Chapter 24: Nearing the end

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

Chapter 24: Nearing the end

Seven men from all the world, back to town again,
Seven men from out of hell…
– Kipling

It is wonderful how quickly the weeks seemed to pass. Situated as we were, Time became quite an object of study to us and its imperceptible drift was almost a reality, considering that each day was another step towards liberty – freedom from the tyranny of the wind. In a sense, the endless surge of the blizzard was a slow form of torture, and the subtle effect it had on the mind was measurable in the delight with which one greeted a calm, fine morning, or noted some insignificant fact which bespoke the approach of a milder season. Thus in August, although the weather was colder, there were the merest signs of thawing along the edges of the snow packed against the rocky faces which looked towards the sun; Weddell seals came back to the land, and the petrels would at times appear in large flocks; all of which are very commonplace events which any one might have expected, but at the time they had more than their face value.

August 5 was undoubtedly a great day from our very provincial point of view. On the 4th there had been a dense drift, during which the Hut was buttressed round with soft snow which rose above the eaves and half filled the entrance veranda. The only way in which the nightwatchman could keep the hourly observations was to dig his way out frequently with a shovel. In the early morning hours of the 5th the wind abated and veered right round from south through east to northeast, from which quarter it remained as a fresh breeze with falling snow. By 7 am the air was still, and outside there was a dead world of whiteness; flocculent heaps of down rolling up to where glimpses of rock streaked black near the skyline of the ridges, striated masses of livid cloud overhead, and to the horizon the dark berg–strewn sea, over which the snow birds fluttered.

We did not linger over the scenery, but set to work to hoist to the head of the mainmast the aerial, which had been hurriedly put together. The job occupied till lunchtime, and then a jury mast was fixed to the southern supporting mast, and by dusk the aerial hung in position. Bickerton was the leading spirit in the work and subsequently steadied the mainmast with eighteen wire stays, in the determination to make it stable enough to weather the worst hurricane. The attempt was so successful that in an ordinary fifty–mile blow the mast vibrated slightly, and in higher winds exhibited the smallest degree of movement.

At eight o’clock that night, Jeffryes, who felt so benefited by his rest that he was eager to commence operating once more, had soon attuned his instrument to Macquarie Island, and in a few minutes communication was reestablished.

We learned from the Governor–General, Lord Denman, that her Majesty the Queen was ‘graciously pleased to consent to the name “Queen Mary Land” being given to newly discovered land’. The message referred to the tract of Antarctic coast which had been discovered and mapped by Wild and his party to the west.

On August 6 Macquarie Island signalled that they had run short of provisions. The message was rather a paradox: ‘Food done, but otherwise all right’. However, on August 11, we were reassured to hear that the Tutanekai, a New Zealand Government steamer, had been commissioned to relieve the party, and that Sawyer through ill health had been obliged to return to Australia. A sealing ship, the Rachel Cohen, after battling for almost the whole month of July against gales, in an endeavour to reach the island, with stores for our party and the sealers, had returned damaged to port.

Marvellous to relate we had two calm days in succession, and on the 6th the snow lay so deeply round the Hut that progression without skis was a laborious flounder. The dogs plunged about in great glee, rolling in the snow and playing off their surplus energy after being penned for a long spell in the shelter.

On skis one could push up the first slopes of the glacier for a long distance. Soft snow had settled two feet thick even on the steep icy downfalls. The sea to the north was frozen into large cakes between which ran a network of dark water leads. With glasses we could make out in the near distance five seals and two tall solitary figures which were doubtless Emperor penguins. During the whole day nimbus clouds had hung heavily from the sky, and snow had fallen in grains and star–like crystals. Gradually the nimbus lightened, a rift appeared overhead, and the edges of the billowy cumulus were burnished in the light of the low sun. The sea horizon came sharply into sight through fading mist. Bergs and islands, from being ghostly images, rose into sharp–featured reality. The masts and Hut, with a dark riband of smoke floating from the chimney, lay just below, and two of the men were walking out to the harbour ice where a seal had just landed, while round them scampered the dogs in high spirits. That was sufficient to set us sliding downhill, ploughing deep furrows through the soft drift and reaching the Hut in quick time.

During August we were able to do more work outside, thus enlarging our sphere of interest. Bage, who had been busy up till August 8 with his daily magnetograph records, ran short of bromide papers and now had to be contented with taking quick runs at intervals, especially when the aurora was active. His astronomical observations had been very disappointing owing to the continuous wind and drift. Still, in September, which was marked by periods of fine weather, a few good star observations were possible. Shafts were sunk in the sea ice and up on the glacier, just above the zone where the ice was loaded with stones and debris – the lower moraine. The glacier shaft was dug to a depth of twenty–four feet, and several erratics were met with embedded in the ice. In this particular part the crystalline structure of the ice resembled that of a gneiss, showing that it had flowed under pressure. I was able to make measurements of ablation on the glacier, to take observations of the temperature and salinity of the seawater, and to estimate the forward movement of the seaward cliffs of the ice cap.

Geological collecting now became quite a popular diversion. With a slight smattering of gneiss, felspar, weathered limestone, garnets, and glacial markings the amateurs went off and made many finds on the moraines, and the specimens were cached in heaps, to be later brought home by the dogs, some of which were receiving their first lessons in sledge pulling.

Rather belated, but none the less welcome, our midwinter wireless greetings arrived on August 17 from many friends who could only imagine how much they were appreciated, and from various members of the Expedition who had spent the previous year in Adélie Land and who knew the meaning of an Antarctic winter. A few evenings later, Macquarie Islanders had their reward in the arrival of the Tutanekai from New Zealand with supplies of food, and, piecing together a few fragments of evidence ‘dropped in the ether’, we judged that they were having a night of revelry.

The wind was in a fierce humour on the morning of August 16, mounting to one hundred and five miles per hour between 9 and 10 am, and carrying with it a very dense drift.

We were now in a position to sit down and generalise about the wind. It is a tiresome thing to have it as the recurring insistent theme of our story, but to have had it as the continual obstacle to our activity, the opposing barrier to the simplest task, was even more tedious.

A river, rather a torrent, of air rushes from the hinterland northward year after year, replenished from a source which never fails. We had reason to believe that it was local in character, as apparently a gulf of open water about one hundred miles in width – the D’Urville Sea – exists to the north of Adélie Land. Thus, far back in the interior – back to the South Geographical Pole itself – across one thousand six hundred miles of lofty plateau – is a zone of high barometric pressure, while to the north lies the D’Urville Sea and beyond it the Southern Ocean – a zone of low pressure. As if through a contracted outlet, thereby increasing the velocity of the flow, the wind sweeps down over Adélie Land to equalise the great air pressure system. And so, in winter, the chilling of the plateau leads to the development of a higher barometric pressure and, as the open water to the north persists, to higher winds. In summer the suns shines on the Pole for six months, the uplands of the continent are warmed and the northern zone of low pressure pushes southward. So, in Adélie Land, short spells of calm weather may be expected over a period of barely three months around the summer solstice. This explanation is intentionally popular. The meteorological problem is one which can only be fully discussed when all the manifold observations have been gathered together, from other contemporary Antarctic expeditions, from our two stations on the Antarctic continent, and from Macquarie Island; all taken in conjunction with weather conditions around Australia and New Zealand. Then, when all the evidence is arrayed and compared, some general truths of particular value to science and, maybe, to commerce, should emerge.

Of one thing we were certain, and that was that Adélie Land was the windiest place in the world. To state the fact more accurately: such wind velocities as prevail at sea level in Adélie Land are known in other parts of the world only at great elevations in the atmosphere. The average wind velocity for our first year proved to be approximately fifty miles per hour. The bare figures convey more when they are compared with the following average annual wind velocities quoted from a book of reference: Europe, 10.3 miles per hour; United States, 9.5 miles per hour; Southern Asia, 6.5 miles per hour; West Indies, 6.2 miles per hour.

Reference has already been made to the fact that often the high winds ceased abruptly for a short interval. Many times during 1913 we had opportunities of judging this phenomenon and, as an example, may be quoted September 6.

A diagrammatic sketch illustrating the meteorological conditions at the main base, noon, September 6, 1913

A diagrammatic sketch illustrating the meteorological conditions at the main base, noon, September 6, 1913

On that day a south by east hurricane fell off and the drift cleared suddenly from about the Hut at 11.20 am On the hills to the south there was a dense grey wall of flying snow. Whirlies tracked about at intervals and overhead a fine cumulus cloud formed, revolving rapidly. Over the recently frozen sea there was an easterly breeze, while about the Hut itself there were light northerly airs. Later in the day the zone of southern wind and drift crept down and once more overwhelmed us. Evidently the eye of a cyclonic storm had passed over.

During September the sea was frozen over for more than two weeks, and the meteorological conditions varied from their normal phase. It appeared as if we were situated on the battlefield, so to speak, of opposing forces. The pacific influence of the north would hold sway for a few hours, a whole day, or even for a few days. Then the vast energies of the south would rise to bursting–point and a through blizzard would be the result.

On September 11, although there was a wind of seventy miles per hour, the sea ice which had become very solid during a few days of low temperature was not dispersed. Next day we found it possible to walk in safety to the Mackellar Islets. On the way rushes of southerly wind accompanied by a misty drift followed behind us. Then a calm intervened, and the sun momentarily appeared and shone warmly. Suddenly from the northwest came breezy puffs which settled into a light wind as we went north. On the way home we could not see the mainland for clouds of drift, and, when approaching the mouth of the boat harbour, these clouds were observed to roll down the lower slopes of the glacier and, reaching the shore, rise into the air in columns. They then sailed away northward at a higher altitude, almost obscuring the sun with a fine fog. On the same night the south had gained the mastery, and the wind blew with its accustomed strength.

Again, on September 24, McLean had a unique experience. He was digging ice in a fifty–mile wind with moderate drift close to the Hut and, on finishing his work, walked down to the harbour ice to see if there were any birds about. He was suddenly surprised to leave the wind and drift behind and to walk out into an area of calm. The water lapped alongside the ice foot, blue in the brilliant sunlight. Away to the west a few miles distant a fierce wind was blowing snow like fine spume over the brink of the cliffs. Towards the northwest one could plainly see the junction between calm water and foam crested waves. To the south the drift drove off the hills, passed the Hut, and then gyrated upwards and thinned away seawards at an altitude of several hundred feet.

The wind average for September was 36.8 miles per hour, as against 53.7 for September of the previous year. There were nine ‘pleasant’ days, that is, days on which it was possible to walk about outside and enjoy oneself. On the 27th there was a very severe blizzard. The wind was from the southeast: the first occasion on which it had blown from any direction but south by east at a high velocity. The drift was extremely dense, the roof of the Hut being invisible at a distance of six feet. Enormous ramps of snow formed in the vicinity, burying most of the cases and the air tractor sledge completely. The anemograph screen was blown over and smashed beyond all repair. So said the Meteorological Notes in the October number of the Adélie Blizzard.

Speaking of temperature in general, it was found that the mean temperature for the first year was just above zero; a very low temperature for a station situated near the Circle. The continual flow of cold air from the elevated interior of the continent accounts for this. If Adélie Land were a region of calms or of northerly winds, the average temperature would be very much higher. On the other hand, the temperature at sea level was never depressed below −28°F, though with a high wind we found that uncomfortable enough, even in burberrys. During the spring sledging in 1912 the lowest temperature recorded was −35°F and it was hard to keep warm in sleeping bags. The wind made all the difference to one’s resistance.

There was an unusually heavy snowfall during 1913. When the air was heavily charged with moisture, as in midsummer, the falls would consist of small (sago) or larger (tapioca) rounded pellets. Occasionally one would see beautiful complicated patterns in the form of hexagonal flakes. When low temperatures were the rule, small, plain, hexagonal stars or spicules fell. Often throughout a single snowfall many types would be precipitated. Thus, in September, in one instance, the fall commenced with fluffy balls and then passed to tapioca snow, sago snow, six–rayed stars and spicules.

Wireless communication was still maintained, though September was found to be such a disturbed month – possibly owing to the brilliant aurorae – that not a great many messages were exchanged. Jeffryes was not in the best of health, so that Bickerton took over the operating work. Though at first signals could only be received slowly, Bickerton gradually improved with practice and was able to keep up his end until November 20, when daylight became continuous. One great advantage, which by itself justified the existence of the wireless plant, was the fact that time signals were successfully received from Melbourne Observatory by way of Macquarie Island, and Bage was thus able to improve on his earlier determinations and to establish a fundamental longitude.

During this same happy month of September, whose first day marked the event of ‘One hundred days to the coming of the Ship’ there was a great revival in biological work. Hodgeman made several varieties of bag traps which were lowered over the edge of the harbour ice, and many large ‘worms’ and crustaceans were caught and preserved.

On September 14 Bickerton started to construct a hand dredge, which was ready for use by the next evening. It was a lovely, cloudless day on the 16th and the sea ice, after more than two weeks, still spread to the north in a firm, unbroken sheet. We went out on skis to reconnoitre, and found that the nearest lead was too far away to make dredging a safe proposition. So we were contented to kill a seal and bring it home before lunch, continuing to sink the ice shaft above the moraine for the rest of the day.

The wind rose to the seventies on September 17, and the sea ice was scattered to the north. On the 19th – a fine day – there were many detached pieces of floe which drifted in with a northerly breeze, and on one of these, floating in an ice girt cove to the west, a sea leopard was observed sunning himself. He was a big, vicious–looking brute, and we determined to secure him if possible. The first thing was to dispatch him before he escaped from the floe. This Madigan did in three shots from a Winchester rifle. A long steel–shod sledge was then dragged from the Hut and used to bridge the interval between the ice foot and the floe. After the specimen had been flayed, the skin and a good supply of dogs’ meat were hauled across and sledged home. On the 30th another sea leopard came swimming in near the harbour’s entrance, apparently on the lookout for seals or penguins. Including the one seen during 1912, only three of these animals were observed during our two years’ sojourn in Adélie Land.

Dredgings in depths up to five fathoms were done inside the boat harbour and just off its entrance on five separate occasions between September 22 and the end of the month. Many ‘worms’, crustaceans, pteropods, asteroids, gastropods and hydroids were obtained, and McLean and I had many interesting hours classifying the specimens. The former preserved and labelled them, establishing a small laboratory in the loft above the ‘dining room’. The only disadvantage of this arrangement was that various ‘foreign bodies’ would occasionally come tumbling through the interspaces between the flooring boards of the loft while a meal was in progress.

Some Antarctic petrels were shot and examined for external and internal parasites. Fish were caught in two traps made by Hodgeman and myself in October, but unfortunately the larger of the two was lost during a blizzard. However, on October 11 a haul of fifty–two fish was made with hand lines off the boat harbour, and we had a pleasant change in the menu for dinner. They were of the type known as Notothenia, to which reference has already been made.

By October 13, when a stray silver–grey petrel appeared, every one was on the qui vive for the coming of the penguins. In 1912 they had arrived on October 12, and as there was much floating ice on the northern horizon, we wondered if their migration to land had been impeded.

The winds were very high for the ensuing two days, and on the 17th the horizon was clearer and more ‘water sky’ was visible. Before lunch on that day there was not a living thing along the steep, overhanging ice foot, but by the late afternoon thirteen birds had effected a landing, and those who were not resting after their long swim were hopping about making a survey of the nearest rookeries. One always has a soft spot for these game little creatures – there is something irresistibly human about them – and, situated as we were, the wind seemed of little account now that the foreshores were to be populated by the penguins – our harbingers of summer and the good times to be. Three days later, at the call of the season, a skua gull came flapping over the Hut.

It was rather a singular circumstance that on the evening of the 17th, coincident with the disappearance of the ice on the horizon, wireless signals suddenly came through very strongly in the twilight at 9.30 pm, and for many succeeding nights continued at the same intensity. On the other hand, during September, when the sea was either firmly frozen or strewn thickly with floe ice, communication was very fitful and uncertain. The fact is therefore suggested that wireless waves are for some reason more readily transmitted across a surface of water than across ice.

The weather during the rest of October and for the first weeks of November took on a phase of heavy snowfalls which we knew were inevitable before summer could be really established. The winds were very often in the eighties and every four or five days a calm might be expected.

The penguins had a tempestuous time building their nests, and resuming once more the quaint routine of their rookery life. In the hurricanes they usually ceased work and crouched behind rocks until the worst was over. A great number of birds were observed to have small wounds on the body which had bled and discoloured their feathers. In one case a penguin had escaped, presumably from a sea leopard, with several serious wounds, and had staggered up to a rookery, dying there from loss of blood. Almost immediately the frozen carcase was mutilated and torn by skua gulls.

On October 31 the good news was received that the Aurora would leave Australia on November 15. There were a great number of things to be packed, including the lathe, the motor and dynamos, the air tractor engine, the wireless set and magnetic and meteorological instruments. Outside the Hut, many cases of kerosene and provisions, which might be required for the Ship, had been buried to a depth of twelve feet in places during the southeast hurricane in September. So we set to work in great spirits to prepare for the future.

McLean was busy collecting biological specimens, managing to secure a large number of parasites from penguins, skua gulls, giant petrels, snow petrels, Wilson petrels, seals and an Emperor penguin, which came up on the harbour ice. On several beautiful days, with a sea breeze wafting in from the north, large purple and brown jellyfish came floating to the ice foot. Many were caught in a hand net and preserved in formalin. In his shooting excursions McLean happened on a small rocky ravine to the east where, hovering among nests of snow and Wilson petrels, a small bluish–grey bird,1 not unlike Prion Banksii, was discovered. Four specimens were shot, and, later, several old nests were found containing the unhatched eggs of previous years.

On the highest point of Azimuth Hill, overlooking the sea, a Memorial Cross was raised to our two lost comrades.

A calm evening in November! At ten o’clock a natural picture in shining colours is painted on the canvas of sea and sky. The northern dome is a blush of rose deepening to a warm terracotta along the horizon, and the water reflects it upward to the gaze. Tiny Wilson petrels flit by like swallows; seals shove their dark forms above the placid surface; the shore is lined with penguins squatting in grotesque repose. The south is pallid with light – the circling sun. Adélie Land is at peace!

For some time Madigan, Hodgeman and I had been prepared to set out on a short sledging journey to visit Mount Murchison and to recover if possible the instruments cached by the Eastern Coastal and the Southern Parties. It was not until November 23 that the weather broke definitely, and we started up the old glacier trail assisted by a good team of dogs.

Aladdin’s Cave was much the same as we had left it in the previous February, except that a fine crop of delicate ice crystals had formed on its walls. We carried with us a small homemade wireless receiving set, and arrangements were made with Bickerton and Bage to call at certain hours. As an aerial a couple of lengths of copper wire were run out on the surface of the ice. At the first call Madigan heard the signals strongly and distinctly, but beyond five and a half miles nothing more was received.

Resuming the journey on the following day, we made a direct course for Madigan Nunatak and then steered southeast for Mount Murchison, pitching camp at its summit on the night of November 28.

On the 29th Madigan and Hodgeman made a descent into the valley, on whose southern side rose Aurora Peak. The former slid away on skis and had a fine run to the bottom, while Hodgeman followed on the sledge drawn by Monkey and D’Urville, braking with an ice axe driven into the snow between the crossbars. Their object was to find the depot of instruments and rocks which the Eastern Coastal Party were forced to abandon when fifty–three miles from home. They were unsuccessful in the search, as an enormous amount of snow had fallen on the old surface during the interval of almost a year. Indeed, on the knoll crowning Mount Murchison, where a ten foot flagpole had been left, snow had accumulated so that less than a foot of the top of the pole was showing. Nine feet of hard compressed snow scarcely marked by one’s footsteps – the contribution of one year! To such a high isolated spot drift snow would not reach, so that the annual snowfall must greatly exceed the residuum found by us, for the effect of the prevailing winds would be to reduce it greatly.

On the third day after leaving Mount Murchison for the Southern Party’s depot, sixty–seven miles south of Winter Quarters, driving snow commenced, and a blizzard kept us in camp for seven days. When the drift at last moderated we were forced to make direct for the Hut, as the time when the Ship was expected to arrive had passed.

Descending the long blue slopes of the glacier just before midnight on December 12, we became aware of a faint black bar on the seaward horizon. Soon a black speck had moved to the windward side of the bar – and it could be nothing but the smoke of the Aurora. The moment of which we had dreamt for months had assuredly come. The Ship was in sight!

There were wild cheers down at the Hut when they heard the news. They could not believe us and immediately rushed up with glasses to the nearest ridge to get the evidence of their own senses. The masts, the funnel and the staunch hull rose out of the ocean as we watched on the hills through the early hours of a superb morning. The sun was streaming warmly over the plateau and a cool land breeze had sprung up from the south, as the Aurora rounded the Mackellar Islets and steamed up to her old anchorage. We picked out familiar figures on the bridge and poop, and made a bonfire of kerosene, benzine and lubricating oil in a rocky crevice in their honour.

The indescribable moment was when Davis came ashore in the whale boat, manned by two of the Macquarie Islanders (Hamilton and Blake), Hurley and Hunter. They rushed into the Hut, and we tried to tell the story of a year in a few minutes.

On the Ship we greeted Gillies, Gray, de la Motte, Ainsworth, Sandell and Correll. It was splendid to know that the world contained so many people, and to see these men who had stuck to the Expedition through thick and thin. Then came the fusillade of letters, magazines and ‘mysterious’ parcels and boxes. At dinner we sat down reunited in the freshly painted ward room, striving to collect our bewildered thoughts at the sight of a white tablecloth, Australian mutton, fresh vegetables, fruit and cigars.

The two long years were over – for the moment they were to be effaced in the glorious present. We were to live in a land where drift and wind were unknown, where rain fell in mild, refreshing showers, where the sky was blue for long weeks, and where the memories of the past were to fade into a dream – a nightmare?

  1. On arrival in Australia this bird proved to be new to science.

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