Chapter 16: Horn Bluff and Penguin Point
Chapter 16: Horn Bluff and Penguin Point
By CT Madigan
What thrill of grandeur ours
When first we viewed the column’d fell!
What idle, lilting verse can tell
Of giant fluted towers,
O’er–canopied with immemorial snow
And riven by a glacier’s azure flow?
As we neared Horn Bluff, on the first stage of our homeward march, the upper layers of snow were observed to disappear, and the underlying ice became thinner; in corrugated sapphire plains with blue reaches of sparkling water. Cracks bridged with flimsy snow continually let one through into the water. McLean and I both soaked our feet and once I was immersed to the thighs, having to stop and put on dry socks and finnesko. It was a chilly process allowing the trousers to dry on me.
The mountain, pushing out as a great promontory from the coast amid the fast sea–ice, towered up higher as our sledge approached its foot. A great shadow was cast on the ice, and, when more than a mile away, we left the warm sunshine.
Awed and amazed, we beheld the lone vastness of it all and were mute. Rising out of the flat wilderness over which we had travelled was a mammoth vertical barrier of rock rearing its head to the skies above. The whole face for five miles was one magnificent series of organ–pipes. The deep shade was heightened by the icy glare beyond it. Here was indeed a Cathedral of Nature, where the ‘still, small voice’ spoke amid an ineffable calm.
Far up the face of the cliff snow petrels fluttered like white butterflies. It was stirring to think that these majestic heights had gazed out across the wastes of snow and ice for countless ages, and never before had the voices of human beings echoed in the great stillness nor human eyes surveyed the wondrous scene.
From the base of the organ–pipes sloped a mass of debris; broken blocks of rock of every size tumbling steeply to the splintered hummocks of the sea–ice.
Standing out from the top of this talus–slope were several white ‘beacons’, up to which we scrambled when the tent was pitched. This was a tedious task as the stones were ready to slide down at the least touch, and often we were carried down several yards by a general movement. Wearing soft finnesko, we ran the risk of getting a crushed foot among the large boulders. Amongst the rubble were beds of clay, and streams of thaw–water trickled down to the surface of a frozen lake.
After rising two hundred feet, we stood beneath the beacons which loomed above to a height of one hundred and twenty–eight feet. The organ–pipes were basaltic1 in character but, to my great joy, I found the beacons were of sedimentary rock. After a casual examination, the details were left till the morrow.
That night we had a small celebration on raisins, chocolate and apple–rings, besides the ordinary fare of hoosh, biscuit and cocoa. Several times we were awakened by the crash of falling stones. Snow petrels had been seen coming home to their nests in the beacons, which were weathered out into small caves and crannies. From the camp we could hear their harsh cries.
The scene in the morning sun was a brilliant one. The great columnar rampart ran almost north and south and the tent was on its eastern side. So what was in dark shadow on the day before was now radiantly illumined.
Correll remained behind on the sea–ice with a theodolite to take heights of the various strata. McLean and I, armed with aneroid, glasses, ruck–sack, geological hammer (ice–axe) and camera, set out for the foot of the talus–slope.
The beacons were found to be part of a horizontal, stratified series of sandstones underlying the igneous rock. There were bands of coarse gravel and fine examples of stream–bedding interspersed with seams of carbonaceous shale and poor coal. Among the debris were several pieces of sandstone marked by black, fossilised plant–remains. The summits of the beacons were platforms of very hard rock, baked by the volcanic overflow. The columns, roughly hexagonal and weathered to a dull–red, stood above in sheer perpendicular lines of six hundred and sixty feet in altitude.
After taking a dozen photographs of geological and general interest and stuffing the sack and our pockets with specimens, we picked a track down the shelving talus to a lake of fresh water which was covered with a superficial crust of ice beneath which the water ran. The surface was easily broken and we fetched the aluminium cover of the cooker, filling it with three gallons of water, thus saving kerosene for almost a day.
After McLean had collected samples of soil, lichens, algae and moss, and all the treasures had been labelled, we lunched and harnessed–up once more for the homeward trail.
For four miles we ran parallel to the one–thousand–foot wall of Horn Bluff meeting several boulders stranded on the ice, as well as the fragile shell of a tiny sea–urchin. The promontory was domed with snow and ice, more than one thousand two hundred feet above sea–level. From it streamed a blue glacier overflowing through a rift in the face. Five miles on our way, the sledge passed from frictionless ice to rippled snow and with a march of seven miles, following lunch, we pitched camp.
Every one was tired that night, and our prayer to the Sleep Merchant in the book of Australian verse was for:
Twenty gallons of balmy sleep,
Dreamless, and deep, and mild,
Of the excellent brand you used to keep
When I was a little child.
For three days, December 22, 23 and 24, the wind soughed at thirty miles per hour and the sky was a compact nimbus, unveiling the sun at rare moments. Through a mist of snow we steered on a northwest course towards the one–hundred–and–fifty–two mile depot. The wind was from the southeast true, and this information, with hints from the sun–compass, gave us the direction. With the sail set, on a flat surface, among ghostly bergs and over narrow leads we ran for forty–seven miles with scarce a clear view of what lay around. The bergs had long ramps of snow leading close up to their summits on the windward side and in many cases the intervals between these ramps and the bergs were occupied by deep moats.
One day we were making four knots an hour under all canvas through thick drift. Suddenly, after a gradual ascent, I was on the edge of a moat, thirty feet deep. I shouted to the others and, just in time, the sledge was slewed round on the very brink.
We pushed on blindly:
The toil of it none may share;
By yourself must the way be won
Through fervid or frozen air
Till the overland journey’s done.
Christmas Day! The day that ever reminds one of the sweet story of old, the lessons of childhood, the joys of Santa Claus – the day on which the thoughts of the wildest wanderer turn to home and peace and love. All the world was cheerful; the sun was bright, the air was calm. It was the home trail, provisions were in plenty, the sledge was light and our hearts lighter.
The eastern edge of Ninnis Glacier was near, and, leaving the sea–ice, we were soon straining up the first slope, backed by a line of ridges trending northeast and southwest, with shallow valleys intervening. On the wind–swept crests there were a few crevasses well packed with snow.
It was a day’s work of twelve miles and we felt ready for Christmas dinner. McLean was cook and had put some apple–rings to soak in the cooker after the boil–up at lunch. Beyond this and the fact that he took some penguin–meat into the tent, he kept his plans in the deepest mystery. Correll and I were kept outside making things snug and taking the meteorological observations, until the word came to enter. When at last we scrambled in, a delicious smell diffused through the tent, and there was a sound of frying inside the cooker–pot. We were presented with a menu which read:
Peace on earth, good will to men.
King George V Land
200 miles east of Winter Quarters
Menu du Diner
Biscuit de plasmon
Ration du lard glace
Monsieur l’Empereur Pingouin fricassé
Piece de Résistance
Pemmican naturel à l’Antarctique
Hotch–potch de pommes et de raisins
Chocolat au sucre glaxoné
Liqueur bien ancienne de l’Ecosse
The hors d’oeuvre of bacon ration was a welcome surprise. McLean had carried the tin unknown to us up till this moment. The penguin, fried in lumps of fat taken from the pemmican, and a little butter, was delicious. In the same pot the hoosh was boiled and for once we noted an added piquancy. Next followed the plum–pudding – dense mixture of powdered biscuit, glaxo, sugar, raisins and apple–rings, surpassing the finest, flaming, holly–decked, Christmas creation.
Then came the toasts. McLean produced the whisky from the medical kit and served it out, much diluted, in three mugs. There was not three ounces in all, but it flavoured the water.
I was asked to call ‘The King’. McLean proposed ‘The Other Sledgers’ in a noble speech, wishing them every success; and then there were a few drops left to drink to ‘Ourselves’, whom Correll eulogised to our complete satisfaction. We then drew on the meagre supply of cigarettes and lay on our bags, feeling as comfortable as the daintiest epicure after a twelve–course dinner, drinking his coffee and smoking his cigar.
We talked till twelve o’clock, and then went outside to look at the midnight sun, shining brightly just above the southern horizon. Turning in, we were once more at home in our dreams.
By a latitude shot at noon on Boxing Day, I found that our position was not as far north as expected. The following wind had been probably slightly east of southeast and too much westing had been made. From a tangle of broken ridges whose surface was often granular, half–consolidated ice, the end of the day opened up a lilac plain of sea–ice ahead. We were once more on the western side of Ninnis Glacier and the familiar coast of Penguin Point, partly hidden by an iceberg, sprang into view. The depot hill to the northwest could be recognized, twenty miles away, across a wide bay. By hooch–time we had found a secure path to the sea–ice, one hundred and eighty feet below.
The wind sprang up opportunely on the morning of the 27th, and the sun was serene in a blue sky. Up went the sail and with a feather–weight load we strode off for the depot eighteen miles distant. Three wide rifts in the sea–ice exercised our ingenuity during the day’s march, but by the time the sun was in the southwest the sledge was sawing through the sandy snow of the depot hill. It was unfortunate that the food of this depot had been cached so far out of our westerly course, as the time expended in recovering it might have been profitably given to a survey of the mainland east of Penguin Point. At 6.20 pm, after eighteen and a quarter miles, the food–bag was sighted on the mound, and that night the dinner at our one–hundred–and–fifty–two–mile depot was marked by some special innovations.
Penguin Point, thirty miles away, bore W 15° S, and next day we made a bid for it by a march of sixteen miles. There was eleven days’ ration on the sledge to take us to Mount Murchison, ninety miles away; consequently the circuitous route to the land was held to be a safe ‘proposition’.
Many rock faces became visible, and I was able to fix numerous prominent points with the theodolite.
At three miles off the coast, the surface became broken by ridges, small bergs and high, narrow cupolas of ice surrounded by deep moats. One of these was very striking. It rose out of a wind–raked hollow to a height of fifty feet; just the shape of an ancient Athenian helmet. McLean took a photograph.
As at Horn Bluff, the ice became thinner and freer of snow as we drew near the Point. The rocky wall under which the tent was raised proved to be three hundred feet high, jutting out from beneath the slopes of ice. From here the coast ran almost south on one side and northwest on the other. On either hand there were dark faces corniced with snow.
The next day was devoted to exploration. Adélie penguins waddled about the tide–crack over which we crossed to examine the rock, which was of coarse–grained granite, presenting great, vertical faces. Hundreds of snow petrels flew about and some stray skua gulls were seen.
Near the camp, on thick ice, were several large blocks of granite which had floated out from the shore and lay each in its pool of thaw–water, covered with serpulae and lace coral.
Correll, our Izaak Walton, had brought a fishing–line and some penguin–meat. He stopped near the camp fishing while McLean and I continued down the coast, examining the outcrops. The type of granite remained unchanged in the numerous exposures.
I had noticed a continuous rustling sound for some time and found at length that it was caused by little streams of ice–crystals running down the steep slopes in cascades, finally pouring out in piles on the sea–ice. The partial thaw in the sunlight causes the semi–solid ice to break up into separate grains. Sometimes whole areas of the surface, in delicate equilibrium, would suddenly flow rapidly away.
For three miles we walked, and as the next four miles of visible coast presented no extensive outcrops, we turned back for lunch.
During the afternoon, on the summit of the Point, it was found that an uneven rocky area, about a quarter of a mile wide, ran backwards to the ice–falls of the plateau. The surface was very broken and weathered, covered in patches by abundant lichens and mosses. Fossicking round in the gravel, Correll happened on some tiny insect–like mites living amongst the moss or on the moist under side of slabs of stone. This set us all insect–hunting. Alcohol was brought in a small bottle from the tent, and into this they were swept in myriads with a camel’s–hair brush. From the vantage–point of a high rock in the neighbourhood the long tongue of Mertz Glacier could be seen running away to the north.
At 8.30 am, on New Year’s Eve, we set off for another line of rocks about four miles away to the west. There were two masses forming an angle in the ice–front and consisting of two main ridges rising to a height of two hundred and fifty feet, running back into the ice–cap for a mile, and divided by a small glacier.
This region was soon found to be a perfect menagerie of life. Seals lay about dozing peacefully by the narrow lanes of water. Adélie penguins strutted in procession up and down the little glacier. To reach his rookery, a penguin would leap four feet on to a ledge of the ice–foot, painfully pad up the glassy slope and then awkwardly scale the rocks until he came to a level of one hundred and fifty feet. Here he took over the care of a chick or an egg, while the other bird went to fish. Skua gulls flew about, continually molesting the rookeries. One area of the rocks was covered by a luxuriant growth of green moss covering guano and littered skeletons – the site of a deserted rookery.
Correll and I went up to where the ridges converged, selecting numerous specimens of rock and mineral and finding thousands of small red mites in the moist gravel. Down on the southern ridge we happened on a Wilson petrel with feathered nestlings. At this point McLean came along from the west with the news of silver–grey petrels and Cape pigeons nesting in hundreds. He had secured two of each species and several eggs. This was indeed a discovery, as the eggs of the former birds had never before been found. Quite close to us were many snow petrels in all kinds of unexpected crevices. The light was too dull for photographing, but, while I took magnetic ‘dips’ on the following morning, McLean visited the silver–grey petrels and Cape pigeons and secured a few ‘snaps’.
The last thing we did before leaving the mainland was to kill two penguins and cut off their breasts and this meat was, later, to serve us in good stead.
Crossing the Mertz Glacier at any time would have been an unpleasant undertaking, but to go straight to Mount Murchison (the site of our first depot on the outward journey) from Penguin Point meant spanning it in a long oblique line. It was preferable to travel quickly and safely over the sea–ice on a northwesterly course, which, plotted on the chart, intersected our old one–hundred–mile camp on the eastern margin of the glacier; then to cross by the route we already knew.
By January 2 we had thrown Penguin Point five miles behind, and a spell of unsettled weather commenced; in front lay a stretch of fourteen miles over a good surface. The wind was behind us, blowing between thirty and forty miles per hour, and from an overcast sky light snow was falling. Fortunately there were fleeting glimpses of the sun, by which the course could be adjusted. Towards evening the snow had thickened, but thanks to the splendid assistance afforded by a sail, the white jutting spurs of the edge of Mertz Glacier were dimly visible.
A blizzard took possession of the next day till 7 pm, when we all sallied out and found the identical gully in which was the one–hundred–mile camp of the outward journey. The light was still bad and the sky overcast, so the start was postponed till next morning.
There was food for five days on a slightly reduced ration and the depot on Mount Murchison was forty miles away.
Once we had left the sea–ice and stood on the glacier, Aurora Peak with its black crest showed through the glasses. Once there, the crevasses we most dreaded would be over and the depot easily found.
A good fourteen and a quarter miles slipped by on January 4 – a fine day. On January 5 the ‘plot began to thicken’. The clouds hung above like a blanket, sprinkling light snow. The light was atrocious, and a few open rents gave warning of the western zone of pitfalls. All the while there was a shifting spectral chaos of whiteness which seemed to benumb the faculties and destroy one’s sense of reality. We decided to wait for a change in the weather.
During the night the snow ceased, and by lunch time on the 6th the sledge–meter recorded ten miles. The strange thing was that the firm sastrugi present on the outward journey were now covered inches in snow, which became deeper as we marched westward.
It was now a frequent occurrence for one of us to pitch forward with his feet down a hidden crevasse, sometimes going through to the waist. The travelling was most nerve–racking. When a foot went through the crust of snow, it was impossible to tell on which side of the crevasse one happened to be, or in what direction it ran. The only thing to do was to go ahead and trust in Providence.
At last we landed the sledge on a narrow ridge of hard snow, surrounded by blue, gaping pits in a pallid eternity of white. It was only when the tent was pitched that a wide quarry was noticed a few yards away from the door.
It was now fourteen miles to the top of Mount Murchison and we had only two more days’ rations and one and a half pounds of penguin–meat.
On January 7th the light was worse than ever and snow fell. It was only six miles across the broken country between us and the gully between Mt Murchison and Aurora Peak, where one could travel with some surety. A sharp look–out was kept, and towards 11 pm a rim of clear sky over-topped the southern horizon. We knew the sun would curve round into it at midnight, so all was made ready for marching.
When the sun’s disc emerged into the rift there was light; but dim, cold and fleeting. The smallest irregularity on the surface threw a shadow hundreds of yards long. The plain around was a bluish–grey chequer–board of light and shade; ahead, sharp and clear against the leaden sky, stood beautiful Aurora Peak, swathed in lustrous gold – the chariot of the goddess herself. The awful splendour of the scene tended to depress one and make the task more trying. I have never felt more nervous than I did in that ghostly light in the tense silence, surrounded by the hidden horror of fathomless depths. All was covered with a uniform layer of snow, growing deeper and heavier at every step. I was ahead and went through eight times in about four miles. The danger lay in getting the sledge and one, two, or all of us on a weak snow–bridge at the same time. As long as the sledge did not go down we were comparatively safe.
At 1.30 am the sun was obscured and the light waned to dead white. Still we went on, as the entrance of the gully between Aurora Peak and Mount Murchison was near at hand and we had a mind to get over the danger–zone before a snowstorm commenced.
By 5.30 am we breathed freely on ‘terra firma’, even though one sunk through a foot of snow to feel it. It had taken six hours to do the last five and three–quarter miles, and, being tired out with the strain on muscles and nerves, we raised the tent, had a meal, and then slept till noon on the 8th. It was eight miles to the depot, five miles up the gully and three miles to the summit of Mount Murchison; and no one doubted for a moment that it could not be done in a single day’s march.
Advancing up the gully after lunch, we found that the surface became softer, and we were soon sinking to the knees at every step. The runners, too, sank till the decking rested on the snow, and it was as much as we could do to shift the sledge, with a series of jerks at every step. At 6 pm matters became desperate. We resolved to make a depot of everything unnecessary, and to relay it up the mountain afterwards.
The sledge–meter, clogged with snow and almost submerged, was taken off and stood up on end to mark a depot, whilst a pile was made of the dip–circle, theodolite and tripod, pick, alpine rope, ice–axe, all the mineral and biological specimens and excess clothing.
Even thus lightened, we could scarcely move the sledge, struggling on, sinking to the thighs in the flocculent deluge. Snow now began to fall so thickly that it was impossible to see ahead.
At 7 pm we finished up the last scraps of pemmican and cocoa. Biscuit, sugar and glaxo had given out at the noon meal. There still remained one and a half pounds of penguin meat, several infusions of tea and plenty of kerosene for the primus.
We staggered on till 10.30 pm, when the weather became so dense that the sides of the gully were invisible. Tired out, we camped and had some tea. In eight hours we had only made four and a half miles, and there was still the worst part to come.
In our exhausted state we slept till 11 pm of January 9, awaking to find the sky densely overcast and a light fog in the air. During a rift which opened for a few minutes there was a short glimpse of the rock on Aurora Peak. Shredding half the penguin–meat, we boiled it up and found the stew and broth excellent.
At 1.30 am we started to struggle up the gully once more, wading along in a most helpless fashion, with breathing spells every ten yards or less. Snow began to fall in such volume that at last it was impossible to keep our direction with any certainty. The only thing to do was to throw up the tent as a shelter and wait. This we did till 4.30 am; but there must have been a cloud–burst, for the heavy flakes toppled on to the tent like tropical rain. We got into sleeping–bags, and tried to be patient and to forget that we were hungry.
Apparently, during our seven weeks’ absence, the local precipitation had been almost continual, and snow now lay over this region in stupendous amount. Even when one sank three feet, it was not on to the firm sastrugi over which we had travelled out of the valley on the outward journey, for these lay still deeper. It was hoped that the ‘snow dump’ did not continue over the fifty miles to the Hut, but we argued that on the windy plateau this could scarcely be possible.
It was evident that without any more food, through this bottomless, yielding snow, we could never haul the sledge up to the depot, a rise of one thousand two hundred feet in three miles. One of us must go up and bring food back, and I decided to do so as soon as the weather cleared.
We found the wait for clearer weather long and trying with empty stomachs. As the tobacco supply still held out, McLean and I found great solace in our pipes. All through the rest of the day and till 5 pm of the next, January 10, there was not a rift in the opaque wall of flakes. Then to our intense relief the snow stopped, the clouds rolled to the north, and, in swift transformation – a cloudless sky with bright sunshine! With the rest of the penguin–meat – a bare half–pound – we had another thin broth. Somewhat fortified, I took the food–bag and shovel, and left the tent at 5.30 am.
Often sinking to the thighs, I felt faint at the first exertion. The tent scarcely seemed to recede as I toiled onwards towards the first steep slope. The heavy mantle of snow had so altered the contours of the side of the gully that I was not sure of the direction of the top of the mountain.
Resting every hundred yards, I floundered on hour after hour, until, on arriving at a high point, I saw a little shining mound standing up on a higher point, a good mile to the east. After seven hours’ wading I reached it and found that it was the depot.
Two feet of the original eight–foot mound projected above the surface, with the bamboo pole and a wire–and–canvas flag rising another eighteen inches. On this, a high isolated mountain summit, six feet of snow had actually accumulated. How thankful I was that I had brought a shovel!
At seven feet I ‘bottomed’ on the hard snow, without result. Then, running a tunnel in the most probable direction, I struck with the shovel the kerosene tin which was on the top of the food–bag. On opening the bag, the first items to appear were sugar, butter and biscuits; the next quarter of an hour I shall not forget!
I made a swag of five days’ provisions, and, taking a direct route, attacked the three miles downhill in lengths of one hundred and fifty yards. Coming in sight of the tent, I called to my companions to thaw some water for a drink. So slow was progress that I could speak to them a quarter of an hour before reaching the tent. I had been away eleven and a half hours, covering about seven miles in all.
McLean and Correll were getting anxious about me. They said that they had felt the cold and were unable to sleep. Soon I had produced the pemmican and biscuit, and a scalding hoosh was made. The other two had had only a mug of penguin broth each in three days, and I had only broken my fast a few hours before them.
After the meal, McLean and Correll started back to the cache, two miles down the gully, to select some of the geological and biological specimens and to fetch a few articles of clothing. The instruments, the greater part of the collection of rocks, crampons, sledge–meter and other odds and ends were all left behind. Coming back with the loads slung like swags they found that by walking in their old footsteps they made fair progress.
By 8 pm all had rested, every unnecessary fitting had been stripped off the sledge and the climb to the depot commenced. I went ahead in my old trail, Correll also making use of it; while McLean broke a track for himself. The work was slow and heavy; nearly six hours were spent doing those three miles.
It was a lovely evening; the yellow sun drifting through orange cloudlets behind Aurora Peak. We were in a more appreciative mood than on the last midnight march, exulting in the knowledge of ten days’ provisions at hand and fifty–three miles to go to reach the Hut.
In the manner of the climate, a few wisps of misty rack came sailing from the southeast, the wind rose, snow commenced to fall and a blizzard held sway for almost three days. It was just as well that we had found that depot when we did.
The fifty–three miles to the Hut melted away in the pleasures of anticipation. The first two miles, on the morning of January 14, gave us some strenuous work, but they were luxurious in comparison with what we expected; soon, however, the surface rapidly and permanently improved. A forty–mile wind from the southeast was a distinct help, and by the end of the day we had come in sight of the nunatak first seen after leaving the Hut (Madigan Nunatak).
In two days forty miles lay behind. Down the blue ice–slopes in slippery finnesko, and Aladdin’s Cave hove in sight. We tumbled in, to be assailed by a wonderful odour which brought back orchards, shops, people – a breath of civilization. In the centre of the floor was a pile of oranges surmounted by two luscious pineapples. The Ship was in! There was a bundle of letters – Bage was back from the south – Wild had been landed one thousand five hundred miles to the west – Amundsen had reached the Pole! Scott was remaining in the Antarctic for another year. How we shouted and read all together!
- To be exact the igneous rook was a very thick sill of dolerite.
This version of Home of the Blizzard has been edited and published by the Australian Antarctic Division.