Chapter 19: The Western Base - Establishment and early adventures
Chapter 19: The Western Base - Establishment and early adventures
By F Wild
At 7 am on February 21, 1912, the Aurora steamed away to the north leaving us on the Shackleton Ice Shelf, while cheers and hearty good wishes were exchanged with the ship’s company. On the sea ice, that day, there stood with me my comrades – the Western Party; G Dovers, CT Harrisson, CA Hoadley, SE Jones, AL Kennedy, MH Moyes and AD Watson.
We proceeded to the top of the cliff, where the remainder of the stores and gear were hauled up. Tents were then erected and the work of hut–building at once commenced. The site selected for our home was six hundred and forty yards inland from the spot where the stores were landed, and, as the edge of the glacier was very badly broken, I was anxious to get a supply of food, clothing and fuel moved back from the edge to safety as soon as possible.
Of the twenty–eight Greenland dogs that had reached Antarctica in the Aurora, nineteen were landed in Adélie Land and nine with us. So far, none of these had been broken in for sledging, and all were in poor condition. Their quarters on the ship had been very cramped, and many times they had been thoroughly soaked in salt water, besides enduring several blizzards in Antarctic waters.
Harrisson, Hoadley, Kennedy and Jones ‘turned the first sod’ in the foundations of the hut, while Dovers, Moyes, Watson and I sledged along supplies of timber and stores. Inward from the brink of the precipice, which was one hundred feet in height, the surface was fairly good for sledges, but, owing to crevasses and pressure ridges, the course was devious and mostly uphill.
Until the building was completed, the day’s work commenced at 6 am, and, with only half an hour for a midday meal, continued until 7 pm. Fortunately, the weather was propitious during the seven days when the carpenters and joiners ruled the situation; the temperature ranging from −12°F to 25°F, while a moderate blizzard interrupted one day. The chief trouble was that the blizzard deposited six feet of snow around the stack of stores and coal at the landing place, thereby adding considerably to our labour. As evidence of the force of the wind, the floe was broken and driven out past the foot of the ‘flying fox’, tearing away the lower anchor and breaking the sheer–legs on the glacier.
An average day’s work on the stores consisted in bringing thirteen loads over a total distance of nine and a half miles. First of all, the cases had to be dug out of the snow drifts, and loading and unloading the sledges was scarcely less arduous.
On February 27, while working on the roof, Harrisson made an addition to our geographical knowledge. Well to the north of the mainland, and bearing a little north of east, he could trace the outline of land. Subsequently this was proved to be an island, thirty–two miles distant, and seventeen miles north of the mainland. It was twenty miles long and fifteen miles wide, being entirely ice covered. Later on, it was charted as Masson Island.
On the 28th, the hut was fit for habitation, the stove was installed, and meals were cooked and eaten in moderate comfort. The interior of the house was twenty feet square, but its area was reduced by a lobby entrance, three feet by five feet, a darkroom three feet by six feet situated on one side, and my cabin six feet six inches square in one corner. The others slept in seven bunks which were ranged at intervals round the walls. Of the remaining space, a large portion was commodiously occupied by the stove and table.
On three sides, the roof projected five feet beyond the walls and formed a veranda which was boarded up, making an excellent storeroom and workroom. This was a splendid idea of Dr Mawson’s, enabling us to work during the severest storms when there was no room in the hut, and incidentally supplying extra insulation and rendering the inside much warmer. The main walls and roof were double and covered with weatherproof felt. Daylight was admitted through four plate–glass skylights in the roof.
A blizzard effectually prevented outdoor work on February 29, and all hands were employed in the hut, lining the roof and walls and fixing shelves for cooking and other utensils.
An attack was made on the transport of stores next day. As a result of twelve hours’ work, five and a half tons of coal were dragged up and stowed under the veranda. It was Hoadley’s birthday, and the cook made a special feature of the dinner. With extra dainties like figs, cake and a bottle of wine, we felt that the occasion was fitly celebrated. On March 2, more stores were amassed round the house; Hoadley, Harrisson and I doing odd jobs inside, opening cans, sorting out stores, fitting bunks, shelves and the acetylene gas plant.
While undoing some packages of small boards, Hoadley found that a space had been arranged in the centre of one of the bundles, and a box of cigars inserted by some of the men originally employed upon the construction of the hut in Melbourne. Enclosed was a letter of hearty good wishes.
During the afternoon, Dovers and Kennedy lowered a small sledge down to the floe and brought up a seal and three Adélie penguins. These served for a while as fresh food for ourselves and the dogs.
Sunday March 3 was the finest day we had up till then experienced, and, since the work was now sufficiently advanced to make us comparatively comfortable and safe, I determined to make a proper Sunday of it. All hands were called at 8.30 am instead of 6 am. After breakfast a few necessary jobs were done and at noon a short service was held. When lunch was over, the skis were unpacked, and all went for a run to the east in the direction of Masson Island.
The glacier’s surface was excellent for travelling, but I soon found that it would be dangerous to walk about alone without skis, as there were a number of crevasses near the hut, some of considerable size; I opened one twenty–five feet wide. They were all well bridged and would support a man on skis quite easily.
A heavy gale, with falling snow and blinding drift, came on early the next day and continued for forty–eight hours; our worst blizzard up to that time. The temperature, below zero before the storm, rose with the wind to 30°F. Inside, all were employed preparing for a sledging trip I intended to make to the mainland before the winter set in. We were greatly handicapped by the want of a sewing machine.1 When unpacked, the one which had been brought was found to be without shuttles, spools and needles. Large canvas bags, made to contain two weeks’ provisions for a sledging unit of three men, were in the equipment, but the smaller bags of calico for the different articles of food had to be sewn by hand. Several hundred of these were required, and altogether the time consumed in making them was considerable.
Emerging on the morning of the 6th. after the blizzard had blown itself out, we found that snow drifts to a depth of twelve feet had collected around the hut. For entrance and exit, a shaft had to be dug and a ladder made. The stores, stacked in heaps close by, were completely covered, and another blizzard swooping down on the 7th made things still worse. This ‘blow’, persisting till the morning of the 9th, was very heavy, the wind frequently attaining velocities judged to reach ninety miles per hour, accompanied by drift so thick that it was impossible to go outside for anything.
Beyond the erection of the wireless masts, everything was now ready for the sledging journey. On the day when the wind abated, a party set to work digging holes for the masts and stay–posts. The former were to be fifty–two feet high, four and a half feet being buried in the ice. Unfortunately, a strong breeze with thick drift sprang up just as hoisting operations had started, and in a few minutes the holes were filled up and the workers had to run for shelter. Meanwhile, four men had succeeded in rescuing all the buried stores, some being stowed alongside the hut, and the remainder stacked up again on a new level.
On came another severe blizzard, which continued with only a few minutes’ interval until the evening of the 12th. During the short lull, Jones, Dovers and Hoadley took a sledge for a load of ice from a pressure ridge rather less than two hundred yards from the hut. While they were absent, the wind freshened again, and they had great difficulty in finding a way to the entrance.
It was very disappointing to be delayed in this manner, but there was consolation in the fact that we were better off in the hut than on the glacier, and that there was plenty of work inside. The interior was thus put in order much earlier than it would otherwise have been.
In erecting the hut, it was found that a case of nuts and bolts was missing, and many places in the frame had in consequence to be secured with nails. For a while I was rather doubtful how the building would stand a really heavy blow. There was, however, no need for uneasiness, as the first two blizzards drifted snow to such a depth in our immediate vicinity that, even with the wind at hurricane force, there was scarcely a tremor in the building.
The morning of Wednesday March 13 was calm and overcast. Breakfast was served at six o’clock. We then set to work and cleared away the snow from the masts and stay–posts, so that by 8.50 am both masts were in position. Before the job was over, a singular sight was witnessed. A large section of the glacier – many thousands of tons – calved off into the sea. The tremendous waves raised by the fall of this mass smashed into fragments all the floe left in the bay. With the sea ice went the snow slopes which were the natural roadway down. A perpendicular cliff, sixty to one hundred feet above the water, was all that remained, and our opportunities of obtaining seals and penguins in the future were cut off. Of course, too, the old landing place no longer existed.
The whole of the sledging provisions and gear were brought out, weighed and packed on the sledges; the total weight being one thousand two hundred and thirty–three pounds. Dovers, Harrisson, Hoadley, Jones, Moyes and myself were to constitute the party.
It was necessary for two men to remain behind at the base to keep the meteorological records, to wind chronometers, to feed the dogs and to bring up the remainder of the stores from the edge of the ice cliff. Kennedy, the magnetician, had to stay, as two term days2 were due in the next month. It was essential that we should have a medical man with us, so Jones was included in the sledging party; the others drawing lots to decide who should remain with Kennedy. The unlucky one was Watson.
To the south of the Base, seventeen miles distant at the nearest point, the mainland was visible, entirely ice clad, running almost due east and west. It appeared to rise rapidly to about three thousand feet, and then to ascend more gradually as the great plateau of the Antarctic continent. It was my intention to travel inland beyond the lower ice falls, which extended in an irregular line of riven bluffs all along the coast, and then to lay a depot or depots which might be useful on the next season’s journeys. Another reason for making the journey was to give the party some experience in sledging work. The combined weight of both sledges and effects was one thousand two hundred and thirty–three pounds, and the total amount of food carried was four hundred and sixty pounds.
While the sledges were being loaded, ten skua gulls paid us a visit, and, as roast skua is a very pleasant change of food, Jones shot six of them.
At 1 pm we left the hut, making an east–southeast course to clear a pressure ridge; altering the course once more to southeast. The coast in this direction looked accessible, whereas a line running due south would have brought us to some unpromising ice falls by a shorter route.
The surface was very good and almost free from crevasses; only one, into which Jones fell to his middle, being seen during the afternoon’s march. Not wishing to do too much the first day, especially after the ‘soft’ days we had been forced to spend in the hut during the spell of bad weather, I made two short halts in the afternoon and camped at 5 pm, having done seven and half miles.
On the 14th we rose at 5 am, and at 7 am we were on the march. For the two hours after starting, the surface was tolerable and then changed for the worse; the remainder of the day’s work being principally over a hard crust, which was just too brittle to bear the weight of a man, letting him through to a soft substratum, six or eight inches deep in the snow. Only those who have travelled in country like this can properly realize how wearisome it is.
At 9 am the course was altered to south, as there appeared to be a fairly good track up the hills. The surface of the glacier rose and fell in long undulations which became wider and more marked as the land approached. By the time we camped, they were three–quarters of a mile from crest to crest, with a drop of thirty feet from crest to trough. Despite the heavy trudging we covered more than thirteen miles.
I made the marching hours 7 am to 5 pm, so that there was time to get the evening meal before darkness set in; soon after 6 pm.
The march commenced about seven o’clock on March 15, the thermometer registering −8°F, while a light southerly breeze made it feel much colder. The exercise soon warmed us up and, when the breeze died away, the remainder of the day was perfectly calm.
A surface of ‘pie crust’ cut down the mileage in the forenoon. At 11 am we encountered many crevasses, from two to five feet wide, with clean–cut sides and shaky bridges. Hoadley went down to his head in one, and we all got our legs in others.
It became evident after lunch that the land was nearing rapidly, its lower slopes obscuring the higher land behind. The crevasses also became wider, so I lengthened the harness with an alpine rope to allow more room and to prevent more than two men from being over a chasm at the same time. At 4 pm we were confronted with one sixty feet wide. Crevasses over thirty feet in width usually have very solid bridges and may be considered safe, but this one had badly broken edges and one hundred yards on the right the lid had collapsed. So instead of marching steadily across, we went over singly on the alpine rope and hauled the sledges along in their turn, when all had crossed in safety. Immediately after passing this obstacle the grade became steeper, and, between three and five o’clock, we rose two hundred feet, traversing several large patches of névé.
That night the tent stood on a field of snow covering the lower slopes of the hills. On either hand were magnificent examples of ice falls, but ahead the way seemed open.
With the exception of a preliminary stiffness, every one felt well after the toil of the first few days.
In bright sunlight next morning all went to examine the ice falls to the east, which were two miles away. Roping up, we made an ascent halfway to the top which rose five hundred feet and commanded a grand panorama of glacier and coast. Soon the wind freshened and drift began to fly. When we regained the tents a gale was blowing, with heavy drift, so there was nothing to do but make ourselves as comfortable as possible inside.
All through Saturday night the gale raged and up till 11.30 am on Sunday March 16. On turning out, we found that the tents and sledges were covered deeply in snow, and we dug continuously for more than two hours before we were able to pack up and get away. Both sledges ran easily for nearly a mile over névé, when the gradient increased to one in ten, forcing us to relay. It was found necessary to change our finnesko for spiked boots. Relaying regularly, we gradually mounted six hundred feet over névé and massive sastrugi. With a steep slope in front, a halt was made for the night. The sunset was a picture of prismatic colours reflected over the undulating ice sheet and the tumbling cascades of the glacier.
On the evening of March 18 the altitude of our camp was one thousand four hundred and ten feet, and the slope was covered with sastrugi ridges, three to four feet in height. Travelling over these on the following day we had frequent capsizes.
The outlook to the south was a series of irregular terraces, varying from half a mile to two miles in breadth and twenty to two hundred feet in height. These were furrowed by small valleys and traversed by ridges, but there was not a sign of rock anywhere.
The temperature varied from 4° to 14°F during the day, and the minimum recorded at night was −11°F.
Another nine miles of slow ascent brought us to two thousand feet, followed by a rise of two hundred and twenty feet in seven and three–quarter miles on March 21. Hauling over high broken sastrugi was laborious enough to make every one glad when the day was over. The rations were found sufficient, but the plasmon biscuits were so hard that they had to be broken with a geological hammer.
There now swept down on us a blizzard3 which lasted for a whole week, on the evening of March 21. According to my diary, the record is as follows:
Friday, March 22. Snowing heavily all day, easterly wind: impossible to travel as nothing can be seen more than ten to twelve yards away. Temperature high, 7° to 18°F.
Saturday, March 23. Blowing hard at turnout time, so did not breakfast until 8.30. Dovers is cook in my tent this week. He got his clothes filled up with snow while bringing in the cooker, food bag, etc. The wind increased to a fierce gale during the day, and all the loose snow which fell yesterday was shifted.
About 5 pm the snow was partially blown away from the skirt or ground cloth, and the tent bulged in a good deal. I got into burberries and went out to secure it; it was useless to shovel on snow as it was blown off immediately. I therefore dragged the food bags off the sledge and dumped them on. The wind and drift were so strong that I had several times to get in the lee of the tent to recover my breath and to clear the mask of snow from my face.
We are now rather crowded through the tent bulging in so much, and having cooker and food bag inside.
Sunday, March 24. Had a very bad night. The wind was chopping about from southeast to north and blowing a hurricane. One side of the tent was pressed in past the centre, and I had to turn out and support it with bag lashings. Then the ventilator was blown in and we had a pile of snow two feet high over the sleeping bags; this kept us warm, but it was impossible to prevent some of it getting into the bags, and now we are very wet and the bags like sponges. There were quite two hundredweights of snow on us; all of which came through a hole three inches wide.
According to report from the other tent they are worse off than we are; they say they have four feet of snow in the tent. All this is due to the change of wind, making the ventilator to windward instead of leeward.
March 25, 26 and 27. Blizzard still continues, less wind but more snowfall.
Thursday, March 28. Heavy falling snow and drift, southeast wind. At noon, the wind eased down and snow ceased falling, so we slipped into our burberry over suits and climbed out to dig for the sledges.
Nothing could be seen except about two feet of the tops of the tents, which meant that there was a deposit of five feet of freshly fallen snow. The upper two feet was soft and powdery, offering no resistance; under that it was still soft, so that we sank to our thighs every step and frequently to the waist. By 4.30 pm both sledges were rescued, and it was ascertained that no gear had been lost. We all found that the week of idleness and confinement had weakened us, and at first were only able to take short spells at the digging. The sky and barometer promise fine weather tomorrow, but what awful work it will be pulling!
At 5.30 am on March 29 the weather was bright and calm. As a strong wind had blown throughout the night, a harder surface was expected. Outside, we were surprised to find a fresh wind and thick, low drift; owing to the tents being snowed up so high, the threshing of the drift was not audible. To my disgust the surface was as soft as ever. It appeared that the only resort was to leave the provisions for the depot on the nearest ridge and return to the Base. The temperature was −20°F, and, while digging out the tents, Dovers had his nose frost–bitten.
It took six of us well over an hour to drag the necessary food half a mile up a rise of less than one hundred feet; the load, sledge included, not being five hundred pounds. Nearly all the time we were sinking thigh–deep, and the sledge itself was going down so far that the instrument box was pushing a mass of snow in front of it. Arriving on the ridge, Moyes found that his foot was frozen and he had to go back to camp, as there was too much wind to bring it round in the open.
Sufficient food and oil were left at this depot for three men for six weeks; also a minimum thermometer.
In a fresh breeze and flying drift we were off at 10 am next day. At first we were ambitious and moved away with two sledges, sinking from two to three feet all the time. Forty yards was as much as we could do without a rest, and by lunch time nine hundred yards was the total. Now the course was downhill, and the two sledges were pulled together, creeping along with painful slowness, as walking was the hardest work imaginable. After one of the most strenuous days I have ever experienced, we camped; the sledge meter recorded one mile four hundred and fifty yards.
A spell of two days’ blizzard cooped us up once more, but improved the surface slightly. Still, it was dreadfully soft, and, but for the falling gradient, we would not have made what we did; five miles six hundred and ten yards, on April 2. On that and the following day it was fortunate that the road chosen was free of crevasses.
At the foot of the hills I had decided to reduce the rations but, as the track had grown firm once more, and we were only twenty–five miles from the hut, with a week’s food, I thought it would be safe to use the full allowance.
Soon after leaving the hills (April 4), a direct course to the hut was made. There was no mark by which to steer, except a ‘water sky’ to the north, the hinterland being clouded over. During the afternoon, the sun occasionally gleamed through a tract of cirro–stratus cloud and there was a very fine parhelion: signs of an approaching blizzard. At 4.30 pm we had done seventeen and a half miles, and, as all hands were fresh and willing, I decided to have a meal and go on again, considering that the moon was full and there were only six miles to be done.
After supper the march was continued till 8.30 pm, by which time we were due for a rest. I had begun to think that we had passed the hut.
April 5 was far from being a Good Friday for us. At 2 am a fresh breeze rose and rapidly increased to a heavy gale. At 10 am Hoadley and I had to go out to secure the tent; the weather side bulged in more than half the width of the tent and was held by a solid load of drift, but the other sides were flapping so much that almost all the snow had been shaken off the skirt. Though only five yards away from it we could not see the other tent. At noon Hoadley again went out to attend to the tent and entirely lost himself within six feet of it. He immediately started to yell and I guessed what was the matter at once. Dovers and I shouted our best, and Hoadley groped his way in with a mask of snow over his face. He told us that the wind which was then blowing a good eighty miles an hour, knocked him down immediately he was outside, and, when he struggled to his feet again, he could see nothing and had no idea in what direction lay the tent.
The space inside was now so limited by the combined pressure of wind and snow that we did not light the primus, eating lumps of frozen pemmican for the evening meal.
The blizzard continued with unabated violence until eleven o’clock next morning, when it moderated within an hour to half a gale. We turned out and had a good hot meal. Then we looked to see how the others had fared and found that their tent had collapsed. Getting at once into windproof clothing, we rushed out and were horrified to see Harrisson in his bag on the snow. He quickly assured us that he was all right. After carrying him, bag and all, into our tent, he emerged quite undamaged, but very hungry.
Jones and Moyes now had to be rescued; they were in a most uncomfortable position under the fallen tent. It appears that the tent had blown down on the previous morning at ten o’clock, and for thirty–six hours they had had nothing to eat. We did not take long to dig them out.
The wind dropped to a moderate breeze, and, through the falling snow, I could make out a ‘water sky’ to the west. The three unfortunates said that they felt fit to travel, so we got under way. The surface was soft and the pulling very heavy, and I soon saw that the strain was largely due to the weakness of the three who had been without food. Calling a halt, I asked Jones if it would do to go on; he assured me that they could manage to go on with an effort, and the march was resumed.
Not long after, Dovers sighted the wireless mast, and a quarter of an hour later we were safely in the hut, much to the surprise of Kennedy and Watson, who did not expect us to be travelling in such weather, and greatly to our own relief. According to the sledge meter, the last camp had only been two miles one hundred yards from home, and if anything had been visible on the night of April 4, we could have got in easily.
I was very pleased with the way all the party had shaped. They had worked splendidly and were always cheerful, although conditions had been exceptionally trying during this journey. No one was any the worse for the hardships, except for a few blistered fingers from frost–bites. The party lost weight at the average of two and a half pounds; Harrisson was the greatest loser, being reduced six pounds. Out of the twenty–five days we were away, it was only possible to sledge on twelve days. The total distance covered, including relay work, was nearly one hundred and twenty–two miles, and the greatest elevation reached on the southern mainland was two thousand six hundred feet above sea level.
Kennedy and Watson had been very busy during our absence. In a few days they had trained five of the dogs to pull in harness, and transported the remainder of the stores from the landing place, arranging them in piles round the hut. The weather at the Base had been quite as bad as that experienced by us on the land slopes.
In the first blizzard both wireless masts were broken down. Watson and Kennedy managed to repair and re–erect one of the masts, but it was only thirty–seven feet in height. Any final hopes of hearing wireless signals were dispelled by the discovery that the case containing the detector and several other parts necessary for a receiving station were missing.
Watson had fitted up a splendid darkroom, as well as plenty of shelves and racks for cooking utensils.
Kennedy was able to secure a series of observations on one of his term days, but, before the next one, the tent he was using was blown to ribbons.
- By accident the small sewing machine belonging to Wild’s party was landed at the Main Base.
- Days set apart by previous arrangement for magnetic ‘quick runs’.
- It is a singular fact that this blizzard occurred on the same date as that during which Captain Scott and his party lost their lives.
This version of Home of the Blizzard has been edited and published by the Australian Antarctic Division.