Dr. Robert Rutford (86) – glacial expert and Antarctic researcher
We happened upon a photo dating back to the 1980s showing a smiling man wearing BIRKENSTOCK sandals. What’s interesting about the photo is that it was taken at the South Pole. We went in search of this man and found Dr. Robert Rutford, one of the best-known Antarctic researchers and the man who Mount Rutford is named for. The glacial geologist spent 30 years heading various expeditions to Antarctica. The 86-year-old lived in Richardson, Texas, with his wife Margie. We were fortunate enough to be able to interview Robert Rutford just a few months before he passed away on December 1, 2019. We met an alert and cheerful man who was as delighted with our visit as we were with his fascinating story.
In the footsteps of Amundsen and Scott
“Margie was pregnant the first time I went. She raised our three kids more or less on her own because I was gone all the time,” Robert related. He embarked on his first expedition in the late 1950s. Other expeditions then followed, taking him away from home for several months almost every year.
The impressions these expeditions made were overwhelming, in spite of the harsh climate and the teams’ primitive equipment. “We were pioneers. Like Amundsen and Scott, we started with pulling our equipment on sleds. We were the first people ever to step foot in some places,” Rutford recalled.
A career south of Houston
But first things first. Robert and Margie were already a couple at college and got married in 1954. That same year, Robert went to Greenland for a year with the U.S. Army. He then obtained a Master’s degree in geography from the University of Minnesota. His interests lay in researching the Antarctic region “… and as they didn’t have anybody who had ever been south of Houston, that’s how I got started in the Antarctic,” said Rutford, grinning. His experiences subsequently took him to the University of Nebraska, from where he oversaw further Antarctic projects.
Life at the South Pole
Expedition life was spartan. The teams slept in sleeping bags in so-called Jamesway huts – tent-like accommodation which was easy to assemble and relatively warm. But people made mistakes: if you failed to close your tent up tightly, the wind would blow it full of snow. “They then had a lot of fun in store for them when they came back in the evening,” Robert smirked. “The freeze-dried food was terrible. There was no taste and you never quite got it softened up,” he remembered. After four or five months, you were looking forward to going back home. On the down side, Robert’s children often failed to recognize him again.
Personal care – a special issue
Personal hygiene was minimal. Petrol or gas was needed in order to boil water, and both of these were in short supply, so they economized. Cleaning your teeth was okay, but shaving was unnecessary. And they only had flannels for washing. “If you smelled bad, you knew the others smelled bad, too, so what difference did it make?” said Robert, laughing, as he explained the rule of thumb at the time with a wink: “You took two pairs of underwear with you and you wore the first pair until they got dirty. Then you wore the second pair until the first pair looked clean!
Birkenstocks in Antarctica: the famous photo
“Margie was the first to wear Birkenstocks, and she was gradually followed by the rest of the family. This was in Nebraska,” reminisced Robert. “It was hot, so they were a nice shoe to wear.” He especially liked the sole: “It’s constructed so that there is support for the foot. That’s simply comfortable.”
Robert even took his Birkenstocks to the Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station. One fine day, he put them on and smiled into the camera. “They all thought I was crazy. But I simply said ‘It’s okay, I told Marla I was gonna do that.’”
Marla, Robert’s neighbor, ran the BIRKENSTOCK store in Lincoln. As a bit of fun, he promised her he would take a photo of her sandals on his next trip to the South Pole. So he did just that. “She must have then sent it to the BIRKENSTOCK main office,” Robert related.
Robert led a fulfilled life. He did a great many things he could never have dreamed of. In 1966, the Rutford Ice Stream was named for him, followed by the summit of Craddock Massif, the 4,477-meter-high Mount Rutford, in 2007. In spite of these honors, his greatest source of happiness was always his family: “It’s been wonderful. I’m so proud of our family. Margie did such a good job. That's a much greater achievement.”