Chapter 7: The blizzard
Chapter 7: The blizzard
The equinox arrived, and the only indication of settled weather was a more marked regularity in the winds. Nothing like it had been reported from any part of the world. Any trace of elation we may have felt at this meteorological discovery could not compensate for the ever–present discomforts of life. Day after day the wind fluctuated between a gale and a hurricane. Overcast skies of heavy nimbus cloud were the rule and the air was continually charged with drifting snow.
Lulls of a singular nature occasionally relieved the monotony. During these visitations the sequence of events could almost be predicted; indeed, they would often occur at the same time on several succeeding days.
On March 19 the first well–marked lull intervened at the height of a gale. On that day the wind, which had been blowing with great force during the morning, commenced to subside rapidly just after noon. Towards evening, the air about the Hut was quite still except for gusts from the north and rather frequent ‘whirlies’.
This was the name adopted for whirlwinds of a few yards to a hundred yards or more in diameter which came to be regarded as peculiar to the country. Similar disturbances have been observed in every part of the world, but seldom possessed of the same violence and regularity as is the case in Adélie Land.
The whirlies tracked about in a most irregular manner and woe betide any light object which came in their path. The velocity of the wind in the rotating column being very great, a corresponding lifting power was imparted to it. As an illustration of this force, it may be mentioned that the lid of the air–tractor case had been left lying on the snow near the Hut. It weighed more than three hundredweights, yet it was whisked into the air one morning and dropped fifty yards away in a northeasterly direction. An hour afterwards it was picked up again and returned near its original position, this time striking the rocks with such force that part of it was shivered to pieces. Webb and Stillwell watched the last proceeding at a respectful distance.
Again, the radius of activity of these whir lies was strictly limited; objects directly in their path only being disturbed. For instance, Laseron one day was skinning at one end of a seal and remained in perfect calm, while McLean, at the other extremity, was on the edge of a furious vortex.
Travelling over the sea the whir lies displayed fresh capabilities. Columns of brash–ice, frozen spray and water–vapour were frequently seen lifted to heights of from two hundred to four hundred feet, simulating water spouts.
Reverting to the afternoon of March 19. Beyond the strange stillness of the immediate vicinity, broken occasionally by the tumult of a passing, wandering whirly, an incessant, seething roar could be heard. One could not be certain from whence it came, but it seemed to proceed either from the south or overhead. Away on the icy promontories to the east and west, where the slopes were visible, mounting to an altitude of several thousand feet, clouds of drift–snow blotted out the details of the surface above a level of about six hundred feet. It certainly appeared as if the gale, for some reason, had lifted and was still raging overhead. At 7.30 pm the sound we had heard, like the distant lashing of ocean waves, became louder. Soon gusts swept the tops of the rocky ridges, gradually descending to throw up the snow at a lower level. Then a volley raked the Hut, and within a few minutes we were once more enveloped in a sea of drifting snow, and the wind blew stronger than ever.
The duration of the lulls was ordinarily from a few minutes to several hours; that of March 19 was longer than usual. In the course of time, after repeated observations, much light was thrown on this phenomenon. On one occasion, a party ascending the ice slopes to the south met the wind blowing at an elevation of four hundred feet. At the same time snow could be seen pouring over the ‘Barrier’ to the west of the Winter Quarters, and across a foaming turmoil of water. This was evidently the main cause of the seething roar, but it was mingled with an undernote of deeper tone from the upland plateau – like the wind in a million tree–tops.
In the early spring, while we were transporting provisions to the south, frequent journeys were made to higher elevations. It was then established that even when whole days of calm prevailed at the Hut, the wind almost without exception blew above a level of one thousand feet. On such occasions it appeared that the gale was impelled to blow straight out from the plateau slopes over a lower stratum of dead–air. An explanation was thereby afforded of the movement of condensation clouds which appeared in the zenith at these times. A formation of delicate, gauzy clouds developed at a low altitude, apparently in still air, but doubtless at the base of a hurricane stratum. Whirling round rapidly in eddying flocculi, they quickly tailed away to the north, evaporating and disappearing.
The auditory sense was strangely affected by these lulls. The contrast was so severe when the racking gusts of an abating wind suddenly gave way to intense, eerie silence, that the habitual droning of many weeks would still reverberate in the ears. At night one would involuntarily wake up if the wind died away, and be loath to sleep ‘for the hunger of a sound’. In the open air the stillness conveyed to the brain an impression of audibility, interpreted as a vibratory murmur.
During one hour on March 22 it blew eighty–six miles. On the morning of that day there was not much snow in the air and the raging sea was a fearful sight. Even the nearest of the islands, only half a mile off the land, was partially hidden in the clouds of spray. What an impossible coast this would be for the wintering of a ship!
Everybody knows that the pressure exerted by a wind against an object in its path mounts up in much greater proportion than the velocity of the wind. Thus may be realized the stupendous force of the winds of Adélie Land in comparison with those of half the velocity which fall within one’s ordinary experience. As this subject was ever before us, the following figures quoted from a work of reference will be instructive. The classification of winds, here stated, is that known as the ‘Beaufort scale’. The corresponding velocities in each case are those measured by the ‘Robinson patent’ anemometer; our instrument being of a similar pattern.
|Beaufort scale||Velocities in miles per hour||Pressures in lbs. per square foot of area||Apparent effect|
|0||Calm||2||0.02||May cause smoke to move form vertical|
|1||Light air||4||0.06||Moves the leaves of trees|
|2||Light breeze||7||0.19||Moves small branches of trees and blows up dust|
|5||Fresh breeze||19||1.16||Good sailing breeze and makes white caps|
|7||Moderate gale||31||2.81||Sways trees and breaks small branches|
|9||Strong gale||44||5.27||Dangerous for sailing vessels|
|11||Storm||64||10.40||Prostrates exposed trees and frail houses|
Beyond the limits of this scale, the pressures exerted rise very rapidly. A wind recorded as blowing at the rate of a hundred miles per hour exerts a pressure of about twenty–three pounds per square foot of surface exposed to it. Wind above eighty miles per hour is stated to ‘prostrate everything’.
The mileages registered by our anemometer were the mean for a whole hour, neglecting individual gusts, whose velocity much exceeded the average and which were always the potent factors in destructive work.
Obviously the greatest care had to be taken to secure everything. Still, articles of value were occasionally missed. They were usually recovered, caught in crevices of rock or amongst the broken ice. Northward from the Hut there was a trail of miscellaneous objects scattered among the hummocks and pressure–ridges out towards Penguin Hill on the eastern side of the boat harbour: tins of all kinds and sizes, timber in small scraps, cases and boards, paper, ashes, dirt, worn–out finnesko, ragged mitts and all the other details of a rubbish heap. One of the losses was a heavy case which formed the packing of part of the magnetometer. Weighted–down by stones this had stood for a long time in what was regarded as a safe place. One morning it was discovered to be missing. It was surmised that a hurricane had started it on an ocean voyage during the previous day. Boxes in which Whetter used to carry ice for domestic requirements were as a rule short–lived. His problem was to fill the boxes without losing hold of them, and the wind often gained the ascendancy before a sufficient ballast had been added. We sometimes wondered whether any of the flotsam thus cast upon the waters ever reached the civilized world.
Whatever has been said relative to the wind–pressure exerted on inanimate objects, the same applied, with even more point, to our persons; so that progression in a hurricane became a fine art. The first difficulty to be encountered was a smooth, slippery surface offering no grip for the feet. Stepping out of the shelter of the Hut, one was apt to be immediately hurled at full length down wind. No amount of exertion was of any avail unless a firm foothold had been secured. The strongest man, stepping on to ice or hard snow in plain leather or fur boots, would start sliding away with gradually increasing velocity; in the space of a few seconds, or earlier, exchanging the vertical for the horizontal position. He would then either stop suddenly against a jutting point of ice, or glide along for twenty or thirty yards till he reached a patch of rocks or some rough sastrugi.
Of course we soon learned never to go about without crampons on the feet. Many experiments in the manufacture of crampons were tried with the limited materials at our disposal. Those designed for normal Antarctic conditions had been found unserviceable. A few detachable pairs made of wrought iron with spikes about one and a half inches in length, purchased in Switzerland, gave a secure foothold. Some of the men covered the soles of their boots with long, bristling spikes and these served their purpose well. Ice–nails, screwed into the soles without being riveted on plates, were liable to tear out when put to a severe test, besides being too short. Spikes of less than an inch in length were inadequate in hurricanes. Nothing devised by us gave the grip of the Swiss crampons, but, to affix them, one had to wear leather boots, which, though padded to increase their warmth, had to be tightly bound by lashings compressing the feet and increasing the liability to frost–bite.
Shod with good spikes, in a steady wind, one had only to push hard to keep a sure footing. It would not be true to say ‘to keep erect’, for equilibrium was maintained by leaning against the wind. In course of time, those whose duties habitually took them out of doors became thorough masters of the art of walking in hurricanes – an accomplishment comparable to skating or skiing. Ensconced in the lee of a substantial break–wind, one could leisurely observe the unnatural appearance of others walking about, apparently in imminent peril of falling on their faces.
Experiments were tried in the steady winds; firmly planting the feet on the ground, keeping the body rigid and leaning over on the invisible support. This ‘lying on the wind’, at equilibrium, was a unique experience. As a rule the velocity remained uniform; when it fluctuated in a series of gusts, all our experience was likely to fail, for no sooner had the correct angle for the maximum velocity been assumed than a lull intervened – with the obvious result.
Before the art of ‘hurricane–walking’ was learnt, and in the primitive days of ice–nails and finnesko, progression in high winds degenerated into crawling on hands and knees. Many of the more conservative persisted in this method, and, as a compensation, became the first exponents of the popular art of ‘board–sliding’. A small piece of board, a wide ice flat and a hurricane were the three essentials for this new sport.
Wind alone would not have been so bad; drift snow accompanied it in overwhelming amount. In the autumn overcast weather with heavy falls of snow prevailed, with the result that the air for several months was seldom free from drift. Indeed, during that time, there were not many days when objects a hundred yards away could be seen distinctly. Whatever else happened, the wind never abated, and so, even when the snow had ceased falling and the sky was clear, the drift continued until all the loose accumulations on the hinterland, for hundreds of miles back, had been swept out to sea. Day after day deluges of drift streamed past the Hut, at times so dense as to obscure objects three feet away, until it seemed as if the atmosphere were almost solid snow.
Picture drift so dense that daylight comes through dully, though, maybe, the sun shines in a cloudless sky; the drift is hurled, screaming through space at a hundred miles an hour, and the temperature is below zero, Fahrenheit.1 You have then the bare, rough facts concerning the worst blizzards of Adélie Land. The actual experience of them is another thing.
Shroud the infuriated elements in the darkness of a polar night, and the blizzard is presented in a severer aspect. A plunge into the writhing storm–whirl stamps upon the senses an indelible and awful impression seldom equalled in the whole gamut of natural experience. The world a void, grisly, fierce and appalling. We stumble and struggle through the Stygian gloom; the merciless blast – an incubus of vengeance – stabs, buffets and freezes; the stinging drift blinds and chokes. In a ruthless grip we realize that we are
On the great, sullen, roaring pool of Time.
It may well be imagined that none of us went out on these occasions for the pleasure of it. The scientific work required all too frequent journeys to the instruments at a distance from the Hut, and, in addition, supplies of ice and stores had to be brought in, while the dogs needed constant attention.
Every morning, Madigan visited all the meteorological instruments and changed the daily charts; at times having to feel his way from one place to the other. Attending to the exposed instruments in a high wind with low temperature was bad enough, but with suffocating drift difficulties were increased tenfold.
Around the Hut there was a small fraternity who chose the outside veranda as a rendezvous. Here the latest gossip was exchanged, and the weather invariably discussed in forcible terms. There was Whetter, who replenished the water–supply from the unfailing fountain–head of the glacier. For cooking, washing clothes and for photographic and other purposes, eighteen men consumed a good deal of water, and, to keep up with the demand, Whetter piled up many hardly–won boxes of ice in the veranda. Close unearthed coal briquettes from the heap outside, shovelled tons of snow from the veranda and made himself useful and amiable to every one. Murphy, our stand–by in small talk, travel, history, literature and what not, was the versatile storeman. The store in the veranda was continually invaded by similar snow to that which covered the provision boxes outside. To keep the veranda cleared, renew the supplies and satisfy the demands of the kitchen required no other than Murphy. Ninnis and Mertz completed the ‘Veranda Club’, to which honorary members from within the Hut were constantly being added.
The meteorological instruments, carefully nursed and housed though they were, were bound to suffer in such a climate. Correll, who was well fitted out with a lathe and all the requirements for instrument–making, attended to repairs, doing splendid service. The anemometer gave the greatest trouble, and, before Correll had finished with it, most of the working parts had been replaced in stronger metal.
When the recording sheets of the instruments had been successfully changed, the meteorologist packed them in a leather bag, strapped on his shoulders, so that they would not be lost on the way to the Hut. As soon as he arrived indoors the bag was opened and emptied; the papers being picked out from a small heap of snow.
It was a fortunate thing that no one was lost through failing to discover the Hut during the denser drifts. Hodgeman on one occasion caused every one a good deal of anxiety. Among other things, he regularly assisted Madigan by relieving him of outdoor duties on the day after his nightwatch, when the chief meteorologist was due for a ‘watch below’. It was in the early autumn – few of us, then, were adepts at finding our way by instinct – that Hodgeman and Madigan set out, one morning, for the anemometer. Leaving the door of the Hut, they lost sight of each other at once, but anticipated meeting at the instrument. Madigan reached his destination, changed the records, waited for a while and then returned, expecting to see his companion at the Hut. He did not appear, so, after a reasonable interval, search parties set off in different directions.
The wind was blowing at eighty miles per hour, making it tedious work groping about and hallooing in the drift. The sea was close at hand and we realized that, as the wind was directly off shore, a man without crampons was in a dangerous situation. Two men, therefore, roped together and carefully searched round the head of the boat harbour; one anchoring himself with an ice–axe, whilst the other, at the end of the rope, worked along the edge of the sea. Meanwhile Hodgeman returned to the Hut, unaided, having spent a very unpleasant two hours struggling from one landmark to another, his outer garments filled with snow.
The fact that the wind came steadily from the same direction made it possible to steer, otherwise outdoor operations would not have been conducted so successfully. For instance, Webb, who visited the Magnetograph House, a quarter of a mile distant, at least once a day, made his way between various ‘beacons’ by preserving a definite bearing on the wind. His journeys were rendered all the more difficult because they were frequently undertaken at night.
In struggling along through very dense drifts one would be inclined to think that the presence of the sun was a matter of small concern. As a matter of fact there was, during the day, a good deal of reflected white light and a dark object looms up within a yard or two. In darkness there was nothing to recognize. So Webb would often run by dead reckoning on to the roof of the Hut, and would then feel his way round it till he caught the glimmer of a hurricane lantern coming through the veranda entrance.
I had always the greatest admiration for the unfailing manner in which those responsible for the tidal, magnetic and meteorological work carried out their duties.
As a measure of the enormous amount of drift, we set about constructing a gauge, which, it was hoped, would give us a rough estimate of the quantity passing the Hut in a year. Hannam, following the approved design, produced a very satisfactory contrivance. It consisted of a large drift–tight box, fitted on the windward side with a long metal cone, tapering to an aperture three–quarters of an inch in diameter. The drift–laden air entered the aperture, its speed was checked on entering the capacious body of the gauge and consequently the snow fell to the bottom of the box and the air passed out behind through a trap–door. The catch was taken out periodically through a bolted lid, the snow was melted, the resulting water measured and its weight calculated.
In thick drifts, one’s face inside the funnel of the burberry helmet became rapidly packed with snow, which, by the warmth of the skin and breath, was changed into a mask of ice. This adhered firmly to the rim of the helmet and to the beard and face. The mask became so complete that one had to clear away obstructions continually from the eyes. It was not easy to remove the casing of ice, outside in the wind, because this could only be done slowly, with bare fingers exposed. An experienced man, once inside the Hut, would first see that the ice was broken along the rim of the helmet; otherwise, when it came to be hastily dragged off, the hairs of the beard would follow as well. As soon as the helmet was off the head, the icicles hanging on the beard and glazing the eyelashes were gradually thawed by the fingers and removed. The above treatment was learned by experience.
The abrasion–effects produced by the impact of the snow particles were astonishing. Pillars of ice were cut through in a few days, rope was frayed, wood etched and metal polished. Some rusty dog–chains were exposed to it, and, in a few days, they had a definite sheen. A deal box, facing the wind, lost all its painted bands and in a fortnight was handsomely marked; the hard, knotty fibres being only slightly attacked, whilst the softer, pithy laminae were corroded to a depth of one–eighth of an inch.
The effect of constant abrasion upon the snow’s surface is to harden it, and, finally, to carve ridges known as sastrugi. Of these much will be said when recounting our sledging adventures, because they increase so much the difficulties of travelling.
Even hard, blue ice may become channelled and pitted by the action of drift. Again, both névé and ice may receive a wind–polish which makes them very slippery.
Of the effect of wind and drift upon rock, there was ample evidence around Winter Quarters. Regarded from the north, the aspect of the rocks was quite different from that on the southern side. The southern, windward faces were on the whole smooth and rounded, but there was no definite polish, because the surface was partly attacked by the chipping and splitting action of frost. The leeward faces were rougher and more disintegrated. More remarkable still were the etchings of the non–homogeneous banded rocks. The harder portions of these were raised in relief, producing quite an artistic pattern.
In regard to the drift, a point which struck me was the enormous amount of cold communicated to the sea by billions of tons of low–temperature snow thrown upon its surface. The effect upon the water, already at freezing–point, would be to congeal the surface at once. Whilst the wind continued, however, there was no opportunity for a crust to form, the uppermost layers being converted into a pea–soup–like film which streamed away to the north.
A description of the drifts of Adélie Land would not be complete without mentioning the startling electrical effects which were sometimes observed. The first record of these was made by McLean, when on night–watch on March 22. While taking the observations at midnight, he noticed St Elmo’s fire, a ‘brush discharge’ of electricity, on the points of the nephoscope. As the weather became colder this curious phenomenon increased in intensity. At any time in the drift, an electroscope exposed outside became rapidly charged. A spark gap in a vacuum, connected with a free end of wire, gave a continuous discharge. At times, when the effects were strong, the night–watchman would find the edges and wire stays of the screen outlined in a fashion reminiscent of a pyrotechnic display or an electric street–advertisement. The corners of boxes and points of rock glowed with a pale blue light. The same appeared over points on the clothing, on the mitts and round the funnel of the helmet. No sensation was transmitted to the body from these points of fire, at least nothing sufficiently acute to be felt, with the drift and wind lashing on the body outside. However, the anemograph several times discharged a continuous stream of sparks into Madigan’s fingers while he was changing the records. Once these sparks reached half an inch in length, and, as his fingers were bared for the work, there was no mistaking the feeling.
For regular observations on the subject, Correll fixed a pointed collector – a miniature lightning–conductor – above the flagpole on the summit of the roof. A wire was led through an insulator, so that the stream of electricity could be subjected to experiment in the Hut. Here a ‘brush’ of blue light radiated outwards to a distance of one inch. When a conductor was held close to it, a rattling volley of sparks immediately crossed the interval and the air was pervaded with a strong smell of ozone. Of course sparks were not always being emitted by the collector, and it was important to determine the periods of activity. To ensure this, Hurley devised an automatic arrangement, so that an electric bell was set ringing whenever a current was passing; the night–watchman would then note the fact in the log–book. However, the bell responded so often and so vigorously that it was soon dismantled for the benefit of sleepers. It was singular that the ‘brush discharge’ was sometimes most copious when the atmosphere was filled with very fine drift, and not necessarily during dense drift.
After what has been said, it will be obvious that the drift–laden hurricanes of the country were more than ordinarily formidable. They scarcely seemed to provide a subject for poetic inspiration; still the following effusion appeared by McLean, Editor of the Adélie Blizzard:–
A snow–hush brooding o’er the grey rock–hills!
A wold of silence, ominous, that fills
The wide seascape of ice–roofed islands, rolls
To ether–zones that gird the frigid Poles!
Realm of purest alabaster–white,
Wreathed in a vast infinitude of light;
The royal orb swings to thy summer gaze
A glitt’ring azure world of crystal days.
The lorn bird–voices of an unseen land–
No hue of forest, gleam of ocean sand–
Rise in a ceaseless plaint of raucous din,
On northern tides the bergs come floating in.
The wind–sprites murmuring in hinter–snow–
The pent heart–throbbings of the wan plateau–
Wing through the pulsing spell thrown o’er the sea,
In wild and shrieking blizzard minstrelsy.
Swirl of the drift–cloud’s shimm’ring sleet;
Race of the spray–smoke’s hurtling sheet
Swelling trail of the streaming, sunbright foam,
Wafting sinuous brash to an ice–field home.
Eddy–wraiths o’er the splintered schist–
Torrent spume down the glacier hissed!
Throbbing surge of the ebbing seaward gust,
Raping stillness vast in its madd’ning lust.
Lotus–floe ‘neath the Barrier brink,
Starting sheer – a marble blink–
Pelting shafts from the show’ring arrow–blast
Strike – in the blackened flood seethe riven past.
Glow of the vibrant, yellow west
Pallid fades in the dread unrest.
Low’ring shades through the fury–stricken night
Rack the screaming void in shudd’ring might.
Requiem peace from the hinter–snows
Soft as river music flows.
Dawn in a flushing glamour tints the sea;
Serene her thrill of rhythmic ecstasy.
Sledging was out of the question. Indeed, we recognized how fortunate we were not to have pushed farther south in March. Had we advanced, it is more than likely that provisions would have been exhausted before we could have located the Hut in the sea of drift. Our hopes were now centred on midwinter calms.
Looking through my diary, I notice that on March 24, ‘we experienced a rise in spirits because of the improved weather’. I find the average velocity of the wind for that day to have been forty–five miles per hour, corresponding to a ‘strong gale’ on the Beaufort scale. This tells its own story.
When the high wind blew off shore, there was no back–swell, on account of the pack–ice to the north quelling the sea. The arrival of a true ocean swell meant that the pack had been dispersed. On March 24 such appears to have been the case, for then, during the day, a big northerly swell set in, dashing over the ice–foot and scattering seaweed on the rocks.
After the equinox, the temperatures remained in the vicinity of zero, Fahrenheit. The penguins took to the sea, and, save for the glimpse of an occasional petrel on the wing, the landscape was desolate.
It was high time that our programme of construction was completed, but, however much we tried, it was impossible to do a great deal in winds exceeding fifty miles an hour. By taking advantage of days freest from drift, the exterior of the Hangar was completed by April 6. After the air–tractor sledge had been moved inside, the snow was piled so high on the leeward face, that the shelter became naturally blocked with a rampart of snow which served admirably in place of the wall of tarpaulin which we originally intended to use.
Bickerton could now proceed at leisure to make any necessary alterations. The Hangar was also used as a store for many articles which had been crowded into odd corners or rescued from the snow outside. To increase its size, tunnels were afterwards driven into the bank of snow and timber was stowed in these so as to be safe from burial and loss.
The building was finished just in the nick of time. Snow came down so thickly that had the falls occurred a few days earlier, the cases from which the place was constructed would have been effectually buried and the construction made an impossibility.
But for the wind, the Hut would have been lost to sight. Still, it was completely surrounded by massive drifts, and the snow was driven by the wind past the canvas flap and through the entrance, until the veranda became choked.
Close, who was night–watchman during the early morning hours of April 7, had the greatest difficulty in getting outside to attend to his duties. To dig his way through the entrance, reach the instruments and to return occupied a whole hour.
We were inundated with snow; even a portion of the roof was buried. The situation required immediate attention; so it was decided to make a tunnel connecting the entrance veranda with the store veranda. From the northwestern end of the latter, an out–draught had established itself, preserving a vertical funnel–like opening in the snow bank, always free for entrance or exit. This proved a fortunate accident.
Further, a second tunnel, over twenty feet in length, was driven out from the original entrance with a view to reaching the surface at a point beyond the lee of the Hut. It was thought that the scouring effect of the wind, there, would keep the opening of the tunnel free of drift. But when completed, it filled rapidly with snow and had to be sealed. It was then used to receive slop–water. While the fever for excavation was at its height, Whetter drove, as an off–shoot to the first, another tunnel which came to be used as a nursery for the pups.
At this stage, to leave the Hut, it was necessary to crawl through a low trap–door in the wall of the inside or entrance veranda; the way then led to the connecting tunnel and onwards to the store veranda; finally one climbed through a manhole in the snow into the elements without. From the store veranda there was access to the Hangar by a hinged door in the common wall, and, as an additional convenience, a trap–door was made in the roof of the inner veranda to be used during spells of clear weather or in light drift.
The old landmarks became smothered in snow, making the Hut’s position a matter of greater uncertainty. A journey by night to the magnetic huts was an outing with a spice of adventure.
Climbing out of the veranda, one was immediately swallowed in the chaos of hurtling drift, the darkness sinister and menacing. The shrill wind fled by –
…the noise of a drive of the Dead,
Striving before the irresistible will
Through the strange dusk of this, the Debatable land
Between their place and ours.
Unseen wizard hands clutched with insane fury, hacked and harried. It was ‘the raw–ribbed Wild that abhors all life, the Wild that would crush and rend’.
Cowering blindly, pushing fiercely through the turmoil, one strove to keep a course to reach the rocks in which the huts were hidden – such and such a bearing on the wind – so far. When the rocks came in sight, the position of the final destination was only deduced by recognising a few surrounding objects.
On the return journey, the vicinity of the Hut would be heralded by such accidents as tripping over the ‘wireless’ ground wires or kicking against a box or a heap of coal briquettes. These clues, properly followed up, would lead to the Hut itself, or at least to its shelving roof. In the very thick drifts it was even possible to stand on portions of the roof without any notion of the fact. Fossicking about, one kept on the alert for the feel of woodwork. When found and proved to be too extensive to be a partially buried box, it might safely be concluded to be some part of the roof, and only required to be skirted in order to reach the vertical entrance. The lost man often discovered this pitfall by dropping suddenly through into the veranda.
At the entrance to the tunnel, the roar of the tempest died away into a rumble, the trap–door opened and perhaps the strains of the gramophone would come in a kind of flippant defiance from the interior. Passing through the vestibule and work–room one beheld a scene in utter variance with the outer hell. Here were warm bunks, rest, food, light and companionship – for the time being, heaven! Outside, the crude and naked elements of a primitive and desolate world flowed in writhing torrents.
The night–watchman’s duty of taking the meteorological observations at the screen adjacent to the Hut was a small matter compared with the foregoing. First of all, it was necessary for him to don a complete outfit of protective clothing. Dressing and undressing were tedious, and absorbed a good deal of time. At the screen, he would spend a lively few minutes wrestling in order to hold his ground, forcing the door back against the pressure of wind, endeavouring to make the light shine on the instruments, and, finally, clearing them of snow and reading them. For illumination a hurricane lantern wrapped in a calico wind–shield was first used, to be displaced later by an electrical signalling–lamp and, while the batteries lasted, by a light permanently fixed by Hannam in the screen itself. To assist in finding the manhole on his return, the night–watchman was in the habit of leaving a light burning in the outer veranda.
I remember waking up early one morning to find the Hut unusually cold. On rising, I discovered Hurley also awake, busy lighting the fire which had died out. There was no sign of Correll, the night–watchman, and we found that the last entry in the log–book had been made several hours previously. Hurley dressed in full burberrys and went out to make a search, in which he was soon successful.
It appeared that Correll, running short of coal during the early morning hours, had gone out to procure some from the stack. While he was returning to the entrance, the wind rolled him over a few times, causing him to lose his bearings. It was blowing a hurricane, the temperature was −7°F, and the drift–snow was so thick as to be wall–like in opacity. He abandoned his load of coal, and, after searching about fruitlessly for some time in the darkness, he decided to wait for dawn. Hurley found him about twenty yards from the back of the Hut.
The suppression of outdoor occupations reacted in an outburst of indoor work. The smaller room had been well fitted up as a workshop, and all kinds of schemes were in progress for adapting our sledging–gear and instruments to the severe conditions. Correll worked long hours to keep up with the demands made upon him. Nobody was idle during the day, for, when there was nothing else to be done, there always remained the manufacture and alteration of garments and crampons.
As soon as the wind abated to a reasonable velocity, there was a rush to the outside jobs. Lulls would come unexpectedly, activity inside ceased, and the Hut, as seen by a spectator, resembled an ants’ nest upon which a strange foot had trodden: eighteen men swarming through the manhole in rapid succession, hurrying hither and thither.
The neighbouring sea still remained free from an ice–crust. This, of course, did not mean that freezing was not going on continuously. On the contrary, the chilling was no doubt accelerated, but the bulk of the ice was carried off to the north as fast as it was formed. Quantities, however, remained as ground–ice, anchored to the kelp and stones on the bottom. Gazing down through the clear waters one saw a white, mamillated sheath covering the jungle of giant seaweed, recalling a forest after a heavy snowfall. The ice, instead of being a dead weight bearing down the branches, tended to float, and, when accumulated in large masses, sometimes succeeded in rising to the surface, uprooting and lifting great lengths of seaweed with it. One branching stem, found floating in the harbour, measured eighteen feet in length.
Whenever a temporary calm intervened, a skin of ice quickly appeared over the whole surface of the water. In the early stages, this formation consisted of loose, blade–like crystals, previously floating freely below the surface and rising by their own buoyancy. At the surface, if undisturbed, they soon became cemented together. For example, during a calm interval on April 6, within the interval of an hour, an even crust, one inch thick, covered the sea. But the wind returned before the ice was sufficiently strong to resist it, and it all broke up and drifted away to the north, except a piece which remained wedged firmly between the sides of the boat harbour.
In the calm weather, abundant ‘worms’ freely swimming, jelly–fish, pteropods and small fish were observed. Traps were lowered along the edge of the harbour–ice and dredgings were made in every possible situation. The bulk of the biological collecting was effected under circumstances in which Hunter and Laseron might well have given up work in disgust. For instance, I noted in my diary that on May 16, with an off shore wind of forty–three miles per hour, they and several others were dredging from the edge of the slippery bay–ice. The temperature at the time was −2°F.
During April the head of the boat harbour froze over permanently, the ice reaching a thickness of eighteen inches in ten days. By that time it was strong enough to be suitable for a tide–gauge. This was one of Bage’s charges, destined to take him out for many months in fair and foul weather.
There were several occasions in April when the velocity of the wind exceeded ninety miles an hour. On the evening of the 26th, the wind slackened, and for part of the 27th had almost fallen to a calm. This brought the optimists to the fore, once again, with the theory that the worst was over. The prediction was far from being fulfilled, for, as the days passed, the average velocity steadily rose. On May 11 the average for the twenty–four hours was eighty miles per hour. By that time the Hut had been further protected by a crescent of cases, erected behind the first break–wind. In height this erection stood above the Hangar, and, when the snow became piled in a solid ramp on the leeward side, it was more compact than ever. Inside the Hut extra struts were introduced, stiffening the principal rafters on the southern side. It was reassuring to know that these precautions had been taken, for, on May 15, the wind blew at an average velocity of ninety miles per hour throughout the whole twenty–four hours.
Having failed to demolish us by dogged persistence, the hurricane tried new tactics on the evening of May 24, in the form of a terrific series of Herculean gusts. As we learned afterwards, the momentary velocity of these doubtless approached two hundred miles per hour. At 11.30 pm the situation was cheerfully discussed, though every one was tuned up to a nervous pitch as the Hut creaked and shuddered under successive blows. It seemed very doubtful whether the roof would resist the gusts, and the feasibility of the meat cellar as a last haven of refuge was discussed. After the passage of each gust, the barometer dropped, rising again immediately afterwards. Similar pulsations of the barometer were observed many times later in the year. The maximum sudden movement noted was one–fifth inch. Had the interior of the Hut been more freely in communication with the outside air, instead of resembling a hermetically sealed box, the ‘kicks’ would undoubtedly have been much greater.
Cyclonic gusts were repeated a few days after, when the upper tiers of boxes composing the break–wind were thrown down and pebbles from the moraine were hurled on the roof. The average velocity of the wind for each of the three autumn months was as follows: March, 49 miles per hour; April, 51.5 miles per hour, and May 60.7 miles per hour.
On May 1 the temperatures became lower, so that it was difficult to move about in the gales without the face getting frost–bitten. Our usual remedy when this occurred was to hold a mitt over the part affected; thus sheltered, its circulation of blood was soon re–established, unless the cold were very intense. In the extremities – the fingers and toes – warmth was not so easily restored.
Returning from attending the instruments at noon on May 22, Madigan, according to the usual habit, before taking off his wind–proof clothes, commenced clearing away the ice adhering to his helmet and face. One white patch refused to leave the side of his face, until some one observed that it was a frost–bite, and acquainted him of the fact. Frost–bites that day were excusable enough, for the wind was blowing between ninety–five and hundred miles per hour, there was dense drifting snow and a temperature of −28°F.
We had found an accursed country. On the fringe of an unspanned continent along whose gelid coast our comrades had made their home – we knew not where – we dwelt where the chill breath of a vast, Polar wilderness, quickening to the rushing might of eternal blizzards, surged to the northern seas. Already, and for long months we were beneath ‘frost–fettered Winter’s frown’.
- Temperatures as low as −28°F (60° below freezing–point) were experienced in hurricane winds, which blew at a velocity occasionally exceeding one hundred miles per hour. Still air and low temperatures, or high winds and moderate temperatures, are well enough; but the combination of high winds and low temperatures is difficult to bear.
This version of Home of the Blizzard has been edited and published by the Australian Antarctic Division.