Chapter 11: Spring exploits
Chapter 11: Spring exploits
If the ‘winter calms’ were a delusion, there were at least several beautifully clear, moderately calm days in June. The expectation of colder weather had been realized, and by the end of the month it was a perceptible fact that the sun had definitely turned, describing a longer arc when skimming the distant fleets of bergs along the northern horizon. Thus on June 28 the refracted image of the sun rose into visibility about eleven o’clock, heralded by a vivid green sky and damask cloud and by one o’clock had disappeared.
On the same day every one was abroad, advancing the wireless masts another stage and digging ice–shafts. Stillwell commenced a contoured plane–table survey of the neighbourhood of Winter Quarters. He continued this with many breaks during the next few months and eventually completed an accurate and valuable map, undeterred by the usual series of frost–bites.
There was much anticipated of July, but the wind soughed on and the temperature decreased. Just to demonstrate its resource, the wind maintained ninety–seven miles per hour for six hours on July 19, while the puff–anemometer indicated several ‘breaks’ of one hundred and fifty miles per hour.
July 21 was cold, calm and clear. For the first time after many weeks the sun was mildly warm, and all felt with a spring of optimism that a new era had begun. The sea which had been kept open by the wind was immediately overspread with thin, dark ice, which in a few hours was dotted with many ice–flowers – aggregates of fern–like, sprouting fronds similar to small bouquets or rosettes. Soon the surface had whitened and thickened and by next morning was firm enough to hold a man out beyond the nearest island. The wind did not allow this state of affairs to last for long, for by lunch–time it had hurried away the wide floes and raged across a foaming sea.
We still considered the question of sledging, and I decided that if there were the slightest prospect of accomplishing anything, several of us would start before the end of July on a short journey. The month, however, closed with nothing to commend it. The night–watchman for July 29 says:
‘The moon was wonderfully bright to–night, encircled by a complete halo. It appeared to hang suspended like a silver globe in the dark blue sky. The stars flash and sparkle and seem much nearer here than in Australia. At midnight the wind blew at ninety miles per hour, so that it was no easy job getting to the screen in slippery finnesko. Away in the north there was a dense cloud of spray and sea–smoke, and the wind screamed past the Hut. The “St Elmoscope” was buzzing merrily in the roof all the time.’
Ninnis and Mertz with a team of dogs managed, on the morning of the 29th, to get several loads of forty pounds over the first steep rise of the glacier to Webb’s magnetic ice–cave against a ‘blow’ of seventy miles per hour.
August 1 was marked by a hurricane, and the celebration in the evening of Swiss Confederation Day. Mertz was the hero of the occasion as well as cook and master of ceremonies. From a mysterious box he produced all kinds of quaint conserves, and the menu soared to unknown delicacies like ‘Potage à la Suisse, Choucroute garnie aux saucission de Berne, Purée de foie gras trufée, and Leckerley de Bâle’. Hanging above the buoyant assembly were the Cross of Helvetia and the Jack of Britannia.
It was not till August 8 that there was any indication of improvement. The sun was bright, the barometer was steady, the wind fell to forty miles an hour and a fine radiant of cirrus cloud spread out fan–like from the north; the first from that direction for months.
On the afternoon of August 9, Ninnis, Madigan and I set off with a team of dogs against a forty–mile wind in an attempt to push to the south. Darkness was coming on when we sighted a bamboo pole, three and a quarter miles south of the Hut, and camped. The dogs pulled well up the steep slopes, but the feet of several were cut by the sharp edges of the wind–worn ice.
Very heavy gusts swept by in the early morning hours of the 10th. and when the time came to get out of our sleeping–bags it fell calm for a short space. We had taken down the tent and had started to move away, when back rushed the wind, strong and steady. Still we pushed on with our willing team and by a piece of good fortune reached the sledge which had been abandoned in the autumn, five and a half miles from the Hut, and of whose fate in the winter’s hurricanes we had made all kind of conjectures.
On its leeward side there was a ramp of very hard snow slanting down from the top of the sledge. To windward the low pedestal of ice on which the runners stood was hollowed out, and the wood of the rails and cross–bars, the leather straps, tent, floor–cloth and canvas food–tanks were all bleached and worn. The aluminium cooker, strapped on its box, was brightly polished on the weather side by the dry, drifting snow impelled by the furious winds. A thermograph, left behind in the autumn, was found to be intact and indicated a temperature of –35°F – the lowest for the eight days during which it had run. The remains of Madigan’s plum–pudding of the autumn were unearthed and found in splendid condition. That evening it was thawed out over the primus and we demolished it, after a pause of over five months since having the first cut.
At this spot the steepest grades of the ascent to the plateau were left behind, and it appeared to be a strategic point from which to extend our sledging efforts. The main difficulty was that of pitching camp in the prevailing winds on a surface of ice. To obviate this, the only expedient was to excavate a shelter beneath the ice itself; and there was the further consideration that all sledging parties would be able to make use of such a haven and save extra wear on their tents.
On the morning of August 11 Madigan and Ninnis commenced to sink a deep vertical trench, at one end of which a room was hewn out large enough to accommodate three men. The job was finished on the following day, and we struck the tent and moved to our new abode. The tent was spread over the vertical shaft which served as the entrance.
It was a great relief to be in a strong room, with solid walls of ice, in place of the cramped tent flapping violently in the wind. Inside, the silence was profound; the blizzard was banished. Aladdin’s Cave it was dubbed – a truly magical world of glassy facets and scintillating crystals.
Shelves were chipped out at a moment’s notice for primus stove, spirit bottle, matches, kerosene and other oddments. At one side a small hole was cut to communicate with a narrow fissure which provided ventilation without allowing the entrance of drift snow. Whatever daylight there was filtered through the roof and walls without hindrance. A small crevasse opened near at hand and was a natural receptacle for rubbish. The purest ice for cooking could be immediately hacked from the walls without the inconvenience of having to don one’s burberrys and go outside for it. Finally, one neatly disposed of spare clothes by moistening the corner of each garment and pressing it against the wall for a few seconds, where it would remain hanging until required. The place, in fact, was simply replete with conveniences. We thoroughly enjoyed the night’s rest in Aladdin’s Cave, notwithstanding alarming cracks proceeding occasionally from the crevasses around.
Madigan and Ninnis dug a shelter for the dogs, which spent their time curled up so as to expose as little surface as possible to the biting wind. Their thick coats did not adhere to a snow surface, but readily became frozen down to ice, so that an ice–axe would have to be used to chip them free.
On August 13, though there was a steady, strong wind blowing, we continued our advance to the south. The dogs hated to face wind, but, on the whole, did better than expected. In the afternoon, when only eight miles south of Winter Quarters and at an altitude of two thousand feet, dark and lowering clouds formed overhead, and I decided to give up any idea of going farther out, for the time being. We had provisions for a few days only, and there was every indication of thick, drifting weather, during which, in the crevassed ice of that vicinity, it would not be advisable to travel.
After depoting a pick, shovel and some pemmican, we started back, thinking it might be possible to reach the Hut the same night. However, driven by a strong wind over a polished, slippery surface split into small crevasses, down a grade which steepened quickly, we required to have all our senses vigilant. Two of the dogs remained in harness and the rest were allowed to run loose ahead. These two strained every effort to catch up to their companions.
We retarded the sledge as much as possible and all went well for a few minutes. Then the wind slewed the sledge, the runners struck an irregularity in the surface and the whole capsized. This happened repeatedly, until there was nothing to do but loose the two remaining dogs and drag the sledge ourselves. The dogs were soon lost to sight, except Pavlova, who remained with us all the time. As the hours of light were short in August, darkness had come before Aladdin’s Cave was reached, and it was with some relief that we saw the sledge, flag–pole and the expectant dogs suddenly loom up in front. The sleeping–bags and other gear were passed down into the Cave and the dogs were fed.
When the doorway was opened in the morning, August 14, a blizzard with dense drifting snow was in full progress. As it was not possible to see any distance, and as our quarters were very comfortable, we decided to wait for another day. Madigan and Ninnis went out and fed the dogs, who were all snugly curled up in beds of snow.
The weather was no better on the 15th, but, as we were only five and a half miles from the Hut, which was more comfortable and where there was much work to be done, it seemed a shame to remain cooped up in idleness. Madigan and Ninnis were both strongly in favour of making a dash for the Hut, so we set off.
The sledge having been dug out, one man went in front to keep the course and two men brought up the rear, holding back the load. With long–spiked Swiss crampons we could hold up very well on the ice. In dense drift it was not a simple matter to steer a correct course for the Hut and it was essential not to deviate, as the rocky foreshores near which it stood extended only for a mile east and west; on either side abutting on vertical ice–cliffs. With a compelling force like a prance at our backs, it was not a nice thing to contemplate finding ourselves on the brink of a precipice.
The wind, however, was steady, and we knew at what angle to steer to keep a rough course; and we were also helped by a number of small crevasses between three and five and a half miles which ran approximately north and south.
Half a mile had been covered before we remarked the absence of the dogs which had been left to follow. We had taken for granted that they would follow us, and were so fully occupied after starting that their absence had passed unnoticed. It would be difficult to locate them if we returned; the weather would improve in a few days; if they felt hungry they would come down of their own accord. So we decided to go on without them.
At two miles from the Hut the drift thinned out and the wind became more gusty. Between the gusts the view ahead opened out for a considerable distance, and the rocks soon showed black below the last steep fall.
Back at the Hut it was arranged that if the dogs did not return in a reasonable time, Bage, Mertz and Hurley should go up to Aladdin’s Cave in search of them.
They made a great effort to get away next morning. The sledge was hauled for one thousand one hundred yards up to the magnetic ice–cave against a bitter torrent of air rushing by at eighty–two miles an hour. Here they retreated exhausted.
On the 17th the wind was gauged at eighty–four miles an hour, and nothing could be done. Dense drift and ferocious wind continued until the morning of August 21, and still none of the dogs had come home.
Bage, Hurley and Mertz took advantage of a slight lull to start off at 6.30 am As they did not return that night we presumed they were making good headway.
The drift was thick and the wind high for four days, and it was not until the morning of the 25th that the weather showed clearer and more promising. At 2 pm Bage and his companions arrived at the Hut bringing all the dogs except Grandmother, who had died of exhaustion. Aladdin’s Cave had been difficult to find in the driving snow, which had thickened after the first few miles. They actually passed close to it when Mertz, between the gusts, sighted Castor jumping about, fully alive to the approaching relief. The other dogs were found curled up in the snow, in a listless, apathetic state; apparently in the same positions when left seven days before. They had made no attempt to break into several bags of provisions lying close at hand, preferring to starve rather than expose their faces to the pelting drift. All were frozen down except Basilisk and Castor. Pavlova was in the best condition, possibly because her last meal had been an extra full one; a reward for remaining with us when the others had bolted. Grandmother was in the worst condition, and, despite all efforts at revival, died four hours after. As the poor brutes were very weak after their long fast and exposure, they were taken into the Cave and fed on warm hoosh. Everything possible was done for them, and in return the party passed a very miserable time cramped in such a small space with six dogs. The accommodation was slightly increased by enlarging the Cave.
Five days of calm weather! It could scarcely be credited, yet September came with such a spell. They gave us great opportunities, and, for once, a vision of what perfect Antarctic days might be. The sea speedily froze over and extended our territory to the north. Every day we dredged among the tide–cracks, until Hunter and Laseron had material enough to sort and bottle for weeks. Seals came up everywhere, and the dogs gorged on much–needed meat and blubber. Three large Weddells were shot near the ‘Eastern Barrier’ on September 1, and hauled up an ice–cliff eighty feet high to the rocks above. Work on the wireless masts went on apace, and the geologist was abroad with his plane–table every day. Webb and Bage, after a protracted interval, were able to take star observations for time, in order to check the chronometers.
Mertz, Ninnis, Whetter and Laseron, with a team of dogs sledged a big load of food–stuffs to Aladdin’s Cave on September 1. At the Cave the dogs were let loose, but instead of running back to the Hut, lingered about and finally had to be led down the slope. On being loosed again, several rushed back to the Cave and were only brought along by force. That night, Scott and Franklin, two kindred spirits, were not present at ‘roll–call’.
On September 3, McLean, Whetter and Close took more provisions to Aladdin’s Cave. They reported light drift and wind on the highlands, while at sea–level it was clear and calm.
The sea–ice was by then thick and safe. About half a mile off shore a very successful dredging was made in fifty fathoms; the bottom at this depth simply teemed with life. At first, the dredge, rope–coils, tub, picks and other necessary implements were dragged about on a sledge, but the sledge was hauled only with great difficulty and much exertion over the sticky, new sea–ice. As a substitute a portable, steel handcart was advantageously employed, although, owing to its weight, tide–cracks and rotten areas had to be crossed at a run. On one occasion a flimsy surface collapsed under it, and Hunter had a wetting before it was hauled on to firmer ice.
On September 4 there was a cloud radiant from the northwest, indicative of a change in the weather. Ninnis, Mertz and Murphy transported more food–bags and kerosene to Aladdin’s Cave. They found Franklin one and a half miles south of the Hut lying on the ice quite well, but there was no sign of Scott. Both dogs were seen on the 1st of the month, when they were in a locality southeast of the Hut, where crevasses were numerous. It seemed most probable that Scott had lost his life in one of them. The party visiting the Cave reported a considerable amount of snow drifting above a level of one thousand feet.
There was another day of successful dredging, and, about four o’clock, while several men were still out on the ice, whirlies with great columns of drift came steadily down the glacier, pouring over the seaward cliffs. In a few minutes the snow–clouds were round the Hut and the wind was not long in working up to eighty miles per hour. The dredging party reached the land just in time; and the sea–ice drifted away to the north. Thus ended one of the most remarkable periods of fine weather experienced by us in Adélie Land, only to be excelled in the height of summer.
The possibility of such a spell being repeated fired us with the hope that after all a reasonable amount of sledging could be accomplished in the spring. Three parties were chosen to reconnoitre in different directions and to test the sledging gear. As we were far from being confident in the weather, I made it clear that no party should penetrate farther than fifty miles from the Hut, nor remain away longer than a fortnight.
Webb, McLean and Stillwell, the southern reconnoitring party, were the first to set off, leaving on September 7 against a wind of fifty–six miles per hour. Between them they had only one pair of good spiked crampons, and it was a hard, five hours’ drag up to Aladdin’s Cave. A tent which had been spread over the entrance to keep out snow was picked up here. It had suffered punctures and small tears from crampons, and, as the next day was one of boisterous wind, the party spent it repairing the tent and endeavouring to take magnetic observations. The latter had to be abandoned owing to the instrument becoming iced up.
Next afternoon the wind fell to the forties, and the party struggled on to the south for three miles two hundred yards and camped, as it was necessary to make a search for a small depot of pemmican tins, a pick and a shovel left by us in the vicinity in August. The drift cleared at noon on the 11th, and the bamboo pole marking the depot appeared a quarter of a mile away on the right. The pick, shovel and flag were secured and another afternoon’s march against a fifty–mile wind with a temperature at –20°F brought the party three and a quarter miles further, to a point eleven and three–quarter miles south of the Hut. The wind rose to the eighties during the night, and there were many small holes in the tent which provided more ventilation than was agreeable. As the wind was too strong for travelling on the 12th, it was decided to make a cave in case of accident to the tent.
A tunnel was driven into the sloping surface of the ice towards a crevasse about a foot wide. It was a good ten hours’ job in tough ice before the crevasse was reached. Into the fissure all the hewn ice was thrown instead of being laboriously shovelled up through the tunnel. The ‘Cathedral Grotto’ was soon finished, the tent was struck and the party made themselves comfortable inside. The cavern was found to be a very draughty place with a crevasse along one wall, and it was difficult to keep warm in one–man sleeping–bags. The crevasse was accordingly closed with ice and snow. That evening and on several subsequent occasions McLean took blood–pressure observations.
During the next three days the wind was so strong that Webb’s were the only crampons in which any efficient marching could be done. The time was spent in building a high break–wind of ice–blocks, a pit being excavated on the windward side in which Webb took a full set of magnetic observations. Within the ‘Grotto’ the instrument rapidly became coated with ice–crystals; in the open air this difficulty did not arise, but others had to be overcome. It was exceedingly cold work at –20°F in a sixty–mile wind, both for Webb and his recorder Stillwell.
There seemed no hope of going forward, so the depot flag was hoisted and a fortnight’s provisions and kerosene stowed in the lee of the break–wind. It was a furious race back to the Hut via Aladdin’s Cave with a gusty, seventy–five–mile wind in the rear. McLean and Stillwell actually skied along on their short blunt crampons, while Webb did his best to brake behind.
The second party comprised Ninnis, Mertz, and Murphy, who went to the southeast, leaving on September 11. After a hard fight to Aladdin’s Cave, the wind approaching fifty miles an hour, they diverged to the southeast. On the 12th they made steady progress up the slope of the glacier, delayed by many small crevasses. The surface was so rough that the nuts on the sledge–meter soon became loose and it was necessary to stop every quarter of a mile to adjust them. The day’s march was a solid five and three quarter miles against a fifty–mile wind.
On the 13th Ninnis’s record proceeds as follows:
‘The sky was still clear but the wind had increased to sixty–five miles per hour, the temperature standing at –17°F.
‘We kept on the same course; the glacier’s slope being steeper. Mertz was as usual wearing leather boots and mountaineering crampons, otherwise progress would have been practically impossible; the finnesko crampons worn by Murphy and myself giving very little foothold. Travelling was very slow indeed, and when we camped at 4 pm, two and a half miles was all that had been covered.
‘At 9.15 am (September 14) the wind practically dropped, and we advanced under perfect conditions.’
They had not gone far, however, before the wind suddenly increased so that only about four and a half miles were completed in the day. That evening, curiously enough, it fell calm for a time; then there was a period of alternating violent winds and calm.
On Sunday, September 15, it was impossible for them to move, as a hurricane raged outside. The tent was very much damaged by the wind, but in that state it managed to stand up till next morning. In the meantime all three fully dressed themselves and lay in their three–man sleeping–bag ready to take to the road at a moment’s notice.
The next morning, at a distance of eighteen miles southeast of the Hut, there was nothing for it but to make for Aladdin’s Cave, which was safely reached by a forced march of twelve and three–quarter miles, with a furious wind partly abeam. On the way the sledge was blown sideways on to the lids of many wide crevasses, which, fortunately for the party, were strong at that season of the year.
From the realistic reports of the two parties which had returned it was evident that Madigan and his companions, Close and Whetter who had set out on the 12th to the west were having a bad time. But it was not till the 23rd, after a week of clear skies, low temperatures and unceasing drift–free wind that we began to feel apprehensive about them.
September 24 and 25 were punctuated by several intervals of calm during which it was judged the party would have been able to travel.
On the morning of September 26 Ninnis and Mertz, with a team of dogs, set off up the hill to Aladdin’s Cave to deposit some provisions and to scan the horizon for any sign of the sledgers. On the way they fell in with them descending the slopes, very worn and frost–bitten.
They had a thrilling story to tell, and, when it was known that the party had reached fifty miles to the west, everybody crowded round to listen.
The wind average at the Hut during their fortnight of absence was fifty–eight miles per hour, implying worse conditions on the plateau. Madigan gave the facts:
‘After leaving Aladdin’s Cave on the 12th we continued due south, lunching at 2 pm on the site of Webb’s first camp. Our troubles had already begun; the wind averaging sixty miles an hour all day with a temperature at noon of –14°F.
‘As a few tears appeared in the tent during the night, we saw that it would not be advisable to put it up next day for lunch, so we had a cold meal, crouched in the lee of the sledge. This custom was found to economise time, as we became so cold eating our fare of biscuit, chocolate and butter that we got moving again as soon as possible. The great disadvantage was that there was nothing to drink between the morning and evening meals.
‘We sewed up the rents in the tent during the halt, having to use bare fingers in the open. About four stitches at a time were as much as one man could manage, and then the other two took their turns.
‘The next day was the only comparatively calm period of the two weeks of travelling. The wind was in the vicinity of thirty miles per hour, and, going west, we reached a spot, twenty miles “out”, on a snow–covered surface, by nightfall.
‘A steady seventy–five–mile wind blew all day on the 15th at right angles to our course, accompanied by a thick, low drift. The surface was partially consolidated snow, very hard and smooth. Sometimes the sledge would grip and we could pull straight ahead. Then, suddenly, it would slide away sideways down wind and often pull us off our feet with a sudden vicious jerk. Most of the time we were dragging in a southwesterly direction to make the sledge run west, stumbling through the drift with the sledge now behind us, now sliding away to leeward, often capsizing and requiring to be laboriously righted and sometimes repacked.
‘After many experiments, we found the best device was to have two men on the bow–rope, about twenty feet long, and one with about ten feet of rope attached to the rear of the sledge. The man on the tail–rope, usually Whetter, found it very difficult to keep his feet, and, after a score of falls in stinging drift with incidental frost–bites on fingers and cheeks, he did not feel exactly cheerful.
‘By 4 pm on the 15th we had reached twenty–five miles and were exhausted. We pitched camp at an early hour, partly influenced by the fact that it was a special occasion – Close’s birthday! Some port wine had been slipped in to provide against that ‘emergency’. On taking the precious bottle from the instrument–box, I found that the cork was out, and, for one awful moment, thought the bottle was empty. Then I realized that the wine had frozen solid and had pushed the cork out by its expansion on solidification.
‘At last, the tent safely pitched and hoosh and cocoa finished, the moment came to drink to Close’s health and happiness. The bottle had stood on the top of the cooker while the meal was being prepared, but the wine was still as solid as ever. After being shaken and held over the primus for a good half–hour it began to issue in lumps. Once the lumps were secured in mugs the rest of the thawing was easy. Finally, we toasted Close and his wife (in far Australia) in what we voted to be the finest draught it had ever been our good fortune to drink. In the morning a cairn was made of the snow–blocks which were taken from the tent–skirt, and it was surmounted with the bottle, being called “Birthday Camp”.
‘During September 16 my right eyelid became frostbitten. I noticed that it was hard and refused to shut, so I rubbed vigorously to bring it round. However, it swelled and blistered badly and the eye remained closed for two days.
‘From twenty to fifty miles “out”, the surface was névé with areas of sastrugi up to three feet in height. No crevasses were noticed. At twenty–eight miles out, we lost sight of the sea, and at forty miles an altitude of four thousand five hundred feet was reached.
‘We turned out at 6 am every morning and were on the move by 9 am. Lunch only took half an hour and was a most uncomfortable meal. As we sat in the lee of the sledge, the surface–drift swirled up in our faces like fine sand. We never camped before 6 pm and were obliged to consider five miles a good day’s run.
‘Pitching camp took nearly an hour. Blocks of snow were cut and arranged in a semicircle, within which the tent was laid with its peak upwind. It sounds simple enough, but, as we had to take off crampons so as not to tread on the tent, our difficulties were enormously increased by having to move about wearing finnesko on a smooth surface in a high wind. One man crawled into the tent, and, at a given signal, the other two raised the peak while the former held on to the upwind leg and kicked the other legs into place with his feet. The others then quickly piled food–tanks and blocks of snow on to the skirt, calling out as soon as there was enough to hold it down, as the man gripping the bamboo leg inside would soon have “deadly cold” fingers. It was always a great relief when the tent was up.
‘Almost every night there was some sewing to do, and it was not long before every one’s fingers were in a bad state. They became, especially near the tips, as hard as wood and devoid of sensation. Manipulating toggles and buttons on one’s clothing gave an immense amount of trouble, and it always seemed an interminable time before we got away in the morning. Our lowest temperature was –35°F, early on September 18.
‘We were fifty miles “out” on September 19 on a white, featureless plain. Through low drift we had seen very little of our surroundings on the march. A bamboo pole with a black flag was raised, a mound was built, and a week’s provisions for three men and two gallons of kerosene were cached.
‘In the morning there was a howling eighty–mile blizzard with dense drift, and our hopes of an early start homeward were dispelled. We feared for the safety of the tent, knowing that if it had gone during that “blow” our hopes of getting back to the Hut would have been small.
‘The wind continued all day and the next night, but, to our joy, abated on the 21st to fifty miles an hour, permitting us to travel.
‘Through a seventy–five–miler on the 22nd and a quieter day on the 23rd, we picked up our half–way mound at Birthday Camp on September 24. On the same night the long–suffering sledge–meter, much battered, gave up recording.
‘At 3 am I was awakened by something striking me on the head. I looked out of the sleeping–bag and found that the tent had fallen in on us. The lashing at the apex had carried away and the poles upwind were almost flat. The cap was gone, and one side of the tent was split from top to bottom. I awakened the others, and Whetter and I got out, leaving Close inside to hang on to the bag. Luckily we had kept on our burberrys in case of accidents. For once the entrance had not to be unfastened, as there was a ready–made exit. The poles were roughly bound together with an alpine rope and anchored to a pick on the windward side. It was blowing about eighty miles an hour, but fortunately there was no drift. When daylight came the tent was found to be hopelessly ruined, and to light the primus was impossible, though the wind had abated to thirty–five miles an hour.
‘We ate some frozen food and pushed on, hoping to find Aladdin’s Cave before dark, so that we should not have to spend a night without a tent. After a struggle of thirteen miles over rough ice we came, footsore and worn out, to Aladdin’s Cave. Close’s feet were badly blistered, and both my big toes had become frost–bitten at the fifty–mile camp, giving me a good deal of trouble on the way back.
‘Never was the Cave a more luxurious place. The cooker was kept busy far into the night, while we drank and smoked and felt happy.’
The successful conclusion of this journey in the face of the most adverse weather conditions was something upon which Madigan, Whetter and Close could well feel proud, for in its way it must be a record in the sledging world. They were indeed badly frost–bitten; Madigan’s great toes having suffered most of all. Whetter’s chief injury was a wound under the chin occasioned by a pair of scissors handled by Madigan to free Whetter’s helmet on an occasion when it was firmly frozen to his face.
On October 1, Mertz, Hurley and Ninnis made a gallant attempt to rescue two dogs, Basilisk and Franklin, which had remained at Aladdin’s Cave on September 26, after accompanying them there with a load of provisions. At the Hut there was no drift, but during the ascent it became thicker, and the wind stronger, forcing them at last to turn back.
Two days later another attempt was made by Ninnis and Mertz, and, in dense drift, after wandering about for a long time they happened on the Cave, to find that the dogs were not there, though spots were discovered where they had evidently been sleeping in the snow. Coming back disconsolately, they found that the dogs had reached the Hut not long before them. Apparently the two vagrants, hearing Ninnis and Mertz blundering about in the drift in search of the depot, had decided that it was time to return home. We concluded that the ways of these Greenland dogs were past finding out.
October came with a deluge of snow and transient hours of bright sunlight, during which the seals would make a temporary landing and retire again to the water when their endurance was exhausted. Snow petrels flew in great numbers about the rocks in the evening, seeking out their old nest–crevices. Seeing these signs of returning life, every one was in great expectation of the arrival of the penguins.
On the night of the 11th, Hurley, Laseron, Hunter and Correll made an innovation by presenting a small farce to an audience which had been starved of dramatic entertainment for a long time, and consequently showed tremendous appreciation.
The first penguin came waddling up the ice–foot against a seventy–mile wind late on the afternoon of October 12. McLean brought the bird back to the Hut and the newcomer received a great ovation. Stimulated by their success on the previous night and the appearance of the first penguin, the theatrical company added to their number, and, dispensing with a rehearsal, produced an opera, ‘The Washerwoman’s Secret’ (Laseron). Part of the Hut was curtained off as a combined green–room and dressing–room; the kitchen was the stage; footlights twinkled on the floor; the acetylene limelight beamed down from the rafters, while the audience crowded on a form behind the dining–table, making tactless remarks and steadily eating chocolate.
The typed programmes advertised the following:
The Washerwoman’s Secret
(Opera in Five Acts)
Dr Stakanhoiser (Tenor) – ‘Hoyle’ – Hurley
Chevalier de Tintail (Fiver) – ‘Johnny’ – Hunter
Baron de Brent (Basso) – ‘Joe’ – Laseron
Count Hoopenkoff (Barrowtone) – ‘Little Willie’ – Correll
Madam Fuclose (Don’t Sing) – ‘Also Joe’ – Laseron
Jemima Fuclose (Soprano) – ‘Dad’ – McLean
Dr Stakanhoiser’s Dog – ‘Monkey’ – Greenland Pup
Village Idiot – ‘Bick’ – Bickerton
Orchestra – ‘Stillwater Willie’ – Stillwell
Scene: Room in poorer part of Berlin; Madam Fuclose in bed dying; Jemima at table washing clothes.
Song: ‘When Sparrows Build’ – Jemima
[Knock at door. Enter Dr Stakanhoiser.]
Song: ‘I vas a Doctor’
[Attends Madam Fuclose, who, when dying, tells him that Jemima is not her daughter, but the Princess of Adeliana, whom she has rescued in Paris during the Revolution.]
Death Scene and Chorus: ‘Who Killed my Mother?’
Scene: Beneath Jemima’s window.
[Enter Dr Stakanhoiser disguised as organ grinder.]
Song: ‘Vurds der Likum’ – Dr S.
[Jemima opens window and throws flour on Doctor.]
[Enter Baron de Brent, kicks Doctor out.]
Song: ‘Baron of Brent’
[Baron makes love to Jemima, who laughs at him.]
Duet: ‘Wilt love me’ Jemima and Baron
[Enter Chevalier de Tintail, who denounces the Baron as already having four wives. The Baron goes off, muttering revenge.
Song: ‘I’m in love with a wonderful lady’ – Chevalier
[The Chevalier makes love to Jemima, who loves him in return.]
Scene: Conspirators’ Chamber.
[Enter Doctor, who hides behind a barrel.]
[Enter Count Hoopenkoff, who amuses himself playing a piccolo.]
[Enter Baron. They discuss plot to kidnap Princess, which is overheard by Doctor.]
[Enter Ghost, who frightens conspirators away.]
Chorus: ‘Little Willie Smith’
Scene: Jemima’s room.
[The Chevalier de Tintail is waiting.]
Song: ‘I want you to see my Girl’ – Chevalier
[Enter Jemima. Love scene.]
[Enter Doctor, who discloses the plot he has heard and tells Jemima of her high descent. The Chevalier and the Doctor hide, and the two villains, by means of a ladder, enter the room. The heroes spring from their hiding–place and the villains are ejected.]
Chorus: ‘There is a Wash–House’
Scene: Conspirators’ Chamber.
[The Baron and Count enter by different doors. They accuse each other of having betrayed the plot. Duel follows in which both are killed.]
Duet: ‘Mort de Botheo’ – Count and Baron
[All the others rush in. The two lovers come together and the Doctor says, ‘God bless you, my children’.]
Chorus: ‘Auld Lang Syne’ and ‘God Save the King’ – Company And Audience
Played by the Society for the Prevention of the Blues. Saturday, October 12, 1912. Adélie Hall.
Admission free. Children half price.
October 13 was known as Black Sunday. We were all seated at dinner and the Hut was quivering in the tornado–like gusts which followed a heavy ‘blow’ reaching a maximum hourly average of ninety–one miles. One mighty blast was followed by a crack and the sound of a heavy falling body. For a moment it was thought that something had happened to the Hut. Then the messman ran out to the trap–door and saw that the northern wireless mast had disappeared.
The weather showed but meagre signs of improvement, but the penguins came up in great numbers. They were in groups all along the ice–foot in the lee of rocks and icy pinnacles. They climbed up to their old resorts, and in a few days commenced to build nests of small pebbles. Skua gulls mysteriously appeared, snow petrels hovered along the rocky ridges and odd seals landed on the wind–raked harbour ice. Silver–grey and Antarctic petrels flew along the shore with occasional Cape pigeons. If the weather were indifferent to the fact, the birds did not forget that spring had come.
A Weddell seal calved on the bay–ice on October 18. For a week the pup had a miserable time in winds ranging mostly about the seventies, with the temperature below zero Fahrenheit. At last it became so weak that it thawed a hole in the soft, sludgy ice and could not extricate itself. Both it and the mother were killed and skinned for the biological collection.
On all but the worst days a gang of men worked with picks and shovels digging out the Hangar, so that Bickerton could test the air–tractor sledge. The attack was concentrated upon a solid bank of snow and ice into which heaps of tins and rubbish had been compactly frozen. In soft snow enormous headway can be made in a short space of time, but in that species of conglomerate, progress is slow. Eventually, a cutting was made by which the machine could pass out. The rampart of snow was broken through at the northern end of the Hangar, and the sledge with its long curved runners was hauled forth triumphantly on the 25th. From that time onwards Bickerton continued to experiment and to improve the contrivance.
On October 21 there was a marked thaw inside the Hut. The frost along all the cracks dissolved into water and ran down the walls over pictures, on to book–shelves and bunks. The thick caking of ice on the windows dripped continually, coming away in layers at lunch–time and scattering among the diners at both ends of the table. Every available bucket and tub was in use, and small tin–gutters hooked under each window had to be emptied at frequent intervals.
Stillwell came in during the afternoon bearing an albino penguin with a prettily mottled head; a curious freak of which the biologists immediately took possession. The penguins now swarmed along the foreshores, those not settling down in the rookeries wandering about in small crowds, occasionally visiting the Hut and exploring among the rocks or up the slippery glacier. Murphy was heard, at this time, to advance a theory accounting for the fact that Adélie penguins never made their nests on a scale more elaborate than a collection of stones. He submitted that anything else would be blown away. To support the contention, he stated that as soon as the female lays her egg, she places a stone on top to weight it down. The biologists kept a dignified silence during the discussion.
On the 21st an Emperor penguin landed on the harbour ice, and, early in November, two more were captured. These imperial birds are very rare on the coasts of Adélie Land, owing to the fact that their winter breeding–grounds in Antarctica are selected in spots where climatic conditions are comparatively good.
October closed with an average wind velocity of 56.9 miles per hour. Yet the possibility of summer sledging was no longer remote. The sun was high, spells of calm were longer and more frequent, and, with the certain knowledge that we should be on the plateau in November, the sledging parties were chosen, schemes of exploration were discussed, and the last details for an extensive campaign completed.
This version of Home of the Blizzard has been edited and published by the Australian Antarctic Division.