Ice, ice, baby… (6) A tough place for mankind

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March 22nd 2008
Published: April 12th 2008
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When I started writing up this trip, I envisaged three blogs, one on the trip south, one on the Ross Sea, and one on the trip north. If you’ve followed the last month’s scribblings in any detail (or simply kept an eye on the blogs’ titles), you’ll know this was a somewhat optimistic initial assessment. Everyone who has been before says it takes a surprisingly long time to absorb and to digest fully a trip to Antarctica. The intensity of experience in a short space of time in the context of the long, tough journeys there and back, however mild the weather conditions and conducive the company, is overwhelming. The afternoon we began our journey home from our furthest south the ship was unusually quiet, few people even on the bridge to say farewell to the much-photographed Mount Erebus. Most people had crawled off to their cabins, if not to sleep - though the majority were - to write diaries and review photographs. We were running out of words to discuss our experiences out loud; now we had to find the time and space within ourselves to grasp what we had seen, breathed, lived for one short week.

That morning we had visited the last of the Ross Sea huts and, for many of us, the most evocative. I had been reading Ranulph Fiennes’ biography of Robert Scott, so it was enormously moving to visit the place where the fateful journey to the South Pole had been planned, where it had started and whence the remaining expeditioners had checked the horizon day after day; where Scott himself had worked and slept, the scientists had conducted their experiments, each of the men had faced their fears and missed their families, and Scott’s birthday had been celebrated, the long table, immortalised in photographs, still dominating the room. To find the expedition’s remaining provisions still sitting on the shelves, spare skis and tent poles hung up on the walls, sledges suspended in the rafters, tack scattered over a bunk to be collated and reorganised, the dark room set up for Ponting’s photographs, clothing littering the bunks, and, curiously, a frozen emperor penguin on Scott’s desk - that day’s dinner, perhaps. To trip over other stores and equipment half-buried in the snow outside the hut. To smell, even now, the horses absent from the stables.

Each of the huts we visited was very different and, with one exception, there was a perceptible increase in the sophistication of their construction and provisioning over the twelve years spanning their use. I described Borchgrevink’s 1899 hut in an earlier blog. As well as Scott’s 1911 Terra Nova hut, we also visited his 1904 Discovery hut, now incongruously close to the modern-day US base, and Shackleton’s 1908 “Nimrod” Hut at Cape Royds on Ross Island.

The Discovery hut is the anomaly. Apparently based on a standard Queensland house, the hut is - and always was - appallingly bad at keeping out the cold and the wind. I was writing the ship’s diary for that day and wandered round the ship later canvassing opinions. Our learned guide and one of the “tame” historians on board, Stephen Martin, said tentatively, with typical understatement, “You might mention that it was cold…”. At the top of a nearby hillock, where a cross commemorating George Vince, an early death in the 1904 expedition, stands bravely withstanding the elements, a temperature of minus 20 degrees Centigrade was recorded during our visit… and we were there during the Antarctic summer. It was not much warmer inside the hut. Scott’s team tended to use the hut only for daytime experiments, continuing to live on board the ship. We sympathised. As ever, unused provisions and forgotten items of clothing still littered the rooms, but several old pieces of seal blubber provided a novel attraction, looking like congealed newly-extracted oil.

Shackleton’s hut was an adventure in itself. Running now tight for time thanks to still-solid pack ice, adverse winds and ill-located icebergs, we were warned of an early start for our first day on Ross Island, and, sure enough, Greg’s voice came over the intercom at 5.15 am. Breakfast was being postponed, although hot water for tea and coffee, as well as biscuits and fruit, were already on tap to keep the pack of wolves at bay. While people pulled on every layer in sight, there was much just-about behind-the-scenes deliberation. It was cold outside… very cold… minus 12 degrees Centigrade, before taking into account any wind chill factor. We would have a short, bouncy Zodiac journey to get us to land (well, actually an ice-step up onto fast ice), and then a kilometre or so to plough through the snow and across crevassed ice to reach Shackleton’s hut and - for those whose memories had not frozen solid by this time - the southernmost colony of Adélie penguins. Clearly there were differing opinions as to the wisdom of this venture, given the average age of the largely sexa- , septa- and octo- genarian passengers. Fortunately, optimism and enthusiasm won the day.

Sunglasses were essential… and a hindrance. Spotting crevasses was almost impossible either way, although some kindly soul a half-hour ahead of me had found some rocks to mark the worst ones. (Goodness knows where he had found them; there was white, white and more white in every direction.) As for the injunction to follow others’ tracks, well, that was challenging to say the least. It was curiously hard to see where the forty or so ahead of me had trod. Still, with helicopter rides an option for the faint-of-heart, we all made it there… and back again.

Struggling across the snow and ice gave a valuable insight in itself; a minute, transitory flavour of the conditions the explorers themselves had had to combat to fulfil their goals, whether to find penguin eggs to solve an evolutionary conundrum, to reach the elusive Pole, or simply to find their daily food. Outside the hut were kennels for puppies (adult dogs would simply have rested on the snow), stacked boxes previously containing essential provisions and spare equipment, and an odd assortment of tools and equipment. Inside was the now-customary collection of unconsumed stores, spare sledges and scattered clothes, including a selection of socks hanging on a clothes line. As ever, it seemed as if our hosts had just stepped out for a while. They’d be back soon. Wouldn’t they? Outside, a couple of Adélie penguins kept tabs on the visitors. Their rookery, over the brow of the hill, was out-of-bounds to us, but a lone leopard seal kept an eye out for his next meal.

In sharp contrast, we were also shown round a couple of the bases for man’s twenty-first century research into the mysteries on which this continent might shed light: the US base at McMurdo Sound (or “McMudro Sound” according to the Chinese commemoration plaque) and New Zealand’s Scott Base a few kilometres further on, where Edmund Hillary’s 1950s trans-Antarctic expedition was based. As one, we all agreed that we might be able to view favourably overwintering at the Scott Base - and, with the icebreaker-bashed sea ice in McMurdo Sound now re-freezing, this contingency was not too far removed from our thoughts - but would rather do all sorts of unpleasant things than spend any more time on the US base (even if it did sport what must be the smallest photograph of Dubya in any US government building). Yes, it may well be top of the scientific universe in terms of its equipment, labs and expertise, and the US’s generosity in sharing these facilities is undeniable, but the station had all the personality and aesthetic attraction of an open pit coal mine. To quote one of my subsequently-canvassed fellow passengers, “The Americans make great cookies, but they sure know how to foul up a pristine environment”. That said, when an opportunity to winter there did hover on the horizon, I did, more than fleetingly, contemplate it. What an incredible experience that would be. Not simply to spectate on an interesting human experiment (or test my own psychology), but to see the indescribable beauty of the aurora australis and the other myriad of amazing natural effects that light up the all-day night sky… Unfortunately - or perhaps not - the opportunity evaporated. I did not pursue it.

This is a continent that does not easily accommodate man and does not willingly give up its secrets. If, nowadays, we employ all means at our disposal and all the latest technological developments to keep warm and maintain communications with the outside world while struggling to discover a little more about our planet through what Antarctica might be persuaded to reveal, how much harder - inconceivably, unimaginably, incomprehensively harder - must it have been for the men of the well-named “heroic age” of exploration, so many of them only footnotes to those who led those trips. Shackleton and Scott - incredible, inspiring leaders though they were - were only the headline acts: their expeditions, over time, numbered dozens of men including scientists foremost in their fields and men of incredible courage and resilience. How many of us remember each of them?

Additional photos below
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memorial to George Vincememorial to George Vince
memorial to George Vince

(the US McMurdo base is in the background)

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