Chapter 17: With Stillwell's and Bickerton's parties
Chapter 17: With Stillwell's and Bickerton's parties
Leaving Madigan’s party on November 19, when forty–six miles from the Hut, Stillwell, Hodgeman and Close of the Near–Eastern Party diverged towards a dome–shaped mountain – Mount Hunt. A broad valley lay between their position on the falling plateau and this eminence to the northeast. Looking across, one would think that the depression was slight, but the party found by aneroid that their descent was one thousand five hundred feet into a gully filled with soft, deep snow. After skimming the polished sastrugi of the uplands, the sledge ran heavily in the yielding drifts. Then a gale of wind rose behind them just as the ascent on the other side commenced, and was a valuable aid in the pull to the summit.
From the highest point or cap of what proved to be a promontory, a wide seascape dotted with bergs was unfolded to the north. To the west the eastern cape of Commonwealth Bay was visible, and sweeping away to the northeast was the Mertz Glacier with sheer, jutting headlands succeeding one another into the distance. True bearings to these points were obtained from the camp, and, subsequently, with the help of an observation secured on the Aurora during the previous year, the trend of the glacier–tongue was determined. Hodgeman made a series of illustrative sketches.
On November 21 the party commenced the return journey, moving directly towards Madigan Nunatak to the southwest. This nunatak had been sighted for the first time on the outward march, and there was much speculation as to what the rock would prove to be. A gradual descent for seven miles brought them on to a plain, almost at sea–level, continuous with the valley they had crossed on the 19th further to the east. On the far side of the plain a climb was commenced over some ice–spurs, and then a broad field of crevasses was encountered, some of which attained a width of fifty yards. Delayed by these and by unfavourable weather, they did not reach Madigan Nunatak until the evening of November 20.
The outcrop – a jagged crest of rock – was found to be one hundred and sixty yards long and thirty yards wide, placed at an altitude of two thousand four hundred feet above sea–level. It is composed of grey quartzose gneiss.
There were no signs of recent glaciation or of ice–striae, though the rock was much weathered, and all the cracks and joint–planes were filled with disintegrating material. The weathering was excessive and peculiar in contrast with that observed on fresh exposures near the Hut and at other localities near sea–level.
After collecting specimens and placing a small depot of food on the highest point, the party continued their way to the Hut, reaching it on November 27.
At Winter Quarters noticeable changes had taken place. The harbour ice had broken back for several hundred yards and was rotten and ready to blow out in the first strong wind; marked thawing had occurred everywhere, and many islands of rock emerged from the snow; the ice–foot was diminishing; penguins, seals, and flying birds made the place, for once, alive and busy.
Bickerton, Whetter and Hannam carried on the routine of work; Whetter as meteorologist and Hannam as magnetician, while Bickerton was busied with the air–tractor and in preparations for sledging. Thousands of penguins’ eggs had been gathered for the return voyage of the Aurora, or in case of detention for a second winter.
Murphy, Hunter and Laseron arrived from the south on the same day as Stillwell, Hodgeman and Close came in from the east. The former party had plodded for sixty–seven miles through a dense haze of drift. They had kept a course roughly by the wind and the direction of sastrugi. The unvarying white light of thick overcast days had been so severe that all were suffering from snow–blindness. When, at length, they passed over the endless billows of snow on to the downfalls near the coast, the weather cleared and they were relieved to see once more the Mecca of all sledging parties – Aladdin’s Cave.
A redistribution of parties and duties was made. Hodgeman joined Whetter and Bickerton in preparation for the air–tractor sledge’s trip to the west. Hunter took up the position of meteorologist and devoted all his spare time to biological investigations amongst the immigrant life of summer. Hannam continued to act as magnetician and general ‘handy man’. Murphy, who was also to be in charge during the summer, returned to his stores, making preparations for departure. Hourly meteorological observations kept every one vigilant at the Hut.
In pursuance of a plan to examine in detail the coast immediately east of Commonwealth Bay, Stillwell set out with Laseron and Close on December 9. The weather was threatening at the start, and they had the usual struggle with wind and drift to ‘make’ Aladdin’s Cave.
Forewarned on the first journey of the dangers of bad ventilation, they cleared the entrance to the cave of obstacles so that a ready exit could be made, if, as was expected, the opening became sealed with snow–drift. This did happen during the night, and, though everything seemed all right the next morning, the whole party was overpowered during breakfast by foul air, the presence of which was not suspected.
Hoosh was cooked and about to be served, when Stillwell, who was in charge of the primus, collapsed. Close immediately seized an ice–axe, stood up, thrust its point through the choked entrance, and fell down, overcome. Laseron became powerless at the same time. An hour and a half later – so it was reckoned – the party revived and cleared the opening. The hole made by the ice–axe had been sufficient to save their lives. For a day they were too weak and exhausted to travel, so the tent was pitched and the night spent outside the Cave.
On December 11 they steered due south for a while and then eastward for three days to Madigan Nunatak; delayed for twenty–four hours by a blizzard.
Stillwell goes on to describe: ‘Part of the 15th was spent in making observations, taking photographs and collecting specimens of rocks and lichens. Breaking camp, we set out on a northerly course for the coast down gently falling snowfields. Gradually there opened up a beautiful vista of sea, dotted with floes and rocky islets (many of which were ice–capped). On December 16 camp was pitched near the coast on a stretch of firm, unbroken ice, which enabled one to venture close enough to the edge to discover an islet connected by a snow–ramp with the icy barrier. Lying farther off the shore was a thick fringe of islets, among and beyond which drifted a large quantity of heavy floe. The separate floes stood some ten or fifteen feet above the water–level, and the lengths of several exceeded a quarter of a mile. Every accessible rock was covered with rookeries of Adélie penguins; the first chicks were just hatched.’
A theodolite traverse was run to fix the position of each islet. The traverse–line was carried close to the ice–cliff, so that the number of islets hidden from view was as few as possible. Snow mounds were built at intervals and the intervening distances measured by the sledge–meter.
The party travelled west for seven and a quarter miles round a promontory – Cape Gray – until the Winter Quarters were sighted across Commonwealth Bay. They then turned eastward over the higher slopes, meeting the coast some three miles to the east of the place where they had first encountered it. The surface was for the most part covered with snow, while crevasses were frequent and treacherous.
In the midst of the survey the sledge–meter broke down, and, as the party were wholly dependent upon it for laying out base–lines, repairs had to be made.
On the 27th another accessible rocky projection was seen. Over it and the many islands in the vicinity hovered flocks of snow petrels and occasional Antarctic and Wilson petrels. Masses of Adélie penguins and chicks constituted the main population, and skua gulls with eggs were also observed. The rock was of garnet gneiss, traversed by black dykes of pyroxene granulite.
A great discovery was made on December 29. On the abrupt, northern face of some rocks connected to the ice–cap of the mainland by a causeway of ice a large colony of sea–birds had nested. Cape pigeons, the rare silver–grey and snow petrels were all present. Amongst these Laseron made a collection of many eggs and birds.
The traverse–line was then carried back to Madigan Nunatak along a series of connecting mounds. After being held up for three and a half days in a blizzard from December 31 to January 4, the party were home once more late on January 5, 1913.
Returning to the fortunes of the air–tractor sledge, which was to start west early in December. Bickerton has a short story to tell, inadequate to the months of work which were expended on that converted aeroplane. Its career was mostly associated with misfortune, dating from a serious fall when in flight at Adelaide, through the southern voyage of the Aurora, buffeted by destructive seas, to a capacious snow shelter in Adélie Land – the Hangar – where for the greater part of the year it remained helpless and drift–bound.
Bickerton takes up the story:
I had always imagined that the air–tractor sledge would be most handicapped by the low temperature; but the wind was far more formidable. It is obvious that a machine which depends on the surrounding air for its medium of traction could not be tested in the winds of an Adélie Land winter. One might just as well try the capabilities of a small motor–launch in the rapids at Niagara. Consequently we had to wait until the high summer.
With hopes postponed to an indefinite future, another difficulty arose. As it was found that the wind would not allow the sea–ice to form, breaking up the floe as quickly as it appeared, the only remaining field for manoeuvres was over the highlands to the south; under conditions quite different from those for which it was suited. We knew that for the first three miles there was a rise of some one thousand four hundred feet, and in places the gradient was one in three and a half. I thought the machine would negotiate this, but it was obviously unsafe to make the venture without providing against a headlong rush downhill, if, for any reason, power should fail.
Suggestions were not lacking, and after much consideration the following device was adopted:
A hand rock–drill, somewhat over an inch in diameter, was turned up in the lathe, cut with one–eighth–inch pitched, square threads and pointed at the lower end. This actuated through an internal threaded brass bush held in an iron standard; the latter being bolted to the after–end of a runner over a hole bushed for the reception of the drill. Two sets of these were got ready; one for each runner.
The standards were made from spare caps belonging to the wireless masts. The timely fracture of one of the vices supplied me with sufficient ready–cut thread of the required pitch for one brake. Cranked handles were fitted, and the points, which came in contact with the ice, were hardened and tempered. When protruded to their fullest extent, the spikes extended four inches below the runners.
The whole contrivance was not very elegant, but impressed one with its strength and reliability. To work the handles, two men had to sit one on each runner. As the latter were narrow and the available framework, by which to hold on and steady oneself, rather limited, the office of brakesman promised to be one with acrobatic possibilities.
To start the engine it was necessary to have a calm and, preferably, sunny day; the engine and oil–tank had been painted black to absorb the sun’s heat. On a windy day with sun and an air temperature of 30°F, it was only with considerable difficulty that the engine could be turned – chiefly owing to the thickness of the lubricating oil. But on a calm day with the temperature lower – 20°F for example – the engine would swing well enough to permit starting, after an hour or two of steady sun. If there were no sun even in the absence of wind, starting would be out of the question, unless the atmospheric temperature were high or the engine were warmed with a blow–lamp.
It was not till November 15 that the right combination of conditions came. That day was calm and sunny, and the engine needed no more stimulus than it would have received in a ‘decent’ climate.
Hannam, Whetter and I were the only inhabitants of the Hut at the time. Having ascertained that the oil and air pumps were working satisfactorily, we fitted the wheels and air–rudder, and made a number of satisfactory trials in the vicinity of the Hut.
The wheels were soon discarded as useless; reliance being placed on the long runners. Then the brakes were tested for the first time by driving for a short distance uphill to the south and glissading down the slope back to the Hut. With a man in charge of each brake, the machine, when in full career down the slope, was soon brought to a standstill. The experiment was repeated from a higher position on the slope, with the same result. The machine was then taken above the steepest part of the slope (one in three and a half) and, on slipping back, was brought to rest with ease. The surface was hard, polished blue ice. The air–rudder, by the way, was efficient at speeds exceeding fifteen miles per hour.
On the 20th we had a calm morning, so Whetter and I set out for Aladdin’s Cave to depot twenty gallons of benzene and six gallons of oil. The engine was not running well, one cylinder occasionally ‘missing’. But, in spite of this and a head wind of fifteen miles per hour, we covered the distance between the one–mile and the two–mile flags in three minutes. This was on ice, and the gradient was about one in fifteen. We went no farther that day, and it was lucky that we did so, for, soon after our return to the Hut, it was blowing more than sixty miles per hour.
On December 2 Hodgeman joined us in a very successful trip to Aladdin’s Cave with nine 8–gallon tins of benzene on a sledge; weighing in all seven hundred pounds.
After having such a good series of results with the machine, the start of the real journey was fixed for December 3. At 3 pm it fell calm, and we left at 4 pm, amid an inspiriting demonstration of goodwill from the six other men. Arms were still waving violently as we crept noisily over the brow of the hill and the Hut disappeared from sight.
On the two steepest portions it was necessary to walk, but, these past, the machine went well with a load of three men and four hundred pounds, reaching Aladdin’s Cave in an hour by a route free of small crevasses, which I had discovered on the previous day. Here we loaded up with three 100–lb. food–bags, twelve gallons of oil (one hundred and thirty pounds), and seven hundred pounds of benzene. Altogether, there was enough fuel and lubricating oil to run the engine at full speed for twenty hours as well as full rations for three men for six weeks.
After a few minutes spent in disposing the loads, our procession of machine, four sledges (in tow) and three men moved off. The going was slow, too slow – about three miles an hour on ice. This would probably mean no movement at all on snow which might soon be expected. But something was wrong. The cylinder which had been missing fire a few days before, but which had since been cleaned and put in order, was now missing fire again, and the speed, proportionately, had dropped too much.
I made sure that the oil was circulating, and cleaned the sparking–plug, but the trouble was not remedied. A careful examination showed no sufficient cause, so it was assumed to be internal. To undertake anything big was out of the question, so we dropped thirty–two gallons of benzene and a spare propeller. Another mile went by and we came to snow, where forty gallons of benzene, twelve gallons of oil and a sledge were abandoned. The speed was now six miles an hour and we did two miles in very bad form. As it was now 11 pm and the wind was beginning to rise, we camped, feeling none too pleased with the first day’s results.
While in the sleeping–bag I tried to think out some rapid way of discovering what was wrong with the engine. The only conclusion to which I could come was that it would be best to proceed to the cave at eleven and three–quarter miles – Cathedral Grotto – and there remove the faulty cylinder, if the weather seemed likely to be favourable; if it did not, to go on independently with our man–hauled sledge.
On December 4 the wind was still blowing about twenty miles per hour when we set to work on the machine. I poured some oil straight into the crank–case to make sure that there was sufficient, and we also tested and improved the ignition. At four o’clock the wind dropped, and in an hour the engine was started. While moving along, the idle cylinder was ejecting oil, and this, together with the fact that it had no compression, made me hope that broken piston–rings were the source of the trouble. It would only take two hours to remove three cylinders, take one ring from each of the two sound ones for the faulty one, and all might yet be well!
These thoughts were brought to a sudden close by the engine, without any warning, pulling up with such a jerk that the propeller was smashed. On moving the latter, something fell into the oil in the crank–case and fizzled, while the propeller could only be swung through an angle of about 30°. We did not wait to examine any further, but fixed up the man–hauling sledge, which had so far been carried by the air–tractor sledge, and cached all except absolute necessities.
We were sorry to leave the machine, though we had never dared to expect a great deal from it in the face of the unsuitable conditions found to prevail in Adélie Land. However, the present situation was disappointing.
Having stuffed up the exhaust–pipes to keep out the drift, we turned our backs to the aero–sledge and made for the eleven–and–three–quarter–mile cave, arriving there at 8 pm There was a cheering note from Bage in the ‘Grotto’, wishing us good luck.
To avoid crevasses we steered first of all to the southwest on the morning of the 5th, which was clear and bright. After six miles the sastrugi became hard and compact, so the course was changed to due west. Shortly afterwards, a piece of rock1 which we took to be a meteorite, was found on the surface of the snow. It measured approximately five inches by three inches by three and a half inches and was covered with a black scale which in places had blistered; three or four small pieces of this scale were lying within three inches of the main piece. Most of the surface was rounded, except one face which looked as if it had been fractured. It was lying on the snow, in a slight depression, about two and a half inches below the mean surface, and there was nothing to indicate that there had been any violent impact.
At eight o’clock that night we had done twelve miles, losing sight of the sea at a height of about three thousand feet. All felt pleased and looked forward to getting over a ridge ahead, which, from an altitude of four thousand feet, ran in pencilled outline to the western point of Commonwealth Bay.
On December 6 it was drifting hard, and part of the morning was spent theorising on our prospects in an optimistic vein. This humour gradually wore off as the thick drift continued, with a fifty–mile wind, for three days.
At 5 pm on December 8 a move was made. The drift was what our Hut–standard reckoned to be ‘moderate,’ but the wind had fallen to thirty miles an hour and had veered to the east; so the sail was hoisted. The going was difficult over a soft surface, and after five hours, by which time the drift had perceptibly thickened, we had done eight miles.
The thirst each one of us developed in those earlier days was prodigious. When filling the cooker with snow it was hard to refrain from packing it ‘up to the knocker’ in order to obtain a sufficient supply of water.
The next day it blew harder and drifted thicker. Above the loud flapping of the tent and the incessant sizzling of the drift we discussed our situation. We were one week ‘out’ and had travelled thirty–one miles. Future progress depended entirely on the weather – unfortunately. We were beginning to learn that though the season was ‘meteorologically’ called summer, it was hardly recognisable as such.
December 10 was Whetter’s birthday. It was heralded by an extra strong wind and the usual liberal allowance of drift. I was cook, and made some modifications in the meal. Hodgeman (who was the previous cook) used to make hoosh as thick as a biscuit, so we had some thin stuff for a change – two mugs each. Then really strong tea; we boiled it for some time to make sure of the strength and added some leaves which had already done good service.
Several times fault had been found with the way the tent was pitched. I had not yet tried my hand at being the ‘man inside’ during this operation. One day, while every one was grumbling, I said I would take the responsibility at the next camp; the proposal being received with grunts of assent. When the job was finished and the poles appeared to be spread taut, I found myself alone in what seemed to me a cathedral. Feeling pleased, I called for the others to come in, and arranged myself in a corner with an ‘I–told–you–so’ expression on my face, ready to receive their congratulations. Hodgeman came in first. He is not a large man, though he somehow gives one the impression that he is, but after he had made himself comfortable the place seemed smaller. When half–way through the ‘spout,’ coming in, he gave a grunt which I took to be one of appreciation. Then Whetter came in. He is of a candid disposition: ‘Ho, ho, laddie, what the dickens have you done with the tent?’
I tried to explain their mistake. But it was no good. When we were all inside, I couldn’t help seeing that the tent was much smaller than it had ever been before, and we had to huddle together most uncomfortably. And there were three days like this.
At nine o’clock one morning Hodgeman woke me with, ‘What about getting a move on?’ The wind had dropped to forty miles an hour, and through a tiny hole in the tent the ground could be seen. Amid a thinning fog of drift, the disc of the sun was just visible.
We made a start and then plodded on steadily till midnight over a soft and uncomfortable surface. Shortly after that hour I looked at the sledge–meter and found that it had ceased working; the sprocket had been knocked off. Repair was out of the question, as every joint was soldered up; so without more ado we dropped it. In future we were to estimate our speed, having already had some good experience in this way.
No sooner had Friday December 13 come on the scene than a catastrophe overtook us. The superstitious might have blamed Fate, but on this occasion there was no room for doubt; the fault was mine. The sail was up and, while braking the load upwind, I slipped and fell, allowing the sledge to collide with a large sastruga. The bow struck the solid snow with such force that it was smashed.
Next day a new bow was manufactured from a spare bamboo which had been brought as a depot pole. It took some time splitting and bending this into position and then lashing it with raw hide. But the finished article fully justified the means, and, in spite of severe treatment, the makeshift stood for the rest of the journey.
While on the march on December 16, the wind dropped and the drift ceased for the first time since December 5; for eleven days it had been heavy or moderate. Before we got into harness on the same day, a Wilson petrel flew above us. This little touch of life, together with the bright sun, light wind and lack of drift enabled us to start away in better spirits than had been our wont.
The next four days passed in excellent weather. The surface was mainly hard and the clusters of large sastrugi could generally be avoided. Patches of softer ‘pie crust’ were met but only lasted for two or three miles. Making up for lost time, we did a few miles short of one hundred in five days.
Unfortunately there was always drift at midday, so that it was impossible to get a latitude ‘shot’ with a sextant and artificial horizon.
On December 19 camp was pitched at 1 am before a glorious view; an horizon of sea from west to northeast and white fields of massive bergs. In the extreme west there was something which very closely resembled pack–ice.
On the 20th the surface was softer and the snow more recent, but the wind was behind us and for part of the day the track led downhill into a peculiar saucer–shaped depression which, on our first entry, looked like a valley closed at the far end, while when we came to the middle it resolved itself once more into a saucer.
Camping here, I managed to get a good time–shot, so that, provided we occupied this camp on the return journey, I reckoned that I could get the watch–rate and fix the approximate longitude of the pack–ice, which for two days had been clearly within view.
December 21 marked the end of the good weather, for drift and wind came on apace lasting four days, the wind attaining about eighty miles an hour. Sleeping–bags and tent–cloth were soon in a wretched state, sodden with moisture. Christmas Day was not very enjoyable in cramped quarters, the tent having encroached on us owing to drift settling around it. Still, by the evening, it was clear enough to break camp and we made a spurt of thirteen miles.
From the next camp there was a good view to the northwest, the pack extending beyond the limit of vision. The land trended to the west–northwest and we could see it at a distance of fifty miles from our altitude.
All things considered, I thought it right to turn back at this stage. In twenty–six days we had done one hundred and fifty–eight miles, and ninety–seven miles of that distance had been covered on the only five consecutive good days. We waited some time until the sun appeared, when I was able to get an observation while Hodgeman made a sketch of the view.
By December 30 we reoccupied the camp of the 20th, sixteen miles on the return journey. A time–shot was successful, and observations were also taken for magnetic declination.
As the weather was fine, Hodgeman and Whetter went to investigate two odd–looking pyramids about five miles away. These turned out to be high snow–ramps, two hundred yards long, on the lee side of open crevasses.
The last day of 1912 was calm and ‘snow–blind’ – the first of this particular variety we had experienced without drift. A New Year pudding was made of soaked biscuit, cocoa, milk, sugar, butter, and a few remaining raisins, and it was, of course, an immense success.
On January 1 and the two succeeding days the drift was so thick that we had to lie up and amuse ourselves discussing various matters of individual interest. Hodgeman gave us a lecture on architecture, explaining the beauties of certain well–known buildings. Whetter would describe some delicate surgical operation, while I talked about machinery. I also worked up the time–shots, and the hours passed quickly. If only our sleeping–bags had been drier we might have enjoyed ourselves at intervals.
The evening of the 4th found us camped ten miles nearer home, beside a large crevasse and with a closer view of the bay seen on December 20. This time we were greatly excited to see rocks outcropping near the water–line, and an investigation of them was resolved upon for the following day.
The morning broke overcast and ghostly white. Although only ten yards away from it, we could not see the huge crevasse in our vicinity. Thus our expedition to the rocks had to be abandoned.
After a week’s travelling, during which obscured skies and intermittent drift were the rule, we were once more in the neighbourhood of Madigan’s spring depot, forty–five miles west of Aladdin’s Cave. It had been passed without our seeing any signs of it on the outward journey, and, as we never relied on finding it, we did not mind about missing it again.
Thick drift and a fifty–mile wind on January 12 kept us confined for thirty–six hours. It was clear enough after noon on the 13th, and five miles were covered in four hours through thick surface drift. What the course was we did not care as we steered by the sastrugi. If ever a man had any ‘homing instinct’ it would surely show itself on such an occasion as this.
Travelling in driving snow used to have a curious effect on me. I always imagined that we were just coming to an avenue of trees running at right angles to our course. What produced this idea I have not the slightest suspicion, but while it lasted, the impression was very strong.
To avoid the drift, which was thickest by day, travelling had for some time been conducted at night. On the evening of the 14th, during a clear spell, a ridge rose up behind, and, in front, a wide bay was visible with its far eastern point rising in mirage. This was taken to be Commonwealth Bay, but the fact could not be verified as the drift came on thickly once more. The day’s march was twelve miles by concerted reckoning.
Next day we went three miles to the north to see if any recognisable bergs would come in sight, but were stopped by crevasses. The eastward course was therefore resumed.
After continuing for about a mile Hodgeman told us to stop, flung down his harness and dashed back to the sledge, rummaging in the instrument–box till he found the glasses. ‘Yes, it’s the aeroplane,’ he said.
This remark took us by surprise as we had not expected it for eight miles at least. It was about midnight – the time when mirage was at a maximum. Consequently, all agreed that the machine was about twelve miles away, and we went on our way rejoicing, steering towards the Cathedral Grotto which was two miles south of the aero–sledge. After three miles we camped, and, it being my birthday, the two events were celebrated by ‘blowing in’ the whisky belonging to the medical outfit.
On the 16th the weather was thick, and we marched east for ten miles, passing a tea–leaf, which it was afterwards found must have come downwind from the Grotto. For eight hours nothing could be done in thick drift, and then, on breaking camp, we actually came to a flag which had been planted by Ninnis in the spring, thirteen miles southeast of Aladdin’s Cave. The distance to the air–tractor had been over–estimated, and the Grotto must have been passed quite close.
We made off down the hill, running over the crevasses at a great pace. Aladdin’s Cave with its medley of boxes, tins, picks and shovels, gladdened our eyes at 10 pm on the 17th. Conspicuous for its colour was an orange, stuck on a pick, which told us at once that the Ship was in.
- This has since been examined by Professor E Skeats and Stillwell, who report it to be an interesting form of meteorite, containing amongst other minerals, plagioclase felspar. This is, we believe, the first occasion on which a meteorite has been found in the Antarctic regions.
This version of Home of the Blizzard has been edited and published by the Australian Antarctic Division.