Chapter 12: Across King George V Land
Chapter 12: Across King George V Land
We yearned beyond the skyline.
October had passed without offering any opportunities for sledging, and we resolved that in defiance of all but the worst weather a start would be made in November. The Aurora was due to arrive early in January 1913 and the time at our disposal for exploration was slipping away rapidly.
The investigation by sledging journeys of the coastline to the eastward was regarded as of prime importance, for our experience in the Aurora when in those longitudes during the previous year was such as to give little promise of its ever being accomplished from the sea.
Westward, the coast was accessible from the sea; at least for some distance in that direction. Madigan’s journey in the springtime had demonstrated that, if anything, the land to the west was steeper, and consequently more windy conditions might be expected there. Further, it was judged that information concerning this region would be forthcoming from the ship, which had cruised westward after leaving Adélie Land in January 1912. The field in that direction was therefore not so promising as that to the east.
On this account the air–tractor sledge, of somewhat doubtful utility, was detailed for use to the westward of Winter Quarters, and, as it was obvious that the engine could only be operated in moderately good weather, its final departure was postponed until December.
The following is a list of the parties which had been arranged and which, now fully equipped, were on the tiptoe of expectation to depart.
(1) A Southern Party composed of Bage (leader), Webb and Hurley. The special feature of their work was to be magnetic observations in the vicinity of the South Magnetic Pole.
(2) A Southern Supporting Party, including Murphy (leader), Hunter and Laseron, who were to accompany the Southern Party as far as possible, returning to Winter Quarters by the end of November.
(3) A Western Party of three men – Bickerton (leader), Hodgeman and Whetter – who were to traverse the coastal highlands west of the Hut. Their intention was to make use of the air–tractor sledge and the departure of the party was fixed for early December.
(4) Stillwell, in charge of a Near Eastern Party, was to map the coastline between Cape Denison and the Mertz Glacier–Tongue, dividing the work into two stages. In the first instance, Close and Hodgeman were to assist him; all three acting partly as supports to the other eastern parties working further afield. After returning to the Hut at the end of November for a further supply of stores, he was to set out again with Close and Laseron in order to complete the work.
(5) An Eastern Coastal Party composed of Madigan (leader), McLean and Correll was to start in early November with the object of investigating the coastline beyond the Mertz Glacier.
(6) Finally, a Far–Eastern Party, assisted by the dogs, was to push out rapidly overland to the southward of Madigan’s party, mapping more distant sections of the coastline, beyond the limit to which the latter party would be likely to reach.
As the plans for the execution of such a journey had of necessity to be more provisional than in the case of the others, I determined to undertake it, accompanied by Ninnis and Mertz, both of whom had so ably acquitted themselves throughout the Expedition and, moreover, had always been in charge of the dogs.
November opened with more moderate weather, auguring still better conditions for midsummer. Accordingly November 6 was fixed as the date of final departure for several of the parties. The evening of November 5 was made a special occasion: a farewell dinner, into which everybody entered very heartily.
On the morning of the 6th, however, we found a strong blizzard raging and the landscape blotted out by drift–snow, which did not clear until the afternoon of the following day.
At the first opportunity, Murphy, Hunter and Laseron (supporting the Southern Party) got away, but found the wind so strong at a level of one thousand feet on the glacier that they anchored their sledge and returned to the Hut for the night.
The next morning saw them off finally and, later in the day, the Near–Eastern Party (Stillwell, Close and Hodgeman) and the Eastern Coastal Party (Madigan, McLean and Correll) got under way, though there was still considerable wind.
My own party was to leave on the 9th for, assisted by the dogs, we could easily catch up to the other eastern parties, and it was our intention not to part company with them until all were some distance out on the road together.
The wind increased on the 9th and the air became charged with drift, so we felt sure that those who preceded us would still be camped at Aladdin’s Cave, and that the best course was to wait.
At this date the penguin rookeries were full of new–laid eggs, and the popular taste inclined towards omelettes, in the production of which Mertz was a past master. I can recall the clamouring throng who pressed round for the final omelette as Mertz officiated at the stove just before we left on the 10th.
It was a beautiful calm afternoon as the sledge mounted up the long icy slopes. The Southern Party (Bage, Webb and Hurley) were a short distance in advance, but by the help of the dogs we were soon abreast of them. Then Bickerton, who had given Bage’s party a pull as far as the three–mile post, bade us goodbye and returned to the Hut where he was to remain in charge with Whetter and Hannam until the return of Murphy’s party.
At Aladdin’s Cave, while some prepared supper, others selected tanks of food from the depot and packed the sledges. After the meal, the Southern Party bade us farewell and set off at a rapid rate, intending to overhaul their supporting party on the same evening at the Cathedral Grotto, eleven and three–quarter miles from the Hut. Many finishing touches had to be put to our three sledges and two teams of dogs, so that the departure was delayed till next morning.
We were up betimes and a good start was made before anything came of the overcast sky which had formed during the night. The rendezvous appointed for meeting the others, in case we had not previously caught them up, was eighteen miles southeast of Aladdin’s Cave. But, with a view to avoiding crevasses as much as possible, a southerly course was followed for several miles, after which it was directed well to the east. In the meantime the wind had arisen and snow commenced to fall soon after noon. In such weather it was impossible to locate the other parties, so a halt was made and the tent pitched after eight miles.
Five days of wind and drift followed, and for the next two days we remained in camp. Then, on the afternoon of the 13th, the drift became less dense, enabling us to move forward on an approximate course to what was judged to be the vicinity of the rendezvous, where we camped again for three days.
Comfortably ensconced in the sleeping–bags, we ate only a small ration of food; the savings being carefully put away for a future ‘rainy day’. Outside, the dogs had at first an unpleasant time until they were buried in snow which sheltered them from the stinging wind. Ninnis and Mertz took turns day by day attending to their needs.
The monotony and disappointment of delay were just becoming acute when the wind fell off, and the afternoon of November 16 turned out gloriously fine.
Several excursions were immediately made in the neighbourhood to seek for the whereabouts of the other parties, but all were unsuccessful. At length it occurred to us that something serious might have happened, so we left our loads and started back at a gallop for Aladdin’s Cave with two empty sledges, Mertz careering ahead on skis over the sastrugi field.
Shortly afterwards two black specks were seen away in the north; a glance with the binoculars leaving no doubt as to the identity of the parties. We returned to the loads, and, having picked them up, made a course to the east to intercept the other men.
It was a happy camp that evening with the three tents pitched together, while we compared our experiences of the previous six days and made plans for the outward journey.
Our sledge–meter had already suffered through bumping over rough ice and sastrugi, and an exchange was made with the stronger one on Stillwell’s sledge. A quantity of food was also taken over from him and the loads were finally adjusted.
The details and weights of the equipment on the three sledges belonging to my party are sufficiently interesting to be set out at length below. Most of the items were included in the impedimenta of all our parties, but slight variations were necessary to meet particular stances or to satisfy the whim of an individual.
|Principal sledge and fittings||lb||oz|
|sledge, 11 ft long||45||0|
|decking (canvas and bamboo)||3||5|
|5 leather straps||5||0|
|drill tent strengthened and attached to poles, also floor–cloth||33||0|
|spare drill cover||11||8|
|3 one–man bags||30||0|
|and damp–proof tin to hold same||0||3.7|
|‘Primus’ heater, full||3||10|
|‘Primus’ repair outfit||0||2|
|kerosene tin openers and pourers||0||4.5|
|spirit for ‘Primus’ in tin||5||14|
|also a ready bottle, full||1||5|
|spare copper wire, rivets, needles, thread, etc||1||14.5|
|set of 12 tools||0||15.5|
|requirements for repairing dog–harness and medically treating the dogs||3||8|
|6 ‘Burroughs & Wellcome’ first field dressings; absorbent cotton wool; boric wool; pleated lint; pleated bandages, roll bandages; adhesive tape; liquid collodion; ‘tabloid’ ophthalmic drugs for treating snow–blindness; an assortment of ‘tabloid’ drugs for general treatment; canvas case containing scissors, forceps, artery–forceps, scalpel, surgical needles and silk, etc||2||12.3|
|a ¼–plate, long, extension–camera in a case, with special stiffening board and 36 cut films||4||4.5 oz|
|adaptor to accommodate camera to theodolite legs||0||2|
|a water–tight tin with 14 packets, each containing 12 cut films||3||10|
|a 3” transit theodolite in case||5||14|
|legs for the same||3||6|
|Tables from Nautical Almanack and book of Logarithmic Tables||1||3|
|2 note books||1||6|
|dividers and rubber||0||1.5|
|protractor and set–square||0||0.5|
|prismatic compass and clinometer||0||8.5|
|Zeiss prismatic binoculars ×12||1||13.5|
|2 ordinary and 2 small minimum thermometers||0||10|
|22–bore with cover and cleaner||3||3.7|
|fishing line and hooks||0||3.5|
|containing 9 pairs of finnesko stuffed with saennegrass||21||0|
|3 private kit–bags containing spare clothing, etc||39||0|
|4 extra rolls of lampwick for lashings||1||3.5 oz|
|alpine rope (20 metres)||3||0|
|skis (1 pair)||11||0|
|ski–boots (2 pairs)||6||0|
|attachable crampons for the same||4||0|
|finnesko–crampons (3 pairs)||9||0|
|a water–proof bag to hold oddments||4||8|
|a depot–flag and bamboo pole||5||0|
|a special metal depot–beacon, mast, flag and stays||16||0|
|2 damp–proof tins for depositing records at depots||0||7.5|
|a second sledge decked with Venesta boarding and fitted with straps||55||0|
|a third sledge, 12 ft long and strong rope lashings (spare spars mentioned elsewhere acting as decking)||60||0|
|Kerosene, 6 gallons in one–gallon tins||60||0|
|9 weeks’ supplies for 3 men on the ration scale; also 25 lb weight of special foods – ‘perks’||475||0|
|dried seal meat, blubber and pemmican; also the weight of the tin and bag–containers||700||0|
Madigan’s and Stillwell’s parties broke trail to the east on the morning of the 17th while we were still attending to the sledges and dogs preparatory to departure. It was decided that Gadget, a rather miserable animal, who had shown herself useless as a puller thus far, should be killed. The following dogs then remained: – Basilisk, Shackleton, Ginger Bitch, Franklin, John Bull, Mary, Haldane, Pavlova, Fusilier, Jappy, Ginger, George, Johnson, Castor, Betli and Blizzard.
We went in pursuit of the other six men over a surface of rough sastrugi. The dogs, who were in fine fettle, rushed the sledges along, making frantic efforts to catch up to the parties ahead, who showed as black specks across the white undulating plain.
At noon all lunched together, after which we separated, shaking hands warmly all round and interchanging the sledgers’ ‘Good luck!’. Our dogs drew away rapidly to the east, travelling on a slight down grade; the other two parties with their man–hauled sledges following in the same direction. The surface was splendid, the weather conditions were ideal, the pace, if anything, too rapid, for capsizes were apt to occur in racing over high sastrugi. Any doubts as to the capability of the dogs to pull the loads were dispelled; in fact, on this and on many subsequent occasions, two of us were able to sit, each one on a sledge, while the third broke trail ahead.
In sledging over wide, monotonous wastes with dogs as the motive power, it is necessary to have a forerunner, that is, somebody to go ahead and point the way, otherwise the dogs will run aimlessly about. Returning over old tracks, they will pull along steadily and keep a course. In Adélie Land we had no opportunity of verifying this, as the continuous winds soon obliterated the impression of the runners.
If the weather is reasonably good and food is ample, sledging dogs enjoy their work. Their desire to pull is doubtless inborn, implanted in a long line of ancestors who have faithfully served the Esquimaux. We found that the dogs were glad to get their harnesses on and to be led away to the sledge. Really, it was often a case of the dog leading the man, for, as soon as its harness was in place, the impatient animal strained to drag whatever might be attached to the other end of the rope. Before attaching a team of dogs to a sledge, it was necessary to anchor the latter firmly, otherwise in their ardour they would make off with it before everything was ready.
There can be no question as to the value of dogs as a means of traction in the Polar regions, except when travelling continuously over very rugged country, over heavily crevassed areas, or during unusually bad weather. It is in such special stances that the superiority of man–hauling has been proved. Further, in an enterprise where human life is always at stake, it is only fair to put forward the consideration that the dogs represent a reserve of food in case of extreme emergency.
We continued due eastwards until five o’clock on the afternoon of the 17th at an altitude of two thousand six hundred feet. On the crest of a ridge, which bore away in distinct outline, on our left, a fine panorama of coastal scenery was visible. Far off on the eastern horizon the Mertz Glacier Tongue discovered itself in a long wall touched in luminous bands by the southwestern sun. A wide valley fell away in front, and beyond it was a deep indentation of the coastline, which would make it necessary for us to follow a more southerly course in order to round its head.
I determined to convey to the other parties my intentions, which had become more defined on seeing this view; and, in the meantime, we halted and treated ourselves to afternoon tea. This innovation in the ordinary routine was extended to a custom by saving a portion of the lunch ration for a ‘snack’ at 5 pm on all days when the weather was moderately good. As latitude sights were required at midday and longitude shots at 5 pm, the arrangement was very convenient, for, while one of us made tea, the other two took the observations.
About 6 pm the two man–hauled sledges came up with us, our plans for the future were reviewed and the final instructions were given. We bade our comrades adieu and, turning to the southeast, descended quickly down a long slope leading into the valley. The sky was overcast and it was almost impossible to see the irregularities of the surface. Only a dull–white glare met the eyes, and the first indication of a hillock was to stub one’s toes against it, or of a depression to fall into it. We pulled up the dogs at 7.30 pm after covering thirteen and a quarter miles in the day.
At 9.45 am on November 18 everything was ready for a fresh start. The other parties could be seen rapidly bearing down on us under full sail, but our willing teams had soon dragged the three sledges over an eminence and out of their sight.
It was a lovely day; almost like a dream after the lengthy months of harassing blizzards. A venturesome skua gull appeared at lunch time, just as an observation for latitude was being taken. By the time Ninnis had unpacked the rifle the bird had flown away.
The direction of the sastrugi was found to vary from that which obtained farther west, owing to a slight swing in the direction of the prevailing wind. The irregularities in the coastline account for this; the wind tending to flow down to sea–level by the nearest route.
To the northwest, behind us, a projecting ridge of rock – Madigan Nunatak – came into sight. From the camp of the previous evening it had evidently been hidden from view by an undulation in the surface.
During the afternoon it was noted that the surface had become very deeply eroded by the wind, troughs three feet in depth being common, into which the sledges frequently capsized. Each of us took it in turn to run ahead, jumping from one sastruga to another. As these were firm and polished by the constant wind, one often slipped with a sudden shock to the ground. Our bodies were well padded with clothing and we were beginning to get into good form, so that these habitual tumbles were taken with the best grace we could muster. I surprised myself during the afternoon, when my turn came as forerunner, by covering two and a half miles at a jog–trot without a break. The grade was slightly downhill and the sledges moved along of their own accord, accelerated by jerks from the dogs, gliding at right angles to the knife–edge crests of the snow–waves.
The roughness of the surface was not without its effect on the sledge–meter, which had to be repaired temporarily. It was a matter of some inconvenience that after this date its records were erroneous and approximate distances were only obtained by checking the readings against absolute observations made for latitude and longitude.
At 5.30 pm a dark object stood in salient relief above the white contour of the snowy sky–line on the right. Suppressing our excitement, we pressed on eagerly, changing course so as to approach it. At nine o’clock it resolved itself into the summit of an imposing mountain rising up from a mysterious valley. Aurora Peak, as it was named, was to be a prominent landmark for several days to come.
All were ready to be on the move at 8.45 am on November 19. While Mertz and Ninnis built a cairn of snow, I wrote a note to be left on it in a tin, containing instructions to Stillwell in case he should happen on the locality.
The weather was good and the temperatures were high, ranging at this time (one month from midsummer) between zero and 18°F. When we camped for lunch the air was quite calm and the sun’s rays were extremely warm.
The surface became softer and smoother as the afternoon lengthened until Mertz was tempted to put on his skis. He then became forerunner for the remainder of the day.
Mertz, who was skilled in the use of skis, found them of great service on this and on many future occasions. At such times he would relieve Ninnis and myself in the van. On the other hand, over deeply furrowed sastrugi or blue ice, or during a strong wind, unless it were at our backs, skiing was impossible.
Owing to a steeper down grade, the sledges were now commencing to run more freely and improvised brakes were tried, all of which were ineffectual in restraining the dogs. The pace became so hot that a small obstacle would capsize the sledge, causing it to roll over and over down the slope. The dogs, frantically pulling in various directions to keep ahead of the load, became hopelessly entangled in their traces and were dragged along unresistingly until the sledge stopped of its own accord or was arrested by one of us. At length, most of the dogs were allowed to run loose, and, with a man holding on behind and a couple of dogs pulling ahead, the loads were piloted down a steep slope for several miles.
The evening camp was situated at the crest of the last but steepest fall into a wide glacial valley which was clearly seen to sweep northwards past the eastern side of Aurora Peak. Looking back we could define our track winding down in the bed of a long shallow valley, while, uprising on either hand near the rim of the plateau were crevassed bluffs where the ice of the tableland streamed abruptly over the underlying crags.
Ninnis had a touch of snow–blindness which rapidly improved under treatment. The stock cure for this very irritating and painful affection is to place first of all tiny ‘tabloids’ of zinc sulphate and cocaine hydrochloride under the eyelids where they quickly dissolve in the tears, alleviating the smarting, ‘gritty’ sensation which is usually described by the sufferer. He then bandages the eyes and escapes, if he is lucky, into the darkness of his sleeping–bag.
In certain lights one is sure to be attacked more or less severely, and coloured glasses should be worn continually. Unfortunately, goggles are sometimes impracticable on account of the moisture from the breath covering the glasses with an icy film or driving snow clogging them and obscuring the view. For such contingencies narrow slots of various shapes are cut in plates or discs of wood or bone in the Esquimaux fashion. The amount of light reaching the eye can thus be reduced to the limit of moderately clear vision.
The morning of the 20th broke with wind and drift which persisted until after noon. Already everything had been packed up, but, as there was a steep fall in front and crevasses were not far distant, we decided not to start until the air was clear of snow.
When at last a move was possible, it became evident that the dogs could not be trusted to pull the sledges down to the edge of the glacier. So they were tethered to ice–axes while we lowered the sledges one by one, all three checking their speed, assisted by rope brakes round the runners. Finally, the impatient dogs were brought down and harnessed in their accustomed places.
Rapid travelling now commenced over a perfectly smooth surface, sloping gently to the bed of the glacier. Mertz shot ahead on skis, and our column of dogs and sledges followed quickly in his trail.
From this day forward our ‘order of procession’ was as follows: – Behind the forerunner came a team of dogs dragging two sledges joined together by a short length of alpine rope. Bringing up the rear were the rest of the dogs dragging the third sledge. Each team pulled approximately equal weights; the front load being divided between two sledges. Except when taking my turn ahead, I looked after the leading team; Ninnis or Mertz, as the case might be, driving the one behind.
We skirted Aurora Peak on its southeastern side. The mountain rose to a height of about seventeen hundred feet on our left, its steep sides being almost completely snow–clad.
The wide depression of the Mertz Glacier lay ahead, and on its far side the dim outline of uprising icy slopes was visible, though at the time we could not be certain as to their precise nature.
As the sledges passed Aurora Peak, Blizzard and Ginger Bitch ran alongside. The former had hurt one of her forefeet on the previous day during the ‘rough–and–tumble’ descending into the valley. Ginger Bitch was allowed to go free because she was daily expected to give birth to pups. As she was such a good sledge–dog we could not have afforded to leave her behind at the Hut, and later events proved that the work seemed actually to benefit her, for she was at all times the best puller and the strongest of the pack. However, in permitting both dogs to run loose that afternoon, there was an element of danger which we had not sufficiently appreciated.
Suddenly, without any warning, half of my dogs dropped out of sight, swinging on their harness ropes in a crevasse. Next moment I realized that the sledges were in the centre of a bridge covering a crevasse, twenty–five feet wide, along the edge of which part of the team had broken through.
We spent many anxious moments before they were all hauled to the daylight and the sledge rested on solid ground. There were other crevasses about and almost immediately afterwards Ginger Bitch and Blizzard had broken through into a fissure and were frantically struggling to maintain their hold on the edge. They were speedily rescued; following which Ginger Bitch gave birth to the first of a large litter of pups. After this second accident we decided to camp.
During the morning of November 21 there was a good deal of wind and drift which made travelling rather miserable. Occasionally open crevasses would break the surface of the snow.
When the light at last improved, a nunatak was observed some fifteen miles or more to the south rising out of the glacier – Correll Nunatak. Ahead of us was a glittering line of broken ice, stretching at right angles to our path. Studded about on the icy plain were immense cauldrons, like small craters in appearance. Then an area dotted over with ice mounds approached and crevasses became correspondingly more numerous. The dogs frequently broke through them but were easily extricated in every instance.
Camp was pitched for lunch in the vicinity of many gaping holes leading down into darkness, places where the bridges over large crevasses had fallen in. Mertz prepared the lunch and Ninnis and I went to photograph an open crevasse near by. Returning, we diverged on reaching the back of the tent, he passing round on one side and I on the other. The next instant I heard a bang on the ice and, swinging round, could see nothing of my companion but his head and arms. He had broken through the lid of a crevasse fifteen feet wide and was hanging on to its edge close to where the camera lay damaged on the ice. He was soon dragged into safety. Looking down into the black depths we realized how narrowly he had escaped. As the tent was found to encroach partly on the same crevasse, it may be imagined that we did not dally long over the meal.
In the afternoon the weather became clear and fine, but, as if to offset this, the broken surface became impassable. The region was one of sérac where the glacier was puckered up, folded and crushed. After several repulses in what seemed to be promising directions, we were finally forced to camp, having ten miles to our credit.
Whilst Mertz fed the dogs and prepared hoosh, Ninnis and I roped up and went off to search for a passage.
All around, the glacier was pressed up into great folds, two hundred feet in height and between one quarter and a third of a mile from crest to crest. The ridges of the folds were either domes or open rifts partly choked with snow. Precipitous ice–falls and deep cauldrons were encountered everywhere. To the north the glacier flattened out; to the south it was more rugged.
In this chaos we wandered for some miles until a favourable line of advance had been discovered for the march on the following day.
The first three miles, on the 22nd, were over a piece of very dangerous country, after which our prospects improved and we came to the border of a level plain.
There Mertz slipped on his skis, went ahead and set a good pace. Although the sky had become overcast and snow fell fitfully, our progress was rapid towards the rising slopes of the land on the eastern side of the glacier. Over the last three miles of the day’s journey the surface was raised in large, pimply masses surrounded by wide fissures. Into one of the fissures, bridged by snow, Ninnis’s sledge fell, but fortunately jammed itself just below the surface. As it was, we had a long job getting it up again, having to unpack the sledge in the crevasse until it was light enough to be easily manipulated. Despite the delay, our day’s run was sixteen and a half miles.
At 8 am on the 23rd everything was in readiness for a fresh start. Moderate drift and wind descended from the hills and there were yet three miles of hidden perils to be passed. With the object of making our advance less dangerous, various devices were employed.
First of all the towing rope of the rear sledge was secured to the back of the preceding sledge. This arrangement had to be abandoned because the dogs of Ninnis’s team persisted in entangling themselves and working independently of the dogs in front. Next, all the sledges were joined together with all the dogs pulling in front. The procession was then so long that it was quite unmanageable on account of the tortuous nature of our track through the labyrinth. In the long run, it was decided that our original method was the best, provided that special precautions were taken over the more hazardous crossings.
The usual procedure was, that the forerunner selected the best crossing of a crevasse, testing it with a ski–stick. The dog teams were then brought up to the spot and the forerunner went over the snow–bridge and stood on the other side, sufficiently far away to allow the first team to cross to him and to clear the crevasse. Then the second team was piloted to safety before the forerunner had resumed his position in front. This precaution was very necessary, for otherwise the dogs in the rear would make a course direct for wherever the front dogs happened to be, cutting across corners and most probably dragging their sledge sideways into a crevasse; the likeliest way to lose it altogether.
Often enough the dogs broke through the snow–bridges on the morning of the 23rd, but only once were matters serious, when Ninnis’s sledge, doubtless on account of its extra weight, again broke through a lid of snow and was securely jammed in a crevasse just below the surface.
On this occasion we were in a serious predicament, for the sledge was in such a position that an unskilful movement would have sent it hurling into the chasm below. So the unpacking of the load was a tedious and delicate operation. The freight consisted chiefly of large, soldered tins, packed tightly with dried seal meat. Each of these weighed about ninety pounds and all were most securely roped to the sledge. The sledge was got up and reloaded without the loss of a single tin, and once more we breathed freely.
A valley almost free of crevasses was chosen as the upward track to the plateau. We threw in our weight hauling with the dogs, and had a long, steep drag over furrowed névé, pitching the tent after a day’s journey of twelve miles.
On waking up on November 24 I found that my watch had stopped. I had been so tired on the previous evening that I had fallen asleep without remembering to wind it. The penalty of this accident was paid in my being forced to take an extra set of observations in order to start the watch again at correct time relative to the Hut.
Besides the observations for position, necessary for navigation, sets of angles were taken from time to time to fix the positions of objects of interest appearing within the field of view, while the magnetic variation was obtained at intervals. In this work Ninnis always assisted me. Mertz boiled the hypsometer when necessary to ascertain our elevation above sea–level. The meteorological conditions were carefully noted several times each day for future comparison with those of other parties and of Winter Quarters.
The day’s work on November 24 brought us high up on the slopes. Away to the northwest Aurora Peak was still visible, standing up like a mighty beacon pointing the way back to the Hut. Below lay the Mertz Glacier extending out to sea as a floating tongue beyond the horizon. Inland, some twenty miles to the south, it mounted up in seamed and riven ‘cataracts’ to a smooth, broad and shallow groove which wound into the ice–cap. Ahead, on our southeast course, the ground still rose, but to the northeast the ice–sheet fell away in long wide valleys, at the extremity of some of which icebergs were visible frozen into distant sea–ice.
The tent was raised at 10 pm in a forty–mile wind with light drift; temperature 10°F. The altitude of this camp was two thousand three hundred and fifty feet.
One of the worst features of drift overnight is that sledges and dogs become buried in snow and have to be dug out in the morning. Thus on the 25th it was 10 am before we got away in a strong wind, with flying snow, across fields of sastrugi.
The dogs detested the wind and, as their heads were so near the ground, they must have found the incessant stream of thick drift very tantalizing. The snow became caked over their eyes so that every few minutes they had to scrape it away with their paws or rub their faces on the ground.
We stopped at 6 pm after a miserable day, covering sixteen miles in all.
November 26 broke overcast, the light being bad for travelling and the wind still strong. Nevertheless we set out at 10 am through falling snow.
As the day progressed the wind subsided and Mertz was able to put on his skis over a surface which sloped gradually away to the east. The light was diffused uniformly over the irregularities of snow and ice so that depressions only a few feet away were invisible. Black objects, on the other hand, stood out with startling distinctness, and our attention was soon arrested by a hazy, dark patch which appeared in front and to the left. At first there was much doubt as to its nature, but it was soon clear that it must be a group of rocks, apparently situated at a considerable distance. They were subsequently found to be sixty miles away (Organ Pipe Cliffs, near Cape Blake).
Presently our course ended abruptly at the edge of a precipitous fall. We skirted round this for a while, but were ultimately forced to camp owing to the uncertainty of the light and the proximity of several large crevasses.
At 11 pm the sky cleared and a better idea could be gained of what lay ahead. In a line between our elevated position and the distant rocky outcrops the ice fell in a steep descent to a broad, glacial valley, undulating and in places traversed by torn masses of sérac–ice. We examined the country to the east very carefully with a view to selecting a track for the journey next day and finally resolved to pass to the south of a large ice–capped island – Dixson Island, which was only about ten miles to the northeast, set within Ninnis Glacier near its western border
On the 27th Mertz and I roped up, reconnoitred for a while and returned to the sledges. We then spent several hours in advancing a mile over badly broken ground, arriving at a slope covered with sastrugi and descending steeply for one thousand feet into the bed of the glacier.
In order the more safely to negotiate this, the dogs were all let loose excepting two in each sledge. Even then the sledges were often uncontrollable, rolling over and over many times before the bottom was reached.
When the dogs were re–harnessed it was found that Betli was missing and was not to be seen when we scanned the slopes in our rear with binoculars. It was expected that unless she had fallen into a crevasse she would turn up at the camp that night. However, she did not reappear, and we saw no more of her. Two other dogs, Jappy and Fusilier, had been previously killed, as neither was of any use as a puller. Blizzard, who had been always a great favourite with us, had to be shot next day.
When it had reached the edge of the glacier, our path led over a solid ocean rising and faring in billows, two hundred and fifty feet in height; no doubt caused by the glacier in its northward movement being compressed against the southern side of Dixson Island. Still, the ‘caravan’ made considerable progress, ending with a day’s journey of sixteen miles.
During the small hours of November 28 the wind rose to a velocity of sixty miles per hour, but gradually diminished to a twenty–knot breeze as the day advanced. Light snow fell from a sky which was densely clouded.
We still pursued a devious track amid rolling waves of ice, encountering beds of soft snow through which the sledges moved slowly. By 6 pm pinnacles and hummocks stood around on every side, and the light was such that one could not distinguish crevasses until he was on top of them. We had to camp and be satisfied with seven miles ‘to the good’. By this time the dogs were in good training and grew noticeably ravenous. In the evening, before they were properly tethered, Shackleton seized a one–week provision bag, ripped it open and ate a block of butter weighing more than two and a half pounds. This was a loss to us, as butter was regarded as a particular delicacy.
The sun was shining brightly next day and it was at once evident that we were in a zone of tumbled and disrupted ice.
For many hours a way was won through a mighty turmoil of sérac and over innumerable crevasses with varied fortune. Just before lunch my two sledges were nearly lost through the dogs swinging sharply to one side before the second sledge had cleared a rather rotten snow–bridge. I was up with the dogs at the time, and the first intimation I received of an accident was on seeing the dogs and front sledge being dragged backwards; the rear sledge was hanging vertically in a crevasse. Exerting all my strength I held back the front sledge, and in a few moments was joined by Ninnis and Mertz, who soon drove a pick and ice–axe down between the runners and ran out an anchoring rope.
It was a ticklish business recovering the sledge which hung suspended in the crevasse. It could not be lifted vertically as its bow was caught in a V–shaped cornice formed by an overhanging mass of snow. To add to our troubles the ground all about the place was precarious and unsafe.
Mertz and Ninnis therefore lowered me down and I attached a rope to the tail–end of the sledge. The bow–rope and tail–rope were then manipulated alternately until the bow of the sledge was manoeuvred slowly through the gaping hole in the snow–lid and was finally hauled up on to level ground. No more remarkable test of the efficiency of the sledge straps and the compactness of the load could have been made.
After lunch Mertz ascended a high point and was able to trace out a route which conducted us in a few hours to a better surface.
We were now at an elevation of from four hundred to five hundred feet above sea–level, running across a beam–wind on our right which increased during the afternoon. A rising blizzard made it necessary to camp after a day’s run of ten and one–third miles.
The wind blew up to seventy miles an hour during the night, but eased in strength early on November 30. At 10 am we tried to make a start, but the dogs refused to face the drift. On the wind becoming gusty in the afternoon, it was once more possible to travel, and we set out.
Dense drift was still to be seen pouring over the highlands to the southeast. Above the glacier ahead whirlies, out–lined in high revolving columns of snow, ‘stalked about’ in their wayward courses.
The sledges ran through a sea of crevassed, blue ice, over ridges and past open chasms. Seven miles brought us to the ‘foot–hills’ on the eastern border of the Ninnis Glacier, where we pitched camp.
The first day of December was still and hot, with brilliant sunshine. The shade temperature reached 34°F. and the snow became so sticky that it was as much as we and the dogs could do to move the sledges up the slopes. As the evening lengthened and the sun sank lower the surface froze hard and our toil was lightened. At midnight we reached an altitude of nine hundred feet.
December 2 was another warm, bright day. The surface was atrociously bad; hard, sharp sastrugi, never less than two feet high and in many instances three feet six inches from crest to trough. The dogs were not able to exert a united pull for there were never more than half of them in action at a time.
Once more we were at a comparatively high altitude and a fine view presented itself to the north. One could look back to the mainland slopes descending on the western side of the Ninnis Glacier. Then the glacier, tumultuous and broken, was seen to extend far out into the frozen sea and, sweeping round to the northeast, the eye ranged over a great expanse of floe–ice dotted with bergs. To the east there was a precipitous coastline of dark rock which for a while we thought of visiting. But then it seemed likely that Madigan’s party would reach as far east, so we set our faces once more to the rising plateau in the southeast.
At midnight the sun was peering over the southern sky–line, and we halted at an elevation of one thousand five hundred and fifty feet, having covered eight and a half miles in the day. The temperature was 5°F.
‘December 3. – We were not long on the way before the sky became overcast and light snow fell. The surface was becoming flatter. Camp was pitched at 11 pm after eleven and two–thirds miles.
‘December 4. – Another day of bad light but the surface improved and good headway was made on an easterly course at an elevation of between two thousand and two thousand eight hundred feet. The crevasses were practically past. The day’s march was fifteen miles.
‘December 5. – A bad day; overcast, snowing and a gale of wind from the east–southeast. However, we plugged on blindly into it until 7.30 pm and then camped, having done eleven and a half miles.
‘December 6, 7 and 8. – During these days a dense blizzard raged, the wind reaching seventy miles per hour. There was nothing to do but lie in our bags and think out plans for the future. Each morning Ninnis and Mertz took it in turns to go out and feed their charges, who were snugly buried in the deep snow.
‘One day in the sleeping–bag does not come amiss after long marches, but three days on end is enough to bore any one thoroughly.
‘Ninnis was not so badly off with a volume of Thackeray, but Mertz had come to the end of a small edition of “Sherlock Holmes” when blizzard–bound near Aladdin’s Cave, and his only diversion on these days was to recite passages from memory for our mutual benefit.’
I was troubled with an inflammation in the face just at this time, while Ninnis suffered pain owing to a ‘whitlow’ on one of his fingers.
As usual the food ration was reduced. This caused us to have more than ordinarily vivid dreams. I happened to be awake one night when Ninnis was sledging in imagination, vociferously shouting, ‘Hike, hike’, to the dogs; our equivalent of the usual ‘Mush, mush’.
Despite considerable wind and drift we got away at 8 am on December 9. The sky was overcast and there was nothing to be seen except a soft carpet of newly fallen snow into which we sank half–way to the knees. The sledges ran deeply and heavily so that the dogs had to be assisted. Ahead Mertz glided along triumphant, for it was on such occasions that skis were of the greatest assistance to him.
During the day a snow petrel circled above us for a while and then returned to the north.
The course was due east at an elevation of two thousand three hundred feet and the total distance we threw behind during the day was sixteen and a half miles.
On the 10th light wind and low drift were the order of things. Our spirits rose when the sky cleared and a slight down grade commenced.
During the morning Ninnis drew our attention to what appeared to be small ice–capped islets fringing the coast, but the distance was too great for us to be sure of their exact nature. Out near the verge of the horizon a tract of frozen sea with scattered bergs could be seen.
Next day more features were distinguishable. The coast was seen to run in a northeasterly direction as a long peninsula ending in a sharp cape – Cape Freshfield. The north appeared to be filled with frozen sea though we could not be certain that it was not dense pack–ice. Little did we know that Madigan’s party, about a week later, would be marching over the frozen sea towards Cape Freshfield in the northeast.
At 10 pm on the 11th, at an altitude of one thousand eight hundred feet, the highland we were traversing fell away rapidly and sea–ice opened up directly in front of us. The coastal downfalls to the southeast fell in rugged masses to a vertical barrier, off the seaward face of which large, tabular bergs were grouped within environing floe.
Throughout December 12 a somewhat irregular course was made to the southeast and south to avoid the broken area ahead. We had had enough of crevasses and wished to be clear of sérac–ice in the future.
For some days Ninnis had been enduring the throbbing pain of a whitlow and had not been having sufficient sleep. He always did his share of the work and had undoubtedly borne a great deal of pain without showing it. On several nights I noticed that he sat up in his sleeping–bag for hours puffing away at a pipe or reading. At last the pain became so acute that he asked me to lance his finger. This was successfully accomplished after breakfast on the 13th and during the day he had much relief.
While Ninnis rested before we made a start, Mertz and I re–arranged the sledges and their loads. A third sledge was no longer necessary, so the one usually driven by Ninnis, which had been damaged, was discarded and all the gear was divided between the other two sledges in nearly equal amounts. When the work was completed, the rear sledge carried an extra weight of fifty pounds. As, however, both food for men and dogs were to come from it, we reckoned that this super-added load would soon diminish.
On we went, during the afternoon, up a steep ascent. Crevasses were so numerous that we took measures to vent them. Some were as much as a hundred feet in width, filled with snow; others were great open holes or like huge cauldrons. Close to the windward edge of some of the latter high ramps of névé with bluff faces on the windward side stood up like monoliths reaching twenty–five feet in maximum height.
In the evening a field of névé was reached and we felt more placid after the anxiety of the preceding hours.
During the passage of a snow–filled valley a dull, booming sound like the noise of far–distant cannon was heard. It was evidently connected with the subsidence of large areas of the surface crust. Apparently large cavities had formed beneath the snow and the weight of ourselves and the sledges caused the crust to sink and the air to be expelled.
The sun appeared late in the day and, as it was almost calm, the last few hours of marching were very pleasant. At midnight we camped at an altitude of one thousand nine hundred feet.
A light east–southeast wind was blowing as the sledges started away eastward on the morning of December 14. The weather was sunny and the temperature registered 21°F.
Mertz and I were happy to know that Ninnis had slept well and was feeling much better.
Our march was interrupted at noon by a latitude observation, after which Mertz went ahead on skis singing his student songs. The dogs rose to the occasion and pulled eagerly and well. Everything was for once in harmony and the time was at hand when we should turn our faces homewards.
Mertz was well in advance of us when I noticed him hold up his ski–stick and then go on. This was a signal for something unusual so, as I approached the vicinity, I looked out for crevasses or some other explanation of his action. As a matter of fact crevasses were not expected, since we were on a smooth surface of névé well to the southward of the broken coastal slopes. On reaching the spot where Mertz had signalled and seeing no sign of any irregularity, I jumped on to the sledge, got out the book of tables and commenced to figure out the latitude observation taken on that day. Glancing at the ground a moment after, I noticed the faint indication of a crevasse. It was but one of many hundred similar ones we had crossed and had no specially dangerous appearance, but still I turned quickly round, called out a warning word to Ninnis and then dismissed it from my thoughts.
Ninnis, who was walking along by the side of his sledge, close behind my own, heard the warning, for in my backward glance I noticed that he immediately swung the leading dogs so as to cross the crevasse squarely instead of diagonally as I had done. I then went on with my work.
There was no sound from behind except a faint, plaintive whine from one of the dogs which I imagined was in reply to a touch from Ninnis’s whip. I remember addressing myself to George, the laziest dog in my own team, saying, ‘You will be getting a little of that, too, George, if you are not careful’.
When I next looked back, it was in response to the anxious gaze of Mertz who had turned round and halted in his tracks. Behind me, nothing met the eye but my own sledge tracks running back in the distance. Where were Ninnis and his sledge?
I hastened back along the trail thinking that a rise in the ground obscured the view. There was no such good fortune, however, for I came to a gaping hole in the surface about eleven feet wide. The lid of a crevasse had broken in; two sledge tracks led up to it on the far side but only one continued on the other side.
Frantically waving to Mertz to bring up my sledge, upon which there was some alpine rope, I leaned over and shouted into the dark depths below. No sound came back but the moaning of a dog, caught on a shelf just visible one hundred and fifty feet below. The poor creature appeared to have broken its back, for it was attempting to sit up with the front part of its body while the hinder portion lay limp. Another dog lay motionless by its side. Close by was what appeared in the gloom to be the remains of the tent and a canvas tank containing food for three men for a fortnight.
We broke back the edge of the névé lid and took turns leaning over secured by a rope, calling into the darkness in the hope that our companion might be still alive. For three hours we called unceasingly but no answering sound came back. The dog had ceased to moan and lay without a movement. A chill draught was blowing out of the abyss. We felt that there was little hope.
Why had the first sledge escaped the crevasse? It seemed that I had been fortunate, because my sledge had crossed diagonally, with a greater chance of breaking the snow–lid. The sledges were within thirty pounds of the same weight. The explanation appeared to be that Ninnis had walked by the side of his sledge, whereas I had crossed it sitting on the sledge. The whole weight of a man’s body bearing on his foot is a formidable load and no doubt was sufficient to smash the arch of the roof.
By means of a fishing line we ascertained that it was one hundred and fifty feet sheer to the ledge on which the remains were seen; on either side the crevasse descended into blackness. It seemed so very far down there and the dogs looked so small that we got out the field glasses, but could make out nothing more by their aid.
All our available rope was tied together but the total length was insufficient to reach the ledge and any idea of going below to investigate and to secure some of the food had to be abandoned.
Stunned by the unexpectedness of it all and having exhausted the few appliances we carried for such a contingency, we felt helpless. In such moments action is the only tolerable thing, and if there had been any expedient however hazardous which might have been tried, we should have taken all and more than the risk. Stricken dumb with the pity of it and heavy at heart, we turned our minds mechanically to what lay nearest at hand.
There were rations on the other sledge, and we found that there was a bare one and a half weeks’ food for ourselves and nothing at all for the dogs. Part of the provisions consisted of raisins and almonds which had been taken as extras or ‘perks’, as they were usually called.
Among other losses there were both spade and ice–axe, but fortunately a spare tent–cover was saved. Mertz’s burberry trousers had gone down with the sledge and the best substitute he could get was a pair of thick Jaeger woollen under–trousers from the spare clothing we possessed.
Later in the afternoon Mertz and I went ahead to a higher point in order to obtain a better view of our surroundings. At a point two thousand four hundred feet above sea–level and three hundred and fifteen and three–quarter miles eastward from the Hut, a complete observation for position and magnetic azimuth was taken.
The coastal slopes were fearfully broken and scaured in their descent to the sea, which was frozen out to the horizon. No islands were observed or anything which could correspond with the land marked by Wilkes as existing so much farther to the north. Patches of ‘water sky’ were visible in two places in the far distance. As we stood looking north a Wilson petrel suddenly appeared and after flitting about for a short time departed.
We returned to the crevasse and packed the remaining sledge, discarding everything unnecessary so as to reduce the weight of the load. A thin soup was made by boiling up all the old food–bags which could be found. The dogs were given some worn–out fur mitts, finnesko and several spare raw hide straps, all of which they devoured.
We still continued to call down into the crevasse at regular intervals in case our companion might not have been killed outright and, in the meantime, have become conscious. There was no reply.
A weight was lowered on the fishing line as far as the dog which had earlier shown some signs of life, but there was no response. All were dead, swallowed up in an instant.
When comrades tramp the road to anywhere through a lonely blizzard–ridden land in hunger, want and weariness the interests, ties and fates of each are interwoven in a wondrous fabric of friendship and affection. The shock of Ninnis’s death struck home and deeply stirred us.
He was a fine fellow and a born soldier – and the end: –
Life – give me life until the end,
That at the very top of being,
The battle spirit shouting in my blood,
Out of very reddest hell of the fight
I may be snatched and flung
Into the everlasting lull,
The Immortal, Incommunicable Dream.
At 9 pm we stood by the side of the crevasse and I read the burial service. Then Mertz shook me by the hand with a short ‘Thank you!’ and we turned away to harness up the dogs.
This version of Home of the Blizzard has been edited and published by the Australian Antarctic Division.