Navy honors officer 50 years after voyage to ocean depths

Don Walsh is 78 and the only person alive who has been to Challenger Deep -- at almost seven miles the deepest place in all the world's oceans. He tells the tale of the bathyscaphe Trieste's dive as if it happened last week, with the wonder of a man who has been to a mystical place.
By Michael E. Ruane
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, April 16, 2010

The sunlight began to fade a few hundred feet down. Shades of gray turned to black. The steel structure groaned as the water pressure increased, and the Trieste sank toward the fabled gorge in the Pacific Ocean floor known as Challenger Deep.

One thousand feet. Two thousand feet. At 2,400 feet, the two crewmen dimmed the cabin lights to let their eyes adjust. At about 13,000 feet, they entered the abyssal zone -- "the timeless world of eternal darkness," one of them wrote later.

At 31,000 feet, they echo-sounded for the bottom. There was no return. At 32,400 feet, a thick window cracked with a bang. Farther down they went. Into the bleak hadal zone, named for Hades, the ancient Greek underworld. Finally, at 35,800 feet, then-Navy Lt. Don Walsh, 28, phoned the surface: "This is Trieste. We are on the bottom of Challenger Deep. . . . Over."

It was Jan. 23, 1960. Walsh and crewmate Jacques Piccard had reached one of the most forbidding places on Earth, a place where no one had been before -- and no one has been since.

Walsh, who went on to a distinguished career in sea exploration and writing, is the only person alive who has been to Challenger Deep -- at almost seven miles, the deepest place in all the world's oceans. Twelve people have walked on the moon. Thousands have climbed Mount Everest. But only two have been to the legendary black hole in the ocean floor -- "the last extreme on our earth that remained to be conquered," wrote Piccard, who died two years ago at the age of 86.

On Wednesday, in a ceremony at the National Geographic Society, Walsh, of Dora, Ore., received the Navy's Distinguished Public Service Award and the society's gold-plated Hubbard Medal, which has also gone to the likes of aviator Charles Lindbergh, astronaut Neil Armstrong and oceanographer Robert Ballard.

On Thursday, he was honored as a "national treasure" at the Washington Navy Yard -- where the Trieste is on display, along with a model of the vessel, in the Navy museum there -- and then participated at a symposium on ocean exploration at the National Press Club.

The events mark the 50th anniversary of the famous descent, an achievement Walsh loves to talk about, although he shrugs when asked how he feels about it: He was just a young naval officer trying to leave a dull job on a submarine tender.

Walsh is 78 now. He has gray hair and is long retired from the Navy. But he still has the thick forearms of a sailor -- an old "mariner," as he calls himself. As he sits in a Washington hotel room recounting the adventure, he tells the tale as if it happened last week, with the wonder of a man who has been to a mystical place.

An age of exploration

The descent happened during an era of manic technological advances and exploration. Sputnik had gone into orbit in 1957. An American satellite had beamed the first pictures from space. High-altitude balloonists probed the atmosphere. The X-15 rocket plane made its debut. An American submarine reached the North Pole underwater.

And the Navy had just purchased the Trieste, a deep diving bathyscaphe, from its Swiss designer, Auguste Piccard. By modern standards, it was a crude device. The steel crew sphere was slung beneath a huge chamber that was filled with aviation gasoline, for buoyancy in the high pressure of deep water, and fitted with two hoppers of iron pellets for ballast.

It had been beefed up to reach the deepest depths of the oceans, where Walsh said it had to withstand eight tons of pressure per square inch -- roughly the same as an elephant standing on a quarter -- and a total of 200,000 tons of pressure against its five-inch-thick hull. It had a main, cone-shaped window made of seven-inch-thick Plexiglas.

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