Chapter 14: The quest of the South Magnetic Pole
Chapter 14: The quest of the South Magnetic Pole
By Dr R Bage
Send me your strongest, those who never fail.
I’m the Blizzard, King of the Southern Trail!
– Sledging song
On the afternoon of November 10, at Aladdin’s Cave, after a convivial hoosh, Webb, Hurley and I said goodbye to Dr Mawson’s party and made off south for the eleven and three–quarter mile cave where our Supporting Party, Murphy, Hunter and Laseron, were waiting for us. At 7 pm we started almost at a run over the smooth ice, to the accompaniment of hearty cheers from Dr Mawson, Ninnis, and Mertz; two of whom we were never to see again.
Half a mile of this easy going, and we were on snow for the first time with a loaded sledge. Uphill snow, too, and the wind rising, so it was no small relief when we finally made the Cathedral Grotto at 11.30 pm, and found Murphy’s tent pitched alongside it. The wind by this time was about forty–five miles per hour and, it being nearly dusk, the crevasses – a five–mile belt – had been fairly difficult to negotiate.
We soon had the cave clear of snow, had a good meal and then slept the sleep of the just, feeling well content with the first day’s work – eleven and a half miles from home at an altitude of one thousand nine hundred feet. We were off at last on a search for the Magnetic Pole.
On the morrow some time was spent in rearranging the loads. Finally, both parties moved off south into heavy wind and fairly thick drift. What with the ground rising steadily, the pressure of the wind and our lack of condition, two and a quarter hours of solid work realized only two and a quarter miles; so we decided to camp.
All the night it blew hard, between seventy and eighty miles per hour, and next day it was still blowing and drifting heavily. Our tent was a good deal smaller than Murphy’s, and, as Webb and Hurley are both six–footers, we always had to put all gear outside when the sleeping–bags were down. This is really a good thing when the weather is bad, as one is not tempted to stay in the bag all the time.
Early in the afternoon as we were all feeling hungry and had been in bags long enough to feel cold, although the weather was quite warm (10°F), we rolled bags, and, when our frozen burberrys were once fairly on, quite enjoyed ourselves. After a boil–up and a few minutes’ ‘run’ round in the drift and wind, we did some stitching on our light drill tent, which was making very heavy weather of it, although pitched close under the lee of Murphy’s strong japara tent. A little reading, some shouted unintelligible conversation with the other tent, another boil–up, and, last but not least, a smoke, found us quite ready for another sleep.
Next day (November 13), the wind having dropped to thirty–five miles per hour, we set out about 11 am in light drift. The sky was still overcast, so the light was very trying. In the worst fogs at home one can at any rate see something of the ground on which one is treading; in Adélie Land, even when the air was clear of snow, it was easy to bump against a four–foot sastruga without seeing it. It always reminded me most of a fog at sea: a ship creeping ‘o’er the hueless, viewless deep’.
When 6 pm arrived we had only covered five and a half miles, but were all thoroughly exhausted and glad to camp. Lunch had been rather barbarously served in the lee of the sledge. First came plasmon biscuit, broken with the ice–axe into pieces small enough to go into the mouth through the funnel of a burberry helmet; then followed two ounces of chocolate, frozen rather too hard to have a definite taste; and finally a luscious morsel – two ounces of butter, lovingly thawed–out in the mouth to get the full flavour. Lunches like these in wind and drift are uncomfortable enough for everyone to be eager to start again as soon as possible.
By nine o’clock that night the wind had increased to a full gale. We were in camp all the 14th and the 15th, the wind rising to eighty–five miles per hour with very heavy drift during the small hours of the 15th. This was its maximum, and by the afternoon it was down to about seventy miles per hour with a clear sky and light drift. We donned our burberrys (I should like to give Hurley’s ‘Ode to a Frozen Burberry’) and dug out our sledges, both of which were completely buried in a ramp forty yards long; the shovel projecting nine inches above the surface.
While we were engaged on this work, I overheard the following conversation being shouted in the Supporting Party’s tent:
First voice: I’m hungry. Who will go out and get the food–bag?
Sleepy voice: The food–weights1 are in the cooker.
First voice: No they’re not.
Sleepy voice: Saw them there yesterday, must be somewhere in the tent.
First voice: No they’re not… I ate them last night.
The exercise, a good hoosh and above all the clear sky made us take a less morbid view of the fact that we were six days out from the Hut and only nineteen and a half miles away.
Early on the 16th we could hear above the roar of the wind the drift still hissing against the tent, but it had diminished by nine o’clock breakfast.
By common consent it was agreed that our loads were too heavy for the conditions under which we were working. I accordingly decided to drop one hundred–pound bag. We had already saved nearly one week’s food for three men and had not yet worked up our full sledging appetites. The bag was raised to the top of a six–foot snow mound, a thermograph being placed alongside. As we now seemed to be on plateau snow, I thought it wise to leave behind my heavy boots and Swiss crampons.
By 4 pm the wind had decreased to a light breeze. Work was very slow on a steeper up grade, and at six o’clock clouds came up quickly from the southeast and snow began to fall, so we camped at 7.30 pm thoroughly tired out. At twenty–four and a half miles the altitude was three thousand two hundred feet.
The snow was a false alarm. It ceased at 9 pm and the wind subsided to a dead calm!
Good headway was being made against a strong breeze next day, when it was noticed that two gallons of kerosene were missing off the supporters’ sledge. While Murphy and Laseron went back two miles to recover them, Webb secured a magnetic declination and I took sun observations for time and azimuth.
We were off early on the 18th and for the first time were able to appreciate the ‘scenery’. Glorious sunshine overhead and all around brilliant snow, dappled by livid shadows; very different from the smooth, soft, white mantle usually attributed to the surface of Antarctica by those in the homeland. Here and there, indeed, were smooth patches which we called bowling–greens, but hard and slippery as polished marble, with much the same translucent appearance. Practically all the country, however, was a jumbled mass of small, hard sastrugi, averaging perhaps a foot in height, with an occasional gnarled old veteran twice as high. To either side the snow rolled away for miles. In front, we made our first acquaintance with the accursed next ridge, which is always ahead of you on the plateau. Generally we passed from one ridge to another so gradually that we could never say for certain just when we had topped one; still the next ridge was always there.
The weather had lately been colder with the increased altitude. The temperature in daily range varied from –10°F to 9°F. It was so hot in the sun, on the 18th, that lunching inside the tent was unbearable. We preferred its shadow outside in the breeze.
Wearing a minimum of clothes, we marched along gaily during the afternoon. The country changed in a wonderful manner, the sastrugi gradually becoming smaller and finally disappearing. The surface was so soft that a bamboo would easily penetrate it for a foot. Evidently it was fairly old and laid down in calm weather, for excavations showed that it became more compact without any hard wind–swept layers marking successive snowfalls.
It was proved that we were commencing a descent of one thousand five hundred feet down the north side of a valley feeding the Mertz Glacier. In order to explain the surface, smooth and unruffled by any wind, the question arose as to whether it is possible that there is a cushion of dead air more or less permanently over the north side of this depression.
On the soft surface we were able to dispense with crampons. Hitherto, it had been impossible to haul over a slippery surface in finnesko. Now we felt as light as air and were vastly cheered when some one calculated that the six of us were saving I don’t know how many thousand foot–pounds of work every mile. With a run of twelve miles we were forty–two miles from Winter Quarters.
Another splendid day on the 19th. We had lunch in a curious cup–shaped hollow, estimated to be two miles wide and one hundred and fifty feet deep. Webb obtained here an approximate dip of 88° 44’,2 a very promising increase from the Hut (87° 27’).
Snow–blindness had now begun to make itself felt for the first time. I for one had my first experience of it that afternoon. During the halt at lunch I put on yellow goggles in place of the smoked ones I had been wearing, and in a quarter of an hour the change of colour had ‘settled’ my eyes for the time being.
The afternoon was very hot. The thermometer stood at 10°F at 4 pm, but the still air made it almost insupportable. By the time the load was hauled up out of the basin, we were streaming with perspiration.
Before halting, we sighted a dark, distant ridge, thirty miles away, and the course was corrected by its bearing. Our extravagant hopes of finding a permanently calm region had been dwindling for the last few miles, as a hard bottom, a few inches under the surface, had become evident. They were finally dispelled by a southwest wind springing up during the night.
As everyone was beginning to feel the hard work after another oppressive afternoon on the 20th, we decided to have an easy march next day and to build our first depot. Of course we had hoped to have been farther out before sending back the supporting party, but the weather had settled the question.
On the 21st, taking things as easily as a thirty–five mile wind would permit, we pulled on, up and down small undulations till 4 pm when we encountered a small rise, with the next ridge a considerable distance ahead. The depot was to be built here.
Webb at once proceeded to take full magnetic declination, time and azimuth observations, Laseron recording for him. Murphy put in a miserable hour over the primus melting snow. He was rather snow–blind and his eyes must have contributed a good deal of water to the pot. The water was poured into food–bags filled with snow, which were buried, encircled by wire slings, in holes. Here they froze, making excellent holdfasts for the depot flag. Depot flags had been exercising our ingenuity for months before the start, ordinary forms being destroyed by the wind in a few hours. Webb had finally built the perfect flag of the wind–vane type: a V of pieces of blackened Venesta board with light struts at the back and a piece of aeroplane tubing at the apex which slipped over the bamboo pole. The pole, of two bamboos, stood sixteen feet from the ground and was provided with two sets of flexible steel stays. Close by, Hurley and Hunter had built a snow mound ten feet in diameter and ten feet in height, finished off with a capping of snow blocks wrapped in black bunting.
Next day it was blowing a little harder and the sky was overcast, snow falling all day. What bad light means can be gathered from the fact that Laseron on crawling out of the tent in the morning raised an alarm that our tent had been blown away in the night. It turned out that our tent was hidden by a mound which he could not see, though only about ten yards from it.
I had been given the option of relieving the supporting party of any of their gear I coveted and I used it freely. The sledge–meter was the first thing commandeered, ours, made by Correll, having developed some slight complaint in its interior. Their cooker, being in good condition, was also taken. We all cast longing eyes at the roomy wind–proof tent but finally decided that it was too heavy – forty pounds as against our own of twenty–six pounds, including tent and poles.
At 7 pm we said goodbye to our supporters, Hurley exposed the last plate of his big reflex camera, which they carried back to the Hut, and a few minutes later Webb, Hurley, and I were standing alone watching three black specks disappearing in the drift; a stiff wind helping them along in great style. We were left to our own resources now, for better or for worse. ‘Weird’ is how I described my feelings in the diary.
The same night it blew a hurricane and only dropped to sixty miles per hour during the 23rd, compelling us to remain in camp. Not an ideal birthday for Webb, but we made the most of it. I quote from my diary: ‘Turned out and rolled bags at 3 pm for lunch, for which we opened a wee tin of bacon ration brought for the occasion. Had some extra lumps of sugar (collared from the eleven–mile cave) in our tea. After the wine had been round (ie after a special second cup of tea), I gave Eric a pair of stockings from Murphy, and then ‘Hoyle’ and I smoked a cigar each which Webb produced. Dinner at 7 was also a special affair as we had the remains of the bacon ration in the hoosh, with great effect. Also an extra strong brew of cocoa boiled quite smooth. Burberrys on and a stroll outside in the wind for a yard or two to get up a circulation; then into bag where I am smoking a plebeian pipe which is very tame after the glories of the day, especially as I suspect my tobacco of being a bit damp.’
Such was the first of the two ‘auspicious occasions’ we had on the journey.
After going carefully through the gear, we discarded a pick axe, one pair of big spiked boots and some odd clothing. We also decided, as the probability of leisure was not great, to leave our reading matter behind. It was with regret that I added my little Virginibus Puerisque to the small pile of ‘rejects’. The load now amounted to seven hundred and forty–eight pounds in all. Not many days after, the floor–cloth (eight pounds) was left behind, as the japara sail afforded ample protection from damp in the low temperatures of the plateau.
The dip–circle, which was to yield the most important result of our journey, was housed after much thought on a conveniently shaped kerosene tray between the tins of oil. Four light leather straps, buckled tightly, made a solid mass of tray, oil tins, and dip–circle; very safe, and easy to undo.
My orders were to proceed inland, due south, taking magnetic, geographical, meteorological, and such other observations as were possible, returning to the Hut not later than January 15. Dr Mawson had left it to my discretion, in the event of any great change occurring in the declination, to go either true or magnetic south.
At the Hut and up to about sixty miles south of it, the declination had proved fairly constant, but now at the Southern Cross Depot, as we had christened the sixty–seven–mile camp, the compass, from pointing a little to the east of south, had travelled to 40° east of south, so that it became obvious that there was considerable magnetic disturbance in the country over which we were travelling. Whether we went south or southeast seemed unlikely to affect the value of geographical and other information we might gather, while Webb was of the opinion that the best magnetic results would be obtained by marching directly towards the Magnetic Pole, particularly if there were disturbances over the intervening area. For these reasons the course was maintained magnetic south.
At 11 am on Sunday, November 24, we moved off to the southeast in a wind of fifty miles an hour. The light was bad, and steering had to be done by sastrugi and wind. However, momentary glimpses of the sun served to check the course. The lunch camp was five miles from the depot, and a good mound with a top of black bunting was left there. At almost every halt, thus far on our journey, the snow cut for pitching the tent had been gathered up into a mound which, in addition to forming a landmark, could often be used as a back–mark for checking the course. Our depot thus had a mound four miles on the southern and five miles on the northern side of it. It was not marked as well as I had hoped, but under the circumstances we could not do better. Moreover, at intervals during the day, some very distinctive snow ramps had appeared in the valley, some five miles to the northeast, and their position was fixed relative to the course.
Our hopes for a good afternoon were disappointed, as the wind and drift came up again as strong as ever. The surface, too, grew worse; nothing but sastrugi eighteen inches to thirty inches high and very close together. We were marching a little to the east of the wind, and the sledge was continually blown sideways, making considerable leeway. By 8.30 pm it was blowing sixty miles per hour, so we halted, thoroughly tired out, having hauled our one–third of a ton eight and three–quarter miles.
When it is blowing hard, the end of the day’s march is not the end of the day’s work. As soon as a camping spot has been chosen, the sledge is pulled round head to wind. The straps round the load are loosened carefully, the shovel and tent removed and the straps re-tightened. One man starts breaking out chunks of snow, experimenting until he finds a place where large pieces come away readily. Lumps of forty pounds are the handiest and quickest, but often only smaller ones can be obtained. These are arranged in a circle round the tent–site, while the man with the tent places it on the ground pointing upwind, the bottom of the poles being just where the middle windward leg will be, and makes a hole for that leg.
When everything is ready, all three catch hold of the tent, one man crawling half into it, gripping hard the leather loop on the windward leg. The others sort out and grip their two side legs. ‘All ready? Up!’ It almost takes one’s breath away, the roar and the flap! The side legs are quickly separated as the tent rises, and before it can blow over, the leeward legs are more or less in position, taking the strain. The centre man is throwing all his weight on to the leather loop, while the other two outside each holds down his windward pole with one hand and with the other pulls blocks of snow on to the skirt to windward. Once this is done, the rest is simple: cutting holes in just the right positions for the other legs, pulling out the skirt and making it snug all round. Then in goes the floor–cloth, and, by the time that is spread out properly, the primus and cooker are passed in. The cooker is dissected and the two water vessels passed out to be filled with snow. The cook will have hard work to get the primus started if he does not shield the spirit flame from the wind, which blows through the tent, by putting the whole lamp inside the big cooker lid.
In come the pots filled with lumps of snow. The food tank is placed just outside the entrance, and the proper food–bags for the meal are passed in to the cook, the tank being retied to keep out drift. The cooker will now be going at full pressure, and the cook is ready to receive the gear. Sleeping–bags, ‘computation bag’, hypsometer, ‘meat block’ (a three–inch–square paper pad on which meteorological notes were taken); clothes–bag opened, three ditty–bags passed in and bag retied; a final temperature taken and aneroid read; sledge anchored securely by tow–rope to the ice–axe, and a final look round to see all gear is safely strapped down and snow–tight.
In calm weather, camping is a very different thing. On a fine day, half an hour after the halt would usually find us carefully scraping the last of the hoosh out of our pannikins, ready for the cocoa.
At the seventy–six–mile camp we tried the experiment of a break–wind. The tent was so small and light that it was necessary to protect it in the heavy winds. Hurley and I took about three–quarters of an hour to build the first one, but later we improved, getting into the knack of hewing snow with a sharp–pointed shovel.
That night in bag I wrote: ‘The result of the breakwind is that for once we have the wind bluffed. It is blowing seventy–five miles per hour – a full hurricane – but all the viciousness is taken out of the flapping and there will be no damage done to the tent by morning.’
The wind was too strong for travelling early in the day (November 25). While outside we suddenly observed two snow petrels. It was hard to realize that they had actually flown seventy–six miles inland to a height of two thousand four hundred and fifty feet. I dashed inside for the fishing line; Hurley got out the camera. They were a beautiful sight, hovering with outspread wings just above the snow, tipping it with their feet now and then, to poise without a flutter in a sixty–five–mile gale. Hurley secured a couple of ‘snaps’ at the expense of badly frost–bitten hands. Just as I arrived with the line hooked and baited, the birds flew away to the northeast; our visions of fresh meat went with them. The line was always ready after this.
Towards evening the wind dropped suddenly to twenty miles per hour. Our camp was stationed on the southern side of the large valley we had entered on the 18th, and we could identify the ridge crossed on that date, blue and dim, forty miles away to the north. To the northeast could be seen a distinct dip in the skyline, indicating the bed of the valley, on whose northern side the dip met the higher skyline in a steep bluff, twenty–five miles off. This bluff under the glasses was of heavily crevassed, blue ice.
The wind did not rise again much until 10 pm, when we had moved on seven and a half miles, rising about three hundred feet over several ridges and practically losing our view to the north.
A steady breeze on the 26th, and, on the whole, good light, allowed us to make twelve miles.
Each day, now, Webb took an approximate magnetic dip and declination in the lee of the break–wind. This was necessary in order to get some idea of local disturbances. Also, it gave us some vague idea as to the direction in which lay the South Magnetic Pole. For instance, at the eighty–three–and–three–quarter–mile camp, the needle showed the Pole to be 18° east of true south, while at our lunch camp that day, six miles farther on, it was given as 50° east of south. The dip was so great that our prismatic compass would not set closer than about 15°, but the long compass needle of the dip–circle, though of course sluggish, continued to give excellent results.
Under these conditions it is obvious that the magnetic needle is quite useless for steering purposes. The sun compass proved itself a more than efficient substitute. On a snowfield there is usually a total absence of landmarks of any kind, so the direction of wind, sastrugi, or perhaps a low cloud is found with the sun–compass, frequently checked, and the course kept accordingly. On camping we would generally carefully note the direction in which the sledge was left, in case the next day proved overcast. Thus we would march in the morning by the wind’s direction till the sun, gleaming through the clouds for a few moments, enabled us to use the compass again.
Sastrugi, only six inches high, seen on the 26th, showed the effects of wind–erosion exquisitely. In an individual case the windward end of a sastruga might be completely undercut for six or nine inches, leaving a hard crust, sometimes only one–eighth of an inch in thickness and a couple of inches wide. This would sag downwards under its own weight in a fine curve till the tip rested on the snow beneath. It is marvellous how such a delicate structure can withstand the heavy wind.
November 27 proved a very hard day. The wind kept up sixty miles per hour all the time, so that, after taking four hours to do four and three–quarter miles, we were all thoroughly exhausted. It was not a great run, but the century was hoisted – one hundred and three–quarter miles by sledge–meter; altitude two thousand nine hundred feet. There was a mild celebration that night over a square of butter–scotch and half an ounce of chocolate, besides the regular hoosh and cocoa.
Next day the light was very bad and the wind fifty miles per hour. Observations were therefore made inside the tent. Webb, Hurley and the instrument occupied all available space, while I spent three hours digging a shaft eight feet deep in the snow, taking temperatures every foot. It appeared that the mean annual temperature of the snow was approximately –16°F.
The dip was 88° 54’; certainly rather too large a rise from 88° 20’ of twenty miles back. The declination had actually changed about 80° in the last ten miles. This one–hundred–mile station was badly disturbed. From the evidence, it is possible that a subsidiary ‘pole’ or area of almost vertical dip may exist close by this spot to the west or southwest.
Going straight up wind into a ‘blow’ which varied from forty to fifty miles per hour, we were able to make eight miles after the previous day’s rest. At lunch a hole was dug five feet square and two feet deep. It served three purposes. First, it gave a good shelter for a longitude observation; secondly, with the mast, yard and floor–cloth we converted it into a shelter snug enough to house the primus and to lunch comfortably; and thirdly, a mound was left as a back–mark which was picked up on the return journey.
By experience we found that a warm lunch and a rest enabled one to ‘peg’ along a good deal farther than would otherwise be possible.
The ‘scenery’ in the afternoon became if possible more desolate – very few new sastrugi, the surface appearing generally old and pitted. In some places it was rotten and blown away, disclosing coarse granulated substrata. At the top of one ridge the snow merged into névé split into small crevasses, nine inches wide and four or five yards apart. The camp was pitched, here, at 11 pm The latitude was 68° 32’ S, and we saw the midnight sun for the first time that summer, about one–quarter of its rim remaining above the horizon.
A full hurricane came up and kept between fifty and sixty miles per hour all day on the 30th. Before moving off, Webb found that the magnetic needle had ‘waltzed’ back 60° since the one–hundred–mile camp, now pointing 80° east of south. Still, to allow the needle to makeup its mind, we steered into the wind at 2 pm, losing the névé and meeting very rough country. By 6 pm, with four miles to our credit, we were nearly played out. It was being discussed whether we should go on when the discovery was made that the theodolite legs were missing; probably having slipped out in one of the numerous capsizes of the sledge.
The solemn rites of ‘shut–eye’ determined that Webb was to stay and make camp while Hurley and I retraced our steps. It was no easy matter to follow the trail, for on hard snow the sledge runners leave no mark, and we had to watch for the holes of the crampon–spikes. About two and a half miles back, the legs were found, and there only remained a hard ‘plug’ against the wind to camp and hoosh.
While we were lying half–toggled into the sleeping–bags, writing our diaries, Hurley spent some time alternately imprecating the wind and invoking it for a calm next day. As he said, once behind a break–wind one could safely defy it, but on the march one is much more humble.
Whether it was in honour of Queen Alexandra’s birthday, or whether Hurley’s pious efforts of the evening before had taken effect, December 1 turned out a good day. By noon, the wind had dropped sufficiently for us to hoist the Jack and Commonwealth Ensign for the occasion.
After four miles of battling, there came into sight a distinct ridge, ten miles to the west and south – quite the most definitely rising ground observed since leaving the coast. In one place was a patch of immense crevasses, easily visible to the naked eye; in another, due south, were black shadows, and towards these the course was pointed.
At a point more than one hundred and twenty–five miles from the sea, a skua gull paid an afternoon call, alighting a few yards from the track. I immediately commenced to stalk it with a fishing–line, this time all ready and baited with pemmican. However, it was quite contemptuous, flying off to the south–southeast as far as we could follow it. Was it taking a short cut to the Ross Sea?
December 2 saw us through ‘Dead–Beat Gully’ to a rise, in sight of the shadows towards which we had been steering. Two miles away they appeared like the edge of the moon seen through a large telescope. The shadows were due to large mounds of snow on the south side of a steep escarpment. Three main prominences were cross–connected with regular lines of hillocks, giving the impression of a subdivided town–site. The low evening sun threw everything up in the most wonderful relief.
On the morning of the 3rd we were in a valley running west–northwest and east–southeast. The southern side rose steeply and from it projected three large mounds, about two hundred feet from the bottom of the valley, into which they fell just like tailings–heaps from a mine. They were christened ‘The Nodules’.
Going due south uphill over névé we found ourselves in a regular network of crevasses. They were about ten feet wide and well bridged. Most noticeable were ‘hedges’ of ice up to six feet in height on either side of the crevasses which ran southward. It was now nearly calm and in every crack and chink in the snow–bridges beautiful fern–like ice–crystals were seen. These must have been just forming, as a very light puff of wind was seen to destroy many of them.
We spent three hours exploring the locality. On nearing the top of the ridge, roped together, we found that the crevasses were becoming much wider, while the ‘hedges’ were disappearing. The centre ‘nodule’ was found to be immediately north or to the leeward of the intersection of two crevasses, each about forty feet wide. The bridge of one crevasse had dropped some thirty feet for a length of eighty yards. Doubtless, an eddy from this hole accounts for the deposit of snow and, by accretions, for the erection of the nodule. Webb went down at the end of the alpine rope and found the bridge below quite solid.
For about half a mile the summit of the slope was practically level, three hundred feet above the bed of the valley. The surface was still of névé, intersected by canals forty, sixty and eighty feet wide, in which the snow–bridge was generally four or five feet from the brink.
On the southwest horizon, perhaps twenty miles away, was a salient crest streaked by three dark vertical bars; evidently another crevassed area.
Returning to the sledge, we toggled–on and worked it up over the top of the ridge, much regretting that time would not allow us to examine the other two large ‘nodules’. Hurley was in the lead, lengthening his line by thirty feet of alpine rope, but even then all three of us and the sledge were often on the lid of a crevasse. Luckily, the lids were fairly sound, and none of us went in beyond the waist. Finally, the trail emerged on to ordinary sastrugi once more, where a halt was made for lunch. We were all glad to have seen the place, but I think none of us has any wish to see another like it.
That night, after following the magnetic needle towards the southeast, we were fairly on the plateau at one hundred and forty miles, with an altitude of four thousand four hundred feet. The dip, however, had steadily decreased, standing now at 88° 30’. There was some consolation in the hope that a big, sudden rise was stored up for us somewhere along the way ahead.
December 4 and 5 were fine days, giving only twenty–two miles, as we met with a rough surface; a large quantity of very hard, razor–backed sastrugi, generally about two feet high, like groined vaulting inverted, on a small scale. Sledge and sledge–meter both had a very rough passage. The sledge, for instance, balances itself on the top of a sastruga for a moment, with an ominous bend in the runners, crashes down the slope and jams its bow into the next one, from which it has to be lifted clear.
During this run the needle again misbehaved itself, changing its direction some 85° in ten miles, but by the night of the 5th we were getting past the disturbed locality and the dip had increased considerably.
For the first time on the trip the wind veered round to the southeast. Snow had fallen overnight (December 5) and had drifted in long ramps diagonally across the sastrugi. In two and a half hours we covered two and a quarter miles, blindly blundering in an uncertain light among crests and troughs and through piles of soft, new snow. Then we stopped; Webb filling in the afternoon with a full set of dip observations.
That night the break–wind played its one possible trick. Waking on the 8th, we found that the heavy snowfall, with only a moderate wind, had drifted us up. Of course Hurley and I, who slept on the ‘outsides’, had known it most of the night. Before we could extricate ourselves from the bags Webb had to turn out from the middle to dig away the drift which was weighing down the walls of the tent on top of us.
It was hopeless weather for travelling. In the afternoon a snow cave was dug, seven feet deep and enlarged to seven feet square at the bottom. The whole was covered with mast, yard and sail. It was very snug from the outward aspect, but we soon found that there were two objections to the ‘Sarcophagus’, as it was named. There was very little light except a ghastly blue half–tone filtering through the snow, and the place was not over warm, surrounded by walls at a much lower temperature than that of the surface.
Webb commenced a declination ‘quick–run’, consisting of half–hourly observations of the direction in which the compass was pointing. In ordinary latitudes, during the day, the compass needle moves over a few minutes of arc, but here, being so close to the Magnetic Pole, its movement is greatly magnified, the range being about 5° on this occasion. Webb carried on readings till midnight, and at 4 am, December 9, I turned out, being relieved at 8 am by Hurley, who carried on until the twenty–four hours were completed. This observation should be especially valuable when it is compared with continuous magnetic records obtained at the same time at Winter Quarters and by the Scott expedition at McMurdo Sound.
It was not till 1.30 pm on December 10 that the sixty–mile wind had subsided sufficiently for us to get away. Every yard of our quota of seven miles was hard going. A fine example of a typical old sastruga was passed on the way. In order to secure a photograph of it, Hurley had to waste eighteen films before he could persuade one to pull into place correctly. The film–packs had been carefully kept in an airtight tin, but the cold was too much for them. The tags which should pull each film round from the back to the front of the pack usually tore away with a small piece of film. In fact, out of one hundred and twenty films only forty–five exposures were made.
On the 11th a good deal of ‘pie crust’ cut down the day’s march to eight and a half miles. Sledge runners are usually supported by this surface, but one’s feet break through in a most annoying and tiring manner. The drift eased off for a few hours and we managed to dry some of our gear. At the Sarcophagus, things which had all been wet enough before became saturated with drift which turned to ice. Felt mitts are perhaps the worst in this respect, and it is no exaggeration to say that you could easily brain a man with one after it had been worn in drift for a couple of days.
That night I decided that one more day must see us at our depot. Allowing three days’ grace for contingencies, there were thirty–one days for us to attain our farthest southerly point and back to the Hut.
On the 12th we planned to reach a spot for the depot, two hundred miles out, and by 11.30 pm came on a fine site at one hundred and ninety–nine and three–quarter miles; altitude four thousand eight hundred and fifty feet, latitude 69° 83.1’ south; longitude 140° 20’ east. Everything possible was left behind, the sledge–decking being even cut away, until only three light bamboo slats remained. A pile, including ten days’ food and one gallon of kerosene, was placed on a small mound to prevent it being drifted over. A few yards distant rose a solid nine–foot cairn surmounted by a black canvas–and–wire flag, six feet higher, well stayed with steel wire.
I took on food for seventeen days, three days more than I intended to be out, partly so that we could keep on longer if we found we could make very fast time, and also as a safeguard against thick weather when returning to the depot.
Late in the evening we set off against a stiff breeze. The sledge ran lightly for three and a half miles, and we camped. The depot showed up well in the northwest as a bright golden spot in the low midnight sun.
Next day the pie crust was so bad that, despite the lessened load, we only covered twelve miles. The surface was smoothly polished, and we either crashed through it from four inches to a foot or else slipped and came down heavily on knees, elbow, or head. New finnesko were largely responsible for such an accident.
At 11 pm a remarkable ramp, five chains long, was passed. On its windward side was a tangled cluster of large sastrugi. They made one imagine that the wind, infuriated at finding a block of snow impeding its progress, had run amok with a giant gouge, endeavouring to pare it down. Every now and then, the gouge, missing its aim, had taken great lateral scoops from the surface, leaving trenches two and three feet deep.
In bags that night we had a talk (not the first by any means) over our prospects. Up to the one hundred–and–seventy–four–mile camp, four hundred miles seemed dimly possible, but now we saw we would be lucky to reach three hundred miles. Moreover, the dip at this spot was 89° 11’, practically what it had been ever since one hundred and fifty miles. Sixty–five miles for nothing! How far for the other forty–nine minutes which were needed for a vertical dip and the South Magnetic Pole? This problem was insoluble, so each toggled himself into his bag in a rather depressed state of mind.
December 16 was a glorious day; only a fifteen–mile wind, and for ten miles an improved surface. There was no drift, consequently opportunity was taken to turn the sleeping bags inside out. They needed it, too. The upper parts were not so bad as they had been propped open occasionally, but the lower halves were coated with solid ice. For the first time for weeks we did not wear burberrys, as the weather was so warm. Fourteen miles was the total work, the previous day’s being twelve.
All three of us were having trouble with snow–blindness; the ‘zinc and cocaine’ tabloids being in great demand.
Latitude 70° south was passed on the 17th and we were another fourteen miles to the good. The dip was on the increase 89° 25’ and the declination swung to 40° east of the magnetic meridian. At two hundred and fifty–six miles the altitude was five thousand five hundred feet.
The temperature was getting lower; the minimum being –21°F on the night of the 17th, rising to a maximum of 3°F on the following day.
There was dead calm and a regular heat wave on December 19. As the sun rose higher and higher, the tent became absolutely oppressive. The rime coating the walls inside thawed and water actually trickled into our finnesko. Usually we awoke to find them frozen hard, just as we had shaped them on the previous night, but on this particular morning they were pathetically limp and wet. The temperature inside the tent was 66°F, heated, of course, by the sun’s rays which raised our black bulb thermometer to 105°F. We were not used to this sort of thing and struggled out hurriedly for a breath of fresh air.
Once into harness, we began to feel the effects of exertion. By degrees we got rid of our clothing, but unfortunately soon came to bedrock in that respect, as the underclothing was sewn on and immovable. At lunch time, with the thermometer at –2°F in the shade, we reluctantly dressed knowing how soon we would cool off. About 9 pm clouds moved over rapidly from the southeast and the landscape faded into the blank, shadowless nothing of an overcast day. The camp was pitched at two hundred and eighty–three miles amidst a jumble of ramps and sastrugi. The dip had seen fit to rise to 89° 35’.
In the morning the wind was doing thirty miles per hour, which certainly seemed to be the normal thing. It fell to a nice sailing breeze, but, at the time, we were not very appreciative of anything as the course was uphill. Again, it was to be the last day’s run, so we were ‘all out’ when the halt came after a good fifteen miles – the longest day’s march on the outward journey. Nevertheless, Webb unpacked the theodolite after hoosh and took an altitude of the sun at midnight.
On December 21 the load on the sledge was stripped down to tent, dip–circle, theodolite, cooker and a little food. For two and a half miles we went southeast over rising ground until the sledge–meter showed three hundred and one miles.
While Hurley and I pitched the tent, Webb built a breakwind for his instrument fifty yards away. Then followed a long set of magnetic observations. About 5 pm the magnetic work was interrupted; the theodolite replacing the dip–circle on the legs, while I took a longitude shot. I was seeing double, being slightly snow–blind, and had some difficulty in choosing the correct combination from the assortment of suns and cross–wires visible in the telescope. Setting the vertical and horizontal wires simultaneously on the sun was beyond me; Webb taking the observations for the true meridian, which also checked my longitude shot.
Magnetic work under these conditions is an extremely uncomfortable operation. Even a light wind will eddy round the break–wind, and it is wind which makes low temperatures formidable. Nearly all the work has to be done with bare fingers or thin instrument–gloves, and the time taken is far greater than in temperate climates, owing to the fingers constantly ‘going’ and because of the necessity of continually freeing the instrument from the condensed moisture of the breath. Considering that the temperature was –12°F when he had finished his four hours’ work, it may be imagined that Webb was ready for his hot tea. The dip proved to be 89° 43.5’, that is, sixteen and a half minutes from the vertical. The altitude was just over five thousand nine hundred feet, in latitude 70° 36.5’ south and longitude 148° 10’ east.
After lunch the Union Jack and the Commonwealth Ensign were hoisted and three cheers given for the King – willing but rather lonesome away out there! We searched the horizon with glasses but could see nothing save snow, undulating in endless sastrugi. To the southeast the horizon was limited by our old enemy, ‘the next ridge’, some two miles away. We wondered what could be beyond, although we knew it was only the same featureless repetition, since one hundred and seventy–five miles on the same course would bring us to the spot where David, Mawson and Mackay had stood in 1909.
After Hurley had taken a photograph of the camp, the tent was struck and the sledge repacked. At last the sail was rigged, we gave a final glance back and turned on the homeward trail.
My diary of that night sums up: ‘We have now been exactly six weeks on the tramp and somehow feel rather sad at turning back, even though it has not been quite a Sunday school picnic all along. It is a great disappointment not to see a dip of 90°', but the time is too short with this “climate”. It was higher than we expected to get, after the unsatisfactory dips obtained near the two–hundred–mile depot. The rate of increase since that spot has been fairly uniform and indicates that 90° might be reached in another fifty to sixty miles, if the same rate held, and that means at least another week. It’s no good thinking about it for “orders are orders”. We’ll have our work cut out to get back as it is. Twenty–five days till we are overdue. Certainly we have twenty–three days’ food, eight days’ with us, ten days’ at two hundred miles, and five days’ at sixty–seven miles, so with luck we should not go hungry, but Webb wants to get five more full sets of dips if possible on the way back, and this means two and a half days.’
That night the minimum thermometer registered its lowest at –25°F. It was December 21 and Midsummer Day, so we concluded that the spot would be a very chilly one in the winter.
At this juncture we were very short of finnesko. The new ones we had worn since the two–hundred–mile camp had moulted badly and were now almost ‘bald’. The stitching wears through as soon as the hair comes off and frequent mending is necessary.
We rose earlier than usual on the 22nd, so as to get more advantage from the wind, which each evening had always tended to die down somewhat. With forty–two square feet of sail, the twenty–mile wind was too much for us, the sledge capsizing on the smallest pretext. Instead of hanging the yard from the top of the mast, we placed it across the load, reversing the sail and hooking the clews over the top of the mast. Three or four pieces of lampwick at intervals served as reefing–points by which the area of the sail could be quickly cut down by bunching the upper part as much as was necessary.
During the day we frequently saw our tracks in patches of snow left during a previous snowfall, but they were much eroded, although only three days old. After sledging in Adélie Land it is hard to realize that on certain parts of the Ross Barrier tracks a year old may remain visible.
After passing the two–hundred–and–eighty–three–mile mound, the sledge–meter became very sickly. Spoke after spoke had parted and we saw that nothing we could do would make it last very much longer. As we intended in one place to make a cross–country run of seventy miles, so as to cut off the detour to the ‘Nodules’, the meter was carried on the sledge. We had now the mounds to check distances.
On December 23 we were lucky enough to catch sight of the two–hundred–and–sixty–nine–mile mound and later the one at two hundred and sixty–one miles, though there was a good deal of drift. The day’s run was twenty and a half miles.
A thing which helped us unexpectedly was that, now with the wind behind, we found it unnecessary to wear the stiff, heavy, frozen, burberry trousers. Thick pyjama trousers took their place in all except the worst weather.
At our old two–hundred–and–forty–nine–mile camp, Webb took a complete set of magnetic observations and another time–shot for watch–rate. It was late when these were over, so we did only two and a half miles more, halting for Christmas Eve, well content with a run of fourteen miles in addition to a set of observations.
On Christmas Day the country was very rough, making sailing difficult. Still, eighteen and a half miles were left behind. The wind was practically along the sastrugi and the course was diagonal to both. As the sledge strikes each sastruga, it skids northwards along it to the discomfort of the wheelers and the disgust of the leader.
For Christmas dinner that night we had to content ourselves with revising the menu for the meal which was to celebrate the two–hundred–mile depot. But now it was all pretty well mapped out, having been matured in its finer details for several days on the march. Hors d’oeuvre, soup, meat, pudding, sweets and wine were all designed, and estimates were out. Would we pick up the depot soon enough to justify an ‘auspicious occasion’?
Next day the wind was due south at thirty miles per hour. Dodging big ramps and overturning on sastrugi, at the same time dragging well upwind of the course to save leeway, twelve miles went by without the two–hundred–and–fifteen–mile mound coming into sight. Finally, a search with the glasses through falling snow revealed it a good two miles back. As we particularly wanted some photos of the ramps at this camp, we made across to it and had lunch there, Hurley exposing the last of the films.
At two hundred and nine miles ‘Lot’s Wife’ appeared – a tall, thin mound which Hurley had erected during a lunch–camp on the way out.
On the 27th, with a thirty–five–mile wind and a good deal of drift, we did not see the two–hundred–and–three–mile mound until we almost ran into it. By three o’clock the great event occurred – the depot was found! We determined to hold the Christmas feast. After a cup of tea and a bit of biscuit, the rest of the lunch ration was put aside.
Webb set up his instrument in the lee of the big mound and commenced a set of observations; I sorted out gear from the depot and rearranged the sledge load; Hurley was busy in the tent concocting all kinds of dishes. As the tableware was limited to three mugs and the Nansen cooker, we had to come in to deal with each course the moment it was ready. Aiming at a really high–class meal, Hurley had started by actually cleaning out the cooker.
The absence of reindeer–hair and other oddments made everything taste quite strange, though the basis was still the same old ration with a few remaining ‘perks’. After the ‘raisin gliders’, soup and a good stiff hoosh, Webb finished his observations while I recorded for him. It is wonderful what sledging does for the appetite. For the first week of the journey, the unaccustomed ration was too much for us; but now when Hurley announced ‘Pudding!’ we were all still ravenous. It was a fine example of ye goode olde English plum–pudding, made from biscuit grated with the Bonsa–saw, fat picked out of the pemmican, raisins and glaxo–and–sugar, all boiled in an old food–bag.
This pudding was so filling that we could hardly struggle through a savoury, ‘Angels on runners’, and cocoa. There was a general recovery when the ‘wine’ was produced, made from stewed raisins and primus alcohol; and ‘The King’ was toasted with much gusto. At the first sip, to say the least, we were disappointed. The rule of ‘no heel taps’ nearly settled us, and quite a long interval and cigars, saved up for the occasion by Webb, were necessary before we could get courage enough to drink to the Other Sledging Parties and Our Supporting Party.
The sun was low in the south when, cigars out and conversation lagging, we finally toggled in for the finest sleep of the whole journey.
The cook, under a doubtful inspiration, broke forth, later on, into a Christmas Carol:
I’ve dined in many places but never such as these –
It’s like the Gates of Heaven when you find you’ve lost the keys.
I’ve dined with kings and emperors, perhaps you scarce believe;
And even they do funny things when round comes Christmas Eve.
I’ve feasted with iguanas on a lonely desert isle;
Once in the shade of a wattle by a maiden’s winsome smile.
I’ve ‘grubbed’ at a threepenny hash–house, I’ve been at a counter–lunch,
Reclined at a clap–up cafe where only the ‘swankers’ munch.
In short, I’ve dined from Horn to Cape and up Alaska–way
But the finest, funniest dinner of all was on that Xmas Day.
For the first ten miles on the afternoon of the 28th, the sail was reefed down to prevent the sledge overrunning us on smooth patches. Not far past the one–hundred–and–ninety–mile mound, which was missed in the drift, we picked up some of the outward tracks – a bas–relief of three footsteps and a yard of sledge–meter track, raised half an inch and undercut by the wind. It was not very much, but quite a comfort when one is navigating in blinding weather.
At 11.30 pm we had marched twenty–one miles, and both light and surface were improving, so I proposed making a long run of it. Hurley and Webb eagerly agreed, and we had a preparatory hoosh. Ten miles scudded by monotonously without a sign of the mounds around the one–hundred–and–seventy–mile camp. As we were in the vicinity of a point where we had determined to diverge from our outward track, a course was laid direct for the one–hundred–and–thirteen–mile mark. The sledge–meter, which had been affixed, made its presence evident from time to time by ringing like a cash register, as still another broken spoke struck the forks. We would halt for a moment and extract the remains. Out of the original thirty–six wire spokes, only twelve wire and one wooden one remained. At 11.30 am on December 29, a halt was called and the sledge–meter was then lying over on its side with a helpless expression. It indicated twenty–two miles, making, so we thought, a total of forty–three miles in the twenty–two and a quarter hours since leaving the depot. Observations for position next day proved that in its dying effort it exaggerated the truth; the total run being 41.6 miles.
We were now well ahead of schedule time, there being four and a half days’ surplus food; above what was probably required to reach the sixty–seven–and–a–half–mile depot. It was decided to hold three days of this and to use one and a half days food as a bonus during the coming week, as long as we were ahead of our necessary distance. The sledging ration is quite enough to live on, but for the whole of the journey we had felt that we could have done more distance on a slightly larger ration. This may be partly explained by our comparatively high altitude.
Next morning the sledge–meter was cut away and stuck in the snow. It looked very forlorn sitting askew in its forks, with a pair of worn–out finnesko hanging over it.
After twelve miles with a favourable wind, Webb took more observations; Hurley and I recording by turns. There were several small holes in the tent which needed mending, and I experimented with adhesive plaster from the medical kit with great success. Heated over a fusee and pressed hard down between the bottoms of mugs, held outside and inside, the patches adhered well and made a permanent job.
Early on December 31, 1912, snow was falling. The light gave Hurley an attack of snow–blindness and a miserable day. Crampons were worn to give some security to the foothold on the uneven track. The position, after a trudge of fifteen miles, was estimated at five miles east of the one–hundred–and–twenty–three–mile mound.
On New Year’s Day, 1913, the wind was fresher and the surface improved. Estimation placed us to the north of one hundred and thirteen miles, but we were not hopeful in the light falling snow of seeing a mound. Soon, however, the snow ceased, and Webb made out a hillock two miles ahead. It was identified as the one at one hundred and nine miles.
It had been my turn to be snow–blind. I was so bad that the only thing to do was to camp or ride on the sledge. The trail changed here to straight downwind, so Webb and Hurley undertook the job, hauling the sledge with me as a passenger for three and a half miles to the one–hundred–and–five–mile mound. It must have been a trying finish to a run of twenty miles.
In spite of the spell, which was a sleepless one, I was no better in the morning and again had to ride. The others pulled away for five miles with a good helping wind, but in a provoking light. The camp was made where the one–hundred–mile mound was judged to be. We spent longer over lunch, hoping that the clouds would clear. At last we moved on, or rather I was moved on. After two miles the surface became heavier. My eyes were better now on account of the rest and a snow ‘poultice’ Webb had invented. I harnessed–in for five miles over light, unpacked snow, with pie crust underneath. The day’s work was twelve miles.
The snow–clouds broke at noon on January 3, and a reliable latitude was obtained. It agreed with our reckoning. Persevering over the same trying surface as on the previous day, we sighted the ninety–mile–mound in the rear as a rift broke in the sky. We must have passed a few hundred yards from it.
We were still eleven miles from the depot, so at breakfast on the 4th the rations were reduced by one–half to give plenty of time to locate our goal. On the 4th the sky was clear, but surface drift prevented us from seeing any mounds till, in the afternoon, the ramps near the sixty–seven–mile depot were discovered in fitful glimpses. They bore too much to the north, so we altered course correspondingly to the west, camping in rising wind and drift, with great hopes for the morrow.
A densely overcast sky on the 5th; light snow falling! We moved on two miles, but not being able to see one hundred yards, camped again; then walking as far as seemed safe in various directions. One could do nothing but wait for clear weather. The clouds lightened at 6 pm and again at 9 pm, when altitudes of the sun were secured, putting us four miles south of the depot.
With only one chronometer watch, one has to rely entirely on dead reckoning for longitude, the rate of a single watch being very variable. The longitude obtained on this occasion from our latest known rate moved us several miles to the east of the depot, so I concluded that our distances since the camp at ninety miles had been overestimated, and that we were probably to the southeast of it. Accordingly, we shifted four miles to the northwest, but by this time it had again clouded over and nothing could be seen.
On the 6th the sky was still overcast, but a lucky peep at noon aligned us on the exact latitude of the depot. We walked east and west, but it snowed persistently and everything was invisible.
It is weary work waiting in the tent for weather to improve. During this time Hurley amused himself and us by composing a Christmas carol on the Christmas dinner; a fragment from which has already appeared. I whiled away a whole afternoon, cutting up the remains of two cigars which had refused to draw. Sliced up with a pair of scissors and mixed with a few of Hurley’s cigarettes, they made very good smoking tobacco.
On the 7th the sky was immovable, and we trekked four miles due east, camped once more and walked about without finding our goal.
I now decided that if the weather did not improve by the morning, we should have to dash for the north. It was a risk, but matters were coming to a serious pass. On broaching the subject to Webb and Hurley, they unconditionally agreed with me.
At 3 am the sky cleared rapidly and we turned out and saw the ramps plainly to the east. Webb set up the theodolite while Hurley and I paced out a half–mile base–line to find out the intervening distance. Just as we got to the end of it, however, the clouds came over again and the ramps faded.
There was only one thing for it now, and that was to make a break for the coast. Of food, there was one full day’s ration with enough pemmican for half a hoosh, six lumps of sugar and nine raisins, rather the worse for wear, oil for two days, and, last but not least, a pint of alcohol. After four days on half–rations we felt fairly fit, thanks no doubt to the good meals of the previous week.
There were sixty–seven miles to go, and in case we did not happen on the narrow descent to the Hut, the food was apportioned to last for five days. Everything unessential was stripped off the sledge, including dip–circle, thermometers, hypsometer, camera, spare clothing and most of the medical and repair kits.
At 7 am we set off on the final stage of the journey. The sky was densely overcast and snow was falling, but there was a strong wind almost behind. We would march for an hour by my wrist–watch, halt for five minutes and on again till all agreed that we had covered ten miles; when it was lunch time. Each man’s share of this consisted of one–third of a biscuit, one–third of an ounce of butter and a drink made of a spoonful of glaxo–and–sugar and one of absolute alcohol, mixed in a mug of lukewarm water. We could not afford oil enough to do much more than thaw the water, but the alcohol warmed us splendidly, enabling us to get a good rest.
After an hour’s spell we started again, luckily seeing just enough of the sun to check the course. The wind grew stronger in the afternoon and several times dense fog–banks drove down on us. Meeting one steep rise, we sidled round it for what seemed hours, but my chief memory of that afternoon was of the clouds of the northern horizon. They were a deep bluish–grey colour – a typical ‘water–sky’ – but I have never seen clouds moving so fast. It was like trying to steer by one particular phase in a kaleidoscope. When all were satisfied that twenty miles had been covered we camped.
Dinner consisted of a very watery hoosh, followed up by a mug of alcohol and water. We were all very thankful for the forethought of Dr Mawson in providing absolute alcohol for lighting the primus, instead of methylated spirit.
Breakfast on the 9th was of about the same consistency as dinner on the night before, except that cocoa replaced the alcohol. In fact, breakfast was possibly even more watery, as I was in charge of the food–bag and surreptitiously decided to make the rations last six days instead of five.
This was the worst day’s march of the journey. The wind was booming along at sixty miles per hour with dense drift and falling snow. What made it worse was that it came from the southeast, forcing us to pull partly across it. I was the upwind wheeler and had to hitch on to the side of the sledge to reduce the leeway as much as possible. The sledge was being continually jammed into big, old, invisible sastrugi and we fell about in the wind until crampons became absolutely necessary.
At 4 pm we were disgusted to find that the wind had veered to south by east. So for possibly several hours we had been doing Heaven only knows how many times the amount of work necessary, and for any time up to four hours might have been marching three points off our course. Being blown straight downwind, the sledge made rapid progress, and about 6 pm a halt was called for lunch. This was over almost as soon as it was begun, but we had a good rest, sheltering ourselves with the floor–cloth from the wind which blew through the tent.
Off again, we ‘plugged’ away until midnight when we were much surprised to find the usual snow surface merging into blue ice. The tent was pitched on the latter, snow being procured from the bridge of a crevasse as we had no pick: even the ice–axe having been left behind.
Turning out on the morning of the 10th, we were delighted to find the sky clearing and the wind moderating. And then, far away on the northern horizon a beautiful line of blue sea dotted with bergs!
We now officially considered ourselves to be twenty–seven miles from the Hut. As we should not have met blue ice on the proper course till we were only thirteen miles out, it was thought that we had edged a long way to the east the day before. When a start was made, we manoeuvred to the west in looking for a crossing–place at each crevasse.
It was not long before the bergs on the horizon were noticeably enlarging, and at last we realized that in reality it was only a few miles to them. Suddenly the grade increased, the ice becoming much lacerated; and we had some trouble getting the sledge along. Hurley was snow–blind and had one eye covered. He looked very comical feeling his way over the crevasses, but he probably did not feel over–humorous.
I was in the lead, and suddenly coming over a ridge above a steep ice–fall, I caught sight of the Mackellar Islets and the old ‘Piano’ berg. Just at the same instant the spur of ice on which I was standing collapsed, and down I went into a crevasse. The others quickly had me out, and, as soon as I was in the upper air, I gave them the news: ‘There are the Islands!’ Being twenty feet farther back on the rope they had not yet seen them.
We were now able to place ourselves about three miles west of Aladdin’s Cave. The last camp must have been thirteen miles from the Hut, and we had really done twenty–seven miles each day instead of our conservative twenty.
We tried to work along to the east, but the ice was too much broken, so the camp was made on a patch of snow. In view of our good fortune, I produced that evening’s ration of hoosh in addition to our usual lunch. Even this meagre spree went against Hurley’s feelings, for, being snow–blind, he had not been able to see the islands and positively would not believe that we were nearly home.
After lunch it was necessary to retrace our way upwind to get out of the rough country. About midnight, Webb recognized Aladdin’s Cave. Hurley and I had a competition as to who should see it first, for I was also getting a little blind again. We had a dead–heat at one hundred and fifty yards.
The first thing to arrest our attention was a tin of dog biscuits. These kept things going till we dug out a food tank from which was rapidly extracted a week’s supply of chocolate. After that we proceeded in a happier frame of mind to open up the cave and have a meal.
The journey of more than six hundred miles was now practically over. After a carousal lasting till 5 pm on the 11th, we went down hill, arriving just after dinner and finding all well.
We three had never thought the Hut quite such a fine place, nor have we ever since.
- Until amounts were known by experience, rations were weighed by a small balance whose various weights were small calico bags filled with chocolate.
- At the South Magnetic Pole the dip is 90°.
This version of Home of the Blizzard has been edited and published by the Australian Antarctic Division.