Chapter 22: The Western Base - Linking up with Kaiser Wilhelm II Land
Chapter 22: The Western Base - Linking up with Kaiser Wilhelm II Land
By Dr SE Jones
On our return from the Western Depot journey towards the end of October 1912, we found preparations completed for the long western trip, towards Gaussberg in Kaiser Wilhelm II Land, which was discovered by the German Antarctic Expedition of 1902. The departure was delayed for several days, but came at last on November 7, Moyes bidding us adieu and wishing us good luck.
The party consisted of Dovers (surveyor), Hoadley (geologist), and myself (surgeon). We were hauling one sledge with rations for nine weeks. Our course, which was almost due south lay over the glacier shelf practically parallel to the sea cliffs. The surface was good, and we covered eleven miles by nightfall, reaching a point some two or three miles from the rising land slopes. As the high land was approached closer, the surface of the glacier shelf, which farther north was practically level, became undulating and broken by pressure ridges and crevasses. These, however, offered no obstacle to sledging.
Proceeding in the morning and finding that an ascent of the slopes ahead was rendered impracticable by wide patches of ice, we turned more to the west and steered for Junction Corner. Upon our arrival there, it was discovered that several bergs lay frozen within the floe close to where the seaward wall of the glacier shelf joined that of the land ice sheet. Some of these bergs were old and rotten, but one seemed to have broken away quite recently.
From the same place we could see several black points ahead; our course was altered towards them, almost due westward, about halt a mile from the sea cliffs. They proved to be rocks, six in number, forming a moraine. As it was then half–past five, we camped in order that Hoadley might examine them. There had been a halo visible all day, with mock suns in the evening.
In the morning a high wind was blowing. Everything went well for a little over a mile, when we found ourselves running across a steep slope. The wind having increased and being abeam, the sledge was driven to leeward when on a smooth surface, and when amongst soft sastrugi, which occurred in patches, was capsized. Accordingly camp was pitched.
The next day being less boisterous, a start was made at 9 am There was still a strong beam wind, however, which carried the sledge downhill, with the result that for one forward step two had to be taken to the right. We were more fortunate in the afternoon and reached the depot laid on the earlier journey at 5.30 am From this position we had a fine view of the Helen Glacier running out of a bay which opened up ahead.
Having picked up the depot next morning, we were disappointed to find that we should have to commence relay work. There were then two sledges with rations for thirteen weeks; the total weight amounting to one thousand two hundred pounds. By making an even division between the two sledges the work was rendered easy but slow. When we camped at 6 pm, five and a half miles had been covered. The surface was good, but a strong beam wind hindered us while approaching the head of Depot Bay. The ice cap to the west appeared to be very broken, and it seemed inevitable that we should have to ascend to a considerable altitude towards the southwest to find a good travelling surface.
In the morning we were delayed by heavy wind, but left camp at ten o’clock after spending an hour digging out the sledges and tent. At lunch time the sun became quite obscured and each of us had many falls stumbling over the invisible sastrugi. At five o’clock the weather became so thick that camp was pitched. Hoadley complained of snow blindness and all were suffering with cracked lips; there was consequently a big demand for Hazeline cream in the evening.
On Wednesday November 13, we started early, and, finding a good firm track over a gently rising plateau, made fair progress. At three o’clock a gale sprang up suddenly; and fortunately the sledges were only a quarter of a mile apart as we were relaying them in stages up the rising plateau. The tent was pitched hurriedly, though with difficulty, on account of the high wind and drift. The distance for the day was four miles one thousand five hundred yards, the last mile and a half being downhill into a valley at the head of the bay. The morainic boulders visible from the camp at the depot were now obscured behind a point to the west of Depot Bay.
The next sixty hours were spent in sleeping bags, a heavy snowstorm making it impossible to move. Owing to the comparatively high temperature, 20° to 26°F., the snow melted readily on the lee side of the tent, and, the water running through, things became uncomfortably wet inside. At midday of the 16th, however, we were able to go out, and, after spending two and a half hours digging out the tent and sledges, we made a start, travelling two and three–quarter miles on a southwesterly course.
During the morning of the 17th a slight descent was negotiated, but in the afternoon came the ascent of the slopes on the western side of Depot Bay. The ice cap here was very badly crevassed, and spiked boots had to be worn in hauling the sledges up the steep névé slopes. In the latter part of the afternoon a course was made more to the west, and about the same time the southeast wind freshened and we travelled for a couple of hours through thick drift. The night’s camp was situated approximately at the eastern edge of the Helen Glacier. The portion of the ice cap which contributes to the glacier below is marked off from the general icy surface on either side by a series of falls and cascades. These appeared quite impassable near sea level, but we hoped to find a smooth passage at an altitude of about one thousand feet.
A start was made at 7 am The surface consisted of ice and névé and was badly broken by pressure mounds, ten to twenty feet high, and by numerous crevasses old and recent; many with sunken or fallen bridges. While crossing a narrow crevasse, about forty feet of the bridge collapsed lengthwise under the leading man, letting him fall to the full extent of his harness rope. Hoadley and myself had passed over the same spot, unsuspecting and unroped, a few minutes previously, while looking for a safe track. We were now nearing the approximate western edge of the Helen Glacier, and the broken condition of the ice evidently indicated considerable movement. Later in the morning a more southerly course was kept over an improving surface.
At midday Dovers took observations of the sun and found the latitude to be 66° 47’ S. Owing to the heat of the sun the fat in the pemmican had been melting in the food bags, so after lunch the provisions were repacked and the pemmican was put in the centre of the large tanks. In the afternoon we hoisted the sail, and by evening had done four miles. From our camp the eye could range across the Helen Glacier eastward to the shelf ice of ‘The Grottoes’. Far away in the northwest was a wide expanse of open water, while a multitude of bergs lay scattered along the coast to the west of the Helen Glacier.
The next day was gloriously bright, with a breeze just strong enough to make hauling pleasant. Erecting a sail, we made an attempt to haul both sledges, but found that they were too heavy. It was soon discovered that a considerable detour would have to be made to cross the broken ice on the western edge of the Helen Glacier. By keeping to the saddles and valleys as much as possible and working to the south, we were able to avoid the rougher country, but at 4 pm we arrived at what at first appeared an impasse.
At this point three great crevassed ridges united to form the ice falls on the western side of the glacier. The point of confluence was the only place that appeared to offer any hope of a passage, and, as we did not want to retrace our steps, we decided to attempt it. The whole surface was a network of huge crevasses, some open, the majority from fifty to one hundred feet or more in width. After many devious turns, a patch of snow between two large abysses was reached. As the ice in front seemed even more broken than that behind, camp was pitched. After tea a search was made for a way out, and it was found that by travelling along a narrow, knife–edge ridge of ice and neve, with an open crevasse on each side, a good surface could be reached within a mile of the camp. This ridge had a gradient of one in ten, and, unfortunately, also sloped down towards one of the open crevasses.
During the next four days a heavy blizzard raged. There was a tremendous snowfall accompanied by a gale of wind, and, after the second day, the snow was piled four feet high round the tent, completely burying the sledges and by its pressure greatly reducing the space inside the tent. On the 23rd, the fourth day, we dug out the floor, lowering the level of the tent about two feet, and this made things more comfortable. While digging, a crack in the ice was disclosed running across the floor, and from this came a considerable draught. By midday the weather had improved sufficiently to allow us to move.
The sledge and tent were excavated from beneath a great mass of soft snow; the new level of the snow’s surface being four to five feet above that on which the camp had been made four days earlier. The wind having fallen, we went ahead with the sledges. While crossing the ridge of ice which led into the valley below, one man hauled the sledges while the other two prevented them from sliding sideways downhill into the open crevasse. That afternoon we noticed very fine iridescent colouring in cirro–cumulus clouds as they crossed the sun.
The next day gave us a pleasant surprise, there being a strong breeze dead aft, while the travelling surface ahead looked distinctly favourable. Sail was hoisted and the two sledges were coupled together. The course for a short distance was downhill, and we had to run to keep up with the sledges. The slopes on the far side of the valley we had entered on the previous afternoon were not so formidable as they had looked, for by lunch time six and a half miles had been covered. The surface was good, with occasional long undulations. After lunch a turn to the north was made for a short distance in order to come in touch with the coastline. Then the march west was resumed by travelling parallel to the shore at a distance of five to ten miles. At halting time the extreme western edge of Helen Glacier was passed, and below lay young floe ice, studded with numerous bergs.
In the morning, Dovers called attention to what appeared to be an ice–covered island lying to the north–northwest, thirty to forty miles away. We watched this carefully during the day, but found its form to be constant. Through binoculars, icy patches and bluff points at the eastern and western ends were distinguishable.1
As soon as camp was struck the march was resumed direct for what every one thought was a rocky outcrop, though nearer approach proved it to be merely the shady face of an open crevasse. The same course was maintained and the ridge of ice that runs down to the western point of Depot Bay was soon close at hand. From its crest we could see a group of about a dozen rocky islands, the most distant being five miles off the coast. All were surrounded by floe. Descending steeply from the ridge into a valley which ran out to the sea cliffs, we pitched camp for lunch.
The meal completed, Hoadley and I descended to the edge of the glacier in order to see if there were a passable route to the sea ice. Crossing wide areas of badly crevassed ice and névé during a descent of nine hundred feet, we reached the sea front about one and a half miles from the camp. Below us there was a chaos of bergs and smaller debris, resulting from the disintegration of the land ice, which were frozen into the floe and connected to one another by huge ramparts of snow. Following a path downward with great difficulty, we approached a small berg which was discovered to be rapidly thawing under the action of the heat absorbed by a pile of stones and mud. The trickling of the falling water made a pleasant relief in the otherwise intense silence. As it seemed impossible to haul sledges through this jumble of ice and snow, Hoadley suggested that he should walk across the floe and make a brief geological examination of at least the largest islet. I therefore returned to the camp and helped Dovers take observations for longitude and magnetic variation.
Hoadley returned at 9 pm and reported that he had seen an immense rookery of emperor penguins near the largest islet, besides Adélie penguins, silver–grey, Wilson and Antarctic petrels and skua gulls. He also said that he thought it possible to take a sledge, lightly laden, through the drifts below the brink of the glacier.
Accordingly in the morning the eleven–foot sledge was packed with necessaries for a week’s stay, although we intended to remain only for a day in order to take photographs and search for specimens. Erecting a depot flag to mark the big sledge, we broke camp at midday and soon reached the sea front. Our track then wound among the snow drifts until it emerged from the broken ice which was observed to border the land ice sheet for miles. The travelling became unexpectedly good for a time over highly polished, green sea ice, and thence on to snow, amid a field of numerous small bergs. Many of these showed a marked degree of ablation, and, in places, blocks of ice perched on eminences had weathered into most grotesque forms. There were numerous streams of thaw water running from mud–covered bergs. Perspiring in the heat, we more than once stopped to slake our thirst.
Approaching the largest rock – Haswell Island, as it was called later – we saw more distinctly the immense numbers of emperor penguins covering several acres of floe. The birds extended in rows even on to the lower slopes of several bergs. The sound of their cries coming across the ice reminded one of the noise from a distant sports’ ground during a well–contested game. We camped at 5 pm on a snow drift at the southern end of the island. A large rookery of Adélie penguins on a long, low rock, about a mile distant, soon made itself evident.
Although the stay was intended to occupy only about twenty–four hours, we were compelled to remain five days on the island on account of a snowstorm which continued for practically the whole of the time. This did not prevent us from leaving the tent and wandering about; Hoadley keen on the geology and Dovers surveying whenever the light was good enough. The temperature of the rock was well above freezing point where it was exposed, and snow melted almost as soon as it fell. Our sleeping bags and gear soon became very wet, but we rejoiced in one compensation, and that was a change in diet. It was agreed that five Adélie penguins or ten Cape pigeons’ eggs made a good tasty entrée to the monotonous ration.
The camp was situated on the largest of a group of about twelve small islets, lying within five or six miles of the coast, on the lower slopes of which several outcrops of rock could be observed. Haswell Island was found to be roughly diamond–shaped; three–quarters of a mile in length, the same in width, and about three hundred feet on the highest point. It was surrounded by one season’s floe, raised in pressure ridges on the eastern side. On the northern, southern, and especially the eastern face, the rock was steep; on the western aspect, there was a more gentle slope down to the floe, the rock being almost concealed by big snow drifts. There were signs of previous glaciation in the form of erratics and many examples of polishing and grooving. The rock was very rotten, and in many places, especially about the penguin rookeries, there were collections of soil. Two deep gorges cut through the island from northwest to southeast, in both of which there were small ponds of fresh water.
The most marked feature was the wonderful abundance of bird life, for almost all the birds frequenting the shores of the continent were found nesting there. Adélie penguins were in greatest numbers. Besides the large rookery on one of the smaller islets, there were numerous rookeries of fifty to one hundred birds each on Haswell Island. In most cases the penguins made their nests on the rock itself, but, failing this, had actually settled on snow drifts, where they presented a peculiar sight, as the heat of their bodies having caused them to sink in the snow, their heads alone were visible above the surface. One bird was observed carrying an egg on the dorsal surface of his feet as the emperor penguins do. Feathers were scattered broadcast around each rookery. These result from the numerous fights which occur and are also partly derived from the bare patch of skin at the lower part of the abdomen which provides the necessary heat for incubation when the bird is sitting. Most of the birds had two eggs in a well–advanced stage of incubation, and it was a difficult task to find a sufficient number fresh enough for culinary purposes. Attached to each rookery was a pair of skua gulls, who swooped down and quickly flew off with any eggs left for a moment untended.
The emperor penguins had their rookery on the floe, about a mile from the island. The birds covered four to five acres, but there were undoubted signs that a much larger area had been occupied. We estimated the numbers to be seven thousand five hundred, the great majority being young birds. These were well grown, most of them standing as high as the shoulders of the adults. They were all very fat, covered by a grey down, slightly darker on the dorsal than on the ventral surface, with dark tails and a black, straight beak. The eyes were surrounded by a ring of grey plumage, and this again by a black band which extended over the skull to the root of the beak. Thus the markings on the young do not correspond with those of the adults. A few of the larger chicks had commenced to moult, the change of plumage being observed on the flippers.
Daily we watched large numbers of adults departing from and returning to the rookery. The direction in which they travelled was north, towards open water, estimated to be twenty miles distant. Although more than once the adults’ return to the rookery was carefully noted, we never saw the young birds being fed, old birds as they entered the rookery quietly going to sleep.
Hoadley, on his first visit to the island, had seen Antarctic petrels flying about, and a search revealed a large rookery of these on the eastern side. The nesting place of this species of petrel had never before been discovered, and so we were all elated at the great find. About three hundred birds were found sitting in the gullies and clefts, as close together as they could crowd. They made no attempt to form nests, merely laying their eggs on the shallow dirt. Each bird had one egg about the same size as that of a domestic fowl. Incubation was far advanced, and some difficulty was experienced in blowing the specimens with a blow pipe improvised from a quill. Neither the Antarctic nor any other petrels offered any resistance when disturbed on their nests, except by the expectoration of large quantities of a pink or green, oily fluid.
The Cape pigeons had just commenced laying when we arrived at the island. On the first day only two eggs were found, but, on the fourth day after our arrival, forty were collected. These birds make a small shallow nest with chips of stone.
The silver–grey or Southern Fulmar petrels were present in large numbers, especially about the steep northeastern side of the island. Though they were mated, laying had scarcely commenced, as we found only two eggs. They made small grottoes in the snow drifts, and many pairs were seen billing and cooing in such shelters.
The small Wilson petrels were found living in communities under slabs of rock, and Hoadley one afternoon thought he heard some young birds crying.
Skua gulls were present in considerable force, notably near the penguin rookeries. They were breeding at the time, laying their eggs on the soil near the summit of the island. The neighbourhood of a nest was always betrayed by the behaviour of these birds who, when we intruded on them, came swooping down as if to attack us.
Although many snow petrels were seen flying about, we found only one with an egg. The nests were located in independent rocky niches but never in rookeries.
Vegetable life existed in the form of algae, in the pools, lichens on oversell rocks and mosses which grew luxuriantly, chiefly in the Adélie penguin rookeries.
Weddell seals were plentiful about the island near the tide cracks; two of them with calves.
Though the continuous bad weather made photography impossible, Hoadley was able to make a thorough geological examination of the locality. On December 2 the clouds cleared sufficiently for photography, and after securing some snapshots we prepared to move on the next day. Dovers built a small cairn on the summit of the island and took angles to the outlying rocks.
On the 3rd we packed our specimens and left for the mainland at 9.30 am, arriving at the land ice cliffs at 2 pm The snow surface was soft, even slushy in places, and the heat amongst the bergs along the coast of the mainland was very oppressive. After we had dug out the second sledge and re–arranged the loads, the hour was too late for sledging, so Dovers took another observation in order to obtain the rate of the half–chronometer watch. While on the island, we had examined the coast to the west with glasses and concluded that the only way to get westward was to ascend to a considerable altitude on the ice cap, which, as far as the eye could reach, descended to the sea level in long cascades and falls. We had expected to place a depot somewhere near Haswell Island, but such procedure was now deemed inadvisable in view of its distance from what would probably be our direct return route.
A start was made next day against an opposing wind, the sledges being relayed up a steep hillside. Later on, however, a turn was made more to the west, and it was then possible to haul both sledges at the same time. The surface was soft, so that after every halt the runners had to be cleared. The distance for the day was five and a half miles, and the night’s camp was at an altitude of about one thousand five hundred feet, located just above the broken coastal ice.
During December 5 and 6 a snowstorm raged and confined us to our tent. The high temperature caused the falling snow to melt as it touched the tent, and, when the temperature fell, the cloth became thickly coated with ice.
On the 7th the march was resumed, by skirting a small valley at an approximate altitude of two thousand feet. The ice cap ahead descended in abrupt falls to the floe. Having a fair wind and a smooth surface, we made good headway. In the afternoon we ran into a plexus of crevasses, and the surface was traversed by high ridges. The snow bridges in many cases were weak and several gave way while the sledge was crossing them. A chasm about fifty feet deep and one hundred feet long was passed, evidently portion of a crevasse, one side of which had been raised. Later in the afternoon the surface became impassable and a detour to the south was rendered necessary. This difficulty arose near the head of the valley, in which situation the ice cap fell in a series of precipitous terraces for about one thousand feet.
At midday on the 8th we were compelled to continue the detour over a badly crevassed surface, ascending most of the time. On that night, camp was pitched again amongst crevasses. The sledge meter showed only two miles one thousand one hundred yards for the afternoon, relaying having been necessary.
The sledges slipped along in the morning with a fresh breeze in their favour. The sky was covered with rapidly scudding, cirro–cumulus clouds which, by midday, quite obscured the sun, making surrounding objects and even the snow at our feet indistinguishable. After continuing for four and a half miles, we were forced to camp. In the afternoon a heavy snowstorm commenced and persisted throughout the following day.
Though snow was still falling on the morning of the 11th, camp was broken at 10 am, and we moved off rapidly with a strong wind. During the morning the surface was gently undulating, but it mounted in a gradual ascent until nightfall. In the latter part of the afternoon the sun was clouded over, and steering had to be done by the aid of the wind. To the north we had a fine view of Drygalski’s ‘High Land’ (Drygalski Island), perceiving a distinct seaward ice cliff of considerable height.
As there were no prominences on the ice cap that could be used for surveying marks, Dovers had considerable difficulty in keeping a reckoning of our course. The trouble was overcome by building snow mounds and taking back–angles to them with the prismatic compass. At this juncture we were about ten miles from the shore and could see open water some thirty miles to the north. Frozen fast within the floe were great numbers of bergs.
We started off early on December 12 with the aid of a fair breeze over a good surface, so that both sledges were easily hauled along together. The course was almost due west, parallel to the coast. Open water came within a few miles of the ice cliffs, and, farther north, a heavy belt of pack was observed. When the sun sank lower, the bergs on the northern horizon were refracted up to such a degree that they appeared to be hanging from the sky.
The aid rendered by the sail under the influence of a fair breeze was well shown on the following day. In four hours, on a good surface, both sledges were transported seven miles. When we moved off, the wind was blowing at ten to fifteen miles an hour. By 10 am the sky became overcast and the wind freshened. Camp was pitched for lunch at 11 am, as we hoped that the weather would clear again later, but the wind increased and snow began to fall heavily in the afternoon, so we did not stir. The storm continued throughout the following day and it was impossible to march until the 15th.
Continuing the ascent on the 16th out of a valley we had crossed on the previous day, we halted on the top of a ridge within view of German ‘territory’ – a small, dark object bearing due west, evidently bare rock and presumably Gaussberg. The course was altered accordingly towards this object and everything went smoothly for ten miles. Then followed an area where the ice fell steeply in waves to the sea, crossed by crevasses which averaged fifty feet in width. The snow bridges were deeply concave, and the lower side of each chasm was raised into a ridge five to ten feet high. Making fast the alpine rope on to the sledges, one of us went ahead to test the bridge, and then the sledges, one at a time, were rushed down into the trough and up on the other side. After crossing ten or more crevasses in this fashion, we were forced to camp by the approach of a rapidly moving fog driven before a strong westerly wind. While camp was being prepared, it was discovered that a tin of kerosene on the front sledge had been punctured causing the loss of a gallon of fuel. Fortunately, we were well within our allowance, so the accident was not serious. Soon after tea our attention was drawn to a pattering on the tent like rain, caused by a fall of sago snow.
In the morning the weather was clearer, and we saw that it was impossible to reach Gaussberg by a direct route. The ice ahead was cleft and split in all directions, and, in places, vertical faces stood up to a height of one hundred feet. The floe was littered with hundreds of bergs, and in several localities there were black spots which resembled small rocks, but it was impossible to approach close enough to be certain. Retracing the way out of the broken ice, we steered in a southwesterly direction, just above the line of serac and crevassed ice. The coast here trended to the southwest, forming the eastern side of Drygalski’s Posadowsky Bay. The going was heavy, the surface being covered by a layer of frost crystals deposited during the night. A fog came up again early in the afternoon and had quite surrounded us at camping time. During the day there were fine clouds of ice crystals in the air, and at 8 pm a fog–bow was seen in the east.
Turning out in the morning we saw Gaussberg peeping over a ridge to the west, but were still prevented from steering directly towards it by the broken surface. When we had advanced ten miles, a heavy fog brought us to a halt at 5 pm.
On Friday the 20th, in spite of a sticky surface, thirteen miles was covered on a west–southwest course. The ice cap continued to be undulating but free of crevasses. The altitude was between two thousand five hundred and three thousand feet.
In the morning, after travelling two miles, we came in sight of Gaussberg again and steered directly towards it. The surface was good with a downward grade. At five and a quarter miles a depot was made of the small sledge and most of the food, in expectation of a clear run to the mountain. Not far ahead, however, were two broken–backed ridges intersecting the course, and a detour had to be made to the south to cross them higher up.
Midsummer’s day, December 22, was spent in the tent, a move being impossible on account of the high wind. In the afternoon we walked ahead a short distance and reconnoitred six or seven crumpled ridges. Though the barometer had been falling ominously for twenty–four hours, the bad weather did not continue.
Gaussberg was reached in the afternoon, after our track had passed through seventeen miles of dangerous country. For the first few miles the surface consisted of a series of steep, buckled ice ridges; later, it was snow–covered, but at times literally cut into a network of crevasses.
The only approach to Gaussberg from the plateau is from the south. To the east and west there are magnificent ice falls, the debris from which litters the floe for miles around.
December 24 and Christmas Day were devoted to examining the mountain. Dovers made a long series of observations for longitude, latitude and magnetic variation, while Hoadley examined the rocks and took photographs.
On the southern side, the ice cap abuts against this extinct volcano at an elevation of about four hundred feet above sea level; the summit of the mountain rises another eight hundred feet. On the north, the rock descends to the floe. Gaussberg is pyramidal in shape, falling steeply, from a ridge at the summit. The sides are covered with a loose rubble of volcanic fragments, square yards of which commence to slide at the slightest disturbance. This renders climbing difficult and accounts for the large numbers of isolated blocks fringing the base.
At the summit two cairns were found, the bamboo poles which had previously marked them having blown over. Further examination revealed many other bamboos which had been used as marks, but no other record of the visit of the German expedition, ten years before, was met. Bird life was not plentiful, being limited to a few skuas, Wilson petrels and snow petrels; the latter nesting under slabs of rock. There were large quantities of moss where thaw water had been running.
The ice and snow near the mountain showed evidences of marked thawing, and we had difficulty in finding a favourable spot for our camp.
Christmas Day was gloriously fine, with just sufficient wind to counteract the heat of the sun. At midday the Christmas ‘hamper’ was opened, and it was not long before the only sign of the plum pudding was the tin. In the afternoon we ascended the mountain and left a record in a cairn at the top. By the route followed, Gaussberg was two hundred and fifteen miles from ‘The Grottoes’ but relay work had made the actual distance covered three hundred miles.
We had been away from home seven weeks, and, though there was sufficient food for an outward journey of another week, there was no indication that the country would change. Further, from the summit of Gaussberg one could see almost as far as could be marched in a week. Accordingly it was decided to commence our return on the 26th, making a course almost due east, thus cutting out numerous detours which had to be taken on the outward journey.
We left the mountain on December 26, pursuing a course to the south of our outward track so as to avoid some crevassed ridges. Ascending steadily against a continuous headwind, we picked up the second sledge at midday on the 28th.
Next day all the gear was transferred to one sledge and a course made direct to the Helen Glacier; the other sledge being abandoned.
On December 31, after a day’s blizzard, the surface was found to be covered with sastrugi of soft snow eighteen inches to two feet in depth. In crossing a wide crevasse, the sledge became bogged in the soft snow of a drift which had a deceptive appearance of solidity. It took us ten minutes to extricate ourselves, and, after this, crevasses were negotiated at a run.
A violent blizzard raged during the following day – the first of the New Year 1913. This proved to be a blessing, for it made the surface more crisp and firm. In the morning the sun was obscured and nothing was visible but the snow at our feet, so that steering was very difficult. In the afternoon the sun broke through, a strong westerly wind sprang up and we moved along at a good pace, covering more than thirteen miles before camping.
On January 3 the track bordered on the edge of the plateau, the surface being almost level, rising gently towards the south.
After a violent blizzard of three days’ duration, which confined us in the tent, we continued on the same course for four days, averaging about eleven miles each day. The surface was good, but a strong southeaster blew practically all the time and reduced our speed considerably.
At 10 am on January 9, a fog bank was observed in the east. This rapidly approached, and in fifteen minutes was quite close. There was now a splendid display of rings and arcs, caused apparently by minute ice crystals which filled the air without obscuring the sun or sky. First an arc of prismatic colours appeared in the east, and in a few seconds the sky seemed literally to be covered with other arcs. At first they seemed to be scattered indiscriminately, but after a short time several arcs joined and we could discern a symmetrical arrangement. The sun was surrounded by a ring, the lower portion of which was broken by an inverted arc; two other arcs were visible on either side. A large ring appeared encircling the zenith, intersecting the first and passing through the sun. Two pairs of arcs were also seen, one pair in each ring. Excepting the arcs and ring about the zenith, which was grayish–white against the blue sky, the arcs showed prismatic colouring. The display lasted ten minutes and ended with the disappearance of the ice crystals.
The diagram (see below) shows the arrangement of the arcs: S = Sun; Z = Zenith. At A, B, C, mock suns could be seen.
From our camp on the night of January 10, broken country could be seen ahead. To the north, open water was visible, and to the northeast the Shackleton Shelf, so that we were nearing home at last. Here, a heavy snowstorm delayed us for two and a half days, and it was not till the afternoon of January 13 that we were able to move ahead.
The next day was dull, the sun being quite obscured; and the only check upon the steering was the southeasterly wind. At midday the thermometer registered 35°F. in the shade, and the surface became quite sticky. After tea we walked ahead for a couple of hundred yards to the summit of a ridge where the full extent of the Helen Glacier was laid before us. It was evident that our position was some miles north of the true course, but, considering the absence of steering marks and the constant overcast weather, we considered ourselves lucky in being so close to it.
The bad weather continued and snow fell during the following day. On the 16th the light was better, and we pushed into a strong wind which freshened to the force of a moderate gale before we had travelled two miles. Approaching a steep ascent we were compelled to camp. The morning brought an improvement, and the crossing of the Helen Glacier was commenced a mile or two above the outward course.
At midday on January 18, over treacherous ice, in the face of strong winds, we were making good headway towards Junction Corner. Almost daily for a fortnight a Wilson petrel had visited us, the only form of life seen on the return journey.
On the 19th we were not able to move until 3.30 pm, when the wind, which had been blowing with the force of a gale, subsided. During the afternoon a magnificent view of the Helen Glacier was obtained, and in the west we could see Haswell Island and Drygalski Island.
Continuing on the same course, throughout the following day, we picked up the hut with the binoculars at 5 pm There now came a quick descent to Junction Corner.
On the lower levels there was clear evidence of thawing having occurred. The firm surface of snow which had been present on the outward journey was now converted into rough ice, over which we walked painfully in finnesko. Névé and ice surfaces were covered with sharp spicules, and the sides and bridges of crevasses were unmistakably thawed.
Leaving Junction Corner at 6 am, we steered a course for the hut, running parallel to the edge of the glacier. At 3 pm the mast was sighted, and, later, the hut itself. When within half a mile of ‘The Grottoes’ we saw three figures on the floe and guessed that the eastern party had returned. In a few minutes greetings were heartily exchanged and they had welcomed us home.
Instructions had been given that the Western Base should be in readiness to embark on the Aurora not later than January 30, 1913.
When Wild’s party had arrived, preparations for departure were immediately made. Geological and biological collections were packed, stores were sorted out and cases containing personal gear were sledged to the edge of the glacier.
Harrisson contrived a winch for sounding and fishing. Fourteen–gauge copper wire was wound on it and, through a crack in the sea ice a quarter of a mile from the glacier, bottom was reached in two hundred and sixty fathoms. As the water was too deep for dredging, Harrisson manufactured cage traps and secured some fish, a squid, and other specimens.
At this time there was abundant evidence of life. Skua gulls frequently flew about the hut, as well as Cape pigeons, Antarctic, snow, Wilson, giant and silver–grey petrels. Out on the sea ice, there were Adélie and emperor penguins; the latter moulting. Hundreds of seals were seen with glasses on the edge of the floe, ten miles to the north.
On the whole, January was a very fine month. Some of the days seemed really hot; the shade temperature on one occasion reaching 37°F, and, in several instances, 33°F. It was quite a common thing for a man to work outside in loose, light garments; in fact, with nothing more than a singlet on the upper part of the body.
On January 26, while Kennedy took observations, Wild and the others went for a walk towards the open water. The surface was very rough and broken by leads, along which Weddell seals lay in great numbers. Three miles of ice were found to have drifted out, reducing the northern expanse to seven miles.
In view of the possibility of the Aurora not relieving them, the party went through their food supplies, finding that these were sufficient for another year, with the exception of meat. With regard to coal, two tons of briquettes remained, which, augmented by good stock of seal blubber, would provide sufficient fuel.
Laying in a store of seals’ flesh and blubber now became the principal work, and every fine day saw a party out with a sledge. Unfortunately, the nearest crack on the sea ice was nearly two miles away, so that the return journey, with a heavily laden sledge, was long and tedious. Two holes were dug in the glacier near the hut, one for blubber and the other for meat.
On January 31 six miles of sea ice still remained, and, if the ship had arrived to time, a good deal of sledging would have been required to transport all the gear aboard.
In February, the weather altered for the worse, and there was not a single fine day until the 20th. A strong east–southeast wind with falling snow prevailed. As the days were shortening rapidly, all were beginning to feel anxious about the Aurora.
Wild erected a flagstaff on the highest ice pinnacle near ‘The Grottoes’ and flew a large flag on it whenever the wind moderated. On the 16th, a lamp screen and reflector were fitted at the masthead and each night a hurricane lamp was placed there, which could be seen eight miles with the naked eye.
On the 20th Dovers and Wild made a large signboard, taking it out to a prominent point on the glacier, three and a half miles to the north. It was lashed to a bamboo pole with a flag flying on it. The open water was then only three miles distant.
The 22nd February was the anniversary of the day the Aurora left us, but the weather was very different. A heavy blizzard was raging, the wind’s velocity ranging up to eighty miles per hour. As it was Saturday, we kept the usual routine, scrubbing out and cleaning up the hut. We could not help speculating as to whether we should have to do it for another whole year. But every one had great faith in ‘good old Davis’, and nobody was at all downhearted.
When we ‘turned out’ on Sunday there was still a strong wind and drift, but this died away to a light breeze before breakfast was over, and the sun came out. I had a look round with the glasses and saw that the ice had broken away beyond a limit of one and a half miles. As there was a sledge, which Harrisson had been using for sounding, within a few yards of the water’s edge, Jones and I went off to bring it in. We had gone less than half a mile when we saw what at first appeared to be a penguin, standing on some pack ice in the distance, but which we soon saw was the masthead of the Aurora.
It was evident that she could not be alongside for some time, so Jones went back to the hut to tell the others to bring down a load of gear, and I went on to meet the ship. Before the Aurora had reached the fast ice, all the party were down with two sledge loads, having covered the mile and a half in record time.
We were all anxious, of course, for news, and the first we received was the sad account of the deaths of Ninnis and Mertz; then of the wonderful march made by Dr Mawson.
Before closing, I should like to pay a tribute to the good fellowship, unfailing industry, enthusiasm and unswerving loyalty which characterized my comrades. During the whole of the Expedition, whether carrying out monotonous routine work at the Base or under the trying conditions of sledging, all duties were performed with never failing good temper and perseverance.
Should it ever be my lot to venture on a like expedition I hope to have some, if not all, of the same party with me. But whether we meet again or not, I shall always think of every man of them with the greatest affection and respect.
- This was examined in detail from the Aurora in January 1913 and found to be an island, which was named Drygalski Island, for it is evidently the ice–covered ‘highland’ observed by Professor Drygalski (German Expedition, 1902) from his balloon.
This version of Home of the Blizzard has been edited and published by the Australian Antarctic Division.