Chapter 20: The Western Base - Winter and spring

The Home of the Blizzard by Sir Douglas Mawson (1915)

Chapter 20: The Western Base - Winter and spring

On Easter Sunday, April 7, 1912, a furious blizzard kept us close prisoners. To meet the occasion, Dovers prepared a special dinner, the principal item being roast mutton, from one of the six carcases landed with the stores. Divine service was held in the forenoon.

The blizzard raged with such force all Sunday and Monday that I dared not let any one go out to feed the dogs, although we found, later, that a fast of three days did not hurt them at all.

I now thought it time to establish a winter routine. Each member had his particular duties to perform, in addition to general work, in which all hands were engaged. Harrisson took charge of the lamps and checked consumption of oil. Hoadley had the care of the provisions, making out lists showing the amount the cook might use of each article of food, besides opening cases and stowing a good assortment on convenient shelves in the veranda. Jones and Kennedy worked the acetylene plant. In connexion with this, I should mention that several parts were missing, including T–pieces for joints and connexions for burners. However Jones, in addition to his ability as a surgeon, showed himself to be an excellent plumber, brazier and tinsmith, and the Hut was well lighted all the time we occupied it. Moyes’s duties as meteorologist took him out at all hours. Watson looked after the dogs, while Dovers relieved other members when they were cooks. The duty of cook was taken for a week at a time by every one except myself. A night watch was kept by each in turn. The watchman went on duty at 9 pm, usually taking advantage of this night to have a bath and wash his clothes. He prepared breakfast, calling all hands at 8.30 am for this meal at nine o’clock. The cook for the week was exempt from all other work. In the case of Kennedy, whose magnetic work was done principally at night, arrangements were made to assist him with the cooking.

Work commenced during the winter months at ten o’clock and, unless anything special had to be done, finished at 1 pm, when lunch was served. The afternoon was usually devoted to sport and recreation.

The frequent blizzards and heavy snowfall had by this time buried the Hut so deeply that only the top of the pointed roof was visible and all the outside stores were covered.

My diary for April 9 says:

The blizzard (which had commenced on the evening of the 6th) played itself out during the night and we got to work immediately after breakfast. There was still a fresh breeze and low drift, but this gradually died away.

We were an hour digging an exit from the Hut. The day has been occupied in cutting a tunnel entrance, forty feet long, through the drift, so that driving snow cannot penetrate, and we shall be able to get out with less trouble.

As we get time I intend to excavate caverns in the huge drifts packed round the house and stow all our stores inside; also a good supply of ice for use during blizzards.

I had intended to make a trip to Masson Island before the winter properly set in, but with the weather behaving as it does, I don’t think it would be wise.

The 10th, 11th and 12th being fine, good progress was made in digging out storerooms on either side of the tunnel, but a blizzard on the 13th and 14th stopped us again.

On going to feed the dogs during the afternoon of the 14th, Watson found that Nansen was dead; this left us with seven, as Crippen had already died. Of the remainder, only four were of any value; Sweep and the two bitches, Tiger and Tich, refusing to do anything in harness, and, as there was less than sufficient food for them, the two latter had to be shot. Sweep would have shared the same fate but he disappeared, probably falling down a crevasse or over the edge of the glacier.

Until the end of April almost all our time was spent in making storerooms and in searching for buried stores; sometimes a shaft would have to be sunk eight to twelve feet. Bamboo poles stuck in the snow marked the positions of the different stacks. The one marking the carbide was blown away, and it was two days before Dovers finally unearthed it. By the 30th, caves roomy enough to contain everything were completed, all being connected by the tunnel. We were now self–contained, and everything was accessible and immune from the periodic blizzards.

The entrance, by the way, was a trapdoor built over the tunnel and raised well above the outside surface to prevent it being drifted over. From below it was approached by a ladder, but the end of the tunnel was left open, so that in fine weather we could run sledges in and out with loads of ice. With each blizzard the entrance was completely choked, and it gave two men a day’s work to clear it out once more.

On April 16 Kennedy had a term day. A fresh breeze was blowing and the temperature was −20°F. Some of his observations had to be taken in the open and the remainder in a tent. The series took three hours to complete and by that time he was thoroughly chilled through, his feet and fingers were frost–bitten and his language had grown more incisive than usual.

Between the 10th and the 19th we made a search for penguins and seals. Hoadley and Moyes staying behind, the rest of us with tents and equipment journeyed along the edge of the glacier to the south, without seeing the smallest sign of life. The edge of the shelf ice was very much fissured, many of the breaches giving no sign of their presence, in consequence of which several falls were sustained. It should be remarked that the Shackleton Ice Shelf runs mainly in a southerly direction from the Winter Quarters, joining the mainland at a point, afterwards named Junction Corner. The map of Queen Mary Land illustrates this at a glance.

From the 25th to the 29th, Kennedy, Harrisson and Jones were employed building an igloo to be used as a magnetic observatory. On the afternoon of the 30th, the magnetician invited every one to a tea party in the igloo to celebrate the opening. He had the place very nicely decorated with flags, and after the reception and the formal inspection of the instruments, we were served with quite a good tea. The outside temperature was −33°F and it was not much higher inside the igloo. As a result, no one extended his visit beyond the bounds of politeness.

On May 1, Harrisson, Hoadley and Watson went away south towards the land at the head of the bay, which curved round to Junction Corner, to examine icebergs, take photographs and to search for seals. They took the four dogs with them and, as the load was a light one – three hundred and forty–two pounds – the dogs pulled it easily.

I went with the others to the north, hoping that we might find a portion of the glacier low enough to give access to the sea ice. There were several spots where the ice cliffs were not more than forty to fifty feet high, but no convenient ramps led down from the cliffs. In any case neither penguins nor seals were to be had in the vicinity. A great, flat sheet of frozen sea stretched away to the north for quite thirty miles.

May 2 was fine, but the 3rd and 4th were windy once more and we had to remain indoors. Saturday, the 4th, was clean up day, when the verandas, tunnel and cave were swept and tidied, the stove cleaned, the hut and darkroom scrubbed and the windows cleared. The last was a job which was generally detested. During the week, the windows in the roof collected a coat of ice, from an inch to three inches thick, by condensation of moisture. Chipping this off was a most tedious piece of work, while in the process one’s clothes became filled with ice.

One Sunday, Harrisson, Hoadley and Watson returned from their short trip; they had missed the strong winds which had been blowing at the Base, although less than twenty miles away. Some very fine old icebergs were discovered which were of interest to the two geologists and made good subjects for Harrisson’s sketches. Watson had had a nasty fall while crossing a patch of rough ice, his nose being rather badly cut in the accident.

On May 7 another blizzard stopped all outside work. Moyes ventured as far as the meteorological screen at noon and got lost, but luckily only for a short time. The barometer behaved very strangely during the blow, rising abruptly during a little more than an hour, and then slowly falling once more. For a few hours on the 8th there was a lull and the store of ice was replenished, but the 9th and 10th were again spent indoors, repairing and refitting tents, poles and other sledging gear during the working hours, and reading or playing chess and bridge in the leisure time. Harrisson carved an excellent set of chessmen, distinguishing the ‘black’ ones by a stain of permanganate of potash.

Bridge was the favourite game all through the winter, and a continuous record of the scores was kept. Two medals were struck: a neat little thing for the highest scorer and a huge affair as large as a plate, slung on a piece of three–and–a–half–inch rope, with ‘Jonah’ inscribed on it, to be worn by the player at the foot of the list.

Divine service was held every Sunday, Moyes and I taking it in turn. There was only one hymn book amongst the party, which made it necessary to write out copies of the hymns each week.

The sleeping bags used on the first sledging journey had been hung up near the roof. They were now taken down to be thoroughly overhauled. As a consequence of their severe soaking, they had shrunk considerably and required enlarging. Dovers’s bag, besides contracting a good deal, had lost much hair and was cut up to patch the others. He received a spare one to replace it.

May 15 was a beautiful bright morning and I went over to an icy cape two miles southward, with Harrisson, Hoadley, Dovers and Watson, to find a road down to the sea ice. Here, we had good fortune at last, for, by following down a crevasse which opened out at sea level into a magnificent cave, we walked straight out on to the level plain. Along the edge of the glacier there was not even a seal’s blowhole. Watson took some photos of the cave and cliff.

It was Kennedy’s term night; the work keeping him in the igloo from 10 pm until 2.30 am. He had had some difficulty in finding a means of warming the observatory – an urgent necessity, since he found it impossible to manipulate delicate magnetic instruments for three or four hours with the temperature from −25°F to −30°F. The trouble was to make a non–magnetic lamp and the problem was finally solved by using one of the aluminium cooking pots; converting it into a blubber stove. The stove smoked a great deal and the white walls were soon besmirched with a layer of soot.

The 17th, 18th and 19th were all calm but dull. One day I laid out a ten–hole golf course and with some homemade balls and hockey sticks for clubs played a game, not devoid of interest and excitement.

During a blizzard which descended on the evening of the 20th, Zip and Sweep disappeared and on the 21st, a search on the glacier having been in vain, Dovers and Hoadley made their way down to the floe. They found Zip well and hearty in spite of having had a drop of at least forty feet off the glacier. A further search for Sweep proved fruitless. We were forced to conclude that he was either killed by falling over the precipice or he had gone far away hunting for penguins.

The regular blizzard immured us on May 22, 23 and 24; the wind at times of terrific force, approaching one hundred miles per hour. It was impossible to secure meteorological observations or to feed the dogs until noon on the 24th. Moyes and I went out during a slight cessation and, with the aid of a rope from the trapdoor, managed to find the dogs, and gave them some biscuits. The drift was then so thick that six feet was as far as one could see.

We did not forget Empire Day and duly ‘spliced the mainbrace’. The most bigoted teetotaller could not call us an intemperate party. On each Saturday night, one drink per man was served out, the popular toast being ‘Sweethearts and Wives’. The only other convivial meetings of our small symposium were on the birthdays of each member, midwinter’s day and king’s birthday.

On the 25th we were able to make an inventory of a whole series of damages effected outside. The dogs’ shelter had entirely carried away; a short mast which had been erected some weeks previously as a holdfast for sledges was snapped off short and the sledges buried, and, worst of all, Kennedy’s igloo had parted with its roof, the interior being filled with snow, underneath which the instruments were buried. The dogs were, however, all quite well and lively. It was fortunate for them that the temperature always rose during the blizzards. At this period, when on fine days it was usual to experience −25° to −37°F, the temperature rose in the snowstorms to 25° or even 30°F.

Monday the 27th was beautifully clear. The tunnel entrance was opened and some of the party brought in ice while others undid the rope lashings which had been placed over the hut. This was so compactly covered in snow that the lashings were not required and I wanted to make a rope ladder to enable us to get down to the sea ice and also to be used by Watson and Hoadley, who were about to dig a shaft in the glacier to examine the structure of the ice.

Fine weather continued until June 2. During this time we were occupied in digging a road from the glacier down to the sea ice in the forenoons and hunting for seals or skiing in the afternoons. Kennedy and Harrisson rebuilt the magnetic igloo. A seal hole was eventually found near the foot of the glacier and this was enlarged to enable the seals to come up.

At the end of May, daylight lasted from 9 am until 3 pm, and the sunrise and sunset were a marvel of exquisite colour. The nightly displays of Aurora Australis were not very brilliant as the moon was nearing the full.

On the days of blizzards, there was usually sufficient work to be found to keep us all employed. Thus on June 2, Watson and I were making a ladder, Jones was contriving a harpoon for seals, Hoadley was opening cases and stowing stores in the veranda, Dovers cleaning tools, Moyes repairing a thermograph and writing up the meteorological log, Harrisson cooking and Kennedy sleeping after a nightwatch.

Between June 4 and 22 there was a remarkably fine spell. It was not calm all the time, as drift flew for a few days, limiting the horizon to a few hundred yards. An igloo was built as a shelter for those sinking the geological shaft, and seal hunting was a daily recreation. On June 9, Dovers and Watson found a Weddell seal two and a half miles to the west on the sea ice. They killed the animal but did not cut it up as there were sores on the skin. Jones went over with them afterwards and pronounced the sores to be wounds received from some other animal, so the meat was considered innocuous and fifty pounds were brought in, being very welcome after tinned foods. Jones took culture tubes with him and made smears for bacteria. The tubes were placed in an incubator and several kinds of organisms grew, very similar to those which infect wounds in ordinary climates.

The snowstorms had by this time built up huge drifts under the lee of the ice cliffs, some of them more than fifty feet in height and reaching almost to the top of the ice shelf. An exhilarating sport was to ski down these ramps. The majority of them were very steep and irregular and it was seldom that any of us escaped without a fall at one time or another. Several of the party were thrown from thirty to forty feet, and, frequently enough, over twenty feet, without being hurt. The only accident serious enough to disable any one happened to Kennedy on June 19, when he twisted his knee and was laid up for a week.

There were many fine displays of the aurora in June, the best being observed on the evening of the 18th. Curtains and streamers were showing from four o’clock in the afternoon. Shortly after midnight, Kennedy, who was taking magnetic observations, called me to see the most remarkable exhibition I have so far seen. There was a double curtain 30° wide unfolded from the eastern horizon through the zenith, with waves shimmering along it so rapidly that they travelled the whole length of the curtain in two seconds. The colouring was brilliant and evanescent. When the waves reached the end of the curtain they spread out to the north and rolled in a voluminous billow slowly back to the east. Kennedy’s instruments showed that a very great magnetic disturbance was in progress during the auroral displays, and particularly on this occasion.

Hoadley and Watson set up a line of bamboos, a quarter of a mile apart and three miles long, on the 20th, and from thence onwards took measurements for snowfall every fortnight.

On midwinter’s day the temperature ranged from −38°F to −25°F and daylight lasted from 10 am until 4 pm. We proclaimed a universal holiday throughout Queen Mary Land. Being Saturday, there were a few necessary jobs to be done, but all were finished by 11 am. The morning was fine and several of us went down to the floe for skiing, but after twelve o’clock the sky became overcast and the light was dimmed. A strong breeze brought along a trail of drift, and at 6 pm a heavy blizzard was in full career. Inside, the hut was decorated with flags and a savoury dinner was in the throes of preparation. To make the repast still more appetising, Harrisson, Hoadley and Dovers devised some very pretty and clever menus. Speeches, toasts and a gramophone concert made the evening pass quickly and enjoyably.

From this time dated our preparations for spring sledging, which I hoped would commence about August 15. Jones made some experiments with ‘glaxo’, of which we had a generous supply. His aim was to make biscuits which would be suitable for sledging, and, after several failures, he succeeded in compressing with a steel die a firm biscuit of glaxo and butter mixed, three ounces of which was the equivalent in theoretical food value to four and a half ounces of plasmon biscuit; thereby affording a pleasant variety in the usual ration.

July came in quietly, though it was dull and cloudy, and we were able to get out on the first two days for work and exercise. On the 2nd a very fine effect was caused by the sun shining through myriads of fog–crystals which a light northerly breeze had brought down from the sea. The sun, which was barely clear of the horizon, was itself a deep red, on either side and above it was a red mock sun and a rainbow–tinted halo connected the three mock suns.

On the 5th and 6th the wind blew a terrific hurricane (judged to reach a velocity of one hundred miles per hour) and, had we not known that nothing short of an earthquake could move the hut, we should have been very uneasy.

All were now busy making food bags, opening and breaking up pemmican and emergency rations, grinding biscuits, attending to personal gear and doing odd jobs many and various.

In addition to recreations like chess, cards and dominoes, a competition was started for each member to write a poem and short article, humorous or otherwise, connected with the Expedition. These were all read by the authors after dinner one evening and caused considerable amusement. One man even preferred to sing his poem. These literary efforts were incorporated in a small publication known as ‘The Glacier Tongue’.

Watson and Hoadley put in a good deal of time digging their shaft in the glacier. As a roofed shelter had been built over the top, they were able to work in all but the very worst weather. While the rest of us were fitting sledges on the 17th and 18th, they succeeded in getting down to a level of twenty–one feet below the surface of the shelf ice.

Sandow, the leader of the dogs, disappeared on the 18th. Zip, who had been missed for two days, returned, but Sandow never came back, being killed, doubtless, by a fall of snow from the cliffs. All along the edge of the ice shelf were snow cornices, some weighing hundreds of tons; and these often broke away, collapsing with a thunderous sound. On July 31, Harrisson and Watson had a narrow escape. After finishing their day’s work, they climbed down to the floe by a huge cornice and sloping ramp. A few seconds later, the cornice fell and an immense mass of hard snow crashed down, cracking the sea ice for more than a hundred yards around.

July had been an inclement month with three really fine and eight tolerable days. In comparison with June’s, which was −14.5°F, the mean temperature of July was high at −1.5°F and the early half of August was little better.

Sunday August 11 was rather an eventful day. Dovers and I went out in the wind to attend to the dogs and clear the chimney and, upon our return, found the others just recovering from rather an exciting accident. Jones had been charging the acetylene generators and by some means one of them caught fire. For a while there was the danger of a general conflagration and explosion, as the gas tank was floating in kerosene. Throwing water over everything would have made matters worse, so blankets were used to smother the flames. As this failed to extinguish them, the whole plant was pulled down and carried into the tunnel, where the fire was at last put out. The damage amounted to two blankets singed and dirtied, Jones’s face scorched and hair singed, and Kennedy, one finger jammed. It was a fortunate escape from a calamity.

A large capsized berg had been noticed for some time, eleven miles to the north. On the 14th, Harrisson, Dovers, Hoadley and Watson took three days’ provisions and equipment and went off to examine it. A brief account is extracted from Harrisson’s diary:

It was a particularly fine, mild morning; we made good progress, three dogs dragging the loaded sledge over the smooth floe without difficulty, requiring assistance only when crossing banks of soft snow. One and a half miles from ‘The Steps’, we saw the footprints of a penguin.

Following the cliffs of the shelf ice for six and three quarter miles, we sighted a Weddell seal sleeping on a drift of snow. Killing the animal, cutting off the meat and burying it in the drift delayed us for about one hour. Continuing our journey under a fine bluff, over floe ice much cracked by tide pressure, we crossed a small bay cutting wedge–like into the glacier and camped on its far side.

After our midday meal we walked to the berg three miles away. When seen on June 28, this berg was tilted to the northeast, but the opposite end, apparently in contact with the ice cliffs, had lifted higher than the glacier shelf itself. From a distance it could be seen that the sides, for half their height, were wave–worn and smooth. Three or four acres of environing floe were buckled, ploughed up and in places heaped twenty feet high, while several large fragments of the broken floe were poised aloft on the old ‘water line’ of the berg.

However, on this visit, we found that the berg had turned completely over towards the cliffs and was now floating on its side surrounded by large separate chunks; all locked fast in the floe. In what had been the bottom of the berg Hoadley and Watson made an interesting find of stones and pebbles – the first found in this dead land!

Leaving them collecting, I climbed the pitted wave–worn ice, brittle and badly cracked on the higher part. The highest point was fifty feet above the level of the top of the shelf ice. There was no sign of open water to the north, but a few seals were observed sleeping under the cliffs.

Next morning the weather thickened and the wind arose, so a start was made for the Base. All that day the party groped along in the comparative shelter of the cliff face until forced to camp. It was not till the next afternoon in moderate drift that a pair of skis which had been left at the foot of ‘The Steps’ were located and the hut reached once again.

After lunch on August 14, while we were excavating some buried kerosene, Jones sighted a group of seven emperor penguins two miles away over the western floe. Taking a sledge and camera we made after them. A mile off, they saw us and advanced with their usual stately bows. It seemed an awful shame to kill them, but we were sorely in need of fresh meat. The four we secured averaged seventy pounds in weight and were a heavy load up the steep rise to the glacier; but our reward came at dinner time.

With several fine days to give us confidence, everything was made ready for the sledge journey on August 20. The party was to consist of six men and three dogs, the object of the journey being to lay out a food depot to the east in view of the long summer journey we were to make in that direction. Hoadley and Kennedy were to remain at the Base, the former to finish the geological shaft and the latter for magnetic work. There remained also a good deal to do preparing stores for later sledge journeys.

The load was to be one thousand four hundred and forty pounds distributed over three sledges; two hundred pounds heavier than on the March Journey, but as the dogs pulled one sledge, the actual weight per man was less.

The rations were almost precisely the same as those used by Shackleton during his Expedition, and the daily allowance was exactly the same – thirty–four ounces per man per day. For his one ounce of oatmeal, the same weighs of ground biscuit was substituted; the food value being the same. On the second depot journey and the main summer journeys, a three–ounce glaxo biscuit was used in place of four and a half ounces of plasmon biscuit. Instead of taking cheese and chocolate as the luncheon ration, I took chocolate alone, as on Shackleton’s southern journey it was found more satisfactory than the cheese, though the food value was practically the same.

The sledging equipment and clothing were identical with that used by Shackleton. Jaeger fleece combination suits were included in the outfit but, though excellent garments for work at the Base, they were much too heavy for sledging. We therefore wore Jaeger underclothing and burberry wind clothing as overalls.

The weather was not propitious for a start until Thursday, August 22. We turned out at 5.30 am, had breakfast, packed up and left the Hut at seven o’clock.

After two good days’ work under a magnificently clear sky, with the temperature often as low as −34°F, we sighted two small nunataks among a cluster of pressure ridges, eight miles to the south. It was the first land, in the sense of rocks, seen for more than seven months. We hoped to visit the outcrops – Gillies Nunataks – on our return.

The course next day was due east and parallel to the mainland, then ten miles distant. To the north was Masson Island, while at about the same distance and ahead was a smaller island, entirely ice covered like the former – Henderson Island.

A blizzard of three days’ duration kept us in camp between August 27 and 30. Jones, Moyes and I had a three–man sleeping bag, and the temperature being high, 11° to 15°F, we were very warm, but thoroughly tired of lying down for so long. Harrisson, Dovers and Watson had single bags and therefore less room in the other tent.

The last day of August was beautifully bright: temperature −12° to −15°F. We passed Henderson Island in the forenoon, and, hauling up a rise to the south of it, had a good view of the surroundings. On the right, the land ran back to form a large bay, seventeen miles wide. This was later named the Bay of Winds, as a ‘blow’ was always encountered while crossing it.

In the centre of the bay was a nunatak, which from its shape at once received the name of the Alligator. In front, apparently fifteen miles off, was another nunatak, the Hippo, and four definite outcrops – Delay Point and Avalanche Rocks – could be seen along the mainland. The sight of this bare rock was very pleasing, as we had begun to think we were going to find nothing but ice–sheathed land. Dovers took a round of angles to all the prominent points.

The Hippo was twenty–two miles away, so deceptive is distance in these latitudes; and in one and a half days, over very heavy sastrugi, we were in its vicinity. The sledges could not be brought very near the rock as it was surrounded by massive ridges of pressure ice.

We climbed to the top of the nunatak which was four hundred and twenty feet high, four hundred yards long and two hundred yards wide. It was composed of gneissic granite and schists. Dovers took angles from an eminence, Watson collected geological specimens and Harrisson sketched until his fingers were frost–bitten. Moss and lichens were found and a dead snow petrel – a young one – showing that the birds must breed in the vicinity.

To the south, the glacier shelf appeared to be very little broken, but to the north it was terribly torn and twisted. At each end of the nunatak there was a very fine bergschrund.1 Twenty miles to the east there appeared to be an uncovered rocky islet; the mainland turning to the southward twelve miles away. During the night the minimum thermometer registered −47°F.

An attempt to get away next morning was frustrated by a strong gale. We were two hundred yards from the shelter of the Hippo and were forced to turn back, since it was difficult to keep one’s feet, while the sledges were blown sideways over the névé surface.

I resolved to leave the depot in this place and return to the Base, for our sleeping bags were getting very wet and none of the party were having sufficient sleep. We were eighty–four miles from the hut; I had hoped to do one hundred miles, but we could make up for that by starting the summer journey a few days earlier. One sledge was left here as well as six weeks’ allowance of food for three men, except tea, of which there was sufficient for fifty days, seventy days oil and seventy–eight days’ biscuit. The sledge was placed on end in a hole three feet deep and a mound built up around it, six feet high; a bamboo and flag being lashed to the top.

On September 4 we were homeward bound, heading first to the mainland leaving Delay Point on our left, to examine some of the outcrops of rock. Reaching the coast about 3 pm, camp was shortly afterwards pitched in a most beautiful spot. A wall of solid rock rose sheer for over four hundred feet and was crowned by an ice cap half the thickness. Grand ice falls surged down on either side.

The tents were erected in what appeared to be a sheltered hollow, a quarter of a mile from Avalanche Rocks. One tent was up and we were setting the other in position when the wind suddenly veered right round to the east and flattened out both tents. It was almost as humorous as annoying. They were soon raised up once more, facing the other way.

While preparing for bed, a tremendous avalanche came down. The noise was awful and seemed so close that we all turned to the door and started out. The fastening of the entrance was knotted, the people from the other tent were yelling to us to come out, so we dragged up the bottom of the tent and dived beneath it.

The cliff was entirely hidden by a cloud of snow, and, though the crashing had now almost ceased, we stood ready to run, Dovers thoughtfully seizing a food bag. However, none of the blocks had come within a hundred yards of us, and as it was now blowing hard, all hands elected to remain where they were.

Several more avalanches, which had broken away near the edge of the mainland, disturbed our sleep through the night, but they were not quite so alarming as the first one. A strong breeze was blowing at daybreak; still the weather was not too bad for travelling, and so I called the party. Moyes and I lashed up our bags, passed them out and strapped them on the sledge; Jones, in the meantime, starting the cooker. Suddenly a terrific squall struck the front of our tent, the poles burst through the apex, and the material split from top to bottom.

Moyes and I were both knocked down. When we found our feet again, we went to the aid of the other men, whose tent had survived the gust. The wind rushed by more madly than ever, and the only thing to do was to pull away the poles and allow the tent to collapse.

Looking around for a lee where it could be raised, we found the only available shelter to be a crevasse three hundred yards to windward, but the wind was now so strong that it was impossible to convey the gear even to such a short distance. All were frequently upset and blown along the surface twenty or thirty yards, and, even with an ice axe, one could not always hold his own. The only resort was to dig a shelter.

Setting to work, we excavated a hole three feet deep, twelve feet long and six feet wide; the snow being so compact that the job occupied three hours. The sledges and tent poles were placed across the hole, the good tent being laid on top and weighted down with snow and blocks of ice. All this sounds very easy, but it was a slow and difficult task. Many of the gusts must have exceeded one hundred miles per hour, since one of them lifted Harrisson who was standing beside me, clean over my head and threw him nearly twenty feet. Everything movable was stowed in the hole, and at noon we had a meal and retired into sleeping bags. At three o’clock a weighty avalanche descended, its fearful crash resounding above the roar of the wind. I have never found anything which gave me a more uncomfortable feeling than those avalanches.

The gale continued on September 6, and we still remained packed in the trench. If the latter had been deeper and it had been possible to sit upright, we should have been quite comfortable. To make matters worse, several more avalanches came down, and all of them sounded horribly close.

We were confined in our burrow for five days, the wind continuing to blow with merciless force. Through being closed up so much, the temperature of the hole rose above freezing point, consequently our sleeping bags and clothes became very wet.

On Sunday September 8, Moyes went out to feed the dogs and to bring in some biscuit. He found a strong gusty wind with falling snow, and drift so thick that he could not see five yards. We had a cold lunch with nothing to drink, so that the primus should not raise the temperature. In the evening we sang hymns and between us managed to remember the words of at least a dozen.

The long confinement was over on the 10th; the sky was blue and the sun brilliant, though the wind still pulsated with racking gusts. As soon as we were on the ice, away from the land, two men had to hold on to the rear of each sledge, and even then capsizes often occurred. The sledge would turn and slide broadside–on to leeward, tearing the runners badly on the rough ice. Still, by 9.30 am the surface changed to snow and the travelling improved. That night we camped with twenty miles one hundred yards on the meter.

There was a cold blizzard on the 11th with a temperature of −30°F. Confined in the tents, we found our sleeping bags still sodden and uncomfortable.

With a strong beam wind and in moderate drift big marches were made for two days, during which the compass and sastrugi determined our course.

My diary of September 14 runs as follows:

On the march at 7 am; by noon we had done twelve miles one thousand five hundred yards. Lunch was hurried, as we were all anxious to get to the hut tonight, especially we in the three–man bag, as it got so wet while we were living underground that we have had very little sleep and plenty of shivering for the last four nights. Last night I had no sleep at all. By some means, in the afternoon, we got on the wrong course. Either the compass was affected or a mistake had been made in some of the bearings, as instead of reaching home by 5 pm we were travelling till 8 pm and have done thirty–two miles one thousand one hundred yards. Light loads, good surface and a fair wind account for the good travelling, the sail doing almost all the work on the man–hauled sledge.

The last two hours we were in the dark, except for a young moon, amongst a lot of crevasses and pressure ridges which none of us could recognize. At one time, we found ourselves on a slope within a dozen yards of the edge of the glacier; this decided me to camp. Awfully disappointing; anticipating another wretched night. Temperature −35°F.

Next day we reached home. The last camp had been four and a half miles north of the hut. I found that we had gone wrong through using 149° as the bearing of Masson Island from the Base, when it should have been 139°. I believe it was my own mistake, as I gave the bearing to Dovers and he is very careful.

Before having a meal, we were all weighed and found the average loss to be eight pounds. In the evening, Moyes and I weighed ourselves again; he had gained seven pounds and I five and three–quarter pounds.

Comparing notes with Hoadley and Kennedy, I found that the weather at the Base had been similar to that experienced on the sledging journey.

It was now arranged that Jones was to take charge of the main western journey in the summer. While looking for a landing place in the Aurora, we had noted to the west an expanse of old, fast floe, extending for at least fifty miles. The idea was for Jones and party to march along this floe and lay a depot on the land as far west as was possible in four weeks. The party included Dovers, Harrisson, Hoadley and Moyes. They were to be assisted by the dogs.

It was my intention to take Kennedy and Watson up to the depot we had left on the hills in March, bringing back the minimum thermometer and probably some of the food. Watson was slightly lame at the time, as he had bruised his foot on the last trip.

Until Jones made a start on September 26, there were ten days of almost continuous wind and drift. The equinox may have accounted for this prolonged period of atrocious weather. No time, however, was wasted indoors. Weighing and bagging food, repairing tents, poles, cookers and other gear damaged on the last journey and sewing and mending clothes gave every man plenty of employment.

At 6 am on the 26th, Jones reported that there was only a little low drift and that the wind was dying away. All hands were therefore called and breakfast served.

Watson, Kennedy and I assisted the others down to the sea ice by a long sloping snow–drift and saw them off to a good start in a southwesterly direction. We found that the heavy sledge used for carrying ice had been blown more then five hundred yards to the edge of the glacier, capsized among the rough pressure slabs and broken. Two heavy boxes which were on the sledge had disappeared altogether.

The rest of the day was devoted to clearing stores out of the tunnels. It was evident to us that with the advent of warmer weather, the roof of the caves or grottoes (by the way, the hut received the name of ‘The Grottoes’) would sink, and so it was advisable to repack the cases outside rather than dig them out of the deep snow. By 6 pm nearly two hundred boxes were passed up through the trapdoor and the caverns were all empty.

After two days of blizzard, Watson, Kennedy and I broke trail with loads of one hundred and seventy pounds per man. Right from the start the surface was so soft that pulling became very severe. On the first day, September 29, we managed to travel more than nine miles, but during the next six days the snow became deeper and more impassable, and only nineteen miles were covered. Crevasses were mostly invisible, and on the slope upwards to the ice cap more troublesome than usual. The weather kept up its invariable wind and drift. Finally, after making laborious headway to two thousand feet, Kennedy strained his Achilles tendon and I decided to return to ‘The Grottoes’.

At 2 pm on October 8, the mast was sighted and we climbed down into the Hut, finding it very cold, empty and dark. The sun had shone powerfully that day and Kennedy and Watson had a touch of snow–blindness.

Two weeks went by and there was no sign of the western depot party. In fact, out of sixteen days, there were thirteen of thick drift and high wind, so that our sympathies went out to the men in tents with soaking bags, waiting patiently for a rift in the driving wall of snow. On October 23 they had been away for four weeks; provisions for that time having been taken. I had no doubt that they would be on reduced rations, and, if the worst came, they could eat the dogs.

During a lull on October 24, I went to the masthead with the field glasses but saw nothing of the party. On that day we weighed out provisions and made ready to go in search of them. It was my intention to go on the outward track for a week. I wrote instructions to Jones to hoist a large flag on the mast, and to burn flares each night at 10 pm if he should return while I was away.

There was a fresh gale with blinding drift early on the following morning; so we postponed the start. At 4 pm the wind subsided to a strong breeze and I again went up the mast to sweep the horizon. Westward from an icy cape to the south a gale was still blowing and a heavy cloud of drift, fifty to sixty feet high, obscured everything.

An hour later Watson saw three Adélie penguins approaching across the floe and we went down to meet them, bringing them in for the larder. Four Antarctic petrels flew above our heads: a sign of returning summer which was very cheering.

The previous night had promised a fine day and we were not disappointed on October 26. A sledge was packed with fourteen days’ provisions for eight men and we started away on a search expedition at 10 am.

After doing a little over nine miles we camped at 5.30 pm. Before retiring to bag, I had a last look round and was delighted to see Jones and his party about a mile to the south. It was now getting dark and we were within two hundred yards of them before being seen, and, as they were to windward, they could not hear our shouts. It was splendid to find them all looking well. They were anxious to get back to ‘The Grottoes’, considering there was only one serviceable tent between them. Kennedy and I offered to change with any of them but, being too eager for warm blankets and a good bed, they trudged on, arriving at the Base at midnight.

Briefly told, their story was that they were stopped in their westerly march, when forty–five miles had been covered, by a badly broken glacier – Helen Glacier – on the far side of which there was open sea. There was only one thing to do and that was to set out for the mainland by a course so circuitous that they were brought a long way eastward, back towards ‘The Grottoes’. They had very rough travelling, bad weather, and were beset with many difficulties in mounting on to the land ice, where the depot had to be placed. Their distance from the Base at this point was only twenty–eight miles and the altitude was one thousand feet above sea level. On the ice cap they were delayed by a blizzard and for seventeen days – an unexampled time – they were unable to move from camp. One tent collapsed and the occupants, Jones, Dovers and Hoadley, had to dig a hole in the snow and lower the tent into it.

These are a few snatches from Jones’s diary:

The next sixteen days (following Wednesday, October 9) were spent at this camp… Harrisson and Moyes occupied one tent and Dovers, Hoadley and myself the other.

On Saturday, the third day of the blizzard, the wind which had been blowing steadily from the east–southeast veered almost to east and the tents commenced to flog terrifically. This change must have occurred early in the night, for we awoke at 5 am to find clouds of snow blowing under the skirt on one side: the heavy pile on the flounce having been cut away by the wind. As it would have been impossible to do anything outside, we pulled the tent poles together and allowed the tent to collapse. The rest of the day was spent in confined quarters, eating dry rations and melting snow in our mugs by the warmth of our bodies… Although Harrisson and Moyes were no more than twenty feet from us, the noise of the gale and the flogging of our tents rendered communication impossible.

The terrible flapping at last caused one of the seams of our tent to tear; we sewed it as well as we were able and hoped that it would hold till daylight.

On Monday morning, the same seam again parted and we decided to let the tent down again, spending the day in a half–reclining position…

At 6.30 pm the gale eased and, during a comparative lull, Moyes came out to feed the dogs. Noticing our position, he helped us to re–erect the tent and Dovers then went out and piled snow over the torn seam. Moyes said that Harrisson and he had been fairly comfortable, although the cap of their tent was slowly tearing with the pressure of the wind and snow on the weather panels…

On Friday, the 18th, Swiss, one of the dogs, returned very thin after six days’ absence from the camp.

On the following Monday the blizzard moderated somewhat and we proceeded to make our quarters more roomy by digging out the floor and undercutting the sides, thus lowering the level about eighteen inches.

Our tent now looks as if it were half blown over. To relieve the tremendous strain on the cap, we lowered the feet of the two lee poles on to the new floor. The tent now offered very little resistance to the wind. We were able to communicate with Harrisson and Moyes and they said they were all right.

When the snow and wind at last held up, they immediately made down to the sea ice and back towards home, and, when they met us, had done nineteen miles. All were stiff next day, and no wonder; a march of twenty–eight miles after lying low for seventeen days is a very strenuous day’s work.

Preparations were made on October 28 for the main eastern summer journey, the object of which was to survey as much coastline as possible and at the same time to carry on geological work, surveying and magnetics. The party was to consist of Kennedy, Watson and myself.

Jones, Dovers and Hoadley were to start on the main western journey on November 2. I arranged that Harrisson and Moyes should remain at the Hut, the latter to carry on meteorological work, and Harrisson biology and sketching. Later, Harrisson proposed to accompany me as far as the Hippo depot, bringing the dogs and providing a supporting party. At first I did not like the idea, as he would have to travel one hundred miles alone, but he showed me that he could erect a tent by himself and, as summer and better weather were in sight, I agreed that he should come.

Each party was taking fourteen weeks’ provisions, and I had an additional four weeks’ supply for Harrisson and the dogs. My total load came to nine hundred and seventy pounds; the dogs pulling four hundred pounds with the assistance of one man and three of us dragging five hundred and seventy pounds.

  1. The term not used in the usual sense. Referring to a wide, imposing crevasse caused by the division of the ice as it presses past the nunatak.

This version of Home of the Blizzard has been edited and published by the Australian Antarctic Division.