrings. Potholders. Refrigerator magnets. The shower curtain. "Most people don't even know that penguins are from the southern hemisphere," she says.

She knew about antarctic cruises but never wanted to go on one until late last year when she was asked to plan "an ultimate field trip" for a group of college scientists. The Society of Women Geographers signed on too, and the Washington branch of the Explorers' Club.

Ronne worked with the Chicago-based Abercrombie & Kent agency, which regularly tours the area, to plan the trip. Together with daughter Karen, 44, as the stars of a well-heeled group of 92, a different Jackie Ronne set off than the explorer's young wife -- an older woman who swims to stay in shape and delighted in finding penguin rookeries and buying T-shirts for her grandchildren.

The journey was not for the faint-hearted. The weather was just as difficult and the ice as treacherous. "The wind was incredibly strong, a gale force," says Ann Hawthorne, a photographer and family friend who was on the trip.

The access to the Stonington Island base was just as unpredictable. "We had to get through pack ice to get in," says Ronne. "But the captain and crew were determined to get me there."

Since their ship was too large to get through the icy coastlines, land was reached by large, hard-to-maneuver rubber rafts. When the rafts couldn't get any closer, the stalwart walked the rest of the way, wearing several layers of clothing, parkas and high boots. "And the clothes got really heavy when they got wet," says Ronne.

Her ultimate goal was the 1946 base camp and the hut she had shared with her husband. Ronne was determined to show her daughter where she'd spent those long months. As the two climbed the 100-yard hillside to the camp, they had to negotiate thigh-high snow, and almost turned back. To propel them forward, Hawthorne told jokes when they fell.

"It was important to get Jackie to that base," she says. "It was a walk of discovery back in time."

Was Ronne reliving her life? "To a certain extent," she says now, describing with dismay the uninhabitable buildings she discovered. "When a base is left, it's legitimately considered abandoned in the high seas. But I wanted to fix up what was broken, iced over, ripped out. And I wondered what happened to our 5,000-pound galley range and curtained bunks." And she hadn't anticipated the images of "hurdles and vicissitudes" that she says came flooding back.

When Ronne left the camp a few hours later, she closed the door firmly, shutting out the wind and snow and -- perhaps -- some of her memories. "I wouldn't have given up that experience for a million dollars," she says. "Nor would I ever have done it again."

But she just might take another cruise there. One that heads on east into South Georgia tempts her. "There's something about the Antarctic that draws you back," she says. "You might have had it up to your eyebrows, but after a while, the raw, icy magnificence brings you back." CAPTION: Jackie Ronne returned recently with her daughter, Karen, to the antarctic base camp where 50 years ago she lived for 15 months with her explorer husband, Finn, above. CAPTION: Jackie Ronne in her study with a stuffed penguin that serves as a reminder of the 15 months she spent in Antarctica.

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