Sunday, October 31, 1999

A trip back in time

Published in the Antarctic Sun

A small prefabricated wooden house, built on the coast of Ross Island, home for several Antarctic explorers over a couple of winters. No, not the lowercase dorms, but the Cape Evans hut.

The hut was used by two expeditions to the Antarctic. It was built by Captain Robert Scott’s 1910-1912 expedition to the South Pole. The building itself, built from pre-constructed parts, was erected in two weeks.

The hut was a base for groups to lay supply depots on Scott’s planned route to the Pole. They also explored the coast of Antarctica. On May 13, 1911, the group settled down in the hut for the winter.

That winter the hut was the base for the winter trek to Cape Crozier to get emperor penguin eggs for research. That voyage, covering 130 miles over 36 days, became an ordeal written about by Apsley Cherry-Garrard in his book “The Worst Journey in the World.”

The three men, Cherry-Garrard, “Birdie” Bowers, and Bill Wilson, man-hauled sledges 65 miles across sea ice and the Ross Ice Shelf to a penguin rookery, freezing and starving most of the way.

After retrieving six penguin eggs and killing several penguins for food, the men broke three of the eggs on the precarious return to their camp at Cape Crozier.

It was a trip of which Cherry-Garrard wrote, “We on this journey were already beginning to think of death as a friend.”

But it got worse, and they weren’t dead. A storm blew away their tent, wrecked their stone shelter, and nearly killed them. After the storm, they were lucky enough to find their tent—their only shelter for the return journey. They regularly fell asleep while walking back, frozen and exhausted. Their clothes froze solid, making movement difficult; upon their return to the Cape Evans hut, their clothes were cut off them, too frozen to remove normally.

The three remaining penguin eggs survived the journey to Britain, where they languished in obscurity, useless to science and lost to archivists of polar curiosities.

A later party also used the Cape Evans hut: part of Shackleton’s famous failed expedition. While the leader and his men were stuck in the Weddell Sea, another group was supposed to lay supply caches between the Pole and Ross Island. They were unable to find a safe place to winter elsewhere on Ross Island, so they used the Cape Evans hut. They thought they had secured the ship carefully for winter, using two anchors and seven steel cables to hold it securely in place.

They began to off-load the ship, leaving the main part of the stores on board. Before many supplies could be put ashore, though, a huge storm kicked up and blew the ship out to sea, stranding 10 men on Ross Island—four at Cape Evans, and six at Hut Point. The rest of the group were still on the ship.

The 10 men on the island soon joined forces and began to improvise for the winter. Fortunately for them, Scott’s expedition had left a lot of basic stores, like flour. They made clothes out of canvas tents, and began to lay supply depots, unaware of the disaster befalling Shackleton and the others a continent away. Survival was by luck; during the setting up of supply caches, two men became unable to walk, and the others were so weak they only made headway when there was a powerful wind at their backs.

Upon their rescue in January 1917, they discovered that the world had “changed almost beyond recognition” between their last word from the outside, in December 1914.

To find out about trips to Cape Evans, call the Recreation department at 2443.