Chapter 15: Eastward over the sea ice
Chapter 15: Eastward over the sea ice
By CT Madigan
Harnessed and girt in his canvas bands,
Toggled and roped to his load;
With helmeted head and bemittened hands,
This for his spur and his goad:
‘Out in the derelict fastnesses bare
Some whit of truth may be won.’
Be it a will o’ the wisp, he will fare
Forth to the rising sun.
– The Sledge Horse
The Eastern Coastal party consisted of Dr AL McLean, PE Correll and myself. For weeks all preparations had been made; the decking put on the sledge, runners polished, cooker– and instrument–boxes attached, mast erected, spar and sail rigged, instruments and clothing collected, tent strengthened – all the impedimenta of a sledge journey arranged and rearranged, and still the blizzard raged on. Would we never get away? November arrived, and still the wind kept up daily averages of over fifty miles per hour, with scarce a day without drifting snow.
At last it was decided that a start must soon be made even though it ended in failure, so that we received orders to set out on November 6, or the first possible day after it.
Friday November 8 broke, a clear driftless day, and Murphy’s party left early in the morning. By noon, Stillwell’s party (Stillwell, Hodgeman and Close), and we, were ready to start. The former were bound on a short journey to the near east and were to support us until we parted company.
All was bustle and excitement. Every one turned out to see us off. Breaking an empty sauce–bottle over the bow of our sledge, we christened it the MHS Championship (Man–Hauled Sledge). The name was no boastful prevision of mighty deeds, as, at the Hut, a ‘Championship’ was understood to mean some careless action usually occasioning damage to property, while our party included several noted ‘champions.’
Mertz harnessed a dog–team to the sledge and helped us up the first steep slope. With hearty handshakes and a generous cheer from the other fellows, we started off and were at last away, after many months of hibernation in the Hut, to chance the hurricanes and drifting snow and to push towards the unknown regions to the east.
At the steepest part of the rise we dismissed our helpers and said goodbye. McLean and Correll joined me on the sledge and we continued on to Aladdin’s Cave.
As we mounted the glacier the wind increased, carrying surface drift which obscured the view to within one hundred yards. It was this which made us pass the Cave on the eastern side and pull up on a well–known patch of snow in a depression to the south of our goal. It was not long before a momentary clearing of the drift showed Aladdin’s Cave with its piles of food–tanks, kerosene, dog biscuit and pemmican, and, to our dismay, a burberry–clad figure moving about among the accumulation. Murphy’s party were in possession when we expected them to be on the way south to another cave – the Cathedral Grotto – eleven and three–quarter miles from the Hut. Of course the rising wind and drift had stopped them.
It was then 5 pm, so we did not wait to discuss the evident proposition as to which of the three parties should occupy the Cave, but climbed down into it at once and boiled up hoosh and tea. Borrowing tobacco from the supporting parties, we reclined at ease, and then in that hazy atmosphere so dear to smokers, its limpid blue enhanced by the pale azure of the ice, we introduced the subject of occupation as if it were a sudden afterthought.
It was soon decided to enlarge the Cave to accommodate five men, the other four consenting to squeeze into Stillwell’s big tent. McLean volunteered to join Stillwell’s party in the tent, while Correll and I were to stay in the Cave with Murphy and company.
I went outside and selected ten weeks’ provisions from the pile of food–tanks and piled them beside the sledge. McLean attended to the thermograph which Bage and I had installed in the autumn. Meanwhile, in a fifty–mile wind, Stillwell and his men erected the tent. Hunter and Laseron started with picks and shovels to enlarge the Cave, and, working in relays, we had soon expanded it to eight feet by seven feet.
The men from the tent came down to ‘high dinner’ at eight o’clock. They reported weather conditions unimproved and the temperature –3°F.
Early next morning I dug my way out and found that the surface drift had increased with a wind of fifty–five miles per hour. It was obviously impossible to start.
After breakfast it was arranged that those outside should have their meals separately, digging down at intervals to let us know the state of the weather. It was not pleasant for us, congested as we were in the Cave, to have visitors sliding down through the opening with a small avalanche of snow in their train. Further, to increase their own discomfort, they arrived covered in snow, and what they were unable to shake off thawed and wet them, subsequently freezing again to the consistency of a starched collar.
The opening was, therefore, kept partly closed with a food–tank. The result was that a good deal of snow came in, while the hole diminished in size. For a man to try to crawl out in stiff burberrys appeared as futile as for a porcupine to try to go backwards up a canvas hose.
The day passed slowly in our impatience. We took turns at reading The Virginian, warmed by a primus stove which in a land of plenty we could afford to keep going. Later in the afternoon the smokers found that a match would not strike, and the primus went out. Then the man reading said that he felt unwell and could not see the words. Soon several others commented on feeling ‘queer’, and two in the sleeping–bags had fallen into a drowsy slumber. On this evidence even the famous Watson would have ‘dropped to it’, but it was some time before it dawned on us that the oxygen had given out. Then there was a rush for shovels. The snow, ice and food–tank were tightly wedged, at the mouth of the entrance, and it took some exertion to perforate through to the outside air with an ice–axe. At once every one speedily recovered. Later, another party had a worse experience, not forgetting to leave a warning note behind them. We should have done the same.
The weather was no better by the evening, and during the night the minimum thermometer registered –12°F.
At six o’clock on Sunday morning, November 10, McLean dug down to us with the news that the wind had abated to thirty miles per hour with light surface drift.
We hurried through breakfast, rolled up the bags and started packing the sledge. Three 100 lb food–tanks, one 50 lb bag opened for ready use, and four gallons of kerosene were selected. Stillwell took for us a 50 lb food–tank, a 56 lb tin of wholemeal biscuits, and a gallon of kerosene. With the 850 lbs of food, 45 lbs of kerosene, three sleeping–bags of 10 lbs each, a tent of 40 lbs, 86 lbs of clothing and personal gear for three men, a cooker, primus, pick, shovel, ice–axe, alpine rope, dip–circle, theodolite, tripod, smaller instruments such as aneroid, barometer and thermometer, tools, medical outfit and sledge–fittings, our total load amounted to nearly 800 lbs, and Stillwell’s was about the same.
All were ready at 9 am, and, shaking hands with Murphy’s party, who set off due south, we steered with Stillwell to the southeast. The preliminary instructions were to proceed southeast from the Cave to a distance of eighteen miles and there await the arrival of Dr Mawson and his party, who were to overtake us with their dogteams.
The first few miles gave a gradual rise of one hundred feet per mile, so that, with a heavy load against wind and drift, travelling was very slow. The wind now dropped to almost calm, and the drift cleared. In the afternoon progress was hampered by crevasses, which were very frequent, running east and west and from one to twenty feet in width. The wider ones were covered with firm snow–bridges; the snow in places having formed into granular and even solid ice. What caused most delay were the detours of several hundreds of yards which had to be made to find a safe crossing over a long, wide crevasse. At 6.30 pm we pitched camp, having only made five miles from the Cave.
We got away at 9 am the next morning. Throughout the whole journey we thought over the same mysterious problem as confronted many another sledger: Where did the time go to in the mornings? Despite all our efforts we could not cut down the interval from ‘rise and shine’ to the start below two hours.
Early that day we had our first experience of the treacherous crevasse. Correll went down a fissure about three feet wide. I had jumped across it, thinking the bridge looked thin, but Correll stepped on it and went through. He dropped vertically down the full length of his harness – six feet. McLean and I soon had him out. The icy walls fell sheer for about sixty feet, where snow could be seen in the blue depths. Our respect for crevasses rapidly increased after this, and we took greater precautions, shuddering to think of the light–hearted way we had trudged over the wider ones.
At twelve miles, blue, wind–swept ice gave place to an almost flat snow surface. Meanwhile the sky had rapidly clouded over, and the outlook was threatening. The light became worse, and the sastrugi indistinguishable. Such a phenomenon always occurs on what we came to call a ‘snow–blind day.’ On these days the sky is covered with a white, even pall of cloud, and cloud and plateau seem as one. One walks into a deep trench or a sastruga two feet high without noticing it. The world seems one huge, white void, and the only difference between it and the pitch–dark night is that the one is white and the other black.
Light snow commenced at 2.30 pm, the wind rising to forty–five miles per hour with heavy drift. Thirteen miles out we pitched camp.
This, the first ‘snow–blind day’ claimed McLean for its victim. By the time we were under cover of the tent, his eyes were very sore, aching with a throbbing pain. At his request I placed a zinc–cocaine tablet in each eye. He spent the rest of the day in the darkness of his sleeping–bag and had his eyes bandaged all next day. Up till then we had not worn goggles, but were careful afterwards to use them on the trying, overcast days.
For four and a half days the weather was too bad to travel. On the 14th the wind increased and became steady at sixty miles per hour, accompanied by dense drifting snow. We found it very monotonous lying in the tent. As always happens during heavy drifts, the temperature outside was high, on this day averaging about 12°F.; inside the tent it was above freezing–point, and the accompanying thaw was most unpleasant.
Stillwell’s party had pitched their tent about ten paces to the leeward side of ours, of which stratagem they continually reminded us. Going outside for food to supply our two small meals per day was an operation fraught with much discomfort to all. This is what used to happen. The man on whom the duty fell had to insinuate himself into a bundle of wet burberrys, and, as soon as he was outside, they froze stiff. When, after a while, he signified his intention of coming in, the other two would collect everything to one end of the tent and roll up the floor–cloth. Plastered with snow, he entered, and, despite every precaution, in removing burberrys and brushing himself he would scatter snow about and increase the general wetness. On these excursions we would visit Stillwell’s tent and be hospitably, if somewhat gingerly, admitted; the inmates drawing back and pulling away their sleeping–bags as from one with a fell disease. As a supporting party they were good company, among other things, supplying us with tobacco ad libitum. When we parted, five days after, we missed them very much.
During the night the wind blew harder than ever – that terrible wind, laden with snow, that blows forever across the vast, mysterious plateau, the ‘wind that shrills all night in a waste land, where no one comes or hath come since the making of the world.’ In the early hours of the morning it reached eighty miles per hour.
Not till 9 next morning did the sky clear and the drift diminish. Considering that it had taken us eight days to do thirteen miles, we decided to move on the 16th at any cost.
Our library consisted of An Anthology of Australian Verse, Thackeray’s Vanity Fair and Hints to Travellers in two volumes. McLean spent much of the time reading the Anthology and I started Vanity Fair. The latter beguiled many weary hours in that tent during the journey. I read a good deal aloud and McLean read it afterwards. Correll used to pass the days of confinement arranging rations and costs for cycling tours and designing wonderful stoves and cooking utensils, all on the sledging, ‘cut down weight’ principle.
On the 16th we were off at 9 am with a blue sky above and a ‘beam’ wind of thirty–five miles per hour. Up a gentle slope over small sastrugi the going was heavy. We went back to help Stillwell’s party occasionally, as we were moving a little faster.
Just after lunch I saw a small black spot on the horizon to the south. Was it a man? How could Dr Mawson have got there? We stopped and saw that Stillwell had noticed it too. Field–glasses showed it to be a man approaching, about one and a half miles away. We left our sledges in a body to meet him, imagining all kinds of wonderful things such as the possibility of it being a member of Wild’s party – we did not know where Wild had been landed. All the theories vanished when the figure assumed the well–known form of Dr Mawson. He had made a little more south than we, and his sledges were just out of sight, about two miles away.
Soon Mertz and Ninnis came into view with a dog–team, which was harnessed on to one sledge. All hands pulled the other sledge, and we came up fifteen minutes later with Dr Mawson’s camp at eighteen and a quarter miles. In the good Australian way we sat round a large pot of tea and after several cups put up our two tents.
It was a happy evening with the three tents grouped together and the dogs securely picketed on the great plateau, forming the only spot on the limitless plain. Every one was excited at the prospect of the weeks ahead; the mystery and charm of the ‘unknown’ had taken a strange hold on us.
Ninnis and Mertz came into our tent for a short talk before turning in. Mertz sang the old German student song:
Studio auf einer Reis’
Immer sich zu helfen weis
Immer fort durch’s Dick und Dünn
Schlendert es durch’s Leben hin.
We were nearly all University graduates. We knew that this would be our last evening together till all were safely back at the Hut. No thought was farther from our minds than that it was the last evening we would ever spend with two companions, who had been our dear comrades for just a year.
Before turning into sleeping–bags, a messenger brought me dispatches from the general’s tent – a letter on the plateau. This proved to be the instructions to the Eastern Coastal Party. Arriving back at the Hut by January 15, we were to ascertain as much as possible of the coast lying east of the Mertz Glacier, investigating its broad features and carrying out the following scientific work: magnetic, biological and geological observations, the character, especially the nature and size of the grains of ice or snow surfaces, details of sastrugi, topographical features, heights and distances, and meteorology.
On Sunday, November 17, we moved on together to the east with the wind at fifteen miles an hour, the temperature being 9°F. The sun shone strongly soon after the start, and with four miles to our credit a tent was run up at 1 pm, and all lunched together on tea, biscuit, butter and chocolate. Up to this time we had had only three al fresco lunches, but, as the weather seemed to be much milder and the benefit of tea and a rest by the way were so great, we decided to use the tent in future, and did so throughout the journey.
In the afternoon, Dr Mawson’s party forged ahead, the dogs romping along on a downhill grade. We took the bit in our teeth as we saw them sitting on their sledges, growing smaller and smaller in front of us. We came up with them again as they had waited to exchange a few more words at a point on the track where a long extent of coast to the east came into view.
Here we bade a final adieu to Dr Mawson, Mertz and Ninnis. The surface was on the down grade towards the east, and with a cheer and farewell wave they started off, Mertz walking rapidly ahead, followed by Ninnis and Dr Mawson with their sledges and teams. They were soon lost to view behind the rolling undulations.
A mile farther on we pitched camp at 8 pm in a slight depression just out of sight of the sea. Every one slept soundly after a good day’s pulling.
November 18 was a bright dazzling day, the sky dotted with fleecy alto–cumulus. At 6 am we were out to find Stillwell’s party moving in their tent. There was a rush for shovels to fill the cookers with snow and a race to boil hoosh.
At this camp we tallied up the provisions, with the intention of taking what we might require from Stillwell and proceeding independently of him, as he was likely to leave us any day. There were fifty–nine days to go until January 15, 1913, the latest date of arrival back at the Hut, for which eight weeks’ rations were considered to be sufficient. There were seven weeks’ food on the sledge, so Stillwell handed over another fifty–pound bag as well as an odd five pounds of wholemeal biscuit. The total amount of kerosene was five gallons, with a bottle of methylated spirit.
Shortly after eight o’clock we caught sight of Dr Mawson’s camp, and set sail to make up the interval. This we did literally as there was a light westerly breeze – the only west wind we encountered during the whole journey.
The sledge was provided with a bamboo mast, seven feet high, stepped behind the cooker–box and stayed fore and aft with wire. The yard was a bamboo of six feet, slung from the top of the mast, its height being varied by altering the length of the slings. The bamboo was threaded through canvas leads in the floor–cloth which provided a spread of thirty square feet of sail. It was often such an ample area that it had to be reefed from below.
With the grade sloping gently down and the wind freshening, the pace became so hot that the sledge often overran us. A spurious ‘Epic of the East’ (see ‘Adélie Blizzard’) records it:
Crowd on the sail –
Let her speed full and free ‘on the run’
Over knife–edge and glaze, marble polish and pulverized chalk
The finnesko glide in the race, and there’s no time for talk.
Up hill, down dale,
It’s all in the game and the fun.
We rapidly neared Dr Mawson’s camp, but when we were within a few miles of it, the other party started in a southeasterly direction and were soon lost to sight. Our course was due east.
At thirty–three and a half miles the sea was in sight, some fine flat–topped bergs floating in the nearest bay. Suddenly a dark, rocky nunatak sprang into view on our left. It was a sudden contrast after ten days of unchanging whiteness, and we felt very anxious to visit this new find. As it was in Stillwell’s limited territory we left it to him.
According to the rhymester it was:
A rock by the way –
A spot in the circle of white –
A grey, craggy spur plunging stark through the deep–splintered ice.
A trifle! you say, but a glow of warm land may suffice
To brighten a day
Prolonged to a midsummer night.
After leaving Aladdin’s Cave, our sledge–meter had worked quite satisfactorily. Just before noon, the casting attaching the recording–dial to the forks broke – the first of a series of break–downs. Correll bound it up with copper wire and splints borrowed from the medical outfit.
The wind died away and the sail was of little use. In addition to this, we met with a slight up grade on the eastern side of the depression, our rate diminishing accordingly. At 7 pm the tent was pitched in dead calm, after a day’s run of fifteen miles with a full load of almost eight hundred pounds – a record which remained unbroken with us till near the end of the outward journey. Looking back, the nunatak and bergs were still visible.
Both parties were under way at 8 am next day (November 19) on a calm and sunny morning. The course by sun–compass was set due east.
At noon I took a latitude ‘shot’ with the three–inch Cary theodolite. This little instrument proved very satisfactory and was easily handled in the cold. In latitude 67° 15’ south, forty–six and a half miles east of the Hut, we were once more on level country with a high rise to the northeast and another shallow gully in front.
A fog which had been moving along the sea–front in an opaque wall drifted over the land and enveloped us. Beautiful crystals of ice in the form of rosettes and small fern–fronds were deposited on the cordage of the sail and mast. One moment the mists would clear, and the next, we could not see more than a few hundred yards.
We now parted with Stillwell, Hodgeman and Close, who turned off to a rising knoll – Mount Hunt – visible in the northeast, and disappeared in the fog.
After the halt at noon the sastrugi became much larger and softer. The fog cleared at 2 pm and the sun came out and shone very fiercely. A very inquisitive skua gull – the first sign of life we had seen thus far – flew around the tent and settled on the snow nearby. In the calm, the heat was excessive and great thirst attacked us all the afternoon, which I attempted to assuage at every halt by holding snow in my hands and licking the drops of water off my knuckles – a cold and unsatisfactory expedient. We travelled without burberrys – at that time quite a novel sensation – wearing only fleece suits and light woollen undergarments. Correll pulled for the greater part of the afternoon in underclothing alone.
At forty–nine and a half miles a new and wonderful panorama opened before us. The sea lay just below, sweeping as a narrow gulf into the great, flat plain of debouching glacier–tongue which ebbed away north into the foggy horizon. A small ice–capped island was set like a pearl in the amethyst water. To the east, the glacier seemed to fuse with the blue line of the hinterland. Southward, the snowy slope rose quickly, and the far distance was unseen.
We marched for three–quarters of a mile to where a steep down grade commenced. Here I made a sketch and took a round of angles to all prominent features, and the conspicuous, jutting, seaward points of the glacier. McLean and Correll were busy making a snow cairn, six feet high, to serve as a back–sight for angles to be taken at a higher eminence southward.
We set out for the latter, and after going one and a half miles it was late enough to camp. During the day we had all got very sunburnt, and our faces were flushed and smarting painfully. After the long winter at the Hut the skin had become more delicate than usual.
Under a clear sky, the wind came down during the night at forty–five miles per hour, lashing surface drift against the walls of the tent. It was not till ten o’clock that the sledge started, breaking a heavy trail in snow which became more and more like brittle piecrust. There was at first a slight descent, and then we strained up the eminence to the south over high sastrugi running almost north and south. Capsizes became frequent, and to extricate the heavy sledge from some of the deep furrows it was necessary to unload the food–bags. The drift running over the ground was troublesome when we sat down for a rest, but, in marching, our heads were just clear of it.
It was a long laborious day, and the four miles indicated by the inexorable sledge–meter seemed a miserable result. However, near the top of the hill there was a rich reward. A small nunatak slanted like a steel–blue shadow on the side of a white peak to the southwest. There was great excitement, and the sledge slid along its tracks with new life. It was rock without a doubt, and there was no one to dispute it with us. While speculating wildly as to its distance, we came unexpectedly to the summit of the hill.
The wind had subsided, the sky was clear and the sun stood low in the southwest. Our view had widened to a noble outlook. The sea, a delicate turquoise–blue, lay in the foreground of the low, white, northern ice–cliffs. Away to the east was the dim suggestion of land across the bed of the glacier, about which circled the southerly highlands of the plateau, buried at times in the haze of distance. Due south, twenty miles away, projecting from the glacier, was another island of rock. The nunatak first seen, not many miles to the southwest, was a snowy mountain streaked with sprouting rock, rising solitary in an indentation of the land. We honoured our Ship by calling it Aurora Peak, while our camp stood on what was thenceforth to be Mount Murchison.
It was obvious that this was the place for our first depot. I had decided, too, to make it the first magnetic station and the point from which to visit and explore Aurora Peak. None of us made any demur over a short halt. Correll had strained his back during the day from pulling too hard, and was troubled with a bleeding nose. My face was very sore from sunburn, with one eye swollen and almost closed, and McLean’s eyes had not yet recovered from their first attack of snow–blindness.
November 21 was a day in camp. Most of the morning I spent trying, with Correll’s help, to get the declination needle to set. Its pivot had been destroyed in transit and Correll had replaced it by a gramophone needle, which was found too insensitive. There was nothing to do but use the three–inch theodolite, which, setting to one degree, would give a good result, with a mean of thirty–two settings, for a region with such variable magnetic declination. A latitude ‘shot’ was made at noon, and in the afternoon I took a set of dip determinations. These, with a panoramic sketch from the camp, a round of angles to conspicuous points and an observation at 5.30 pm for time and azimuth completed the day’s work. Correll did the recording.
Meanwhile, McLean had built an eight–feet snow mound, erected a depot flag upon it and taken several photographs.
The next day was devoted to an excursion to Aurora Peak. The weather was, to our surprise, quite clear and calm. Armed with the paraphernalia for a day’s tour, we set off down the slope. Correll put the primus stove and the inner pot of the cooker in the ready food–bag, McLean slung on his camera and the aneroid barometer, while I took my ruck–sack with the rations, as well as field–glasses and an ice–axe. In case of crevasses, we attached ourselves to an alpine rope in long procession. According to the ‘Epic’ it was something like this:
We saddled up, adventure–bent;
Locked up the house – I mean the tent –
Took ‘grub’ enough for three young men
With appetite to equal ten.
A day’s outing across the vale.
Aurora Peak! What ho! All hail!
We waltzed a’down the silvered slope,
Connected by an Alpine rope;
‘Madi’ in front with ice–axe armed,
For fear that we should feel alarmed.
Glad was the hour, and – what a lark!
Explorers three? ‘Save the mark!’
The mystery of the nunatak was about to be solved. Apparently it rose from the level of the glacier, as our descent showed its eastern flank more clearly outlined. It was three miles to the bottom of the gully, and the aneroid barometer registered one thousand one hundred and ninety feet. The surface was soft and yielding to finnesko crampons, which sank through in places till the snow gripped the knees.
Ascending on the other side we crossed a small crevasse and the peak towered above us. The northern side terminated in a perpendicular face of ice, below which a deep basin had been ‘scalloped’ away; evidently kept clear by eddies of wind. In it lay broken fragments of the overhanging cliff. The rock was a wide, outcropping band curving steeply to the summit on the eastern aspect.
After a stiff climb we hurried eagerly to the rock as if it were a mine of inexhaustible treasure. The boulders were all weathered a bright red and were much pitted where ferruginous minerals were leached out. The rock was a highly quartzose gneiss, with black bands of schist running through it. Moss and lichens were plentiful, and McLean collected specimens.
The rocky strip was eighty feet wide and three hundred feet high, so, making a cache of the primus, provisions and burberrys, we followed it up till it became so steep that it was necessary to change to the snow. This was in the form of hard névé with patches of ice. I went first, cutting steps with the ice–axe, and the others followed on the rope. The last ten of more than one hundred steps were in an almost vertical face, which gave a somewhat precarious foothold.
At 11.30 am we stood on the summit at an altitude of one thousand seven hundred and fifty feet, while across the valley to the northeast rose Mount Murchison, one hundred and fourteen feet higher. The top of the ridge was quite a knife–edge, with barely space for standing. It ran mainly north and south, dipping in the centre, to curve away sharply westward to a higher eminence. At the bend was an inaccessible patch of rock. The surrounding view was much the same at that on Mount Murchison.
The Union Jack and the Australian flag were erected on a bamboo, and photographs taken. At the same time, low, threatening clouds rapidly emerged from the southeast, covering the sun and creating the ‘snow–blind’ light. This was rather alarming as the climb had been difficult enough under a clear sky, and the descent was certainly much more difficult. So we hastily ate some chocolate and discussed the best way down.
Prospecting to the north, in search of a long snow ramp which appeared to run away in that direction, we scrambled down to the edge of a wide snowy crevasse full of blue chinks.
Turning back, we considered the chances of sliding down a steep scoured hollow to the west and finally decided to descend by the track we had cut.
McLean started off first down the steps and was out of sight in a few moments. When the rope tightened, Correll followed him and then I came last. It was very ticklish work feeling for the steps below with one’s feet, and, as we signalled to one another in turn after moving a step, it took more than an hour to reach a safe position on the rocks. With every step I drove my axe into the ice, so that if the others had fallen there would still have been a last chance.
There was no time to be wasted; light snow was falling with the prospect of becoming thicker. In the gully the snowfall became heavy, limiting the view to within a few hundred yards. We advanced up the hill in what seemed to be the steepest direction, but circled half–way round it before finding out that the course was wrong. Aimlessly trying to place the broad flat summit I came across tracks in the snow, which were then carefully followed and led to the tent. The wind was rising outside and the hoosh in steaming mugs was eaten with extra relish in our snug retreat.
Specimens were labelled to be depoted and provisions were arranged for the rest of the journey. It was evident that we had superfluous clothing, and so the weight of the kit–bags was scrupulously cut down. By the time we crawled into sleeping–bags, everything dispensable was piled alongside the depot–flag.
We slept the sleep of the weary and did not hear the flapping tent nor the hissing drift. At 6 am the wind was doing forty miles per hour and the air was filled with snow. It must have been a new climate, for by noon the sun had unexpectedly broken through, the wind was becoming gusty and the drift trailed like scud over the surface.
With six weeks’ food we set off on a new trail after lunch. The way to the eastern glacier – Mertz Glacier – issued through the mouth of the gully, which ran in an easterly direction between Aurora Peak and Mount Murchison. On Mount Murchison ice–falls and crevasses began a short distance east of our first line of descent, but yet I thought a slight deviation to the east of south would bring us safely into the valley, and, at the same time, cut off a mile. Alas! It proved to be one of those ‘best–laid schemes.’
The load commenced to glide so quickly as we were leaving the crest of the mountain that Correll and McLean unhitched from the hauling line and attached themselves by the alpine rope to the rear of the sledge, braking its progress. I remained harnessed in front keeping the direction. For two miles we were going downhill at a running pace and then the slope became suddenly steeper and the sledge overtook me. I had expected crevasses, in view of which I did not like all the loose rope behind me. Looking round, I shouted to the others to hold back the sledge, proceeding a few steps while doing so. The bow of the sledge was almost at my feet, when – whizz! I was dropping down through space. The length of the hauling rope was twenty–four feet, and I was at the end of it. I cannot say that ‘my past life flashed before me.’ I just had time to think ‘Now for the jerk – will my harness hold?’ when there was a wrench, and I was hanging breathless over the blue depth. Then the most anxious moment came – I continued to descend. A glance showed me that the crevasse was only four feet wide, so the sledge could not follow me, and I knew with a thankful heart that I was safe. I only descended about two feet more, and then stopped. I knew my companions had pulled up the sledge and would be anchoring it with the ice–axe.
I had a few moments in which to take in my surroundings. Opposite to me was a vertical wall of ice, and below a beautiful blue, darkening to black in that unseen chasm. On either hand the rift of the crevasse extended, and above was the small hole in the snow bridge through which I had shot.
Soon I heard McLean calling, ‘Are you all right?’ And I answered in what he and Correll thought an alarmingly distant voice. They started enlarging the hole to pull me out, until lumps of snow began to fall and I had to yell for mercy. Then I felt they were hauling, and slowly I rose to daylight.
The crevasse ran westward along the gully, forcing us to make a detour through a maze of smaller cracks. We had to retreat up the hill in one place, throwing off half the load and carrying it on in relays. There was a blistering sun and the work was hard. At last the sledge came to a clear run and tobogganed into the snow–filled valley, turning eastward towards its outlet.
At the evening camp the sledge–meter indicated that our distance eastward of the Hut was sixty miles, one thousand two hundred yards. The northern face of the gully was very broken and great sentinel pillars of ice stood out among the yawning caves, some of them leaning like the tower of Pisa, others having fallen and rolled in shattered blocks. Filling the vision to the southwest was Aurora Peak, in crisp silhouette against a glorious radiant of cirrus cloud.
Reviewing the day through our peaceful smoke–rings, I was rather comforted by the fact that the fall into the crevasse had thoroughly tested my harness. Correll expressed himself as perfectly satisfied with his test. McLean seemed to feel somewhat out of it, being the only one without a crevasse experience; which happy state he maintained until the end, apparently somewhat to his disappointment.
On the 24th we broke camp at 9 am, continuing down the gully towards the glacier. A lofty wall of rocks, set within a frame of ice, was observed on our left, one mile away. To it we diverged and found it to be gneiss similar to that of Aurora Peak. Several photos were taken.
The land was at our back and the margin of the glacier had been crossed. Only too soon we were in the midst of terribly crevassed ground, through which one could only thread a slow and zig–zag course. The blue ice was riven in every direction by gaping quarries and rose smooth and slippery on the ridges which broke the surface into long waves. Shod with crampons, the rear of the sledge secured by a tail–rope, we had a trying afternoon guiding the load along the narrow ridges of ice with precipices on either hand. Fortunately the wind was not above twenty miles per hour. As the frivolous ‘Epic’ had it:
Odds fish! the solid sea is sorely rent,
And all around we’re pent
With quarries, chasms, pits, depressions vast,
Their snow–lids overcast.
A devious track, all curved and serpentine
Round snow–lids superfine.
On jutting brinks and precipices sheer
Precariously we steer.
We pushed on to find a place in which to camp, as there was scarcely safe standing–room for a primus stove. At seventy miles the broken ice gave way to a level expanse of hard sastrugi dotted all over with small mounds of ice about four feet high. After hoosh, a friendly little Wilson petrel came flying from the northern sea to our tent. We considered it to be a good omen.
Next day the icy mounds disappeared, to be replaced by a fine, flat surface, and the day’s march amounted to eleven and a quarter miles.
At 11 am four snow petrels visited us, circling round in great curiosity. It is a cheerful thing to see these birds amid the lone, inhospitable ice.
We were taking in the surroundings from our position off the land scanning the far coast to the south for rock and turning round to admire the bold contours of Aurora Peak and Mount Murchison at our back. Occasionally there were areas of rubbly snow, blue ice and crevasses completely filled with snow, of prodigious dimensions, two hundred to three hundred yards wide and running as far as the eye could travel. The snow filling them was perfectly firm, but, almost always along the windward edge, probing with an ice–axe would disclose a fissure. This part of the Mertz Glacier was apparently afloat.
The lucky Wilson petrel came again in the evening. At this stage the daily temperatures ranged between 10°F. and near freezing–point. The greater part of November 26 was passed in the tent, within another zone of crevasses. The overcast sky made the light so bad that it became dangerous to go ahead. At 5.30 pm we started, and managed to do five and a half miles before 8 pm
It was rather an eventful day, when across the undulating sastrugi there appeared a series of shallow valleys running eastward. As the valleys approached closer, the ground sloped down to meet them, their sides becoming steeper, buckled and broken. Proceeding ahead on an easterly course, our march came to an abrupt termination on an ice–bluff.
In front lay a perfectly flat snow–covered plain – the sea ice. In point of fact we had arrived at the eastern side of the Mertz Glacier and were about fifteen miles north of the mainland. Old sea ice, deeply covered in snow, lay ahead for miles, and the hazy, blue coast sank below the horizon in the southeast, running for a time parallel to the course we were about to take. It was some time before we realized all this, but at noon on the following day there came the first reminder of the proximity of sea–water.
An Adélie penguin, skiing on its breast from the north, surprised us suddenly by a loud croak at the rear of the sledge. As astonished as we were, it stopped and stared, and then in sudden terror made off. But before starting on its long trek to the land, it had to be captured and photographed.
To the south the coast was marked by two faces of rock and a short, dark spur protruding from beneath the ice–cap. As our friendly penguin had made off in that direction, we elected to call the place Penguin Point, intending to touch there on the return journey. During the afternoon magnetic dips and a round of angles to the prominences of the mainland were taken.
The next evidence on the sea ice question came in the shape of a line of broken slabs of ice to the north, sticking out of the snow like the ruins of an ancient graveyard. At one hundred and fifteen miles the line was so close that we left the sledge to investigate it, finding a depression ten feet deep, through which wound a glistening riband of sea–water. It reminded one of a creek in flat, Australian country, and the illusion was sustained by a dark skua gull – in its slow flight much like a crow. It was a fissure in old thick sea ice.
Sunday, and the first day of December, brought good weather and a clear view of the mainland. A bay opened to the east of Penguin Point, from which the coast trended to the southeast. Across a crack in the sea ice we could just distinguish a low indented line like the glacier–tongue, we had already crossed. It might have been a long promontory of land for all we knew. Behind it was a continuous ice–blink and on our left, to the north, a deep blue ‘water sky.’ It seemed worth while continuing on an easterly course approximately parallel with the coast.
We were faced by another glacier–tongue; a fact which remained unproven for a week at least. From the sea ice on to the glacier – the Ninnis Glacier – there was a gentle rise to a prominent knoll of one hundred and seventy feet. Here our distance from the Hut amounted to one hundred and fifty–two miles, and the spot was reckoned a good situation for the last depot.
In taking magnetic observations, it was interesting to find that the ‘dip’ amounted to 87° 44’, while the declination, which had varied towards the west, swung at this our most northerly station a few degrees to the east. We were curving round the South Magnetic Pole. Many points on the coast were fixed from an adjoining hill to which Correll and I trudged through sandy snow, while McLean stayed behind erecting the depot–mound, placing a food–bag, kerosene tin, black cloth and miner’s pick on the top.
With four weeks’ provisions we made a new start to cross the Ninnis Glacier on December 3, changing course to E 30° N, in great wonderment as to what lay ahead. In this new land interest never flagged. One never could foresee what the morrow would bring forth.
Across rolling ‘downs’ of soft, billowy snow we floundered for twenty–four miles, on the two following days. Not a wind–ripple could be seen. We were evidently in a region of comparative calms, which was a remarkable thing, considering that the windiest spot in the world was less than two hundred miles away.
After several sunny days McLean and I had very badly cracked lips. It had been often remarked at the Hut that the standard of humour greatly depreciated during the winter and this caused McLean and me many a physical pang while sledging, as we would laugh at the least provocation and open all the cracks in our lips. Eating hard plasmon biscuits was a painful pleasure. Correll, who was immune from this affliction, tanned to the rich hue of the ‘nut–brown maiden.’
On December 5, at the top of a rise, we were suddenly confronted with a new vision – ‘Thalassa!’ was our cry, ‘the sea!’ but a very different sea from that which brought such joy to the hearts of the wandering Greeks. Unfolded to the horizon was a plain of pack–ice, thickly studded with bergs and intersected by black leads of open water. In the northeast was a patch of open sea and above it, round to the north, lowering banks of steel–blue cloud. We had come to the eastern side of Ninnis Glacier.
At this point any analogy which could possibly have been found with Wilkes’s coastline ceased. It seems probable that he charted as land the limits of the pack–ice in 1840.
The excitement of exploring this new realm was to be deferred. Even as we raised the tent, the wind commenced to whistle and the air became surcharged with snow. Three skua gulls squatted a few yards away, squawking at our approach, and a few snow petrels sailed by in the gathering blizzard.
Through the 6th, 7th and 8th and most of the 9th it raged, during which time we came definitely to the conclusion that as social entertainers we were complete failures. We exhausted all the reserve topics of conversation, discussed our Universities, sports, friends and homes. We each described the scenery we liked best; notable always for the sunny weather and perfect calm. McLean sailed again in Sydney Harbour, Correll cycled and ran his races, I wandered in the South Australian hills or rowed in the ‘eights’, while the snow swished round the tent and the wind roared over the wastes of ice.
Avoiding a few crevasses on the drop to sea–level on December 10, the sledge was manoeuvred over a tide–crack between glacier and sea ice. The latter was traversed by frequent pressure–ridges; hummocks and broken pinnacles being numerous.
The next six days out on the broken sea ice were full of incident. The weather was gloriously sunny till the 13th, during which time the sledge had to be dragged through a forest of pinnacles and over areas of soft, sticky slush which made the runners execrable for hours. Ponds of open water, by which basked a few Weddell seals, became a familiar sight. We tried to maintain a southeasterly course for the coast, but miles were wasted in the tortuous maze of ice – ‘a wildering Theban ruin of hummock and serac’.
The sledge–meter broke down and gave the ingenious Correll a proposition which he ably solved. McLean and I had a chronic weakness of the eyes from the continual glare. Looking at the other two fellows with their long protruding goggles made me think of Banquo’s ghost: ‘Thou hast no speculation in those eyes that thou dost glare with.’
I had noticed that some of the tide–cracks had opened widely and, when a blizzard blew on December 13, the thought was a skeleton in my brain cupboard.
On the 15th an Emperor penguin was seen sunning himself by a pool of water, so we decided to kill the bird and carry some meat in case of emergency. McLean found the stomach full of fish and myriads of cestodes in the intestines.
By dint of hard toil over cracks, ridges and jagged, broken blocks, we came, by diverging to the southwest, to the junction between shifting pack and fast bay–ice, and even there, we afterwards shuddered to find, it was at least forty–five miles, as the penguin skis, to the land.
It was a fine flat surface on which the sledge ran, and the miles commenced to fly by, comparatively speaking. Except for an occasional deep rift, whose bottom plumbed to the sea–water, the going was excellent. Each day the broken ice on our left receded, the mainland to the south grew closer and traces of rock became discernible on the low, fractured cliffs.
On December 17 a huge rocky bluff – Horn Bluff – stood out from the shore. It had a ram–shaped bow like a Dreadnought battleship and, adjoining it, there were smaller outcrops of rock on the seaward ice–cliffs. On its eastern side was a wide bay with a well–defined cape – Cape Freshfield – at the eastern extremity about thirty miles away.
The Bluff was a place worth exploring. At a distance of more than fifteen miles, the spot suggested all kinds of possibilities, and in council we argued that it was useless to go much farther east, as to touch at the land would mean a detour on the homeward track and time would have to be allowed for that.
At a point two hundred and seventy miles from the Hut, in latitude 68° 18’ S, longitude 150° 12’ E, we erected our ‘farthest east’ camp on December 18, after a day’s tramp of eighteen miles. Here, magnetic ‘dips’ and other observations were made throughout the morning of the 19th. It was densely overcast, with sago snow falling, but by 3 pm of the same day the clouds had magically cleared and the first stage of the homeward journey had commenced.
This version of Home of the Blizzard has been edited and published by the Australian Antarctic Division.