Chapter 13: Toil and tribulation
Chapter 13: Toil and tribulation
The homeward track! A few days ago – only a few hours ago – our hearts had beat hopefully at the prospect and there was no hint of this, the overwhelming tragedy. Our fellow, comrade, chum, in a woeful instant, buried in the bowels of the awful glacier. We could not think of it; we strove to forget it in the necessity of work, but we knew that the truth would assuredly enter our souls in the lonely days to come. It was to be a fight with Death and the great Providence would decide the issue.
On the outward journey we had left no depots of provisions en route, for it was our bad fortune to meet such impossible country that we had decided to make a circuit on our return to Winter Quarters sufficiently far inland to avoid the coastal irregularities. As a matter of fact, on the very day of the calamity, preparations had been made to cache most of the food within twenty–four hours, as during the last few days of the journey we were to make a dash to our ‘farthest east’ point. Such were the plans, and now we were ranged against unexpected odds.
With regard to the dogs, there were six very miserable animals left. The best of them had been drafted into the rear team, as it was expected that if an accident happened through the collapse of a snow–bridge the first sledge would most probably suffer. For the same reason most of the food and other indispensable articles had been carried on the rear sledge.
All the dogs which had perished were big and powerful; Basilisk, Ginger Bitch, Shackleton, Castor, Franklin and John Bull. We had fully anticipated that those at least would come back alive, at the expense of the six dogs in my sledge.
A silent farewell – and we started back, aiming to reach our camping–ground on December 12 before a snowstorm intervened, as several things had been left there which would be of use to us in our straitened circumstances. The weather still held good and there were no signs of approaching snow or wind. So Mertz went ahead on skis, while we plodded slowly up the hills and dashed recklessly down them. During the descents I sat on the sledge and we slid over long crevassed slopes in a wild fashion, almost with a languid feeling that the next one would probably swallow us up. But we did not much care then, as it was too soon after losing our friend.
At 2.30 am on December 15 the discarded sledge and broken spade came into sight. On reaching them, Mertz cut a runner of the broken sledge into two pieces which were used in conjunction with his skis as a framework on which to pitch the spare tent–cover; our only tent and poles having been lost. Each time the makeshift shelter was erected, these props had to be carefully lashed together at the apex, which stood four feet from the ground. Inside, there was just room for two one–man sleeping–bags on the floor. However, only one man at a time could move about and neither of us could ever rise above a sitting posture. Still, it was a shelter which protected us from the bad weather, and, with plenty of snow blocks piled around it, was wonderfully resistant to the wind.
When we retired to rest, it was not to sleep but to think out the best plan for the return journey.
It was obvious that a descent to the frozen sea would be dangerous on account of the heavily crevassed nature of the falling glacier, delay would undoubtedly be caused and our distance from the Hut would be increased. To decide definitely for the sea–ice would be to take other risks as well, since, from the altitude at which we were placed, we could not be sure that the floe–ice which covered the sea would provide a good travelling surface. In any case it was likely to be on the point of breaking up, for the season was nearing midsummer. On the other hand, there was on the sea–ice a chance of obtaining seals for food.
After due consideration we resolved to follow the shorter route, returning inland over the plateau, for it was reckoned that if the weather were reasonable we might win through to Winter Quarters with one and a half weeks’ rations and the six dogs which still remained, provided we ate the dogs to eke out our provisions. Fortunately neither the cooker nor the kerosene had been lost.
George, the poorest of the dogs, was killed and partly fed to the others, partly kept for ourselves. The meat was roughly fried on the lid of the aluminium cooker, an operation which resulted in little more than scorching the surface. On the whole it was voted good though it had a strong, musty taste and was so stringy that it could not be properly chewed.
As both mugs and spoons had been lost, I made two pannikins out of tins in which cartridges and matches had been packed, and Mertz carved wooden spoons out of a portion of the broken sledge. At this camp he also spliced the handle of the broken shovel which had been picked up, so as to make it temporarily serviceable.
It was midsummer, and therefore we found it easier to drag the sledge over the snow at night when the surface was frozen hard. Camp was not finally broken until 6 pm, when the long and painful return journey commenced.
For fourteen miles the way led up rising snow slopes to the northwest until an elevation of two thousand five hundred feet had been reached. After that, variable grades and flat country were met. Though the sledge was light, the dogs required helping and progress was slow. The midnight sun shone low in the south, and we tramped on through the morning hours, anxious to reduce the miles which lay ahead.
Early on December 16 the sky became rapidly overcast. The snowy land and the snowy sky merged to form an enclosed trap, as it seemed to us, while showers of snow fell. There were no shadows to create contrast; it was impossible to distinguish even the detail of the ground underfoot. We stumbled over unseen ridges of the hard névé, our gaze straining forward. The air was so still that advantage was taken of the calm to light the primus and melt some snow in the lee of the sledge. The water, to which were added a few drops of primus alcohol, helped to assuage our thirst.
The erection of the makeshift tent was a long and tedious operation, and so, on our return marches, we never again took any refreshment during the day’s work excepting on this occasion.
At 6 am, having done twenty miles and ascended to an elevation of about two thousand five hundred feet, we pitched camp.
There was very little sleep for me that day for I had an unusually bad attack of snow–blindness. During the time that we rested in the bags Mertz treated one of my eyes three times, the other twice with zinc sulphate and cocaine.
On account of the smallness of the tent a great deal of time was absorbed in preparations for ‘turning in’ and for getting away from each camp. Thus, although we rose before 6 pm on December 16, the start was not made until 8.30 pm, notwithstanding the fact that the meal was of the ‘sketchiest’ character.
On that night ours was a mournful procession; the sky thickly clouded, snow falling, I with one eye bandaged and the dog Johnson broken down and strapped on top of the load on the sledge. There was scarcely a sound; only the rustle of the thick, soft snow as we pushed on, weary but full of hope. The dogs dumbly pressed forward in their harness, forlorn but eager to follow. Their weight now told little upon the sledge, the work mainly falling upon ourselves. Mertz was tempted to try hauling on skis, but came to the conclusion that it did not pay and thenceforth never again used them.
Close to the Magnetic Pole as we were, the compass was of little use, and to steer a straight course to the west without ever seeing anything of the surroundings was a difficult task. The only check upon the correctness of the bearing was the direction in which trended the old hard winter sastrugi, channelled out along a line running almost north and south. The newly fallen snow obliterated these, and frequent halts had to be called in order to investigate the buried surface.
At 2 am on the 17th we had only covered eleven miles when we stopped to camp. Then Mertz shot and cut up Johnson while I prepared the supper.
Johnson had always been a very faithful, hard–working and willing beast, with rather droll ways of his own, and we were sorry that his end should come so soon. He could never be accused of being a handsome dog, in fact he was generally disreputable and dirty.
All the dogs were miserable and thin when they reached the stage of extreme exhaustion. Their meat was tough, stringy and without a vestige of fat. For a change we sometimes chopped it up finely, mixed it with a little pemmican, and brought all to the boil in a large pot of water. We were exceedingly hungry, but there was nothing to satisfy our appetites. Only a few ounces were used of the stock of ordinary food, to which was added a portion of dog’s meat, never large, for each animal yielded so very little, and the major part was fed to the surviving dogs. They crunched the bones and ate the skin, until nothing remained.
A fresh start was made at 7.30 pm and a wretched, trying night was spent, when we marched without a break for twelve and a half hours. Overhead there was a dense pall of nimbus from which snow fell at intervals. None of the dogs except Ginger gave any help with the load, and Mary was so worn out that she had to be carried on the sledge. Poor Mary had been a splendid dog, but we had to kill her at the camp in the morning.
After a run of eighteen and a half miles we halted at 8 am on December 18.
At 5.30 pm a light southeaster blew and snow fell from an overcast sky. Soon after a start was made, it became apparent that a descent was commencing. In this locality the country had been swept by wind, for none of the recent snow settled on the surface. The sastrugi were high and hard, and over them we bumped, slipping and falling in the uncertain light. We could not endure this kind of travelling for long and resolved to camp shortly after midnight, intending to go on when the day had advanced further and the light was stronger.
‘December 19. – Up at noon and tried a few more miles in the snow–glare. Later in the afternoon the sky began to break and we picked our way with less difficulty. Camped at 5 pm, having done only twelve miles one thousand and fifty yards since the morning of December 18.
‘Up at 8 pm again, almost calm and sun shining. Still continuing a westerly course we dropped several hundred feet, marching over rough, slippery fields of sastrugi.’
In the early morning hours of the 20th the surface changed to ice and occasional crevasses appeared. It was clear that we had arrived at the head of the Ninnis Glacier above the zone of sérac we had traversed on the outward journey. It was very satisfactory to know this; to be certain that some landmark had been seen and recognized.
Soon after this discovery we came near losing Haldane, the big grey wolf, in a crevasse. Miserably thin from starvation the wretched dogs no longer filled their harness. As we pulled up Haldane, after he had broken into a deep, sheer–walled crevasse, his harness slipped off just as he reached the top. It was just possible to seize hold of his hair at that moment and to land him safely, otherwise we should have lost many days’ rations.
He took to the harness once more but soon became uncertain in his footsteps, staggered along and then tottered and fell. Poor brutes! That was the way they all gave in – pulling till they dropped.
We camped at 4 am, thinking that a rest would revive Haldane. Inside the tent some snow was thawed, and we drank the water with an addition of a little primus spirit. A temperature reading showed –1°F.
Outside, the hungry huskies moaned unceasingly until we could bear to hear them no longer. The tent was struck and we set off once more.
Haldane was strapped on the sledge as he could not walk. He had not eaten the food we had given him, because his jaws seemed too weak to bite. He had just nursed it between his paws and licked it.
Before the dogs became as weak as this, great care had to be taken in tethering them at each camp so as to prevent them from gnawing the wood of the sledge, the straps or, in fact, anything at all. Every time we were ready for a fresh start they seemed to regain their old strength, for they struggled and fought to seize any scraps, however useless, left on the ground.
The day’s march was completed at 10.30 am and fourteen and a half miles lay behind.
‘We were up again at 11.20 pm Sky clear; fifteen–mile breeze from the south–southeast and the temperature 3°F. By midnight there was a thirty–mile wind and low, flying drift.
‘December 21. – The night–march was a miserable one. The only thing which helped to relieve it was that for a moment Dixson Island was miraged up in the north, and we felt that we had met an old friend, which means a lot in this icy desolation. The surface was furrowed by hard, sharp sastrugi.
‘We camped at 9 am after only eleven miles. Haldane was finished off before we retired.
‘We were up again at 9 pm, and when a start was made at 11 pm there was a strong south–southeast wind blowing, with low drift; temperature, zero Fahr.
‘December 22. – The surface of hard, polished sastrugi caused many falls. The track was undulating, rising in one case several hundred feet and finally falling in a long slope.
‘Pavlova gave in late in the march and was taken on the sledge.
‘Camped at 6.40 am in a forty–mile wind with low drift. Distance marched was twelve miles one thousand four hundred yards.
‘Before turning in, we effected sundry repairs. Mertz re–spliced the handle of the shovel which had broken apart and I riveted the broken spindle of the sledge–meter. The mechanism of the latter had frozen during the previous day’s halt, and, on being started, its spindle had broken off short. It was a long and tedious job tapping at the steel with a toy hammer, but the rivet held miraculously for the rest of the journey.
‘Up at 11.30 pm, a moderate breeze blowing, overcast sky, light snow falling.’
On December 28 an uphill march commenced which was rendered very heavy by the depth of the soft snow. Pavlova had to be carried on the sledge.
Suddenly, gaping crevasses appeared dimly through the falling snow which surrounded us like a blanket. There was nothing to do but camp, though it was only 4.30 am, and we had covered but five miles one thousand two hundred and thirty yards.
Pavlova was killed and we made a very acceptable soup from her bones. In view of the dark outlook, our ration of food had to be still further cut down. We had no proper sleep, hunger gnawing at us all the time, and the question of food was forever in our thoughts. Dozing in the fur bags, we dreamed of gorgeous ‘spreads’ and dinner–parties at home. Tramping along through the snow, we racked our brains thinking of how to make the most of the meagre quantity of dogs’ meat at hand.
The supply of kerosene for the primus stove promised to be ample, for none of it had been lost in the accident. We found that it was worth while spending some time in boiling the dogs’ meat thoroughly. Thus a tasty soup was prepared as well as a supply of edible meat in which the muscular tissue and the gristle were reduced to the consistency of a jelly. The paws took longest of all to cook, but, treated to lengthy stewing, they became quite digestible.
On December 24 we were up at 8 am just as the sun commenced to gleam through clouds. The light was rather bad, and snow fell as the track zigzagged about among many crevasses; but suddenly the sun broke forth. The sledge was crossing a surface of deep snow which soon became so sticky that the load would scarcely move. At last a halt was made after four miles, and we waited for the evening, when the surface was expected to harden.
A small prion visited us but went off in a moment. It is very remarkable how far some Antarctic sea–birds may wander inland, apparently at such a great distance from anything which should interest them. We were then more than one hundred miles south of the open sea. As the bird flew away, we watched it until it disappeared in the north, wishing that we too had wings to cross the interminable plateau ahead.
Lying in the sleeping–bag that day I dreamt that I visited a confectioner’s shop. All the wares that were displayed measured feet in diameter. I purchased an enormous delicacy just as one would buy a bun under ordinary circumstances. I remember paying the money over the counter, but something happened before I received what I had chosen. When I realized the omission I was out in the street, and, being greatly disappointed, went back to the shop, but found the door shut and ‘early closing’ written on it.
Though a good daily average had been maintained on the march whenever conditions were at all favourable, the continuance of bad weather and the undoubtedly weaker state in which we found ourselves made it imperative to dispense with all but the barest necessities. Thus the theodolite was the only instrument retained, and the camera, photographic films (exposed and unexposed), hypsometer, thermometers, rifle, ammunition and other sundries were all thrown away. The frame of the tent was made lighter by constructing two poles, each four feet high, from the telescopic theodolite legs, the heavier pieces of sledge–runner being discarded.
We were up at 11 pm on December 24, but so much time was absorbed in making a dog–stew for Christmas that it was not till 2.30 am that we got under way. We wished each other happier Christmases in the future, and divided two scraps of biscuit which I found in my spare kit–bag; relics of better days.
The surface was a moderately good one of undulating, hard sastrugi, and, as the course had been altered to northwest, the southerly wind helped us along. The sun shone brightly, and only for the wind and the low drift we might have felt tolerably comfortable. On our right, down within the shallow depression of the Ninnis Glacier, the low outline of Dixson Island, forty miles to the north, could be seen miraged up on the horizon.
The tent was raised at 9.30 am after a run of eleven miles one hundred and seventy–six yards. An ounce each of butter was served out from our small stock to give a festive touch to the dog–stew.
At noon I took an observation for latitude, and, after taking a bearing on to Dixson Island, computed that the distance in an air–line to Winter Quarters was one hundred and sixty miles.
‘December 26. – Got away at 2 am; the surface undulating and hummocky with occasional beds of soft snow. Sun shining, wind ranged between thirty and forty miles per hour with much low drift; cold; camped about noon having done ten miles five hundred and twenty–eight yards.
‘We have reached the western side of the Ninnis Glacier. Ahead are rising slopes, but we look forward to assistance from the wind in the ascent.
‘I was again troubled with a touch of snow–blindness, but it responded to the usual treatment.
‘At 11 pm we were at it again, but what with preparing dog–stew, packing up within the limited area of the tent and experimenting with a sail, it was five hours before the march commenced.
‘The sail was the tent–cover, attached to the top of one ski lashed vertically as a mast and secured below to the other ski, lashed across the sledge as a boom.’
A start was made at 4 am on the 27th in a thirty–mile wind accompanied by low drift. The surface was smooth but grew unexpectedly soft at intervals, while the ascent soon began to tell on us. Though the work was laborious, notwithstanding some aid from the sail, the bright sunlight kept up our spirits, and, whenever a halt was called for a few minutes’ spell, the conversation invariably turned upon the subject of food and what we should do on arrival on board the Aurora.
At noon the sledge–meter showed nine miles one thousand four hundred yards, and we agreed to halt and pitch camp.
The wind had fallen off considerably, and in the brilliant sunshine it was comparatively warm in the tent. The addition of the heat from the primus stove, kept burning for an unusually long time during the preparation of the meat, caused a thaw of drift–snow which became lodged on the lee side of the tent. Thus we had frequently to put up with an unwelcome drip. Moisture came from the floor also, as there was no floor–cloth, and the sleeping–bags were soon very wet and soggy. As soon as the cooking was finished, the tent cooled off and the wet walls froze and became stiff with icy cakes.
At this time we were eating largely of the dogs’ meat, to which was added one or two ounces of chocolate or raisins, three or four ounces of pemmican and biscuit mixed together, and, as a beverage, very dilute cocoa. The total weight of solid food consumed by each man per day was approximately fourteen ounces. Our small supply of butter and glaxo was saved for emergency, while a few tea–bags which remained were boiled over and over again.
The march commenced on December 28 at 3 am in a thirty–mile wind accompanied by light drift. Overhead there was a wild sky which augured badly for the next few days. It was cold work raising the sail, and we were glad to be marching.
Our faithful retainer Ginger could walk no longer and was strapped on the sledge. She was the last of the dogs and had been some sort of a help until a few days before. We were sad when it came to finishing her off.
On account of the steep up grade and the weight of Ginger on the sledge, we camped at 7.15 am after only four miles one thousand two hundred and thirty yards.
We had breakfast off Ginger’s skull and brain. I can never forget the occasion. As there was nothing available to divide it, the skull was boiled whole. Then the right and left halves were drawn for by the old and well–established sledging practice of ‘shut–eye’, after which we took it in turns eating to the middle line, passing the skull from one to the other. The brain was afterwards scooped out with a wooden spoon.
On sledging journeys it is usual to apportion all food–stuffs in as nearly even halves as possible. Then one man turns away and another, pointing to a heap, asks ‘Whose?’. The reply from the one not looking is ‘Yours’ or ‘Mine’ as the case may be. Thus an impartial and satisfactory division of the rations is made.
After the meal I went on cooking more meat so as to have a supply in readiness for eating. It was not till 2 pm that the second lot was finished. The task was very trying, for I had to sit up on the floor of the tent for hours in a cramped position, continually attending to the cooker, while Mertz in his sleeping–bag was just accommodated within the limited space which remained. The tent was too small either to lie down during the operation or to sit up comfortably on a sleeping–bag.
At 9.30 pm Mertz rose to take a turn at the cooking, and at 11 pm I joined him at ‘breakfast’.
At this time a kind of daily cycle was noted in the weather. It was always calmest between 4 pm and 6 pm. During the evening hours the wind increased until it reached a maximum between four and six o’clock next morning, after which it fell off gradually.
We were away at 2.30 am on the 29th in a thirty–mile wind which raised a light drift. The sail was found to be of great assistance over a surface which rose in terraces of fifty to one hundred feet in height, occurring every one to one and a half miles. This march lasted for six hours, during which we covered seven miles five hundred and twenty–eight yards.
On December 30 the ascent continued and the wind was still in the ‘thirties’. After several hours we over-topped the last terrace and stood on flat ground – the crest of a ridge.
Tramping over the plateau, where reigns the desolation of the outer worlds, in solitude at once ominous and weird, one is free to roam in imagination through the wide realm of human experience to the bounds of the great Beyond. One is in the midst of infinities – the infinity of the dazzling white plateau, the infinity of the dome above, the infinity of the time past since these things had birth, and the infinity of the time to come before they shall have fulfilled the Purpose for which they were created. We, in the midst of the illimitable, could feel with Marcus Aurelius that ‘Of life, the time is a point’.
By 9 am we had accomplished a splendid march of fifteen miles three hundred and fifty yards, but the satisfaction we should have felt at making such an inroad on the huge task before us was damped by the fact that I suddenly became aware that Mertz was not as cheerful as usual. I was at a loss to know the reason, for he was always such a bright and companionable fellow.
At 10.15 pm the sky had become overcast, snow was falling and a strong wind was blowing. We decided to wait for better conditions.
On New Year’s Eve at 5.30 am the wind was not so strong, so we got up and prepared for the start.
Mertz said that he felt the dogs’ meat was not doing him much good and suggested that we should give it up for a time and eat a small ration of the ordinary sledging food, of which we had still some days’ supply carefully husbanded. I agreed to do this and we made our first experiment on that day. The ration tasted very sweet compared with dogs’ meat and was so scanty in amount that it left one painfully empty.
The light was so atrocious for marching that, after stumbling along for two and a half miles, we were obliged to give up the attempt and camp, spending the day in sleeping–bags.
In the evening at 9.30 pm the sun appeared for a brief moment and the wind subsided. Another stage was therefore attempted but at considerable cost, for we staggered along in the bewildering light, continually falling over unseen sastrugi. The surface was undulating with a tendency to down grades. Two sets of sastrugi were found crossing one another, and, in the absence of the sun, we could not be sure of the course, so the camp was pitched after five miles.
‘January 1, 1913. – Outside, an overcast sky and falling snow. Mertz was not up to his usual form and we decided not to attempt blundering along in the bad light, believing that the rest would be advantageous to him.
‘He did not complain at all except of the dampness of his sleeping–bag, though when I questioned him particularly he admitted that he had pains in the abdomen. As I had a continuous gnawing sensation in the stomach, I took it that he had the same, possibly more acute.
‘After New Year’s Day he expressed a dislike to biscuit, which seemed rather strange. Then he suddenly had a desire for glaxo and our small store was made over to him, I taking a considerable ration of the dogs’ meat in exchange.
‘It was no use, however, for when we tried to cover a few more miles the exertion told very heavily on him, and it was plain that he was in a more serious condition than myself.
‘January 2. – The same abominable weather. We eat only a few ounces of chocolate each day.
‘January 3. – In the evening the sky broke and the sun looked through the clouds. We were not long in packing up and getting on the way. The night was chilly and Mertz got frost–bitten fingers, so camp was pitched after four miles one thousand two hundred and thirty yards.
‘January 4. – The sun was shining and we had intended rising at 10 am, but Mertz was not well and thought that the rest would be good for him. I spent the time improving some of the gear, mending Mertz’s clothing and cooking a quantity of the meat.
‘January 5. – The sky was overcast, snow was falling, and there was a strong wind. Mertz suggested that as the conditions were so bad we should delay another day.
‘Lying in the damp bags was wretched and was not doing either of us any good, but what was to be done? Outside, the conditions were abominable. My companion was evidently weaker than I, and it was apparently quite true that he was not making much of the dogs’ meat.
‘January 6. – A better day but the sky remained overcast. Mertz agreed to try another stage.’
The grade was slightly downhill and the wind well behind. Unfortunately the surface was slippery and irregular and falls were frequent. These told very much upon my companion until, after consistently demurring, he at last consented to ride on the sledge. With the wind blowing behind us, it required no great exertion to bring the load along, though it would often pull up suddenly against sastrugi. After we had covered two and a half miles, Mertz became so cold through inaction in the wind that there was nothing to do but pitch the tent.
Mertz appeared to be depressed and, after the short meal, sank back into his bag without saying much. Occasionally, during the day, I would ask him how he felt, or we would return to the old subject of food. It was agreed that on our arrival on board the Aurora Mertz was to make penguin omelettes, for we had never forgotten the excellence of those we had eaten just before leaving the Hut.
Reviewing the situation, I found that we were one hundred miles southeast of Winter Quarters where food and plenty awaited us. At the time we had still ordinary rations for several days. How short a distance it would seem to the vigorous, but what a lengthy journey for the weak and famished!
The skin was peeling off our bodies and a very poor substitute remained which burst readily and rubbed raw in many places. One day, I remember, Mertz exclaimed, ‘Just a moment’, and, reaching over, lifted from my ear a perfect skin–cast. I was able to do the same for him. As we never took off our clothes, the peelings of hair and skin from our bodies worked down into our under–trousers and socks, and regular clearances were made.
During the evening of the 6th I made the following note in my diary:
‘A long and wearisome night. If only I could get on; but I must stop with Xavier. He does not appear to be improving and both our chances are going now.’
‘January 7. – Up at 8 am, it having been arranged last night that we would go on today at all costs, sledge–sailing, with Xavier in his bag on the sledge.’ It was a sad blow to me to find that Mertz was in a weak state and required helping in and out of his bag. He needed rest for a few hours at least before he could think of travelling. ‘I have to turn in again to kill time and also to keep warm, for I feel the cold very much now.’
‘At 10 am I get up to dress Xavier and prepare food, but find him in a kind of fit.’ Coming round a few minutes later, he exchanged a few words and did not seem to realize that anything had happened. ‘… Obviously we can’t go on today. It is a good day though the light is bad, the sun just gleaming through the clouds. This is terrible; I don’t mind for myself but for others. I pray to God to help us.’
‘I cook some thick cocoa for Xavier and give him beef–tea; he is better after noon, but very low – I have to lift him up to drink.’
During the afternoon he had several more fits, then became delirious and talked incoherently until midnight, when he appeared to fall off into a peaceful slumber. So I toggled up the sleeping–bag and retired worn out into my own. After a couple of hours, having felt no movement from my companion, I stretched out an arm and found that he was stiff.
My comrade had been accepted into ‘the peace that passeth all understanding’. It was my fervent hope that he had been received where sterling qualities and a high mind reap their due reward. In his life we loved him; he was a man of character, generous and of noble parts.
For hours I lay in the bag, rolling over in my mind all that lay behind and the chance of the future. I seemed to stand alone on the wide shores of the world – and what a short step to enter the unknown future!
My physical condition was such that I felt I might collapse in a moment. The gnawing in the stomach had developed there a permanent weakness, so that it was not possible to hold myself up in certain positions. Several of my toes commenced to blacken and fester near the tips and the nails worked loose.
Outside, the bowl of chaos was brimming with drift–snow and I wondered how I would manage to break and pitch camp single–handed. There appeared to be little hope of reaching the Hut. It was easy to sleep on in the bag, and the weather was cruel outside. But inaction is hard to brook, and I thought of Service’s lines:
Buck up, do your damndest and fight,
It’s the plugging away that will win you the day.
If I failed to reach the Hut it would be something done to reach some prominent point likely to catch the eye of a search party, where a cairn might be erected and our diaries cached. And so I commenced to modify the sledge and camping gear to meet fresh requirements.
The sky remained clouded, but the wind fell off to a calm which lasted for several hours. I took the opportunity to set to work on the sledge, sawing it in halves with a pocket tool. A mast was made out of one of the rails of the discarded half of the sledge and a spar was cut from the other rail. The sledge–meter, very much battered, was still serviceable. Lastly, the load was cut down to a minimum by the elimination of all but the barest necessities.
Late on the evening of the 8th I took the body of Mertz, wrapped up in his sleeping–bag, outside the tent, piled snow blocks around it and raised a rough cross made of the two half–runners of the sledge.
On January 9 the weather was overcast and fairly thick drift was flying in a wind reaching about fifty miles an hour. As certain matters still required attention and my chances of re–erecting the tent were rather doubtful, if I had decided to move on, the start was delayed.
‘I read the Burial Service over Xavier this afternoon. As there is little chance of my reaching human aid alive. I greatly regret inability at the moment to set out the detail of coastline met with for three hundred miles travelled and observations of glacier and ice–formations, etc; the most of which latter are, of course, committed to my head.
‘The approximate location of the camp is latitude 68° 2’ S, longitude 145° 9’ E. This is dead reckoning, as the theodolite legs have been out of action for some time, splinted together to form tent–props. I believe the truth lies nearer latitude 67° 57’ S, longitude 145° 20’ E, as the wind must have drifted us to the north.’
During the afternoon I cut up Mertz’s burberry jacket and roughly sewed it to a large canvas clothes–bag, making a sail which could be readily set or furled, so as to save delay in starting out or in camping.
January 10 was an impossible day for travelling on account of thick drift and high wind. I spent part of the time in reckoning up the amount of food remaining and in cooking the rest of the dogs’ meat; the last device enabling me to leave behind some of the kerosene, of which there was still a good supply. Late in the afternoon the wind fell and the sun peered amongst the clouds just as I was in the middle of a long job riveting and lashing the broken shovel.
It was on January 11 – a beautiful, calm day of sunshine – that I set out over a good surface with a slight down grade. From the start my feet felt lumpy and sore. They had become so painful after a mile of walking that I decided to make an examination of them on the spot, sitting in the sun on the sledge. The sight of my feet gave me quite a shock, for the thickened skin of the soles had separated in each case as a complete layer, and abundant watery fluid had escaped into the socks. The new skin underneath was very much abraded and raw.
I did what appeared to be the best thing under the circumstances: smeared the new skin with lanoline, of which there was a good store, and with bandages bound the skin soles back in place, as they were comfortable and soft in contact with the raw surfaces. Outside the bandages I wore six pairs of thick woollen socks, fur boots and a crampon over–shoe of soft leather. Then I removed most of my clothing and bathed in the glorious heat of the sun. A tingling sensation seemed to spread throughout my whole body, and I felt stronger and better.
When the day commenced with ideal weather I thought I would cover a long distance, but at 5.30 pm, after six and a quarter miles, I felt nerve–worn and had to camp, ‘so worn that had it not been a delightful evening, I should not have found strength to erect the tent’.
Though the medical outfit was limited, there were a fair number of bandages and on camping I devoted much time to tending raw patches all over the body, festering fingers and inflamed nostrils.
High wind and much drift put travelling out of the question on January 12, and in any case my feet needed a rest.
‘January 13. – The wind subsided and the snow cleared off at noon. The afternoon was beautifully fine. Descended hard ice–slopes over many crevasses – almost all descent – but surface cut my feet up; at 8 pm camped, having done five and three–quarter miles – painful feet – on camping find feet worse than ever; things look bad but shall persevere. It is now 11 pm and the glacier is firing off like artillery – appears to send up great jets of imprisoned air.’
During the march Aurora Peak showed up to the west, about twenty miles away, across the Mertz Glacier. I felt happy at thus fixing my position, and at the sight of the far plateau which led onwards to Winter Quarters.
The glacier was the next obstacle to advance. To the southwest it descended from the plateau in immense broken folds. Pressing northward it was torn into the jumbled crush of sérac–ice, sparkling beneath an unclouded sun. The idea of diverging to the west and rounding the ice–falls occurred to me, but the detours involved other difficulties, so I strove to pick out the best track across the valley.
A high wind which blew on the morning of the 14th diminished in strength by noon and allowed me to get away. The sun was so warm that the puckered ice underfoot was covered with a film of water and in some places small trickles ran away to disappear into crevasses.
Though the course was downhill to the Mertz Glacier, the sledge required a good deal of pulling owing to the wet runners. At 9 pm, after travelling five miles, I pitched camp in the bed of the glacier.
Between 9.30 pm and 11 pm the ‘cannonading’ heard on the previous night recommenced. The sounds, resembling the explosions of heavy guns, usually started higher up the glacier and ended down towards the sea. When I first heard them, I put my head outside the tent to see what was going on. The reports came at random from every direction, but there was no visible evidence as to how they were produced. Without a doubt they had something to do with the re–freezing and splitting of the ice owing to the evening chill; but the sounds seemed far too loud to be explained by this cause alone.
January 15 – the date on which all the summer sledging parties were due at the Hut! It was overcast and snowing early in the day, and in a few hours the sun broke out and shone warmly. The travelling was so heavy over a soft snowy surface, partly melting, that I gave up, after one mile, and camped.
At 7 pm the surface had not improved, the sky was thickly obscured and snow fell. At 10 pm the snow was coming down heavily, and, since there were many crevasses in the vicinity, I resolved to wait.
On the 16th at 2 am the snow was as thick as ever, but at 5 am the atmosphere lightened and the sun appeared.
Without delay I broke camp. A favourable breeze sprang up, and with sail set I managed to proceed through the snowy ‘deluge’ in short stages. The snow clung in lumps to the runners, which had to be scraped frequently. I passed some broken ridges and sank into several holes leading down to crevasses out of which it was possible to scramble easily.
After laboriously toiling up one long slope, I was just catching my breath at the top and the sledge was running easily when I noticed that the surface beneath my feet fell away steeply in front. I suddenly realized that I was on the brink of a great blue hole like a quarry. The sledge was following of its own accord and was rapidly gaining speed, so I turned and, exerting every effort, was just able to hold it back by means of the hauling–line from the edge of the abyss. I should think that there must have been an interval of quite a minute during which I held my ground without being able to make it budge. Then it slowly came my way, and the imminent danger was past.
The day’s march was an extremely hard five miles. Before turning in I had an extra supper of jelly soup, made by boiling down some of the dogs’ sinews, strengthened with a little pemmican. The acute enjoyment of eating under these circumstances compensates in a slight measure for the suffering of starvation.
January 17 was another day of overcast weather and falling snow. Delay meant a reduction in the ration which was low enough already, so there was nothing to do but go on.
When I got away at 8 am I found that the pulling was easier than it had been on the previous day. Nevertheless I covered only two miles and had to consider myself fortunate in not winding up the whole story then and there. This is what happened, following the account in my diary.
‘Going up a long, fairly steep slope, deeply covered with soft snow, broke through lid of crevasse but caught myself at thighs, got out, turned fifty yards to the north, then attempted to cross trend of crevasse, there being no indication of it; a few moments later found myself dangling fourteen feet below on end of rope in crevasse – sledge creeping to mouth – had time to say to myself, “so this is the end”, expecting the sledge every moment to crash on my head and all to go to the unseen bottom – then thought of the food uneaten on the sledge; but as the sledge pulled up without letting me down, thought of Providence giving me another chance.’ The chance was very small considering my weak condition. The width of the crevasse was about six feet, so I hung freely in space, turning slowly round.
A great effort brought a knot in the rope within my grasp, and, after a moment’s rest, I was able to draw myself up and reach another, and, at length, hauled myself on to the overhanging snow–lid into which the rope had cut. Then, when I was carefully climbing out on to the surface, a further section of the lid gave way, precipitating me once more to the full length of the rope.
Exhausted, weak and chilled (for my hands were bare and pounds of snow had got inside my clothing) I hung with the firm conviction that all was over except the passing. Below was a black chasm; it would be but the work of a moment to slip from the harness, then all the pain and toil would be over. It was a rare situation, a rare temptation – a chance to quit small things for great – to pass from the petty exploration of a planet to the contemplation of vaster worlds beyond. But there was all eternity for the last and, at its longest, the present would be but short. I felt better for the thought.
My strength was fast ebbing; in a few minutes it would be too late. It was the occasion for a supreme attempt. New power seemed to come as I addressed myself to one last tremendous effort. The struggle occupied some time, but by a miracle I rose slowly to the surface. This time I emerged feet first, still holding on to the rope, and pushed myself out, extended at full length, on the snow – on solid ground. Then came the reaction, and I could do nothing for quite an hour.
The tent was erected in slow stages and I then had a little food. Later on I lay in the sleeping–bag, thinking things over. It was a time when the mood of the Persian philosopher appealed to me:
Unborn Tomorrow and dead Yesterday,
Why fret about them if Today be sweet?
I was confronted with this problem: whether it was better to enjoy life for a few days, sleeping and eating my fill until the provisions gave out, or to ‘plug on’ again in hunger with the prospect of plunging at any moment into eternity without the great luxury and pleasure of food. And then an idea presented itself which greatly improved my prospects. It was to construct a ladder from alpine rope; one end of which was to be secured to the bow of the sledge and the other to be carried over my left shoulder and loosely attached to the sledge harness. Thus, if I fell into a crevasse again, it would be easy for me, even though weakened by starvation, to scramble out again by the ladder, provided the sledge was not also engulfed.
Notwithstanding the possibilities of the rope ladder, I could not sleep properly at all; my nerves had been so overtaxed. All night considerable wind and drift continued.
On the 19th it was overcast and light snow was falling. I resolved ‘to go ahead and leave the rest to Providence’.
As they wallowed through the deep snow my feet and legs kept breaking through into space. Then I went right under, but the sledge was held back and the ladder ‘proved trumps’. A few minutes later I was down again, but I emerged again without much exertion, half–smothered with snow. Faintness overcame me and I stopped to camp, though only a short distance had been covered.
All around me was a leaden glare, the snow clouds ‘corralling’ me in. The sun had not shown up for some days and I was eager to see it once more, not only that it might show up the landscape, but for its cheerful influence and life–giving energy. A few days previously my condition had been improving, but now it was going back.
During the night of the 18th loud booming noises, sharp cracks and muffled growls issued form the neighbouring crevasses and kept waking me up. At times one could feel a vibration accompanying the growling sounds, and I concluded that the ice was in rapid motion.
The sun at last appeared on the 19th, and I was off by 8.30 am. The whole surface was a network of crevasses, some very wide. Along one after another of these I dragged the sledge until a spot was reached where the snow–bridge looked to be firm. Here I plunged across, risking the consequences.
After three hours’ marching nothing serious had happened and I found myself on safer ground with a ‘pimply’ surface visible ahead, close under the slopes of the highlands. Once on this I became over–reliant, and in consequence sank several times into narrow fissures.
At 1 pm the Mertz Glacier was at last crossed and I had reached the rising hills on its western side. Overlooking the camp, five hundred feet above the glacier, were beetling, crevassed crags, but I could trace out a good road, free from pitfalls, leading to the plateau, at an elevation of three thousand feet.
To lighten my load for the climb I threw away alpine rope, finnesko crampons, sundry pairs of worn crampons and socks, while I rubbed a composition on the sledge–runners which prevented them from sticking to wet snow.
January 20 was a wretched day; overcast, with wind and light drift. In desperation I got away at 2 pm in a wind which proved to be of considerable assistance. I could see nothing of my surroundings; one thing was certain, and that was that the ascent had commenced and every foot took me upward. The day’s work amounted to about two and a half miles.
On the 21st the sun shone brightly and there was a good following wind. Through deep snow I zigzagged up for three miles before deciding to camp.
Wind and drift prevailed early on the 22nd but fell away towards noon, and I was then favoured with a glorious sunny day. Away to the north was a splendid view of the open sea; it looked so beautiful and friendly that I longed to be down near it. Six miles had been covered during the day, but I felt very weak towards the end on account of the heavy pulling.
During the early hours of the 23rd the sun was visible, but about 8 am the clouds sagged low, the wind rose and everything became blotted out in a swirl of driving snow.
I wandered on through it for several hours, the sledge capsizing at times owing to the strength of the wind. It was not possible to keep an accurate course, for even the wind changed direction as the day wore on. Underfoot there was soft snow which I found comfortable for my sore feet, but which made the sledge drag heavily at times.
When camp was pitched at 4 pm I reckoned that the distance covered in a straight line had been three and a half miles.
Erecting the tent single–handed in the high wind was a task which required much patience and some skill. The poles were erected first and then the tent was gathered up in the proper form and taken to the windward side of the legs where it was weighted down. The flounce on the windward side was got into position and piled up with snow blocks. Other blocks of snow had previously been placed in a ring round the legs in readiness to be tumbled on to the rest of the flounce when the tent was quickly slipped over the apex of the poles. In very windy weather it was often as much as two hours after halting before I would be cosy within the shelter of the tent.
High wind and dense driving snow persisted throughout the 24th and I made five and a half miles, sitting on the sledge most of the time with the sail up.
The blizzard continued on the 25th, but after the trying experience of the previous two days, I did not feel well enough to go on. Outside, the snow fell in ‘torrents’, piled up round the tent and pressed in until it was no bigger than a coffin, of which it reminded me.
I passed most of the day doctoring myself, attending to raw and inflamed places. Tufts of my beard and hair came out, and the snowy floor of the tent was strewn with it at every camp.
‘January 26. – I went on again in dense, driving snow. There was no need of the sail. The wind, which was behind, caught the sledge and bundled it along so that, though over a soft surface of snow, the travelling was rapid. The snow was in large, rounded grains, and beat on the tent like hail. Altogether nine miles were covered.
‘January 27. – Blizzard–bound again. The previous day’s exertions were too much for me to undertake the same again without a long rest.
‘January 28. – In the morning the wind had moderated very much but the sky remained overcast and snow continued to fall. It was a long job digging the tent out. Soon after the start the sun gleamed and the weather improved. The three–thousand–foot crest of the plateau had been crossed and I was bearing down rapidly on Commonwealth Bay, the vicinity of which showed up as a darker patch on the clouds of the northwest horizon.
‘The evening was fine and I really began to feel that Winter Quarters were approaching. To increase my excitement Madigan Nunatak came into view for a time in the clear, evening light. Distance covered, over eight miles.’
The calm of the previous evening was broken again, and I started on the morning of January 29 in considerable drift and a fairly strong wind. After going five miles I had miraculous good fortune.
I was travelling along on an even down grade and was wondering how long the two pounds of food which remained would last, when something dark loomed through the drift a short distance away to the right. All sorts of possibilities fled through my mind as I headed the sledge for it. The unexpected happened – it was a cairn of snow erected by McLean, Hodgeman and Hurley, who had been out searching for us. On the top of the mound was a bag of food, left on the chance that it might be picked up, while in a tin was a note stating the bearing and distance of the mound from Aladdin’s Cave (E 30° S, distance twenty–three miles), that the Ship had arrived at the Hut and was waiting, that Amundsen had reached the Pole, and that Scott was remaining another year in Antarctica.
It was rather a singular fact that the search party only left this mound at eight o’clock on the morning of that very day (January 29). It was about 2 pm when I found it. Thus, during the night of the 28th, our camps had been only about five miles apart.
With plenty of food, I speedily felt stimulated and revived, and anticipated reaching the Hut in a day or two, for there was then not more than twenty–three miles to cover. Alas, however, there was to be another delay. I was without crampons – they had been thrown away on the western side of Mertz Glacier – and in the strong wind was not able to stand up on the slippery ice of the coastal slopes. The result was that I sat on the sledge and ran along with the wind, nibbling at the food as I went. The sledge made so much leeway that near the end of the day, after fourteen miles, I reckoned that I had been carried to the east of Aladdin’s Cave. The course was therefore changed to the west, but the wind came down almost broadside–on to the sledge, and it was swept away. The only thing to do was to camp.
On the 30th I cut up the box of the theodolite and into two pieces of wood stuck as many screws and tacks as I could procure from the sledge–meter. In the repair–bag there were still a few ice–nails which at this time were of great use. Late in the day the wind fell off, and I started westward over the ice–slopes with the pieces of nail–studded wood lashed to my feet.
After six miles these improvised crampons broke up, and the increasing wind got me into difficulties. Finally, the sledge slipped sideways into a narrow crevasse and was caught by the boom (which crossed from side to side at the lower part of the mast). I was not strong enough for the job of extricating it straight away, and by the time I had got it safely on the ice, the wind had increased still more. So I pitched camp.
The blizzard was in full career on January 31 and I spent all day and until late at night trying to make the crampons serviceable, but without success.
On February 1 the wind and drift subsided late in the afternoon, and I clearly saw to the west the beacon which marked Aladdin’s Cave.
At 7 pm I reached this haven within the ice, and never again was I to have the ordeal of pitching the tent. Inside the cave were three oranges and a pineapple which had been brought from the Ship. It was wonderful once more to be in the land of such things!
I waited to mend one of the crampons and then started off for the Hut; but a blizzard had commenced. To descend the five miles of steep icy slopes with my miserable crampons, in the weak state in which I found myself, would only have been as a last resort. So I camped in the comfortable cave and hoped for better weather next day.
The high wind, rising to a hurricane at times, continued for a whole week with dense drift until the 8th. I spent the long hours making crampons of a new pattern, eating and sleeping. Eventually I became so anxious that I used to sit outside the cave for long spells, watching for a lull in the wind.
At length I resolved to go down in the blizzard, sitting on the sledge as long as possible, blown along by the wind. I was making preparations for a start when the wind suddenly decreased and my opportunity had come.
In a couple of hours I was within one mile and a half of the Hut. There was no sign of the Ship lying in the offing, but I comforted myself with the thought that she might be still at the anchorage and have swung inshore so as to be hidden by the ice–cliffs, or on the other hand that Captain Davis might have been along the coast to the east searching there.
But even as I gazed about seeking for a clue, a speck on the northwest horizon caught my eye and my hopes went down. It looked like a distant ship; it might well have been the Aurora. Well, what matter! The long journey was at an end–a terrible chapter of my life was finished!
Then the rocks around Winter Quarters began to come into view, part of the basin of the boat harbour appeared, and lo, there were human figures! They almost seemed unreal – I was in a dream – but after a brief moment one of them saw me and waved an arm, I replied, there was a commotion and they all ran towards the Hut. Then they were lost, for the crest of the first steep slope hid them. It almost seemed to me that they had run away to hide.
Minutes passed, and I slowly went along with the sledge. Then a head rose over the brow of the hill and there was Bickerton, breathless after a long run. I expect he considered for a while which one of us it was. Soon we had shaken hands and he knew all in a few brief words, and I learned that the Ship had left earlier in the day. Madigan, McLean, Bage and Hodgeman arrived, and then a new–comer – Jeffryes. Five men had remained behind to make a search for our party, and Jeffryes was a new wireless operator brought down by Captain Davis.
We were soon at the Hut where I found that full preparations had been made for wintering a second year. The weather was calm and the Ship was no distance away so I decided to recall her by wireless. The masts at the Hut had been re–erected during the summer, and on board the Aurora Hannam was provided with a wireless receiving set. Jeffryes had arranged with Hannam to call up at 8, 9 and 10 pm for several evenings while the Aurora was ‘within range’ in case there were any news of my party. A message recalling the Ship was therefore sent off and repeated at frequent intervals till past midnight.
Next morning there was a forty–mile wind when we went outside, but away across Commonwealth Bay to the west the Aurora could be seen close to the face of the ice–cliffs. She had returned in response to the call and was steaming up and down, waiting for the wind to moderate.
We immediately set to work getting all the records, instruments and personal gear ready to be taken down to the boat harbour in anticipation of calm weather during the day.
The wind chose to continue and towards evening was in the sixties, while the barometer fell. During the afternoon Hodgeman went across to the western ridge and saw that the Ship was still in the Bay. The sea was so heavy that the motor–boat could never have lived through it.
That night Jeffryes sent another message, which we learned afterwards was not received, in which Captain Davis was given the option of remaining until calm weather supervened or of leaving at once for the Western Base. I felt that the decision should be left to him, as he could appreciate exactly the situation of the Western Base and what the Ship could be expected to do amid the ice at that season of the year. The time was already past when, according to my written instructions left for him on arrival at Commonwealth Bay, the Aurora should sail west to relieve Wild and his party.
On the morning of the 10th there was no sign of the Ship and evidently Captain Davis had decided to wait no longer, knowing that further delay would endanger the chances of picking up the eight men who had elected to winter on the shelf–ice one thousand five hundred miles to the west. At such a critical moment determination, fearless and swift, was necessary, and, in coming to his momentous decision, Captain Davis acted well and for the best interests of the Expedition.
A long voyage lay before the Aurora through many miles of ice–strewn sea, swept by intermittent blizzards and shrouded now in midnight darkness. We still fostered the hope that the vessel’s coal–supply would be sufficient for her to return to Adélie Land and make an attempt to pick us up. But it was not to be.
The long Antarctic winter was fast approaching and we turned to meet it with resolution, knowing that if the Aurora failed us in early March, that the early summer of the same year would bring relief.
This version of Home of the Blizzard has been edited and published by the Australian Antarctic Division.