The Heroic Age of Antarctic Exploration. Sailing to Antarctica in tall ships, without the technology or equipment we now deem necessary to make the journey. No flights. No communication with the outside world. No polypropylene. I’ve read fascinating accounts of explorers, their diaries, photography, and early silent movies. I feel very fortunate to work in a part of Antarctica and to be a guide to the historic huts where many of them based their journeys from.
There are three historic huts on Ross Island. A brief background:
1902: Discovery Hut sits on the tip of Hut Point Peninsula, a 15 minute walk from McMurdo Station. It was built in 1902 for Capt. Robert Falcon Scott’s British National Antarctic Expedition 1901-1904, aka the Discovery Expedition. An attempt was made by Scott, Shackleton, and Wilson to reach the South Pole, but troubles with the dogs and the mens’ health forced them to turn back at 82°S. Subsequent journeys to this region used Discovery Hut in emergencies and for temporary shelter and staging.
1908: In a promise to Scott not to use Discovery Hut, Shackleton’s Hut was erected at Cape Royds, 19 miles from McMurdo, in early 1908. The British Antarctic Expedition (aka Nimrod Expedition) 1907-1909, was Ernest Shackleton’s second attempt at the South Pole. After trudging for weeks through snow, frostbitten, riddled with dysentery, losing ponies
to crevasses, and low on food, Shackleton and his men had to turn away at 88°S (97 miles from the Pole). The expedition did, however, claim to be first at the South Magnetic Pole and first ascent of Mount Erebus. Shackleton was knighted upon his return to the UK.
1911: Terra Nova Hut, aka “Scott’s Hut,” is at Cape Evans, about 12 miles north of McMurdo. This hut, built in 1911, was the established base for the British Antarctic Expedition 1910-1912 (aka Terra Nova Expedition) and Scott’s famed and ill-fated journey to the South Pole. It also housed men from lesser-known but fascinating support expedition of the 1915-1917 Ross Sea Party (a depot-laying expedition for Shackleton’s Trans-Antarctic Expedition, aka Endurance).
Cape Evans is near one of our most productive fishing sites. We have not been able to stop by Cape Evans much this season, since our commute time has been doubled due to unfavorable sea ice conditions. Last week, we made a special detour to visit the hut, and pay our respects to the explorers and scientists before us. Nearing the Dellbridge Islands, on our long, slow ride out in the Pisten Bully, Brad turned to me and said, “Is that a ship over there?” Apparently the ice edge is a lot closer than we thought. There was indeed a ship. It was not a speck on the horizon. The hull was black and the superstructure was yellow and it was definitely the Kapitan Khlebnikov, a reinforced icebreaker/polar tour ship that occasionally makes 30-day journeys to bring tourists to the Ross Sea Region.
As we cornered an iceberg locked in sea ice and headed for Cape Evans, we heard the thump of a helicopter. This is not unusual, our helos fly all over the place. We are used to the sound of our A-stars and Bell 212′s. This sound was different. Reverberated differently, or came from a different direction. It was noticeable. Upon seeing it, we could immediately tell it did not come from McMurdo. It flew over our heads and landed at Cape Evans, not far from where the Antarctic Heritage Trust (AHT) temporary camp and trailers. Tourists disembarked, the helicopter took off back toward the ship and returned with another dozen tourists. We were told they were shuttling 100 passengers from the boat.
In our Big Reds, we greeted them, chuckled, welcomed them to Antarctica, and bolted for the hut. Under the rules of the Antarctic Heritage Trust, there are limits as to how many people can be in the hut at one time. We wanted to get in before our chances slipped away and the mob encroached. The AHT liason recognized our McMurdo parkas and hurried us in.
This is my church. It is one of my favorite places in the world. I have been to Scott’s Hut at Cape Evans dozens of times. As a hut guide, I’ve driven there in deltas and led groups of people from McMurdo into the hut. The history is right there; it is like walking into 1912. The provisions men meagerly survived on, the bunks they uncomfortably slept in, the laboratory, the darkroom, the stuffed emperor penguin (slightly deflated), the pony stables, the dogs, the inscriptions on the walls, the sleds, the sledging, the illnesses, the everything. The stories. The stories and stories of human survival and loss. I wonder if things like reaching the South Pole was ever worth it. We are disconnected from honor, glory, and valor for the sake of exploration and representing the motherland. The journals and materials left in these huts are the thing that connect us to the history of this area.
Some left behind objects at Shackleton’s hut at Cape Royds made it into international news recently. Three crates of Mackinlays whisky and two crates of brandy had been stashed under the hut and abandoned after the Nimrod Expedition quickly departed. Members of the AHT discovered them under the floorboards of the hut in 2006, and slowly freed them from the ice and rock in 2010. A crate was then flown to Christchurch, New Zealand for conservation at the Canterbury Museum, then on to Scotland (its birthplace) for sampling and analysis. A limited edition commemorative run of “Shackleton’s whisky” is now available to consumers (and yes, I bought a bottle of the first run the week it became available).
The AHT had an unopened crate of Shackleton’s whisky in their trailers at Cape Evans to show the tourists. Lizzie from the AHT said she could feel the liquid in the crate when she lifted it. It was beautiful. I was in shock. Speechless. I may as well have met Mick Jagger. It was a moment. All I could do was let my mouth hang open and take pictures of the crate from all sides.
Antarctic Heritage Trust blog.
Shackleton’s whisky conservation blog.
Give money to the AHT.