Chapter 6: Autumn prospects

The Home of the Blizzard by Sir Douglas Mawson (1915)

Chapter 6: Autumn prospects

As far as we could see, the inland ice was an unbroken plateau with no natural landmarks. From the hinterland in a vast solid stream the ice flowed, with heavily crevassed downfalls near the coast. Traversing this from north to south was a narrow belt, reasonably free from pitfalls, running as a spur down to the sea. To reach the Hut in safety it would be necessary for sledging parties returning from the interior to descend by this highway. The problem was to locate the path. Determinations of latitude and longitude would guide them to the neighbourhood of Commonwealth Bay, but the coastline in the vicinity of Winter Quarters, with the rocks and islets, would not come into view until within two miles, as above that point the icy slopes filled the foreground up to the distant berg–studded horizon. Delays in reaching the Hut owing to the difficult descent might have serious consequences, for provisions are usually short near the conclusion of a sledging journey.

The necessity of making artificial landmarks was, therefore, most obvious. Already we had a flagstaff two miles to the south. It was now my intention to run a line of similar marks backwards to the plateau.

Bage, Madigan and I were to form a reconnoitring party to plant these flags, and to make a journey of a few days’ duration into the hinterland, to see its possibilities, and with a view to an extended sledging campaign to commence as soon as possible after our return. It was decided not to make use of the dogs until later in the year, when they would be in better form.

The wind continued, accompanied by more or less drift–snow. This appeared to be the settled state of the weather. We decided to move out as soon as a moderate phase should occur.

On the afternoon of February 28 the weather cleared up for several hours, and we decided to leave on the following day. The wind resumed operations once more, but fell off late on February 29, when we made a start. We intended to get the packed sledge up the first steep slope, there to leave it until the morrow. The drift was slight and low, flowing along like a stream below our knees. Bickerton, Hurley and Mertz assisted us with the hauling. At a distance of a little more than a mile, at an elevation of five hundred feet, the sledge was anchored and we returned to the Hut for the night.

Next morning the weather cleared still more, and we left just before noon. Three miles out, a mast and flag were erected, when our companions of the day before, who had again assisted us, turned back. At five and a half miles the brow of the main rise was reached, and the gradient became much flatter beyond it. The elevation was found to be one thousand five hundred feet.

To the south nothing was visible but a great, wan, icy wilderness. To the north a headland appeared on either hand, each about twenty–five miles away, and between them lay an expanse of sea dotted with many bergs. The nearer portions of the coast, together with the Mackellar Islets, were lost to view on account of the curvature of the foreground.

During most of the day we had travelled over a surface of clear ice, marked by occasional scars where fissuring, now healed, had at some time taken place. Beyond the three–mile flag, however, the ice was gashed at frequent intervals, producing irregular crevasses, usually a few yards in length and, for the most part, choked with snow. At five and a half miles we were on the edge of a strip of snow, half a mile across, whose whiteness was thrown in dazzling contrast against the foil of transparent, dark ice.

It was dusk, and light drift commenced to scud by, so, as this was a suitable place to erect a flag, we decided to camp for the night. Some hours later I woke up to hear a blizzard blowing outside, and to find Madigan fumbling amongst some gear at the head–end of the tent. From inside my bag I called out to inquire if there was anything wrong, and received a reply that he was looking for the primus–pricker. Then he slipped back into his sleeping–bag, and all became quiet, except for the snow beating against the tent. So I presumed that he had found it. Revolving the incident in my mind, and dimly wondering what use he could have for a primus–pricker in the middle of the night, I again fell asleep. In the morning the blizzard was still blowing, accompanied by a good deal of drift. On inquiry I found that Madigan knew nothing of his midnight escapade. It was a touch of somnambulism.

It would serve no useful purpose to go on in thick drift, for the main object of our journey was to define the best route through the crevassed zone; and that could only be done on a clear day. I decided, accordingly, that if the weather did not improve by noon to leave the sledge with the gear and walk back to the Hut, intending to make another attempt when conditions became more settled.

Whilst the others erected a flagstaff and froze the legs of a drift–proof box (containing a thermograph) into the ice, I made lunch and prepared for our departure. The tent was taken down and everything lashed securely on the sledge.

It was nearly 3 pm when we set out in thick drift, and in two hours we were at the Hut; the weather having steadily improved as we descended. On comparing notes with those at home it appeared that we, at the fifteen hundred feet level, had experienced much more wind and drift than they at sea–level.

Webb and his assistants were beginning to make quite a display at the Magnetograph House. The framework, which had already been erected once, to be demolished by the wind, was now strongly rebuilt and was ready for the outside covering of boards.

From the night of our return to March 8 there was a high wind accompanied by much drift; for some hours it continued at eighty miles per hour, the mean temperature being about 15°F, with a minimum of 5°F.

Up to this date the dogs had been kept on the chain, on account of their depredations amongst the seals and penguins. The severe weather now made it necessary to release them. Thenceforth, their abode for part of the day was inside the veranda, where a section was barricaded–off for their exclusive use. Outside in heavy drift their habit was to take up a position in the lee of some large object, such as the Hut. In such a position they were soon completely buried and oblivious to the outside elements. Thus one would sometimes tread on a dog, hidden beneath the snow; and the dog often showed less surprise than the offending man. What the dogs detested most of all during the blizzard–spells was the drift–snow filling their eyes until they were forced to stop and brush it away frantically with their paws. Other inconveniences were the icy casing which formed from the thawing snow on their thick coats, and the fact that when they lay in one position, especially on ice, for any length of time they become frozen down, and only freed themselves at the expense of tufts of hair. In high winds, accompanied by a low temperature, they were certainly very miserable, unless in some kind of shelter.

Several families were born at this time, but although we did everything possible for them they all perished, except one; the offspring of Gadget. This puppy was called ‘Blizzard’. It was housed for a while in the veranda and, later on, in the Hangar. Needless to say, Blizzard was a great favourite and much in demand as a pet.

On the night of March 7, Caruso, who had been in poor condition for some time, was found to have a gaping wound around the neck. It was a clean cut, an inch deep and almost a foot in length. The cause was never satisfactorily explained, though a piece of strong string embedded in the wound evidently made the incision. Caruso was brought inside, and, whilst Whetter administered chloroform, McLean sewed up the wound. After careful attention for some days, it healed fairly well, but as the dog’s general health was worse, it was deemed advisable to shoot him.

The outer shell of the Magnetograph House was nearly completed, affording a protection for those who worked on the interior linings. When completed, the walls and roof consisted of two coverings of tongued and grooved pine boards and three layers of thick tarred paper.

While there still remained a breach in the wall, Hurley repaired there with his cinematograph camera and took a film showing the clouds of drift–snow whirling past. In those days we were not educated in methods of progression against heavy winds; so, in order to get Hurley and his bulky camera back to the Hut, we formed a scrum on the windward side and with a strong ‘forward’ rush beat our formidable opponent.

On March 8 the blizzard died away and a good day followed. All hands joined in building a solid stone outside of the Magnetograph House. This piece of work, in which thirty tons of rock were utilized, was completed on the following day. The wall reached almost to the roof on every side. The unprotected roof was lagged with sacks and sheep–skins and, after this had been effected, the hut became practically wind–tight. The external covering controlled the influx of cold from the penetrating winds, and, on the other hand, the conduction of the sun’s warmth in summer. Thus a steady temperature was maintained; a most desirable feature in a magnetograph house. Webb had the instruments set up in a few days, and they were working before the end of the month.

After the calm of March 8, the wind steadily increased and became worse than ever. Madigan, who was in charge of the whale–boat, kept it moored in the boat–harbour under shelter of the ice–foot. An excursion was made to the fish traps, buoyed half a mile off shore, on February 8, and it was found that one had been carried away in the hurricane. The other was brought in very much battered. That night it was decided at the first opportunity to haul up the boat and house it for the winter. Alas! The wind came down again too quickly, increasing in force, with dense drift. It was still in full career on the 12th, when Madigan came in with the news that the boat had disappeared. It was no fault of the rope–attachments for they were securely made and so we were left to conclude that a great mass of ice had broken away from the overhanging shelf and carried everything before it.

The regularity of the high–velocity winds was already recognized as one of the most remarkable features of Adélie Land. By itself such wind would have been bad enough, but, accompanied by dense volumes of drifting snow, it effectually put a stop to most outdoor occupations.

The roof and walls of the veranda being covered with a single layer of tongued and grooved boards, the snow drove through every chink. The cases outside were a partial protection, but the cracks were innumerable, and in the course of twenty–four hours the snow inside had collected in deep drifts. This required to be shovelled out each day or the veranda would have been entirely blocked.

Much time was spent endeavouring to make it drift–tight; but as the materials at our disposal were very limited, the result was never absolutely satisfactory. The small veranda serving as an entrance–porch was deluged with snow which drove in past the canvas doorway. The only way to get over this trouble was to shovel out the accumulations every morning. On one occasion, when Close was nightwatchman, the drift poured through in such volume that each time he wished to go outside it took him half an hour to dig his way out. On account of this periodic influx, the vestibule doorway to the workroom was moved to the other end of the wall, where the invading snow had farther to travel and was consequently less obstructive.

One advantage of the deposit of snow around the Hut was that all draughts were sealed off. Before this happened it was found very difficult to keep the inside temperature up to 40° F. A temperature taken within the Hut varied according to the specific position in reference to the walls and stove. That shown by the thermometer attached to the standard barometer, which was suspended near the centre of the room, was taken as the ‘hut temperature’. Near the floor and walls it was lower, and higher, of course, near the stove. On one occasion, in the early days, I remember the ‘hut temperature’ being 19° F, notwithstanding the heat from the large range. Under these conditions the writing–ink and various solutions all over the place froze, and, when the night–watchman woke up the shivering community he had many clamorous demands to satisfy. The photographer produced an interesting product from the dark room – a transparent cast of a developing–dish in which a photographic plate left overnight to wash was firmly set.

We arranged to maintain an inside temperature of 40°F; when it rose to 50°F means were taken to reduce it. The cooking–range, a large one designed to burn anthracite coal, was the general warming apparatus. To raise the temperature quickly, blocks of seal blubber, of which there was always a supply at hand, were used. The coal consumption averaged one hundred pounds a day, approximately, this being reduced at a later date to seventy–five pounds by employing a special damper for the chimney. The damper designed for ordinary climates allowed too much draught to be sucked through during the high winds which prevailed continually.

The chimney was fitted with a cowl which had to be specially secured to keep it in place. During heavy drifts the cowl became choked with snow and ice, and the Hut would rapidly fill with smoke until some one, hurriedly donning burberrys, rushed out with an ice–axe to chip an outlet for the draught. The chimney was very short and securely stayed, projecting through the lee side of the roof, where the pressure of the wind was least felt.

The first good display of aurora polaris was witnessed during the evening of March 12, though no doubt there had been other exhibitions obscured by the drift. As the days went by and the equinox drew near, auroral phenomena were with few exceptions visible on clear evenings. In the majority of cases they showed up low in the northern sky.

In the midst of a torment of wind, March 15 came as a beautiful, sunny, almost calm day. I remarked in my diary that it was ‘typical Antarctic weather’, thinking of those halcyon days which belong to the climate of the southern shores of the Ross Sea. In Adélie Land, we were destined to find, it was hard to number more than a dozen or two in the year.

A fine day! The psychological effect was remarkable; pessimism vanished, and we argued that with the passing of the equinox there would be a marked change for the better. Not a moment was lost: some were employed in making anchorages for the wireless masts; others commenced to construct a Hangar to house the air–tractor sledge.

In building the Hangar, the western wall of the Hut was used for one side; the low southern end and the western wall were constructed of full and empty cases, the lee side was closed with a tarpaulin and blocks of snow and over all was nailed a roof of thick timber – part of the air–tractor’s case. To stiffen the whole structure, a small amount of framework, in the form of heavy uprights, was set in the ground. The dimensions inside were thirty–four feet by eleven feet; the height, eleven feet at the northern and six feet at the southern end. As a break–wind a crescent–shaped wall of benzine cases was built several yards to the south. As in the case of the veranda, it was very difficult to make the Hangar impervious to drift; a certain quantity of snow always made its way in, and was duly shovelled out.

Seals had suddenly become very scarce, no doubt disgusted with the continuous winds. Every one that came ashore was shot for food. Unfortunately, the amount of meat necessary for the dogs throughout the winter was so great that dog–biscuits had to be used to eke it out.

Only a few penguins remained by the middle of March. They were all young ones, waiting for the completion of their second moult before taking to the sea. The old feathers hung in untidy tufts, and the birds were often in a wretched plight owing to the wind and drift–snow. Many were added to the bleaching carcases which fill the crevices or lie in heaps on ancient rookeries among the rocky ridges. None were free from the encumbrance of hard cakes of snow which often covered their eyes or dangled in pendent icicles from their bodies. The result was very ludicrous.

Hurley obtained some excellent photographs of the seals and penguins, as of all other subjects. So good were they that most of us withdrew from competition. His enthusiasm and resourcefulness knew no bounds. Occasional days, during which cameras that had been maltreated by the wind were patched up, were now looked upon as inevitable. One day, when Webb and Hurley were both holding on to the cinematograph camera, they were blown away, with sundry damages all around. It was later in the year when Hurley with his whole–plate camera broke through the sea–ice – a sad affair for the camera.

The good conditions on the 15th lasted only a few hours, and back came the enemy as bad as ever. On the 18th the wind was only thirty miles per hour, giving us an opportunity of continuing the buildings outside. It was only by making the most of every odd hour when the weather was tolerable that our outdoor enterprises made any headway. Sometimes when it was too windy for building we were able to improve our knowledge of the neighbourhood.

A glance at Stillwell’s map (Chapter 5) is instructive as to the extent and character of the rocky area. It is devoid of any forms of vegetation sufficiently prominent to meet the casual eye. Soil is lacking, for all light materials and even gravel are carried away by the winds. The bare rock rises up into miniature ridges, separated by valleys largely occupied by ice–slabs and lakelets. Snow fills all the crevices and tails away in sloping ramps on the lee side of every obstacle. In midsummer a good deal thaws, and, re–freezing, is converted into ice. The highest point of the rock is one hundred and forty feet. The seaward margin is deeply indented, and the islets off shore tell of a continuation of the rugged, rocky surface below the sea. On the northern faces of the ridges, fronting the ice–foot, large, yellowish patches mark the sites of penguin rookeries. These are formed by a superficial deposit of guano which never becomes thick, for it blows away as fast as it accumulates. Standing on the shore, one can see kelp growing amongst the rocks even in the shallowest spots, below low–water level.

To the south, the rocks are overridden by the inland ice which bears down upon and overwhelms them. The ice–sheet shows a definite basal moraine, which means that the lowest stratum, about forty feet in thickness, is charged with stones and earthy matter. Above this stratum the ice is free from foreign matter and rises steeply to several hundred feet, after which the ascending gradient is reduced.

The continental glacier moves down to the sea, regularly but slowly; the rate of movement of some portions of the adjacent coastal ice cliffs was found to be one hundred feet per annum. The rocky promontory at Winter Quarters, acting as an obstacle, reduces the motion of the ice to an annual rate measured in inches only. Perhaps the conditions now prevailing are those of a comparative ‘drought’, for there is clear evidence that our small promontory was at one time completely enveloped. In a broad way this is illustrated by the topography, but the final proof came when Stillwell and others discovered rock–faces polished and grooved by the ice.

Whatever ‘ice–floods’ there may have been in the past, the position of the margin of the glacier must have remained for a long period in its present situation. The evidence for this is found in the presence of a continuous, terminal moraine, at or just in advance of the present ice–front. This moraine, an accumulation of stones of all kinds brought to their present resting–place by the ice–sheet, was in itself a veritable museum. Rocks, showing every variety in colour and form, were assembled, transported from far and wide over the great expanse of the continent.

A section diagram of the coastal slope of the Continental Ice Sheet inland from winter quarters, Adélie Land

A section of the coastal slope of the Continental Ice Sheet inland from winter quarters, Adélie Land

Stillwell found these moraines a ‘happy hunting–ground’ for the geologist. His plane–table survey and rock collections are practical evidence of work carried out in weather which made it seldom short of an ordeal.

The story of the buried land to the south is in large measure revealed in the samples brought by the ice and so conveniently dumped. Let us swiftly review the operations leading to the deposition of this natural museum.

As the ice of the hinterland moves forward, it plucks fragments from the rocky floor. Secure in its grip, these are used as graving–tools to erode its bed. Throwing its whole weight upon them it grinds and scratches, pulverises and grooves. The rocky basement is gradually reduced in level, especially the softer regions. The tools are faceted, polished and furrowed, for ever moving onwards. Finally, the rock–powder or ‘rock–flour’, as it is termed, and the boulders, thenceforth known as ‘erratics’, arrive at the terminal ice–face. Here, the melting due to the sun’s heat keeps pace with the ‘on–thrust’ and some of the erratics may remain stationary, or else, floating in the sea, a berg laden with boulders breaks off and deposits its load in the depths of the ocean. Each summer the ice–face above the rocks at Winter Quarters thawed back a short distance and the water ran away in rivulets, milky–white on account of the ‘rock–flour’ in suspension. The pebbles and boulders too heavy to be washed away remained behind to form the moraine.

The ‘erratics’ comprised a great variety of metamorphic and igneous rocks, and, on a more limited scale, sedimentary types. Amongst the latter were sandstones, slates, shales and limestones.

Apart from the moraines, the rock exposed in situ was mainly a uniform type of gneiss, crumpled and folded, showing all the signs of great antiquity – pre–Cambrian, in the geological phrase. Relieving the grey sheen of the gneiss were dark bands of schist which tracked about in an irregular manner. Sporadic quartz veins here and there showed a light tint. They were specially interesting, for they carried some less common minerals such as beryl, tourmaline, garnet, coarse mica and ores of iron, copper and molybdenum. The ores were present in small quantities, but gave promise of larger bodies in the vicinity and indicated the probability of mineral wealth beneath the continental ice–cap.

This version of Home of the Blizzard has been edited and published by the Australian Antarctic Division.