South: the story of Shackleton’s last expedition 1914-1917, by Ernest Shackleton

CHAPTER XIV

Wintering in McMurdo Sound

The ‘Aurora’, after picking up six men at Hut Point on March 11, had gone back to Cape Evans. The position chosen for the winter quarters of the ‘Aurora’ was at Cape Evans, immediately off the hut erected by Captain Scott on his last Expedition. The ship on March 14 lay about forty yards off shore, bows seaward. Two anchors had been taken ashore and embedded in heavy stone rubble, and to these anchors were attached six steel hawsers. The hawsers held the stern, while the bow was secured by the ordinary ship’s anchors. Later, when the new ice had formed round the ‘Aurora’, the cable was dragged ashore over the smooth surface and made fast. The final moorings thus were six hawsers and one cable astern, made fast to the shore anchors, and two anchors with about seventy fathoms of cable out forward. On March 23 Mr. Stenhouse landed a party consisting of Stevens, Spencer-Smith, Gaze, and Richards in order that they might carry out routine observations ashore. These four men took up their quarters in Captain Scott’s hut. They had been instructed to kill seals for meat and blubber. The landing of stores, gear, and coal did not proceed at all rapidly, it being assumed that the ship would remain at her moorings throughout the winter. Some tons of coal were taken ashore during April, but most of it stayed on the beach, and much of it was lost later when the sea-ice went out. This shore party was in the charge of Stevens, and his report, handed to me much later, gives a succinct account of what occurred, from the point of view of the men at the hut.

“CAPE EVANS, Ross Island, July 30, 1915.

“On the 23rd March, 1915, a party consisting of Spencer-Smith, Richards, and Gaze was landed at Cape Evans Hut in my charge. Spencer-Smith received independent instructions to devote his time exclusively to photography. I was verbally instructed that the main duty of the party was to obtain a supply of seals for food and fuel. Scientific work was also to be carried on.

“Meteorological instruments were at once installed, and experiments were instituted on copper electrical thermometers in order to supplement our meagre supply of instruments and enable observations of earth, ice, and sea temperatures to be made. Other experimental work was carried on, and the whole of the time of the scientific members of the party was occupied. All seals seen were secured. On one or two occasions the members of the shore party were summoned to work on board ship.

“In general the weather was unsettled, blizzards occurring frequently and interrupting communication with the ship across the ice. Only small, indispensable supplies of stores and no clothes were issued to the party on shore. Only part of the scientific equipment was able to be transferred to the shore, and the necessity to obtain that prevented some members of the party landing all their personal gear.

“The ship was moored stern onto the shore, at first well over one hundred yards from it. There were two anchors out ahead and the vessel was made fast to two others sunk in the ground ashore by seven wires. The strain on the wires was kept constant by tightening up from time to time such as became slack, and easing cables forward, and in this way the ship was brought much closer inshore. A cable was now run out to the south anchor ashore, passed onboard through a fair-lead under the port end of the bridge, and made fast to bollards forward. Subsequent strain due to ice and wind pressure on the ship broke three of the wires. Though I believe it was considered on board that the ship was secure, there was still considerable anxiety felt. The anchors had held badly before, and the power of the ice-pressure on the ship was uncomfortably obvious.

“Since the ship had been moored the bay had frequently frozen over, and the ice had as frequently gone out on account of blizzards. The ice does not always go out before the wind has passed its maximum. It depends on the state of tides and currents; for the sea-ice has been seen more than once to go out bodily when a blizzard had almost completely calmed down.

“On, the 6th May the ice was in and people passed freely between the shore and the ship. At 11 p.m. the wind was south, backing to south-east, and blew at forty miles per hour. The ship was still in her place. At 3 a.m. on the 7th the wind had not increased to any extent, but ice and ship had gone. As she was not seen to go we are unable to say whether the vessel was damaged. The shore end of the cable was bent twice sharply, and the wires were loose. On the afternoon of the 7th the weather cleared somewhat, but nothing was seen of the ship. The blizzard only lasted some twelve hours. Next day the wind became northerly, but on the 10th there was blowing the fiercest blizzard we have so far experienced from the south-east. Nothing has since been seen or heard of the ship, though a look-out was kept.

“Immediately the ship went as accurate an inventory as possible of all stores ashore was made, and the rate of consumption of food-stuffs so regulated that they would last ten men for not less than one hundred weeks. Coal had already been used with the utmost economy. Little could be done to cut down the consumption, but the transference to the neighbourhood of the hut of such of the coal landed previously by the ship as was not lost was pushed on. Meat also was found to be very short; it was obvious that neither it nor coal could be made to last two years, but an evidently necessary step in the ensuing summer would be the ensuring of an adequate supply of meat and blubber, for obtaining which the winter presented little opportunity. Meat and coal were, therefore, used with this consideration in mind, as required but as carefully as possible.

“A. STEVENS.”

The men ashore did not at once abandon hope of the ship returning before the Sound froze firmly. New ice formed on the sea whenever the weather was calm, and it had been broken up and taken out many times by the blizzards. During the next few days eager eyes looked seaward through the dim twilight of noon, but the sea was covered with a dense black mist and nothing was visible. A northerly wind sprang up on May 8 and continued for a few hours, but it brought no sign of the ship, and when on May 10 the most violent blizzard yet experienced by the party commenced, hope grew slender. The gale continued for three days, the wind attaining a velocity of seventy miles an hour. The snow-drift was very thick and the temperature fell to — 20 degrees Fahr. The shore party took a gloomy view of the ship’s chances of safety among the ice-floes of the Ross Sea under such conditions.

Stevens and his companions made a careful survey of their position and realized that they had serious difficulties to face. No general provisions and no clothing of the kind required for sledging had been landed from the ship. Much of the sledging gear was also aboard. Fortunately, the hut contained both food and clothing, left there by Captain Scott’s Expedition. The men killed as many seals as possible and stored the meat and blubber. June 2 brought a welcome addition to the party in the form of the men who had been forced to remain at Hut Point until the sea-ice became firm. Mackintosh and those with him had incurred some risk in making the crossing, since open water had been seen on their route by the Cape Evans party only a short time before. There were now ten men at Cape Evans — namely, Mackintosh, Spencer-Smith, Joyce, Wild, Cope, Stevens, Hayward, Gaze, Jack, and Richards. The winter had closed down upon the Antarctic and the party would not be able to make any move before the beginning of September. In the meantime they overhauled the available stores and gear, made plans for the work of the forthcoming spring and summer, and lived the severe but not altogether unhappy life of the polar explorer in winter quarters. Mackintosh, writing on June 5, surveyed his position:

“The decision of Stenhouse to make this bay the wintering place of the ship was not reached without much thought and consideration of all eventualities. Stenhouse had already the Glacier Tongue and other places, but at each of them the ship had been in an exposed and dangerous position. When this bay was tried the ship withstood several severe blizzards, in which the ice remained in on several occasions. When the ice did go out the moorings held. The ship was moored bows north. She had both anchors down forward and two anchors buried astern, to which the stern moorings were attached with seven lengths of wire. Taking all this into account, it was quite a fair judgment on his part to assume that the ship would be secure here. The blizzard that took the ship and the ice out of the bay was by no means as severe as others she had weathered. The accident proves again the uncertainty of conditions in these regions. I only pray and trust that the ship and those aboard are safe. I am sure they will have a thrilling story to tell when we see them.”

The ‘Aurora’ could have found safe winter quarters farther up McMurdo Sound, towards Hut Point, but would have run the risk of being frozen in over the following summer, and I had given instructions to Mackintosh before he went south that this danger must be avoided.

“Meanwhile we are making all preparations here for a prolonged stay. The shortage of clothing is our principal hardship. The members of the party from Hut Point have the clothes we wore when we left the ship on January 25. We have been without a wash all that time, and I cannot imagine a dirtier set of people. We have been attempting to get a wash ever since we came back, but owing to the blow during the last two days no opportunity has offered. All is working smoothly here, and every one is taking the situation very philosophically. Stevens is in charge of the scientific staff and is now the senior officer ashore. Joyce is in charge of the equipment and has undertaken to improvise clothes out of what canvas can be found here. Wild is working with Joyce. He is a cheerful, willing soul. Nothing ever worries or upsets him, and he is ever singing or making some joke or performing some amusing prank. Richards has taken over the keeping of the meteorological log. He is a young Australian, a hard, conscientious worker, and I look forward to good results from his endeavours. Jack, another young Australian, is his assistant. Hayward is the handy man, being responsible for the supply of blubber. Gaze, another Australian, is working in conjunction with Hayward. Spencer-Smith, the padre, is in charge of photography, and, of course, assists in the general routine work. Cope is the medical officer.

“The routine here is as follows: Four of us, myself, Stevens, Richards, and Spencer-Smith, have breakfast at 7 a.m. The others are called at 9 a.m., and their breakfast is served. Then the table is cleared, the floor is swept, and the ordinary work of the day is commenced. At 1 p.m. we have what we call ‘a counter lunch,’ that is, cold food and cocoa. We work from 2 p.m. till 5 p.m. After 5 p.m. people can do what they like. Dinner is at 7. The men play games, read, write up diaries. We turn in early, since we have to economize fuel and light. Night-watches are kept by the scientific men, who have the privilege of turning in during the day. The day after my arrival here I gave an outline of our situation and explained the necessity for economy in the use of fuel, light, and stores, in view of the possibility that we may have to stay here for two years. . . . We are not going to commence work for the sledging operations until we know more definitely the fate of the ‘Aurora’. I dare not think any disaster has occurred.”

During the remaining days of June the men washed and mended clothes, killed seals, made minor excursions in the neighbourhood of the hut, and discussed plans for the future. They had six dogs, two being bitches without experience of sledging. One of these bitches had given birth to a litter of pups, but she proved a poor mother and the young ones died. The animals had plenty of seal meat and were tended carefully.

Mackintosh called a meeting of all hands on June 26 for the discussion of the plans he had made for the depot-laying expedition to be undertaken during the following spring and summer.

“I gave an outline of the position and invited discussion from the members. Several points were brought up. I had suggested that one of our party should remain behind for the purpose of keeping the meteorological records and laying in a supply of meat and blubber. This man would be able to hand my instructions to the ship and pilot a party to the Bluff. It had been arranged that Richards should do this. Several objected on the ground that the whole complement would be necessary, and, after the matter had been put to the vote, it was agreed that we should delay the decision until the parties had some practical work and we had seen how they fared. The shortage of clothing was discussed, and Joyce and Wild have agreed to do their best in this matter. October sledging (on the Barrier) was mentioned as being too early, but is to be given a trial. These were the most important points brought up, and it was mutually and unanimously agreed that we could do no more. . . . I know we are doing our best.”

The party was anxious to visit Cape Royds, north of Cape Evans, but at the end of June open water remained right across the Sound and a crossing was impossible. At Cape Royds is the hut used by the Shackleton Expedition of 1907-1909, and the stores and supplies it contains might have proved very useful. Joyce and Wild made finneskoe (fur boots) from spare sleeping-bags. Mackintosh mentions that the necessity of economizing clothing and footgear prevented the men taking as much exercise as they would otherwise have done. A fair supply of canvas and leather had been found in the hut, and some men tried their hands at making shoes. Many seals had been killed and brought in, and the supply of meat and blubber was ample for present needs.

During July Mackintosh made several trips northwards on the sea-ice, but found always that he could not get far. A crack stretched roughly from Inaccessible Island to the Barne Glacier, and the ice beyond looked weak and loose. The improving light told of the returning sun. Richards and Jack were weighing out stores in readiness for the sledging expeditions. Mackintosh, from the hill behind the hut, saw open water stretching westward from Inaccessible Island on August 1, and noted that probably McMurdo Sound was never completely frozen over. A week later the extent of the open water appeared to have increased, and the men began to despair of getting to Cape Royds. Blizzards were frequent and persistent. A few useful articles were found in the neighbourhood of the hut as the light improved, including some discarded socks and underwear, left by members of the Scott Expedition, and a case of candied peel, which was used for cakes. A small fire broke out in the hut on August 12. The acetylene-gas lighting plant installed in the hut by Captain Scott had been rigged, and one day it developed a leak. A member of the party searched for the leak with a lighted candle, and the explosion that resulted fired some woodwork. Fortunately the outbreak was extinguished quickly. The loss of the hut at this stage would have been a tragic incident.

Mackintosh and Stevens paid a visit to Cape Royds on August 13. They had decided to attempt the journey over the Barne Glacier, and after crossing a crevassed area they got to the slopes of Cape Barne and thence down to the sea-ice. They found this ice to be newly formed, but sufficiently strong for their purpose, and soon reached the Cape Royds hut.

“The outer door of the but we found to be off,” wrote Mackintosh. “A little snow had drifted into the porch, but with a shovel, which we found outside, this was soon cleared away. We then entered, and in the centre of the hut found a pile of snow and ice, which had come through the open ventilator in the roof of the hut. We soon closed this. Stevens prepared a meal while I cleared the ice and snow away from the middle of the hut. After our meal we commenced taking an inventory of the stores inside. Tobacco was our first thought. Of this we found one tin of Navy Cut and a box of cigars. Soap, too, which now ensures us a wash and clean clothes when we get back. We then began to look round for a sleeping-bag. No bags were here, however, but on the improvised beds of cases we found two mattresses, an old canvas screen, and two blankets. We took it in turns to turn in. Stevens started first, while I kept the fire going. No coal or blubber was here, so we had to use wood, which, while keeping the person alongside it warm, did not raise the temperature of the hut over freezing-point. Over the stove in a conspicuous place we found a notice by Scott’s party that parties using the hut should leave the dishes clean.”

Mackintosh and Stevens stayed at the Cape Royds over the next day and made a thorough examination of the stores there. They found outside the hut a pile of cases containing meats, flour, dried vegetables, and sundries, at least a year’s supply for a party of six. They found no new clothing, but made a collection of worn garments, which could be mended and made serviceable. Carrying loads of their spoils, they set out for Cape Evans on the morning of August 15 across the sea-ice. Very weak ice barred the way and they had to travel round the coast. They got back to Cape Evans in two hours. During their absence Wild and Gaze had climbed Inaccessible Island, Gaze having an ear badly frost-bitten on the journey. The tobacco was divided among the members of the party. A blizzard was raging the next day, and Mackintosh congratulated himself on having chosen the time for his trip fortunately.

The record of the remaining part of August is not eventful. All hands were making preparations for the sledging, and were rejoicing in the increasing daylight. The party tried the special sledging ration prepared under my own direction, and “all agreed it was excellent both in bulk and taste.” Three emperor penguins, the first seen since the landing, were caught on August 19. By that time the returning sun was touching with gold the peaks of the Western Mountains and throwing into bold relief the massive form of Erebus. The volcano was emitting a great deal of smoke, and the glow of its internal fires showed occasionally against the smoke-clouds above the crater. Stevens, Spencer-Smith, and Cope went to Cape Royds on the 20th, and were still there when the sun made its first appearance over Erebus on the 26th. Preceding days had been cloudy, and the sun, although above the horizon, had not been visible.

“The morning broke clear and fine,” wrote Mackintosh. “Over Erebus the sun’s rays peeped through the massed cumulus and produced the most gorgeous cloud effects. The light made us all blink and at the same time caused the greatest exuberance of spirits. We felt like men released from prison. I stood outside the hut and looked at the truly wonderful scenery all round. The West Mountains were superb in their wild grandeur. The whole outline of peaks, some eighty or ninety distant, showed up, stencilled in delicate contrast to the sky-line. The immense ice-slopes shone white as alabaster against dark shadows. The sky to the west over the mountains was clear, except for low-lying banks at the foot of the slopes round about Mount Discovery. To the south hard streaks of stratus lay heaped up to 30 degrees above the horizon. . . . Then Erebus commenced to emit volumes of smoke, which rose hundreds of feet and trailed away in a north-westerly direction. The southern slopes of Erebus were enveloped in a mass of cloud.” The party from Cape Royds returned that afternoon, and there was disappointment at their report that no more tobacco had been found.

The sledging of stores to Hut Point, in preparation for the depot-laying journeys on the Barrier, was to begin on September 1. Mackintosh, before that date, had discussed plans fully with the members of his party. He considered that sufficient sledging provisions were available at Cape Evans, the supply landed from the ship being supplemented by the stores left by the Scott Expedition of 1912-13 and the Shackleton Expedition of 1907-09. The supply of clothing and tents was more difficult. Garments brought from the ship could be supplemented by old clothing found at Hut Point and Cape Evans. The Burberry wind-proof outer garments were old and in poor order for the start of a season’s sledging. Old sleeping-bags had been cut up to make finneskoe (fur boots) and mend other sleeping-bags. Three tents were available, one sound one landed from the ‘Aurora’, and two old ones left by Captain Scott. Mackintosh had enough sledges, but the experience of the first journey with the dogs had been unfortunate, and there were now only four useful dogs left. They did not make a full team and would have to be used merely as an auxiliary to man-haulage.

The scheme adopted by Mackintosh, after discussion with the members of his party, was that nine men, divided into three parties of three each, should undertake the fledging. One man would be left at Cape Evans to continue the meteorological observations during the summer. The motor-tractor, which had been left at Hut Point, was to be brought to Cape Evans and, if possible, put into working order. Mackintosh estimated that the provisions required for the consumption of the depot parties, and for the depots to be placed southward to the foot of the Beardmore Glacier, would amount to 4000 lb; The first depot was to be placed off Minna Bluff, and from there southward a depot was to be placed on each degree of latitude. The final depot would be made at the foot of the Beardmore Glacier. The initial task would be the haulage of stores from Cape Evans to Hut Point, a distance of 13 miles. All the sledging stores had to be taken across, and Mackintosh proposed to place additional supplies there in case a party, returning late from the Barrier, had to spend winter months at Hut Point.

The first party, consisting of Mackintosh, Richards, and Spencer-Smith, left Cape Evans on September 1 with 600 lb. of stores on one sledge, and had an uneventful journey to Hut Point. They pitched a tent half-way across the bay, on the sea-ice, and left it there for the use of the various parties during the month. At Hut Point they cleared the snow from the motor-tractor and made some preliminary efforts to get it into working order. They returned to Cape Evans on the 3rd. The second trip to Hut Point was made by a party of nine, with three sledges. Two sledges, man-hauled, were loaded with 1278 lb. of stores, and a smaller sledge, drawn by the dogs, carried the sleeping-bags. This party encountered a stiff southerly breeze, with low temperature, and, as the men were still in rather soft condition, they suffered much from frost bites. Joyce and Gaze both had their heels badly blistered. Mackintosh’s face suffered, and other men had fingers and ears “bitten..” When they returned Gaze had to travel on a sledge, since he could not set foot to the ground. They tried to haul the motor to Cape Evans on this occasion, but left it for another time after covering a mile or so. The motor was not working and was heavy to pull.

Eight men made the third journey to Hut Point, Gaze and Jack remaining behind. They took 660 lb. of oil and 630 lb. of stores. From Hut Point the next day (September 14) the party proceeded with loaded sledges to Safety Camp, on the edge of the Barrier. This camp would be the starting-point for the march over the Barrier to the Minna Bluff depot. They left the two sledges, with 660 lb. of oil and 500 lb. of oatmeal, sugar, and sundries, at Safety Camp and returned to Hut Point. The dogs shared the work on this journey. The next day Mackintosh and his companions took the motor to Cape Evans, hauling it with its grip-wheels mounted on a sledge. After a pause due to bad weather, a party of eight men took another load to Hut Point on September 24, and on to Safety Camp the next day. They got back to Cape Evans on the 26th. Richards meanwhile had overhauled the motor and given it some trial runs on the sea-ice. But he reported that the machine was not working satisfactorily, and Mackintosh decided not to persevere with it.

“Everybody is up to his eyes in work,” runs the last entry in the journal left by Mackintosh at Cape Evans. “All gear is being overhauled, and personal clothing is having the last stitches. We have been improvising shoes to replace the finneskoe, of which we are badly short. Wild has made an excellent shoe out of an old horse-rug he found here, and this is being copied by other men. I have made myself a pair of mits [sic?] out of an old sleeping-bag. Last night I had a bath, the second since being here. . . . I close this journal to-day (September 30) and am packing it with my papers here. To-morrow we start for Hut Point. Nine of us are going on the sledge party for laying depots — namely, Stevens, Spencer-Smith, Joyce, Wild, Cope, Hayward, Jack, Richards, and myself. Gaze, who is still suffering from bad feet, is remaining behind and will probably be relieved by Stevens after our first trip. With us we take three months’ provisions to leave at Hut Point. I continue this journal in another book, which I keep with me.”

The nine men reached Hut Point on October 1. They took the last loads with them. Three sledges and three tents were to be taken on to the Barrier; and the parties were as follows:

No. 1: Mackintosh, Spencer-Smith, and Wild; No. 2: Joyce, Cope, and Richards; No. 3 Jack, Hayward, and Gaze. On October 3 and 4 some stores left at Half Way Camp were brought in, and other stores were moved on to Safety Camp. Bad weather delayed the start of the depot-laying expedition from Hut Point until October 9.

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Last updated Wednesday, March 5, 2014 at 22:29