Timeless huts, priceless heritage
The explorers who set out to conquer Antarctica at the beginning of this century didn’t know that it was the highest, coldest, driest and windiest continent on Earth—just that it was the last great frontier, and likely to test the mettle of any man courageous (or foolhardy) enough to venture upon its icy domain. When horses and dogs died and machinery froze up, or the ice just got too rough, men settled into the traces—as here, during Scott’s push for the Pole. Bare wooden huts, shuttered and wired to the ground, were their havens from the unforgiving elements. Today the three that were erected on Ross Island offer mute testimony to this age of heroism.
Save for a patch of cobalt along the northern horizon, the early afternoon sky is littered with stars. The partial moon barely illuminates the sea ice, revealing stygian cracks that meander in no particular direction. Just visible, the outline of the Transantarctic Mountains hangs suspended above the dark horizon. The fierce wind that squeezes between the hilltops has subsided, a fleeting invitation to venture outdoors. Sequestered with 155 of my closest friends for six months at McMurdo Station, I am happy to ignore the minus-40-degree temperature in order to savour this calm day.
The dry snow squeaks and crunches like Styrofoam as I navigate between the drifts to a wooden but that stands at the end of the peninsula. Pausing to scrape a rime of snow off a weathered board, I wonder what these thin walls, offering such scant protection from the elements, meant to the men of the Ross Sea party who were marooned here for three months in 1916. Did they venture out between gales to bask in the splendour of the polar night? Would they have been able to forget their suffering and loneliness on nights like this?
On February 9, 1902, Robert Falcon Scott sailed the 700-tonne barque-rigged steamer Discovery into the ice-choked waters of McMurdo Sound, after failing to find a suitable winter refuge along the coast of King Edward VII Land. Hugging the cliffs of the Great Ice Barrier, Scott chose a wintering site under the shoulders of Mt Erebus. His men immediately began preparations for winter. They chiselled and raked the volcanic scoria to provide a level foundation for an 84-square-metre prefabricated hut. Two smaller huts were erected to house the magnetic instruments.
Although not occupied as living quarters during the Discovery expedition—which had as its objectives science, exploration and a quest for the South Pole—the main shelter was used for sledging equipment, fur skinning and even as a theatre for plays and other diversions. Only a month into the expedition, Antarctica showed her hostility to the humans who had breached her icy borders. A 12-man sledging party making its way back to Hut Point was stopped by deteriorating weather barely three miles from Winter Quarters Bay. Three men broke from the other nine and headed along the ice shelf to the bay. The other nine hiked up the ridge of Hut Point Peninsula towards Castle Rock.
By the time the group reached the rock, a full blizzard was upon them. Crawling among the boulders in an attempt to shield themselves from the gale, the men hunkered down to wait out the storm, but the perilousness of their position soon became apparent. Unable to make hot drinks because of a broken Primus stove, frostbitten and dehydrated, they decided to attempt the final dash to the ship.
Along the way, Able Bodied Seaman George T Vince lost his footing and was blown from the cliff on Danger Slopes. His body was never found, but the cross erected by his companions still stands on the windswept hill at the southernmost tip of Hut Point Peninsula.
The street lamps of McMurdo cast a dim glow on the but walls. Outside lies a seal slaughtered for its life-giving blubber, but never used. Its remains have become a tarry mass of flesh half dissolved upon itself, with a pair of tail fins providing the only clue to the animal’s identity. Most of the original terra cotta paint-work is no longer visible, having long been blasted off by the scouring snow and volcanic grit.
With torch in hand, I turn the lock and swing open the door. Hinges groan and I am greeted by a large snowdrift in the doorway. Kicking steps into the snow pile, I climb inside. My breath hangs in the still air. A perpetual cold envelops the interior, yet even after 95 years the smell of seal blubber remains. Scattered remnants of clothing and provisions from the early expeditions lie strewn and stacked about the wan interior, and the soot-blackened walls evoke images of dishevelled men huddled around makeshift oil lamps.
Discovery Hut, as it is known today, was used extensively during subsequent expeditions by Scott and Ernest Shackleton, but the saddest and most difficult time in its history undoubtedly belonged to Dick Richards, Aeneas Mackintosh, Ernest Joyce, Ernie Wild, Rev. Arnold Spencer-Smith and Victor Hayward, members of the Ross Sea party of 1915-1917. Nicknamed “Shackleton’s Argonauts,” these men were given the task of laying depots for Shackleton’s transantarctic crossing.
Shackleton’s plan called for two separate parties. The great leader himself, ferried to the ice by Endurance, was to traverse Antarctica from the Ross Sea to the Weddell Sea. The Ross Sea party, carried by Aurora, was to lay supply depots from their base at Cape Evans to sustain Shackleton’s group on the latter part of their crossing. But events are no respecters of plans, especially in the Antarctic. Endurance ended her days crushed in the ice, and Shackleton’s party never even set foot on land, let alone carried out the traverse. Finally, they had to effect their own rescue (see New Zealand Geographic, Issue 28).
Aurora dropped off the Ross Sea party, but was then trapped in ice for nine months herself. The men—inadequately supplied from the outset—had
to fend for themselves for far longer than expected. A party duly set out from Cape Evans to lay depots for Shackleton, travelling 500 kilometres inland up the Beardmore Glacier. As was the common case with Antarctic travel, conditions were adverse, the distance was covered much more slowly than anticipated, and food ran short. The return journey was a nightmare. One of the party, Spencer-Smith, collapsed from scurvy and other infirmities and had to be dragged back, and the other five of the party were also afflicted by starvation and scurvy. Some of the men dragged the sledges in harness beside the starving dogs. Eventually, barely alive, they made it back to Scott’s Discovery Hut, a mere two days after Spencer-Smith died.
In the words of expedition physicist Dick Richards, “[The hut] may have been a dark cheerless place, but to us it represented security. We lived the life of troglodytes. We slept in our clothes in old sleeping bags which rested on planks raised above the floor by wooden provision cases.”
They spent the next seven weeks huddled in temperatures only slightly above freezing, subsisting on meagre rations.
Seal meat and blubber were everything to the starving castaways. Richards stated: “. . there were virtually no provisions at the hut. The little left by previous parties was very soon consumed, and we had none of our impromptu sledging rations left. The old Scott biscuits were musty, some fifteen years old, and these went mainly to the dogs. There was absolutely nothing in the way of general provisions—no flour, no sugar, no bread. The sole food we had from the middle of March until the middle of July was seal meat . . . morning, noon and night.”
Yet tins of biscuits, rolled oats, sugar, cocoa, curry, jam, and flour excavated from the snow- and ice-filled interior of the but 50 years later told a different story, and posed the question: Why did the five men nearly starve among all this food? Accounts of events of their stay at the but provide the answer. They had gained entry to the ice-filled building through a small window on the northern side of the hut. The only clear portion of the but was a cubicle left over from one of Scott’s field parties, and this became their living area. Weak from scurvy and consumed by the need to rest, the men made no attempt to rummage through the mountain of collected ice for food and supplies. What strength they did have was used to kill seals.
In early May, expedition leader Capt. Aeneas Mackintosh and Victor Hayward—still recovering from the effects of scurvy, and in poor shape mentally—set out to walk to the better-equipped Cape Evans Hut across sea ice that was still too thin and in the face of an approaching blizzard. The others could not dissuade Mackintosh, but refused to go with him. The pair was never seen again.
By the end of June, their supply of blubber dwindling, the remaining three men resorted to chopping up parts of the wooden structure for fuel to survive. I can think of a no more bleak prospect than having to burn bits of your shelter to stay warm. In July they finally made it across the ice to Cape Evans.
The Cape Evans but was erected in 1911, during Scott’s second attempt to reach the South Pole. Once again, Scott selected the Hut Point area, after pack ice at Cape Crozier prevented the team from landing there. However, instead of using Discovery Hut and Winter Quarters Bay, he landed at Cape Evans, 25 kilometres north. With Mt Erebus at their back and McMurdo Sound in front, the wintering party found the gently sloping ground ideal. The 108-square-metre but the crew erected became home to 25 men, 31 dogs and 17 Manchurian ponies. The roof, walls and floors were insulated with shredded dried seaweed, and bitumen-soaked felt sealed the roof against melting snow. With pony stables and a photographic darkroom, this structure was a mansion compared to Discovery Hut
I am keen to visit Cape Evans, but travel in Antarctica—even a distance of 25 kilometres—is never a simple matter. Although it is July—the middle of the southern winter, when daylight is represented only by a brief amber glow on the horizon in mid-afternoon—the condition of the sea ice is dismal. Happily, the coldest time of year is yet to come. In early spring, the returning sun causes large masses of cold stable air above the polar plateau to slide down over the coasts. Temperatures 30 to 40 degrees colder than those experienced during midwinter are not uncommon, and sea ice can increase in thickness by 20 mm a day. A minimum ice thickness of one metre is required for safe travel, and every day of miserable cold lamented by my fellow winter-overers translates into a bit more sea ice—and my ticket to overland travel!
Finally, in August, the much-awaited opportunity presents itself, and we sally forth, only to be thwarted just six kilometres from the site. A large crack stretching off to the vanishing point blocks our way. Ice on either side of the 1.5 m-wide crack is barely the minimum thickness needed and there is open water in the middle of the crack. We return to McMurdo.
Several weeks later, I set out again, this time in the company of Donal T. Manahan of the University of California, a prominent Antarctic marine biologist who has turned the history of the Heroic Era into a passionate hobby, cultivated during the 16 seasons he has spent at McMurdo.
Our Spryte tracked vehicle drains the tank voraciously as we drive across the sea ice. Only the lower flanks of Mt Erebus are visible beneath the clouds. Castle Rock, named by Capt. Scott for its shape, stands sentinel over Hut Point Peninsula. Just past the Erebus Glacier Tongue, we approach the crack that defeated my earlier attempt to reach the cape. It appears to be healed, and we have just the one-metre thickness we need for a safe traverse As we near Cape Evans, a maze of new cracks appears under us—the result of the immense forces generated when sea ice collides with the land. Our eyes are riveted to the area just in front of the vehicle as we creep along, zigzagging in order to cross the smaller cracks at right angles. Just to be sure, we get out of the vehicle and drill the ice to check thickness every time we cross an ice edge or when the elevation changes, signifying the point where old and new ice meet.
I stop 100 metres from shore in order to stay well away from the tangled pressure ridges jutting out along the beach.
“Ah yes!” exclaims Manahan as we step into the hut. His face beams and his blue eyes sparkle as he surveys the interior. “Over there are the remnants of the wall that divided the officers from the enlisted types.” In keeping with strict British naval discipline, a partition of crates divided the 16 officers from the 9 “men.” Even the latrine, erected between the but and the sea, was partitioned.
Manahan points out Capt Lawrence Oates’ old bunk. “That’s the one covered in pony harness. Oates was happiest when he spent time with his beloved ponies, and the harnesses were put there by the first but restoration teams as a tribute to his love for his animals.”
Among the paraphernalia is, of all things, a telephone. During their first winter on the ice, Scott’s men established a telephone link between Cape Evans and Hut Point huts. George Simpson, expedition meteorologist—nicknamed “Sunny Jim” for his good humour—laid bare aluminium wire across the sea ice. The magneto-driven telephone seemed to work best in the colder temperatures; increasing sunlight wreaked havoc with voice and ringing capabilities. The telephone was used almost daily for relaying time measurements and data from pendulum gravity experiments.
As at Discovery Hut, reminders of triumph and tragedy are all around. Bottles and rusting tins are piled high on bowed shelves. A coal range stands against one wall. Marooned here for two years, men from Shackleton’s 1915-1917 expedition burned blubber in it for warmth. When rescued by the Aurora in January 1917, these men were in terrible condition—filthy, unkempt, beards impregnated with grease and blubber soot. Capt. John Davis recounted, “Their speech was jerky, semi-hysterical and at times almost unintelligible. Their eyes had a strained and harassed look.”
In spite of the hardships endured by the Ross Sea party while interned at Cape Evans, the diaries and recollections of the stranded men contain almost no reference to friction and fighting. Little arguments arose, perpetuated and enjoyed by some for the mental stimulation while abhorred by others, but good humour prevailed.
Favourite topics for these lively discussions were the respective merits of science and the navy, or the English and the colonials.
Perhaps the most poignant reminder of their incarceration is not the pile of stores, discarded experiments or papers but the simple inscription scrawled neatly on a bunk wall by Dick Richards:
R. W. Richards August 14th, 1916
Losses to date-
Today the hut stands cloaked in snow nine months of the year. In the brief Antarctic summer, the drifts recede from the pile of crates outside the hut, revealing their disgorged contents. Wind-polished sledges lean against the exterior walls. A few metres from the but a husky dog skeleton is still tethered to its chain. The but seems timeless, haunted by an air of unfinished business.
The huts of Ross Island make a vivid contrast with the thriving metropolis of McMurdo Station and Scott Base. Especially during winter, I find they give a much-needed reality check against our dorm rooms, VCRs, Internet and satellite telephones. There’s nothing like the sight of frozen blubber stuck to metal pots to remind you how good last Saturday’s rendition of spaghetti bolognaise tasted.
The huts are unique not only because they are tributes to the feats of the early Antarctic explorers, but also because they are the only places on Earth where a continent’s first human habitations remain. Yet the timelessness of these buildings belies their fragility. Although the dry climate and low temperatures have slowed the decay process substantially, 90 years of Antarctic wind and sun have taken their toll, while pilfering during the 1950s and ’60s has whittled away the number of artefacts.
Building on its long and close association with the Antarctic, New Zealand took the initiative and formed the Antarctic Heritage Trust in 1987 to maintain and conserve the huts. Each year, four members of the AHT team spend six weeks at the but sites, making structural repairs and doing field conservation of artefacts. The level of conservatory work has grown to include the installation of data loggers—which have so far found no appreciable temperature and humidity changes caused by the 1200 people who visit the huts each year.
Through AHT’s efforts, a resolution was passed at the 1998 meeting of the Antarctic Treaty member nations giving all three Ross Island but sites full protection under the treaty. These are the first historic sites in the Antarctic to receive such protection—a significant milestone in the preservation of Antarctica’s human heritage.
Conservators from the UK, Canada and Australia who have experience in polar field conservatory techniques have joined the effort. During the next few summer seasons, a metal and textile conservation programme will be implemented. Artefacts that cannot be preserved in the field will be brought back to New Zealand for conservation work, then returned to their respective huts.
Paul Chaplin, AHT executive officer, says that the goal is not restoration, but re-creation. “Restoration implies that we put things back to original condition,” he says. “We aim to preserve the sites in the condition that they were at the end of the Heroic Era, and to use the structures and artefacts to evoke the living con (li rims of the explorers.”
Perched on the edge of the world’s most southerly Adelie penguin rookery at Cape Royds, Ernest Shackleton’s 1908 Nimrod expedition but was the second shelter erected by the early visitors to Ross Island. With walls, roof and floor constructed of the best quality fir timbering available, the but has stood for nine decades against the pounding gales that career off Mt Erebus.
Penguins from the nearby rookery mill about the dilapidated crates, leaving feathers as calling cards. A wheel off the first motorcar in Antarctica lies partially buried in a drift. The walls of the but have the same wind-abraded, sun-bleached finish as the Discovery and Cape Evans huts.
Shackleton had been a member of Scott’s Discovery expedition, but was sent home in 1903 when he contracted scurvy Shackleton never forgave Scott for sending him away, while for his part Scott felt that Shackleton let the expedition down by getting sick.
It was to be expected, then, that when Shackleton asked Scott if he could use his but as a base for his own expedition, Scott refused. In the event, Nimrod was unable to penetrate the sea ice as far south as Hut Point, and Shackleton had to settle for Cape Royds, some 35 kilometres to the north. (Notwithstanding the rift between the two explorers, Shackleton’s men used Scott’s huts on a later expedition, after Scott’s death. They found a note from Scott’s party above the stove, requesting that users of the but should leave the dishes clean!)
As with the other expeditions, the men of Nimrod settled into a winter routine. Douglas Mawson, who was later to lead his own Antarctic expedition, busied himself with the studies of auroras, ice structures and magnetic observations. Night-watchman duties were rotated every two weeks, although two men were exempted: William Roberts, the cook, and Sir Phillip Brocklehurst, assistant geologist. Brocklehurst’s toes were black with frostbite acquired during the party’s ascent of Mt Erebus and later had to be amputated by the surgeon, Eric Marshall.
But crammed together during the interminable winter night, it appears the men got on one other’s nerves from time to time. Marshall writes: “Wild showed signs of being drunk, and was anxious to make a row, but after a little while, persuaded him to turn in. Was seriously thinking of getting him outside to give me a hand with the ponies and then giving him a damn good hammering, as he was becoming very talkative and objectionable and Shacks was evidently afraid to come out and stop him, although awake and hearing all said.”
During early August, Dr A. E Mackay suddenly went for Roberts, with whom he shared a cubicle. Roberts had made an ill-advised decision to use Mackay as a footstool as he laced his boots. Objecting to having a man’s boots on his chest, Mackay reacted by leaping up and wringing Roberts’ neck. He might have succeeded had Mawson not stepped in to pull the men apart.
As well as being the first humans to set foot on Mt Erebus, the men of the Nimrod expedition reached the magnetic South Pole, explored the Western Range and pioneered a route up the Beardmore Glacier used by Scott five years later. To help while away the dark months, they wrote and published a book, Aurora Australis, during the winter of 1908. Just under 100 copies of the illustrated and bound volume were produced.
As the sea ice is not traversable much beyond Cape Evans, my hopes for a visit to Cape Royds involve helicopter transport. Since station support staff such as me can’t request “helo” trips, Manahan kindly puts in a good word with the operations coordinator and gets me included on the manifest for a trip to the ice edge for specimen collecting, with a side trip to Shackleton’s hut.
Again, Manahan and I spend an engrossing hour examining the contents of the hut. We contrast the rusting tins of boiled mutton and Irish stew with our modern fare, and marvel at the cubbyhole that was Douglas Mawson’s laboratory. But our leisurely tour has to be cut short. The weather is closing in. We hurry to load up the helicopter, and get as far as fastening our seat belts before the pilot announces we are going nowhere.
Within 10 minutes the wind increases to 70 knots and visibility drops to less than 10 metres. We roll rocks onto the helicopter skids, but even with the extra weight and the blades tied down the aircraft shakes violently in the gusts.
A field shelter at the Cape Royds site, although well maintained by Scott Base, is full of snow. The window and door have been blown off sometime during the winter, and the drifts are piled nearly to the ceiling. That leaves the historic but itself as the only available refuge. We dig out the foam mattresses from the shelter and drag them into the but to use as a buffer against the icy wooden floor.
Setting up our cookstoves in the partially shovelled field shelter, we melt snow for drinking water. At night, snug and cosy from hugging our plastic bottles of hot water, we imagine we are hearing the same creaks and noises as the old explorers listened to during southerly gales, and feel a bond with them. After an 80-year dormancy, the but once again provides life-saving protection from the deadly wind.
Time seems to stand still in Antarctica. It is less than two centuries since the first humans set foot on the continent, and 1899 was the first winter spent on the ice. Two generations later, men were on the moon. The 500-year quest for Earth’s last frontiers waned in Antarctica; the end of the line for human terrestrial exploration.
Now the winds that sculpt the surrounding rocks are reclaiming the land, and will eventually erase human imprints. But these forces work slowly, and until the last traces are wiped out, the huts remain testaments to the spirit of human endeavour that flourished here. Down to the last nails, the buildings and their contents will tell the hardships and heroism of Antarctic adventure as if they had just happened.