Chapter 23: A second winter
Chapter 23: A second winter
During the first busy year in Adélie Land, when the Hut was full of life and work, there were few moments for reflection. Yet, over the speculative pipe at home after a successful day’s labour on the wireless masts, or out on the turbulent plateau when the hour of hoosh brought the strenuous day to a close, more than one man was heard to say, ‘One year in this country is enough for me’. Still, in the early days, no one could predict what would happen, and therefore a change in the perverse climate was always considered probable. So great was the emulation, and so keen were all to extend our geographical boundaries, that the year sped away almost before the meagre opportunity came. With the cheery support of numbers, we did not find it a difficult matter ‘to drive dull care away’.
Now there were only seven of us; we knew what was ahead; the weather had already given ample proof of the early approach of winter; the field of work which once stretched to the west, east and south had no longer the mystery of the unknown; the Ship had gone and there was scant hope of relief in March.
Against all this. There remained the Hut – a proven shelter from the wind; and, most vital of all, there was abundant food for another year. Every avenue of scientific work was not yet closed. Even the routine of meteorological and magnetic work was adding in no slight degree to the sum of human knowledge. Our short mile of rocks still held some geological secrets, and there were biological discoveries yet to make. A wireless telegraphic station had at last been established, and we could confidently expect communication with the outside world at an early date. These were some of the obvious assurances which no one had the heart to think about at first; and then there was always our comradeship, most enduring of all.
February, during 1912, was a tolerable month with a fair proportion of sunny, moderately calm days. A year later, the first eight days of this month were signalized by the blizzard in which the Aurora had such a perilous experience. While the winter began in 1912 with the advent of March, now in 1913 it came on definitely in early February. Autumn was a term which applied to a few brilliant days which would suddenly intervene in the dense rack of drift–snow.
We set to work to make the Hut, if anything, safer and snugger. Bage put finishing touches to the break–wind of rock and cases, and with Hodgeman and McLean nailed battens of wood over a large sheet of canvas which had been stretched across the windward side of the roof, overlapping rolls of black paper, scraps of canvas and bagging, which were also battened down to make the eastern and western faces more air–tight.
Before the Ship left us, the remaining coal briquettes had been dug out of a bed of ice and carefully piled on a high point of the rocks. Round them all the spare timber and broken cases were gathered to provide sufficient fuel for the ensuing winter. The penguins’ eggs, which had been stored in boxes, were stacked together on the windward side of the Hut, and a choice selection of steaks of seal and penguin for our own use were at the storeman’s disposal in the veranda.
Madigan, in addition to his meteorological duties, took charge of the new sledging–dogs which had been presented by Captain Amundsen. A good many seals had been already killed, and a big cache of meat and blubber was made alongside the Hut to last throughout the winter.
Bickerton found many odd jobs to occupy his time in connexion with the petrol–engine and the wireless installations. He was also busied with the anemometer, which had broken down and needed a strong start for its second year of usefulness.
Bage, following the parting instructions of Webb, became the owner of the Magnetograph House and the Absolute Hut, continuing to keep the magnetic records. As storeman, Bage looked after the food–supplies. The canvas coverings had made the veranda drift–tight, so the storeman could arrange his tins and cases on the shelves with some degree of comfort, and the daily task of shovelling out snow was now at an end. Further, Hodgeman and he built an annex out of spare timber to connect the entrance veranda with the store. This replaced the old snow–tunnel which had melted away, and, when completed and padded outside with old mattresses, was facetiously styled the ‘Northwest Passage’. The only thing which later arose to disturb the composure of the storeman was the admission of the dogs to a compartment in the veranda on the eastern side. His constant care then became a heap of mutton carcases which the dogs in passing or during the occasional escapades from their shelter were always eager to attack.
Hodgeman helped to change the appearance of the living–hut by cutting the table in two and, since there was now plenty of room, by putting in more shelves for a larder on which the storeman displayed his inviting wares to the cook, who could think of nothing original for the next meal.
McLean undertook the duties of ice–cutting and coal–carrying throughout the year, kept the biological log and assisted in general observations. He also sent off sealed messages in bottles, regularly, on the chance of their being picked up on the high seas, thereby giving some indication of the direction of currents.
Jeffryes was occupied regularly every night listening attentively for wireless signals and calling at intervals. The continuous winds soon caused many of the wire stays of the main wireless mast to become slack, and these Jeffryes pulled taut on his daily rounds.
Looking back and forward, we could not but feel that the sledging programme of the previous summer had been so comprehensive that the broad features of the land were ascertained over a wide radius; beyond what we, with our weakened resources of the second year, could reach. The various observations we were carrying on were adding to the value of the scientific results, but we could not help feeling disappointed that our lot was not cast in a new and more clement region.
It was to be a dreary and difficult time for the five men who had volunteered to remain behind in order to make a thorough search for myself and comrades. They were men whom I had learned to appreciate during the first year, and I now saw their sterling characters in a new light. To Jeffryes all was fresh, and we envied him the novelties of a new world, rough and inhospitable though it was. As for me, it was sufficient to feel that
…He that tossed thee down into the Field,
He knows about it all – He knows, He knows.
On the night of February 15, Jeffryes suddenly surprised us with the exciting intelligence that he had heard Macquarie Island send a coded weather report to Hobart. The engine was immediately set going, but though repeated attempts were made, no answer could be elicited. Each night darkness was more pronounced and signals became more distinct, until, on the 20th, our call reached Sawyer at Macquarie Island, who immediately responded by saying ‘Good evening’. The insulation of a Leyden jar broke down at this point, and nothing more could be done until it was remedied.
At last, on February 21, signals were exchanged, and by the 23rd a message had been dispatched to Lord Denman, Governor–General of the Commonwealth, acquainting him with our situation and the loss of our comrades and, through him, one to his Majesty the King requesting his royal permission to name a tract of newly discovered country to the east, ‘King George V Land’. Special messages were also sent to the relatives of Lieutenant BES Ninnis and Dr X Mertz.
The first news received from the outside world was the bare statement that Captain Scott and four of his companions had perished on their journey to the South Pole. It was some time before we knew the tragic details which came home, direct and poignant, to us in Adélie Land.
To Professor David a fuller account of our own calamity was sent and, following this, many kind messages of sympathy and congratulation were received from all over the world. On February 26 Lord Denman sent an acknowledgment of our message to him, expressing his sorrow at the loss of our two companions; and on March 7 his Majesty the King added his gracious sympathy, with permission to affix the name, King George V Land, to that part of the Antarctic continent lying between Adélie Land and Oates Land.
On February 23 there was a spell of dead calm; heavy nimbus clouds and fog lowering over sea and plateau. Fluffy grains of sago snow fell most of the day, covering the dark rocks and the blue glacier. A heaving swell came in from the north, and many seals landed within the boat harbour, where a high tide lapped over the ice–foot. The bergs and islands showed pale and shadowy as the snow ceased or the fog lifted. Then the wind arose and blew hard from the east–southeast for a day, swinging round with added force to its old quarter – south by east.
March began in earnest with much snow and monotonous days of wind. By contrast, a few hours of sunny calm were appreciated to the full. The face of the landscape changed; the rocky crevices filling flush with the low mounds of snow which trailed along and off the ridges.
On March 16 every one was relieved to hear that the Aurora had arrived safely in Hobart, and that Wild and his party were all well. But the news brought disappointment too, for we had always a lingering ray of hope that there might be sufficient coal to bring the vessel back to Adélie Land. Later on we learned that on account of the shortage of funds the Ship was to be laid up at Hobart until the following summer. In the meantime, Professors David and Masson were making every effort to raise the necessary money. In this they were assisted by Captain Davis, who went to London to obtain additional donations.
It was now a common thing for those of us who had gone to bed before midnight to wake up in the morning and find that quite a budget of wireless messages had been received. It took the place of a morning paper and we made the most of the intelligence, discussing it from every possible point of view. Jeffryes and Bickerton worked every night from 8 pm until 1 am, calling at short intervals and listening attentively at the receiver. In fact, notes were kept of the intensity of the signals, the presence of local atmospheric electrical discharges – static – or intermittent sounds due to discharges from snow particles – St Elmo’s fire – and, lastly, of interference in the signals transmitted. The latter phenomenon should lead to interesting deductions, for we had frequent evidence to show that the wireless waves were greatly impeded or completely abolished during times of auroral activity.
Listening at the wireless receiver must have been very tedious and nerve–racking work, as so many adventitious sounds had to be neglected. There was, first of all, the noise of the wind as it swept by the Hut; then there was the occasional crackling of ‘St. Elmo’s fire’; the dogs in the veranda shelter were not always remarkable for their quietness; while within the Hut it was impossible to avoid slight sounds which were often sufficient to interrupt the sequence of a message. At times, when the aurora was visible, signals would often die away, and the only alternative was to wait until they recurred, meanwhile keeping up calls at regular intervals in case the ether was not blocked. So Jeffryes would sometimes spend the whole evening trying to transmit a single message, or, conversely, trying to receive one. By experience it was found easier to transmit and receive wireless messages between certain hours in the evening, while not infrequently, during the winter months, a whole week would go by and nothing could be done. During such a period auroral displays were usually of nightly occurrence. Then a ‘freak night’ would come along and business would be brisk at both terminals.
It was often possible for Jeffryes to ‘hear’ Wellington, Sydney, Melbourne and Hobart, and once he managed to communicate directly with the last–named. Then there were numerous ships passing along the southern shores of Australia or in the vicinity of New Zealand whose calls were audible on good nights. The warships were at times particularly distinct, and occasionally the ‘chatter in the ether’ was so confusing that Sawyer, at Macquarie Island, would signal that he was jammed.
The wireless gave us another interest in life, and plenty of outside occupation when the stays became loose or an accident occurred. It served to relieve some of the tedium of that second year:
Day after day the same
Only a little worse.
On March 13 there was a tremendous fall of snow, and worst pea–souper we had had during the previous year. Next day everything was deluged, and right up the glacier there were two–foot drifts, despite a sixty–mile wind.
It was very interesting to follow the changes which occurred from day to day. First of all, under the flail of the incessant wind, a crust would form on the surface of the snow of the type we knew as ‘pie crust’, when out sledging. It was never strong enough to bear a man, but the sledge–runners would clear it fairly well if the load were not too heavy. Next day the crust would be etched, and small flakes and pellets would be carried away until the snow was like fleece. Assuming that the wind kept up (which it always did) long, shallow concavities would now be scooped out as the ‘lobules’ of the fleece were carried away piecemeal. These concavities became deeper, hour by hour and day by day, becoming at last the troughs between the crests of the snow waves or sastrugi. All this time the surface would be gradually hardening and, if the sun chanced to shine for even a few hours every day, a shining glaze would gradually form on the long, bevelled mounds. It was never a wise thing to walk on these polished areas in finnesko and this fact was always learnt by experience.
Above the Hut, where the icy slopes fell quickly to the sea, the snow would lie for a few days at the very most, but, lower down, where the glacier ran almost level for a short distance to the harbour ice, the drifts would lie for months at the mercy of the wind, furrowed and cut into miniature canyons; wearing away in fragments until the blue ice showed once more, clear and windswept.
Towards the end of March the wind gave a few exhibitions of its power, which did not augur well for the maximum periods of the winter. A few diary jottings are enough to show this:
March 23. During the previous night the wind steadily rose to an eighty–mile ‘touch’ and upwards. It was one of those days when it is a perpetual worry to be outside.
March 24. Doing at least seventy miles per hour during the morning. About 8 pm there was a temporary lull and a rise of 0.15 in the barometer. Now, 9.30 pm, it is going ‘big guns’. The drift is fairly thick and snow is probably falling.
March 25. Much the same as yesterday.
March 28. In a seventy–five mile wind, Hodgeman had several fingers frost bitten this morning while attending to the anemograph.
March 29. It was quite sunny when we opened the trapdoor, though it blew about sixty miles per hour with light drift.
March 30. The wind is doing itself full justice. About 8 pm it ranged between ninety–five and one hundred miles per hour, and now the whole hut is tremulous and the stove pipe vibrates so that the two large pots on the stove rattle.
At the beginning of April, McLean laid the foundations of The Adélie Blizzard which recorded our life for the next seven months. It was a monthly publication, and contributions were invited from all on every subject but the wind. Anything from light doggerel to heavy blank verse was welcomed, and original articles, letters to the Editor, plays, reviews on books and serial stories were accepted within the limits of our supply of foolscap paper and typewriter ribbons.
It was the first Antarctic publication which could boast a real cable column of news of the day. Extracts from the April number were read after dinner one evening and excited much amusement. An Ode to Tobacco was very popular, and seemed to voice the enthusiasm of our small community, while The Evolution of Women introduced us to a once–familiar subject. The Editor was later admitted by wireless to the Journalists’ Association (Sydney).
Many have asked the question, ‘What did you do to fill in the time during the second year?’
The duties of cook and nightwatchman came to each man once every week, and meteorological and magnetic observations went on daily. Then we were able to devote a good deal of time to working up the scientific work accomplished during the sledging journeys. The wireless watches kept two men well occupied, and in spare moments the chief recreation was reading. There was a fine supply of illustrated journals and periodicals which had arrived by the Aurora, and with papers like the Daily Graphic, Illustrated London News, Sphere and Punch, we tried to make up the arrears of a year in exile. The Encyclopaedia Britannica was a great boon, being always ‘the last word’ in the settlement of a debated point. Chess and cards were played on several occasions. Again, whenever the weather gave the smallest opportunity, there were jobs outside, digging for cases, attending to the wireless mast and, in the spring, geological collecting and dredging. If the air was clear of drift, and the wind not over fifty miles per hour, one could spend a pleasant hour or more walking along the shore watching the birds and noting the changes in scenery which were always occurring along our short selection of rocks. During 1912 we had been able to study all the typical features of our novel and beautiful environment, but 1913 was the period of ‘intensive cultivation’ and we would have gladly forgone much of it. Divine service was usually held on Sunday mornings, but in place of it we sometimes sang hymns during the evening, or arranged a programme of sacred selections on the gramophone. There was a great loss in our singing volume after the previous year, which Hodgeman endeavoured to remedy by striking up an accompaniment on the organ.
Cooking reached its acme, according to our standard, and each man became remarkable for some particular dish. Bage was the exponent of steam puddings of every variety, and Madigan could always be relied upon for an unfailing batch of puff pastry. Bickerton once started out with the object of cooking a ginger pudding, and in an unguarded moment used mixed spices instead of ginger. The result was rather appetizing, and ‘mixed spice pudding’ was added to an original list. McLean specialized in yeast waffles, having acquired the art of tossing pancakes. Jeffryes had come on the scene with a limited experience, but his first milk scones gained him a reputation which he managed to make good. Hodgeman fell back on the cookery book before embarking on the task of preparing dinner, but the end product, so to speak, which might be invariably expected for ‘sweets’ was tapioca pudding. Penguin meat had always been in favour. Now special care was devoted to seal meat, and, after a while, mainly owing to the rather copious use of onion powder, no one could say for certain which was which.
During the previous year, yeast had been cultivated successfully from Russian stout. The experiments were continued, and all available information was gathered from cookery books and the Encyclopaedia. Russian stout, barley wine, apple rings, sugar, flour and mould from potatoes were used in several mixtures and eventually fermentation was started. Bread making was the next difficulty, and various instructions were tried in succession. The method of trial and error was at last responsible for the first light spongy loaf, and then every nightwatchman cultivated the art and baked for the ensuing day.
On April 8 the snow had gathered deeply everywhere and we had some exercise on skis. Several of the morainic areas were no longer visible, and it was possible to run between the rocks for a considerable distance. A fresh breeze came up during the afternoon and provided a splendid impetus for some good slides. During the short calm, twenty–six seals landed on the harbour ice.
On the morning of the same day Mary gave birth to five pups in the Transit House. The place was full of cracks, through which snow and wind were always driving, and so we were not surprised when four of them were found to have died. The survivor was named Hoyle (a cognomen for our old friend Hurley) and his doings gave us a new fund of entertainment.
The other dogs had been penned in the veranda and in tolerable weather were brought outside to be fed. Carrying an axe, Madigan usually went down to the boat harbour, followed by the expectant pack, to where there were several seal carcases. These lay immovably frozen to the ice, and were cut about and hacked so that the meat in section reminded one of the grain of a log of red gum, and it was certainly quite as hard. When Madigan commenced to chop, the dogs would range themselves on the lee side and field the flying chips.
On April 16 the last penguin was seen on a ledge overhanging an icy cove to the east. Apparently its moulting time had not expired, but it was certainly a very miserable bird, smothered in small icicles and snow and partly exposed to a sixty–five mile wind with the temperature close to −10°F. Petrels were often seen flying along the foreshores and no wind appeared to daunt them. It was certainly a remarkable thing to witness a snow petrel, small, light and fragile, making headway over the sea in the face of an eighty–mile hurricane, fluttering down through the spindrift to pick up a morsel of food which it had detected. Close to the western cliffs there was a trail of brash ice where many birds were often observed feeding on Euphausia (crustaceans) in weather when it scarcely seemed possible for any living creature to be abroad.
Throughout April news by wireless came in slowly and spasmodically, and Jeffryes was becoming resigned to the eccentricities of the place. As an example of the unfavourable conditions which sometimes prevailed: on April 14 the wind was steady, in the nineties, with light drift and, at times, the aurora would illumine the northwest sky. Still, during quiet intervals, two messages came through and were acknowledged.
A coded weather report, which had priority over all other messages, was sent out each night, and it is surprising how often Jeffryes managed to transmit this important intelligence. On evenings when receiving was an impossibility, owing to a continual stream of St Elmo’s fire, the three code words for the barometric reading, the velocity and direction of the wind were signalled repeatedly and, on the following night, perhaps, Macquarie Island would acknowledge them. Of course we had to use new signs for the higher wind velocities, as no provision had been made for them in our meteorological code book. The reports from Macquarie Island and Adélie Land were communicated to Mr Hunt of the Commonwealth Weather Bureau and to Mr Bates of the Dominion Meteorological Office, who plotted them out for their daily weather forecasts.
It was very gratifying to learn that the Macquarie Island party to a man had consented to remain at their lonely post and from Ainsworth, their leader, I received a brief report of the work which had been accomplished by each member. We all could appreciate the sacrifice they were making. Then, too, an account was received of the great sledging efforts which had been made by Wild and his men to the west. But it was not till the end of the year that their adventurous story was related to us in detail.
On the 23rd Lassie, one of the dogs, was badly wounded in a fight and had to be shot. Quarrels amongst the dogs had to be quelled immediately, otherwise they would probably mean the death of some unfortunate animal which happened to be thrown down amongst the pack. Whenever a dog was down, it was the way of these brutes to attack him irrespective of whether they were friends or foes.
Among our dogs there were several groups whose members always consorted together. Thus, George and Lassie were friends and, when the latter was killed, George, who was naturally a miserable, downtrodden creature, became a kind of pariah, morose and solitary and at war with all except Peary and Fix, with whom he and Lassie had been associated in fights against the rest. The other dogs lived together in some kind of harmony, Jack and Amundsen standing out as particular chums, while the ‘pups’, as we called them – D’Urville, Ross and Wilkes (‘Monkey’) – were a trio born in Adélie Land and, therefore, comrades in misfortune. Hoyle, as a pup, was treated benevolently by all the others, and entered the fellowship of the other three when he grew up. Among the rest, Mikkel stood out as a good fighter, Colonel as the biggest dog and ringleader against the Peary–Fix faction, Fram as a nervous intractable animal, and Mary as the sole representative of the sex.
It was remarkable that Peary, Fix and George in their hatred of the others, who were penned up in the dog shelter during bad weather, would absent themselves for days on a snow ramp near the Magnetograph House, where they were partly protected from the wind by rocks. George, from being a mere associate of Peary and Fix, became more amiable as the year went by, and at times it was quite pathetic to see his attempts at friendliness.
We became very fond of the dogs despite their habit of howling at night and their wolfish ferocity. They always gave one a welcome, in drift or sunshine, and though ruled by the law of force, they had a few domestic traits to make them civilized.
May was a dreaded month because it had been the period of worst wind and drift during 1912. On this occasion the wind velocities over four weeks were not so high and constant, though the snowfall was just as persistent. On the 17th and 18th, however, there was an unexpected jump to the nineties. The average over the first twenty–four hours was eighty–three, and on the 18th it attained 93.7 miles per hour. One terrific rise between 6.30 and 7.30 on the night of the 17th was shown as one hundred and three miles on the anemometer – the record up to that time.
Madigan was thrown over and had a hard fall on his arm, smashing a bottle of the special ink which was used for the anemograph pen. Bage related how he had sailed across the Magnetic Flat by sitting down and raising his arms in the air. He was accompanied by Fix, Peary and George, who were blown along the slippery surface for yards. McLean had a lively time cutting ice and bringing in the big blocks. Often he would slide away with a large piece, and pull up on a snow patch twenty yards to leeward.
On the 22nd there were hours of gusts which came down like thunderbolts, making us apprehensive for the safety of the wireless masts; we had grown to trust the stability of the Hut. Every one who went outside came back with a few experiences. Jeffryes was roughly handled through not wearing crampons, and several cases of kerosene, firmly stacked on the break wind, were dislodged and thrown several yards.
Empire Day was celebrated in Adélie Land with a small display. At 2.30 pm the Union Jack was hoisted to the topmast and three cheers were given for the King. The wind blew at fifty miles an hour with light drift, temperature −3°F. Empire greetings were sent to the Colonial Secretary, London, and to Mr Fisher, Prime Minister of Australia. These were warmly reciprocated a few days afterwards.
Preceded by a day of whirlies on the 7th and random gusts on the same evening, the wind made a determined attack next morning and carried away the top and part of the middle section of the main wireless mast. It was a very unexpected event, lulled as we were into security by the fact that May, the worst month, had passed. On examination it was found that two of the topmast wire stays had chafed through, whilst another had parted. At first it seemed a hopeless task to re–erect the mast, but gradually ways and means were discussed, and we waited for the first calm day to put the theories into execution.
Meanwhile, it was suggested that if a heavy kite were made and induced to fly in the continuous winds, the aerial thus provided would be sufficient to receive wireless messages. To this end, Bage and Bickerton set to work, and the first invention was a Venesta–box kite which was tried in a steady seventy–mile wind. Despite its weight, – at least ten pounds – the kite rose immediately, steadied by guys on either side, and then suddenly descended with a crash on to the glacier ice. After the third fall the kite was too battered to be of any further use. Another device, in which an empty carbide tin was employed, and still another, making use of an old propeller, shared the same fate.
On the evening of the 19th a perfect coloured corona, three° in diameter, was observed encircling the moon in a sky which lit up at intervals with dancing auroral curtains. Coronae or ‘glories’, which closely invest the luminary, are due to diffraction owing to immense numbers of very minute water or ice particles floating in the air between the observer and the source of light. The larger the particles the smaller the corona, so that by a measurement of the diameter of a corona the size of the particles can be calculated. Earlier in the year, a double corona had been seen when the moon was shining through cirro–cumulus clouds. Haloes, on the other hand, are wide circles (or arcs of circles) in the sky surrounding the sun or moon, and arising from light refraction in myriads of tiny ice crystals suspended in the atmosphere. They were very commonly noted in Adélie Land where the conditions were so ideal for their production.
Midwinter’s day 1913 we had reached a turning point in the season. The Astronomer Royal told us that at eight o’clock on June 22 the sun commenced to return, and every one took note of the fact. The sky was overcast, the air surcharged with drifting snow, and the wind was forty miles an hour – a representative day as far as the climate was concerned. The cook made a special effort and the menu bore the following foreword:
Now is the winter of our discontent
Made glorious summer…
On July 6 the wind moderated, and we set about repairing once more the fortunes of the wireless. The shattered topmast used to sway about in the heavy winds, threatening to bring down the rest of the mast. Bickerton, therefore, climbed up with a saw and cut it almost through above the doubling. All hands then pulled hard, and the upper part cracked off, the lower section being easily removed from the cross trees. The mast now looked shipshape and ready for future improvements.
It was decided to use as a topmast the mast which had been formerly employed to support the northern half of the aerial. So on the 29th this was lowered and removed to the veranda to be fitted for erection.
Almost a fortnight now elapsed, during which the weather was impossible. In fact, the wind was frightful throughout the whole month of July, surpassing all its previous records and wearing out our much tried patience. All that one could do was to work on and try grimly to ignore it. On July 2 we noted: ‘Thick as a wall outside with an eighty–five miler’. And so it commenced and continued for a day, subsiding slowly through the seventies to the fifties and then suddenly redoubling in strength, rose to a climax about midnight on the 5th – one hundred and sixteen miles an hour! For eight hours it maintained an average of one hundred and seven miles an hour, and the timbers of the Hut seemed to be jarred and wrenched as the wind throbbed in its mightier gusts. These were the highest wind velocities recorded during our two years’ residence in Adélie Land and are probably the highest sustained velocities ever reported from a meteorological station.
With the exception of a few Antarctic and snow petrels flying over the sea on the calmer days, no life had been seen round the Hut during June. So it was with some surprise that we sighted a Weddell seal on July 9 attempting to land on the harbour ice in a seventy–five mile wind. Several times it clambered over the edge and on turning broadside to the wind was actually tumbled back into the water. Eventually it struggled into the lee of some icy hummocks, but only remained there for a few minutes, deciding that the water was much warmer.
On the 11th there was an exceptionally low barometer at 27.794 inches. At the same time the wind ran riot once more – two hundred and ninety–eight miles in three hours. The highest barometric reading was recorded on September 3, 30.4 inches, and the comparison indicates a wide range for a station at sea level.
To show how quickly conditions would change, it was almost calm next morning, and all hands were in readiness to advance the wireless mast another stage. Previously there had been three masts, one high one in three lengths, and two smaller ones of one length each, between which the aerial stretched; the lead–in wires being connected to the middle of the aerial. This is known as an umbrella aerial. Since we were without one short mast it was resolved to erect a directive Γ–shaped aerial. The mainmast was to be in two instead of three lengths, and we wondered if the aerial would be high enough. In any case, it was so calm early on the 11th that we ventured to erect the topmast and had hauled it halfway, when the wind swooped down from the plateau, and there was just time to make fast the stays and the hauling rope and to leave things snug for the next spell of bad weather.
In eight days another opportunity came, and this time the topmast was hoisted, wedged and securely stayed. Bickerton had fixed a long bolt through the middle of the topmast and just above it three additional wire stays were to be placed. Another fine day and we reckoned to finish the work.
From July 26 onwards the sky was cloudless for a week, and each day the northern sun would rise a fraction of a degree higher. The wind was very constant and of high velocity.
It was a grand sight to witness the sea in a hurricane on a driftless, clear day. Crouched under a rock on Azimuth Hill, and looking across to the west along the curving brink of the cliffs, one could watch the water close inshore blacken under the lash of the wind, whiten into foam farther off, and then disappear into the hurrying clouds of spray and sea smoke. Over the Mackellar Islets and the ‘Pianoforte Berg’ columns of spray would shoot up like geysers, and fly away in the mad race to the north.
Early in July Jeffryes became ill, and for some weeks his symptoms were such as to give every one much anxiety. His work on the wireless had been assiduous at all times, and there is no doubt that the continual and acute strain of sending and receiving messages under unprecedented conditions was such that he eventually had a nervous breakdown. Unfortunately the weather was so atrocious, and the conditions under which we were placed so peculiarly difficult, that nothing could be done to brighten his prospects. McLean considered that as the spring returned and it became possible to take more exercise outside, the nervous exhaustion would pass off. In the meantime Jeffryes took a complete rest, and slowly improved as the months went by, and our hopes of relief came nearer. It was a great misfortune for our comrade, especially as it was his first experience of such a climate, and he had applied himself to work with enthusiasm and perhaps in an over–conscientious spirit.
July concluded its stormy career with the astonishing wind average of 63.6 miles an hour. We were all relieved to see Friday, August 1, appear on the modest calendar, which it was the particular pleasure of each nightwatchman to change. More light filtered day by day through the ice on the kitchen window, midwinter lay behind, and we were ready to hail the first signs of returning spring.
This version of Home of the Blizzard has been edited and published by the Australian Antarctic Division.