On the following day — November 17 — we began the ascent. To provide for any contingency, I left in the depot a paper with information of the way we intended to take through the mountains, together with our plan for the future, our outfit, provisions, etc. The weather was fine, as usual, and the going good. The dogs exceeded our expectations; they negotiated the two fairly steep slopes at a jog-trot. We began to think there was no difficulty they could not surmount; the five miles or so that we had gone the day before, and imagined would be more than enough for this day’s journey, were now covered with full loads in shorter time. The small glaciers higher up turned out fairly steep, and in some places we had to take two sledges at a time with double teams. These glaciers had an appearance of being very old, and of having entirely ceased to move. There were no new crevasses to be seen; those that there were, were large and wide, but their edges were rounded off everywhere, and the crevasses themselves were almost entirely filled with snow. So as not to fall into these on the return, we erected our beacons in such a way that the line between any two of them would take us clear of any danger. It was no use working in Polar clothing among these hills; the sun, which stood high and clear, was uncomfortably warm, and we were obliged to take off most of our things. We passed several summits from 3,000 to 7,000 feet high; the snow on one of them had quite a reddish-brown tint.
Our distance this first day was eleven and a half miles, with a rise of 2,000 feet. Our camp that evening lay on a little glacier among huge crevasses; on three sides of us were towering summits. When we had set our tent, two parties went out to explore the way in advance. One party — Wisting and Hanssen — took the way that looked easiest from the tent — namely, the course of the glacier; it here rose rapidly to 4,000 feet, and disappeared in a south-westerly direction between two peaks. Bjaaland formed the other party. He evidently looked upon this ascent as too tame, and started up the steepest part of the mountain — side. I saw him disappear up aloft like a fly. Hassel and I attended to the necessary work round about and in the tent.
We were sitting inside chatting, when we suddenly heard someone come swishing down towards the tent. We looked at each other; that fellow had some pace on. We had no doubt as to who it was — Bjaaland, of course. He must have gone off to refresh old memories. He had a lot to tell us; amongst other things, he had found “the finest descent” on the other side. What he meant by “fine” I was not certain. If it was as fine as the ascent he had made, then I asked to be excused. We now heard the others coming, and these we could hear a long way off. They had also seen a great deal, not to mention “the finest descent.” But both parties agreed in the mournful intelligence that we should have to go down again. They had both observed the immense glacier that stretched beneath us running east and west. A lengthy discussion took place between the two parties, who mutually scorned each other’s “discoveries.” “Yes; but look here, Bjaaland, we could see that from where you were standing there’s a sheer drop — “ — “You couldn’t see me at all. I tell you I was to the west of the peak that lies to the south of the peak that” I gave up trying to follow the discussion any longer. The way in which the different parties had disappeared and come in sight again gave me every reason to decide in favour of the route the last arrivals had taken. I thanked these keen gentlemen for their strenuous ramble in the interests of the expedition, and went straight off to sleep. I dreamed of mountains and precipices all night, and woke up with Bjaaland whizzing down from the sky. I announced once more that I had made up my mind for the other course, and went to sleep again.
We debated next morning whether it would not be better to take the sledges two by two to begin with; the glacier before us looked quite steep enough to require double teams. It had a rise of 2,000 feet in quite a short distance. But we would try first with the single teams. The dogs had shown that their capabilities were far above our expectation; perhaps they would be able to do even this. We crept off: The ascent began at once — good exercise after a quart of chocolate. We did not get on fast, but we won our way. It often looked as if the sledge would stop, but a shout from the driver and a sharp crack of the whip kept the dogs on the move. It was a fine beginning to the day, and we gave them a well-deserved rest when we got up. We then drove in through the narrow pass and out on the other side. It was a magnificent panorama that opened before us. From the pass we had come out on to a very small flat terrace, which a few yards farther on began to drop steeply to a long valley. Round about us lay summit after summit on every side. We had now come behind the scenes, and could get our bearings better. We now saw the southern side of the immense Mount Nansen; Don Pedro Christophersen we could see in his full length. Between these two mountains we could follow the course of a glacier that rose in terraces along their sides. It looked fearfully broken and disturbed, but we could follow a little connected line among the many crevasses; we saw that we could go a long way, but we also saw that the glacier forbade us to use it in its full extent. Between the first and second terraces the ice was evidently impassable. But we could see that there was an unbroken ledge up on the side of the mountain; Don Pedro would help us out. On the north along the Nansen Mountain there was nothing but chaos, perfectly impossible to get through. We put up a big beacon where we were standing, and took bearings from it all round the compass.
I went back to the pass to look out over the Barrier for the last time. The new mountain chain lay there sharp and clear; we could see how it turned from the east up to east-north-east, and finally disappeared in the north-east — as we judged, about 84° S. From the look of the sky, it appeared that the chain was continued farther. According to the aneroid, the height of the terrace on which we stood was 4,000 feet above the sea. From here there was only one way down, and we began to go. In making these descents with loaded sledges, one has to use the greatest care, lest the speed increase to such a degree that one loses command over the sledge. If this happens, there is a danger, not only of running over the dogs, but of colliding with the sledge in front and smashing it. This was all the more important in our case, as the sledges carried sledge-meters. We therefore put brakes of rope under our runners when we were to go downhill. This was done very simply by taking a few turns with a thin piece of rope round each runner; the more of these turns one took, the more powerful, of course, was the brake. The art consisted in choosing the right number of turns, or the right brake; this was not always attained, and the consequence was that, before we had come to the end of these descents, there were several collisions. One of the drivers, in particular, seemed to have a supreme contempt for a proper brake; he would rush down like a flash of lightning, and carry the man in front with him. With practice we avoided this, but several times things had an ugly look.
The first drop took us down 800 feet; then we had to cross a wide, stiff piece of valley before the ascent began again. The snow between the mountains was loose and deep, and gave the dogs hard work. The next ascent was up very steep glaciers, the last of which was the steepest bit of climbing we had on the whole journey — stiff work even for double teams. Going in front of the dogs up these slopes was, I could see, a business that Bjaaland would accomplish far more satisfactorily than I, and I gave up the place to him. The first glacier was steep, but the second was like the side of a house. It was a pleasure to watch Bjaaland use his ski up there; one could see that he had been up a hill before. Nor was it less interesting to see the dogs and the drivers go up. Hanssen drove one sledge alone; Wisting and Hassel the other. They went by jerks, foot by foot, and ended by reaching the top. The second relay went somewhat more easily in the tracks made by the first.
Our height here was 4,550 feet, the last ascent having brought us up 1,250 feet; we had arrived on a plateau, and after the dogs had rested we continued our march. Now, as we advanced, we had a better view of the way we were going; before this the nearest mountains had shut us in. The mighty glacier opened out before us, stretching, as we could now see, right up from the Barrier between the lofty mountains running east and west. It was by this glacier that we should have to gain the plateau; we could see that. We had one more descent to make before reaching it, and from above we could distinguish the edges of some big gaps in this descent, and found it prudent to examine it first. As we thought, there was a side-glacier coming down into it, with large, ugly crevasses in many places; but it was not so bad as to prevent our finally reaching, with caution and using good brakes, the great main ice-field — Axel Heiberg Glacier. The plan we had proposed to ourselves was to work our way up to the place where the glacier rose in abrupt masses between the two mountains. The task we had undertaken was greater than we thought. In the first place, the distance was three times as great as any of us had believed; and, in the second place, the snow was so loose and deep that it was hard work for the dogs after all their previous efforts. We set our course along the white line that we had been able to follow among the numerous crevasses right up to the first terrace. Here tributary glaciers came down on all sides from the mountains and joined the main one; it was one of these many small arms that we reached that evening, directly under Don Pedro Christophersen.
The mountain below which we had our camp was covered with a chaos of immense blocks of ice. The glacier on which we were was much broken up, but, as with all the others, the fissures were of old date, and, to a large extent, drifted up. The snow was so loose that we had to trample a place for the tent, and we could push the tent-pole right down without meeting resistance; probably it would be better higher up. In the evening Hanssen and Bjaaland went out to reconnoitre, and found the conditions as we had seen them from a distance. The way up to the first terrace was easily accessible; what the conditions would be like between this and the second terrace we had still to discover.
It was stiff work next day getting up to the first terrace. The arm of the glacier that led up was not very long, but extremely steep and full of big crevasses; it had to be taken in relays, two sledges at a time. The state of the going was, fortunately, better than on the previous day, and the surface of the glacier was fine and hard, so that the dogs got a splendid hold. Bjaaland went in advance up through this steep glacier, and had his work cut out to keep ahead of the eager animals. One would never have thought we were between 85° and 86° S.; the heat was positively disagreeable, and, although lightly clad, we sweated as if we were running races in the tropics. We were ascending rapidly, but, in spite of the sudden change of pressure, we did not yet experience any difficulty of breathing, headache, or other unpleasant results. That these sensations would make their appearance in due course was, however, a matter of which we could be certain. Shackleton’s description of his march on the plateau, when headache of the most violent and unpleasant kind was the order of the day, was fresh in the memory of all of us.
In a comparatively short time we reached the ledge in the glacier that we had noticed a long way off; it was not quite flat, but sloped slightly towards the edge. When we came to the place to which Hanssen and Bjaaland had carried their reconnaissance on the previous evening, we had a very fine prospect of the further course of the glacier. To continue along it was an impossibility; it consisted here — between the two vast mountains — of nothing but crevasse after crevasse, so huge and ugly that we were forced to conclude that our further advance that way was barred. Over by Fridtjof Nansen we could not go; this mountain here rose perpendicularly, in parts quite bare, and formed with the glacier a surface so wild and cut up that all thoughts of crossing the ice-field in that direction had to be instantly abandoned. Our only chance lay in the direction of Don Pedro Christophersen; here, so far as we could see, the connection of the glacier and the land offered possibilities of further progress. Without interruption the glacier was merged in the snow-clad mountain-side, which rose rapidly towards the partially bare summit. Our view, however, did not extend very far. The first part of the mountain-side was soon bounded by a lofty ridge running east and west, in which we could see huge gaps here and there. From the place where we were standing, we had the impression that we should be able to continue our course up there under the ridge between these gaps, and thus come out beyond the disturbed tract of glacier. We might possibly succeed in this, but we could not be certain until we were up on the ridge itself.
We took a little rest — it was not a long one — and then started. We were impatient to see whether we could get forward up above. There could be no question of reaching the height without double teams; first we had to get Hanssen’s and Wisting’s sledges up, and then the two others. We were not particularly keen on thus covering the ground twice, but the conditions made it imperative. We should have been pleased just then if we had known that this was to be the last ascent that would require double teams; but we did not know this, and it was more than any of us dared to hope. The same hard work, and the same trouble to keep the dogs at an even pace, and then we were up under the ridge amongst the open chasms. To go farther without a careful examination of the ground was not to be thought of. Doubtless, our day’s march had not been a particularly long one, but the piece we had covered had indeed been fatiguing enough. We therefore camped, and set our tent at an altitude of 5,650 feet above the sea.
We at once proceeded to reconnoitre, and the first thing to be examined was the way we had seen from below. This led in the right direction — that is, in the direction of the glacier, east and west — and was thus the shortest. But it is not always the shortest way that is the best; here, in any case, it was to be hoped that another and longer one would offer better conditions. The shortest way was awful — possibly not altogether impracticable, if no better was to be found. First we had to work our way across a hard, smooth slope, which formed an angle of 45 degrees, and ended in a huge, bottomless chasm. It was no great pleasure to cross over here on ski, but with heavily-laden sledges the enjoyment would be still less. The prospect of seeing sledge, driver, and dogs slide down sideways and disappear into the abyss was a great one. We got across with whole skins on ski, and continued our exploration. The mountain-side along which we were advancing gradually narrowed between vast fissures above and vaster fissures below, and finally passed by a very narrow bridge — hardly broader than the sledges — into the glacier. On each side of the bridge, one looked down into a deep blue chasm. To cross here did not look very inviting; no doubt we could take the dogs out and haul the sledges over, and thus manage it — presuming the bridge held — but our further progress, which would have to be made on the glacier, would apparently offer many surprises of an unpleasant kind. It was quite possible that, with time and patience, one would be able to tack through the apparently endless succession of deep crevasses; but we should first have to see whether something better than this could not be found in another direction. We therefore returned to camp.
Here in the meantime everything had been put in order, the tent set up, and the dogs fed. Now came the great question: What was there on the other side of the ridge? Was it the same desperate confusion, or would the ground offer better facilities? Three of us went off to see. Excitement rose as we neared the saddle; so much depended on finding a reasonable way. One more pull and we were up; it was worth the trouble. The first glance showed us that this was the way we had to go. The mountain-side ran smooth and even under the lofty summit-like a gabled church tower — of Mount Don Pedro Christophersen, and followed the direction of the glacier. We could see the place where this long, even surface united with the glacier; to all appearance it was free from disturbance. We saw some crevasses, of course, but they were far apart, and did not give us the idea that they would be a hindrance. But we were still too far from the spot to be able to draw any certain conclusions as to the character of the ground; we therefore set off towards the bottom to examine the conditions more closely. The surface was loose up here, and the snow fairly deep; our ski slipped over it well, but it would be heavy for dogs. We advanced rapidly, and soon came to the huge crevasses. They were big enough and deep enough, but so scattered that, without much trouble, we could find a way between them. The hollow between the two mountains, which was filled by the Heiberg Glacier, grew narrower and narrower towards the end, and, although appearances were still very pleasant, I expected to find some disturbance when we arrived at the point where the mountain-side passed into the glacier. But my fears proved groundless; by keeping right under Don Pedro we went clear of all trouble, and in a short time, to our great joy, we found ourselves above and beyond that chaotic part of the Heiberg Glacier which had completely barred our progress.
Up here all was strangely peaceful; the mountain-side and the glacier united in a great flat terrace — a plain, one might call it — without disturbance of any kind. We could see depressions in the surface where the huge crevasses had formerly existed, but now they were entirely filled up, and formed one with the surrounding level. We could now see right to the end of this mighty glacier, and form some idea of its proportions. Mount Wilhelm Christophersen and Mount Ole Engelstad formed the end of it; these two beehive-shaped summits, entirely covered with snow, towered high into the sky. We understood now that the last of the ascent was before us, and that what we saw in the distance between these two mountains was the great plateau itself. The question, then, was to find a way up, and to conquer this last obstruction in the easiest manner. In the radiantly clear air we could see the smallest details with our excellent prismatic glasses, and make our calculations with great confidence. It would be possible to clamber up Don Pedro himself; we had done things as difficult before. But here the side of the mountain was fairly steep, and full of big crevasses and a fearful quantity of gigantic blocks of ice. Between Don Pedro and Wilhelm Christophersen an arm of the glacier went up on to the plateau, but it was so disturbed and broken up that it could not be used. Between Wilhelm Christophersen and Ole Engelstad there was no means of getting through. Between Ole Engelstad and Fridtjof Nansen, on the other hand, it looked more promising, but as yet the first of these mountains obstructed our view so much that we could not decide with certainty. We were all three rather tired, but agreed to continue our excursion, and find out what was here concealed. Our work to-day would make our progress to-morrow so much the easier. We therefore went on, and laid our course straight over the topmost flat terrace of the Heiberg Glacier. As we advanced, the ground between Nansen and Engelstad opened out more and more, and without going any farther we were able to decide from the formations that here we should undoubtedly find the best way up. If the final ascent at the end of the glacier, which was only partly visible, should present difficulties, we could make out from where we stood that it would be possible, without any great trouble, to work our way over the upper end of the Nansen Mountain itself, which here passed into the plateau by a not too difficult glacier. Yes, now we were certain that it was indeed the great plateau and nothing else that we saw before us. In the pass between the two mountains, and some little distance within the plateau, Helland Hansen showed up, a very curious peak to look at. It seemed to stick its nose up through the plateau, and no more; its shape was long, and it reminded one of nothing so much as the ridge of a roof. Although this peak was thus only just visible, it stood 11,000 feet above the sea.
After we had examined the conditions here, and found out that on the following day — if the weather permitted — we should reach the plateau, we turned back, well satisfied with the result of our trip. We all agreed that we were tired, and longing to reach camp and get some food. The place where we turned was, according to the aneroid, 8,000 feet above the sea; we were therefore 2,500 feet higher than our tent down on the hill-side. Going down in our old tracks was easier work, though the return journey was somewhat monotonous. In many places the slope was rapid, and not a few fine runs were made. On approaching our camping-ground we had the sharpest descent, and here, reluctant as we might be, we found it wiser to put both our poles together and form a strong brake. We came down smartly enough, all the same. It was a grand and imposing sight we had when we came out on the ridge under which — far below — our tent stood. Surrounded on all sides by huge crevasses and gaping chasms, it could not be said that the site of our camp looked very inviting. The wildness of the landscape seen from this point is not to be described; chasm after chasm, crevasse after crevasse, with great blocks of ice scattered promiscuously about, gave one the impression that here Nature was too powerful for us. Here no progress was to be thought of.
It was not without a certain satisfaction that we stood there and contemplated the scene. The little dark speck down there — our tent — in the midst of this chaos, gave us a feeling of strength and power. We knew in our hearts that the ground would have to be ugly indeed if we were not to manoeuvre our way across it and find a place for that little home of ours. Crash upon crash, roar upon roar, met our ears. Now it was a shot from Mount Nansen, now from one of the others; we could see the clouds of snow rise high into the air. It was evident that these mountains were throwing off their winter mantles and putting on a more spring-like garb.
We came at a tearing pace down to the tent, where our companions had everything in most perfect order. The dogs lay snoring in the heat of the sun, and hardly condescended to move when we came scudding in among them. Inside the tent a regular tropical heat prevailed; the sun was shining directly on to the red cloth and warming it. The Primus hummed and hissed, and the pemmican-pot bubbled and spurted. We desired nothing better in the world than to get in, fling ourselves down, eat, and drink. The news we brought was no trifling matter — the plateau to-morrow. It sounded almost too good to be true; we had reckoned that it would take us ten days to get up, and now we should do it in four. In this way we saved a great deal of dog food, as we should be able to slaughter the superfluous animals six days earlier than we had calculated. It was quite a little feast that evening in the tent; not that we had any more to eat than usual — we could not allow ourselves that — but the thought of the fresh dog cutlets that awaited us when we got to the top made our mouths water. In course of time we had so habituated ourselves to the idea of the approaching slaughter that this event did not appear to us so horrible as it would otherwise have done. Judgment had already been pronounced, and the selection made of those who were worthy of prolonged life and those who were to be sacrificed. This had been, I may add, a difficult problem to solve, so efficient were they all.
The rumblings continued all night, and one avalanche after another exposed parts of the mountain-sides that had been concealed from time immemorial. The following day, November 20, we were up and away at the usual time, about 8 a.m. The weather was splendid, calm and clear. Getting up over the saddle was a rough beginning of the day for our dogs, and they gave a good account of themselves, pulling the sledges up with single teams this time. The going was heavy, as on the preceding day, and our advance through the loose snow was not rapid. We did not follow our tracks of the day before, but laid our course directly for the place where we had decided to attempt the ascent. As we approached Mount Ole Engelstad, under which we had to pass in order to come into the arm of the glacier between it and Mount Nansen, our excitement began to rise. What does the end look like? Does the glacier go smoothly on into the plateau, or is it broken up and impassable? We rounded Mount Engelstad more and more; wider and wider grew the opening. The surface looked extremely good as it gradually came into view, and it did not seem as though our assumption of the previous day would be put to shame. At last the whole landscape opened out, and without obstruction of any kind whatever the last part of the ascent lay before us. It was both long and steep from the look of it, and we agreed to take a little rest before beginning the final attack.
We stopped right under Mount Engelstad in a warm and sunny place, and allowed ourselves on this occasion a little lunch, an indulgence that had not hitherto been permitted. The cooking-case was taken out, and soon the Primus was humming in a way that told us it would not be long before the chocolate was ready. It was a heavenly treat, that drink. We had all walked ourselves warm, and our throats were as dry as tinder. The contents of the pot were served round by the cook — Hanssen. It was no use asking him to share alike; he could not be persuaded to take more than half of what was due to him — the rest he had to divide among his comrades. The drink he had prepared this time was what he called chocolate, but I had some difficulty in believing him. He was economical, was Hanssen, and permitted no extravagance; that could be seen very well by his chocolate. Well, after all, to people who were accustomed to regard “bread and water” as a luxury, it tasted, as I have said, heavenly. It was the liquid part of the lunch that was served extra; if anyone wanted something to eat, he had to provide it himself — nothing was offered him. Happy was he who had saved some biscuits from his breakfast! Our halt was not a very long one. It is a queer thing that, when one only has on light underclothing and windproof overalls, one cannot stand still for long without feeling cold. Although the temperature was no lower than — 4° F., we were glad to be on the move again. The last ascent was fairly hard work, especially the first half of it. We never expected to do it with single teams, but tried it all the same. For this last pull up I must give the highest praise both to the dogs and their drivers; it was a brilliant performance on both sides. I can still see the situation clearly before me. The dogs seemed positively to understand that this was the last big effort that was asked of them; they lay flat down and hauled, dug their claws in and dragged themselves forward. But they had to stop and get breath pretty often, and then the driver’s strength was put to the test. It is no child’s play to set a heavily-laden sledge in motion time after time. How they toiled, men and beasts, up that slope! But they got on, inch by inch, until the steepest part was behind them. Before them lay the rest of the ascent in a gentle rise, up which they could drive without a stop. It was stiff, nevertheless, and it took a long time before we were all up on the plateau on the southern side of Mount Engelstad.
We were very curious and anxious to see what the plateau looked. like. We had expected a great, level plain, extending boundlessly towards the south; but in this we were disappointed. Towards the south-west it looked very level and fine, but that was not the way we had to go. Towards the south the ground continued to rise in long ridges running east and west, probably a continuation of the mountain chain running to the south-east, or a connection between it and the plateau. We stubbornly continued our march; we would not give in until we had the plain itself before us. Our hope was that the ridge projecting from Mount Don Pedro Christophersen would be the last; we now had it before us. The going changed at once up here; the loose snow disappeared, and a few wind-waves (sastrugi) began to show themselves. These were specially unpleasant to deal with on this last ridge; they lay from south-east to north-west, and were as hard as flints and as sharp as knives. A fall among them might have had very serious consequences. One would have thought the dogs had had enough work that day to tire them, but this last ridge, with its unpleasant snow-waves, did not seem to trouble them in the least. We all drove up gaily, towed by the sledges, on to what looked to us like the final plateau, and halted at 8 p.m. The weather had held fine, and we could apparently see a very long way. In the far distance, extending to the north-west, rose peak after peak; this was the chain of mountains running to the south-east, which we now saw from the other side. In our own vicinity, on the other band, we saw nothing but the backs of the mountains so frequently mentioned. We afterwards learned how deceptive the light can be. I consulted the aneroid immediately on our arrival at the camping-ground, and it showed 10,920 feet above the sea, which the hypsometer afterwards confirmed. All the sledge-meters gave seventeen geographical miles, or thirty-one kilometres (nineteen and a quarter statute miles). This day’s work — nineteen and a quarter miles, with an ascent of 5,750 feet — gives us some idea of what can be performed by dogs in good training. Our sledges still had what might be considered heavy loads; it seems superfluous to give the animals any other testimonial than the bare fact.
It was difficult to find a place for the tent, so hard was the snow up here. We found one, however, and set the tent. Sleeping-bags and kit-bags were handed in to me, as usual, through the tent-door, and I arranged everything inside. The cooking-case and the necessary provisions for that evening and the next morning were also passed in; but the part of my work that went more quickly than usual that night was getting the Primus started, and pumping it up to high-pressure. I was hoping thereby to produce enough noise to deaden the shots that I knew would soon be heard — twenty-four of our brave companions and faithful helpers were marked out for death. It was hard — but it had to be so. We had agreed to shrink from nothing in order to reach our goal. Each man was to kill his own dogs to the number that had been fixed.
The pemmican was cooked remarkably quickly that evening, and I believe I was unusually industrious in stirring it. There went the first shot — I am not a nervous man, but I must admit that I gave a start. Shot now followed upon shot — they had an uncanny sound over the great plain. A trusty servant lost his life each time. It was long before the first man reported that he had finished; they were all to open their dogs, and take out the entrails to prevent the meat being contaminated. The entrails were for the most part devoured warm on the spot by the victims’ comrades, so voracious were they all. Suggen, one of Wisting’s dogs, was especially eager for warm entrails; after enjoying this luxury, he could be seen staggering about in a quite misshapen condition. Many of the dogs would not touch them at first, but their appetite came after a while.
The holiday humour that ought to have prevailed in the tent that evening — our first on the plateau — did not make its appearance; there was depression and sadness in the air — we had grown so fond of our dogs. The place was named the “Butcher’s Shop.” It had been arranged that we should stop here two days to rest and eat dog. There was more than one among us who at first would not hear of taking any part in this feast; but as time went by, and appetites became sharper, this view underwent a change, until, during the last few days before reaching the Butcher’s Shop, we all thought and talked of nothing but dog cutlets, dog steaks, and the like. But on this first evening we put a restraint on ourselves; we thought we could not fall upon our four-footed friends and devour them before they had had time to grow cold.
We quickly found out that the Butcher’s Shop was not a hospitable locality. During the night the temperature sank, and violent gusts of wind swept over the plain; they shook and tore at the tent, but it would take more than that to get a hold of it. The dogs spent the night in eating; we could hear the crunching and grinding of their teeth whenever we were awake for a moment. The effect of the great and sudden change of altitude made itself felt at once; when I wanted to turn round in my bag, I had to do it a bit at a time, so as not to get out of breath. That my comrades were affected in the same way, I knew without asking them; my ears told me enough.
It was calm when we turned out, but the weather did not look altogether promising; it was overcast and threatening. We occupied the forenoon in flaying a number of dogs. As I have said, all the survivors were not yet in a mood for dog’s flesh, and it therefore had to be served in the most enticing form. When flayed and cut up, it went down readily all along the line; even the most fastidious then overcame their scruples. But with the skin on we should not have been able to persuade them all to eat that morning; probably this distaste was due to the smell clinging to the skins, and I must admit that it was not appetizing. The meat itself, as it lay there cut up, looked well enough, in all conscience; no butcher’s shop could have exhibited a finer sight than we showed after flaying and cutting up ten dogs. Great masses of beautiful fresh, red meat, with quantities of the most tempting fat, lay spread over the snow. The dogs went round and sniffed at it. Some helped themselves to a piece; others were digesting. We men had picked out what we thought was the youngest and tenderest one for ourselves. The whole arrangement was left to Wisting, both the selection and the preparation of the cutlets. His choice fell upon Rex, a beautiful little animal — one of his own dogs, by the way. With the skill of an expert, he hacked and cut away what he considered would be sufficient for a meal. I could not take my eyes off his work; the delicate little cutlets had an absolutely hypnotizing effect as they were spread out one by one over the snow. They recalled memories of old days, when no doubt a dog cutlet would have been less tempting than now — memories of dishes on which the cutlets were elegantly arranged side by side, with paper frills on the bones, and a neat pile of petits pois in the middle. Ah, my thoughts wandered still farther afield — but that does not concern us now, nor has it anything to do with the South Pole.
I was aroused from my musings by Wisting digging his axe into the snow as a sign that his work was done, after which he picked up the cutlets, and went into the tent. The clouds had dispersed somewhat, and from time to time the sun appeared, though not in its most genial aspect. We succeeded in catching it just in time to get our latitude determined — 85° 36’ S. We were lucky, as not long after the wind got up from the east-south-east, and, before we knew what was happening, everything was in a cloud of snow. But now we snapped our fingers at the weather; what difference did it make to us if the wind howled in the guy-ropes and the snow drifted? We had, in any case, made up our minds to stay here for a while, and we had food in abundance. We knew the dogs thought much the same so long as we have enough to eat, let the weather go hang. Inside the tent Wisting was getting on well when we came in after making these observations. The pot was on, and, to judge by the savoury smell, the preparations were already far advanced. The cutlets were not fried; we had neither frying-pan nor butter. We could, no doubt, have got some lard out of the pemmican, and we might have contrived some sort of a pan, so that we could have fried them if it had been necessary; but we found it far easier and quicker to boil them, and in this way we got excellent soup into the bargain. Wisting knew his business surprisingly well; he had put into the soup all those parts of the pemmican that contained most vegetables, and now he served us the finest fresh meat soup with vegetables in it. The clou of the repast was the dish of cutlets. If we had entertained the slightest doubt of the quality of the meat, this vanished instantly on the first trial. The meat was excellent, quite excellent, and one cutlet after another disappeared with lightning-like rapidity. I must admit that they would have lost nothing by being a little more tender, but one must not expect too much of a dog. At this first meal I finished five cutlets myself, and looked in vain in the pot for more. Wisting appeared not to have reckoned on such a brisk demand.
We employed the afternoon in going through our stock of provisions, and dividing the whole of it among three sledges; the fourth — Hassel’s — was to be left behind. The provisions were thus divided. Sledge No.1 (Wisting’s) contained
Biscuits, 3,700 (daily ration, 40 biscuits per man).
Dogs’ pemmican, 277 3/4 pounds (1/2 kilogram, or 1 pound 1 1/2 ounces per dog per day).
Men’s pemmican, 59 1/2 pounds (350 grams, or 12.34 ounces per man per day).
Chocolate, 12 3/4 pounds (40 grams, or 1.4 ounces per man per day).
Milk-powder, 13 1/4 pounds (60 grams, or 2.1 ounces per man per day).
The other two sledges had approximately the same supplies, and thus permitted us on leaving this place to extend our march over a period of sixty days with full rations. Our eighteen surviving dogs were divided into three teams, six in each. According to our calculation, we ought to be able to reach the Pole from here with these eighteen, and to leave it again with sixteen. Hassel, who was to leave his sledge at this point, thus concluded his provision account, and the divided provisions were entered in the books of the three others.
All this, then, was done that day on paper. It remained to make the actual transfer of provisions later, when the weather permitted. To go out and do it that afternoon was not advisable. Next day, November 23, the wind had gone round to the north-east, with comparatively manageable weather, so at seven in the morning we began to repack the sledges. This was not an altogether pleasant task; although the weather was what I have called “comparatively manageable,” it was very far from being suitable for packing provisions. The chocolate, which by this time consisted chiefly of very small pieces, had to be taken out, counted, and then divided among the three sledges. The same with the biscuits; every single biscuit had to be taken out and counted, and as we had some thousands of them to deal with, it will readily be understood what it was to stand there in about — 4° F. and a gale of wind, most of the time with bare hands, fumbling over this troublesome occupation. The wind increased while we were at work, and when at last we had finished, the snow was so thick that we could scarcely see the tent.
Our original intention of starting again as soon as the sledges were ready was abandoned. We did not lose very much by this; on the contrary, we gained on the whole. The dogs — the most important factor of all — had a thorough rest, and were well fed. They had undergone a remarkable change since our arrival at the Butcher’s Shop; they now wandered about, fat, sleek, and contented, and their former voracity had completely disappeared. As regards ourselves, a day or two longer made no difference; our most important article of diet, the pemmican, was practically left untouched, as for the time being dog had completely taken its place. There was thus no great sign of depression to be noticed when we came back into the tent after finishing our work, and had to while away the time. As I went in, I could descry Wisting a little way off kneeling on the ground, and engaged in the manufacture of cutlets. The dogs stood in a ring round him, and looked on with interest. The north-east wind whistled and howled, the air was thick with driving snow, and Wisting was not to be envied. But he managed his work well, and we got our dinner as usual. During the evening the wind moderated a little, and went more to the east; we went to sleep with the best hopes for the following day.
Saturday, November 25, came; it was a grand day in many respects. I had already seen proofs on several occasions of the kind of men my comrades were, but their conduct that day was such that I shall never forget it, to whatever age I may live. In the course of the night the wind had gone back to the north, and increased to a gale. It was blowing and snowing so that when we came out in the morning we could not see the sledges; they were half snowed under. The dogs had all crept together, and protected themselves as well as they could against the blizzard. The temperature was not so very low (-16.6° F.), but low enough to be disagreeably felt in a storm. We had all taken a turn outside to look at the weather, and were sitting on our sleeping-bags discussing the poor prospect. “It’s the devil’s own weather here at the Butcher’s,” said one; “it looks to me as if it would never get any better. This is the fifth day, and it’s blowing worse than ever.” We all agreed. “There’s nothing so bad as lying weather-bound like this,” continued another; “it takes more out of you than going from morning to night.” Personally, I was of the same opinion. One day may be pleasant enough, but two, three, four, and, as it now seemed, five days — no, it was awful. “Shall we try it?” No sooner was the proposal submitted than it was accepted unanimously and with acclamation. When I think of my four friends of the southern journey, it is the memory of that morning that comes first to my mind. All the qualities that I most admire in a man were clearly shown at that juncture: courage and dauntlessness, without boasting or big words. Amid joking and chaff, everything was packed, and then — out into the blizzard.
It was practically impossible to keep one’s eyes open; the fine drift-snow penetrated everywhere, and at times one had a feeling of being blind. The tent was not only drifted up, but covered with ice, and in taking it down we had to handle it with care. so as not to break it in pieces. The dogs were not much inclined to start, and it took time to get them into their harness, but at last we were ready. One more glance over the camping-ground to see that nothing we ought to have with us had been forgotten. The fourteen dogs’ carcasses that were left were piled up in a heap, and Hassel’s sledge was set up against it as a mark. The spare sets of dog-harness, some Alpine ropes, and all our crampons for ice-work, which we now thought would not be required, were left behind. The last thing to be done was planting a broken ski upright by the side of the depot. It was Wisting who did this, thinking, presumably, that an extra mark would do no harm. That it was a happy thought the future will show.
And then we were off: It was a hard pull to begin with, both for men and beasts, as the high sastrugi continued towards the south, and made it extremely difficult to advance. Those who had sledges to drive had to be very attentive, and support them so that they did not capsize on the big waves, and we who had no sledges found great difficulty in keeping our feet, as we had nothing to lean against. We went on like this, slowly enough, but the main thing was that we made progress. The ground at first gave one the impression of rising, though not much. The going was extremely heavy; it was like dragging oneself through sand. Meanwhile the sastrugi grew smaller and smaller, and finally they disappeared altogether, and the surface became quite flat. The going also improved by degrees, for what reason it is difficult to say, as the storm continued unabated, and the drift — now combined with falling snow — was thicker than ever. It was all the driver could do to see his own dogs. The surface, which had become perfectly level, had the appearance at times of sinking; in any case, one would have thought so from the pace of the sledges. Now and again the dogs would set off suddenly at a gallop. The wind aft, no doubt, helped the pace somewhat, but it alone could not account for the change.
I did not like this tendency of the ground to fall away. In my opinion, we ought to have done with anything of that sort after reaching the height at which we were; a slight slope upward, possibly, but down — no, that did not agree with my reckoning. So far the incline had not been so great as to cause uneasiness, but if it seriously began to go downhill, we should have to stop and camp. To run down at full gallop, blindly and in complete ignorance of the ground, would be madness. We might risk falling into some chasm before we had time to pull up.
Hanssen, as usual, was driving first. Strictly speaking, I should now have been going in advance, but the uneven surface at the start and the rapid pace afterwards had made it impossible to walk as fast the dogs could pull. I was therefore following by the side of Wisting’s sledge, and chatting with him. Suddenly I saw Hanssen’s dogs shoot ahead, and downhill they went at the wildest pace, Wisting after them. I shouted to Hanssen to stop, and he succeeded in doing so by twisting his sledge. The others, who were following, stopped when they came up to him. We were in the middle of a fairly steep descent; what there might be below was not easy to decide, nor would we try to find out in that weather. Was it possible that we were on our way down through the mountains again? It seemed more probable that we lay on one of the numerous ridges; but we could be sure of nothing before the weather cleared. We trampled down a place for the tent in the loose snow, and soon got it up. It was not a long day’s march that we had done — eleven and three-quarter miles — but we had put an end to our stay at the Butcher’s Shop, and that was a great thing. The boiling-point test that evening showed that we were 10,300 feet above the sea, and that we had thus gone down 620 feet from the Butcher’s. We turned in and went to sleep. As soon as it brightened, we should have to be ready to jump out and look at the weather; one has to seize every opportunity in these regions. If one neglects to do so, it may mean a long wait and much may be lost. We therefore all slept with one eye open, and we knew well that nothing could happen without our noticing it.
At three in the morning the sun cut through the clouds and we through the tent-door. To take in the situation was more than the work of a moment. The sun showed as yet like a pat of butter, and had not succeeded in dispersing the thick mists; the wind had dropped somewhat, but was still fairly strong. This is, after all, the worst part of one’s job — turning out of one’s good, warm sleeping-bag, and standing outside for some time in thin clothes, watching the weather. We knew by experience that a gleam like this, a clearing in the weather, might come suddenly, and then one had to be on the spot. The gleam came; it did not last long, but long enough. We lay on the side of a ridge that fell away pretty steeply. The descent on the south was too abrupt, but on the south-east it was better and more gradual, and ended in a wide, level tract. We could see no crevasses or unpleasantness of any kind. It was not very far that we could see, though; only our nearest surroundings. Of the mountains we saw nothing, neither Fridtjof Nansen nor Don Pedro Christophersen. Well content with our morning’s work, we turned in again and slept till 6 a.m., when we began our morning preparations. The weather, which had somewhat improved during the night, had now broken loose again, and the north-easter was doing all it could. However, it would take more than storm and snow to stop us now, since we had discovered the nature of our immediate surroundings; if we once got down to the plain, we knew that we could always feel our way on.
After putting ample brakes on the sledge-runners, we started off downhill in a south-easterly direction. The slight idea of the position that we had been able to get in the morning proved correct. The descent was easy and smooth, and we reached the plain without any adventure. We could now once more set our faces to the south, and in thick driving snow we continued our way into the unknown, with good assistance from the howling north-easterly gale. We now recommenced the erection of beacons, which had not been necessary during the ascent. In the course of the forenoon we again passed over a little ridge, the last of them that we encountered. The surface was now fine enough, smooth as a floor and without a sign of sastrugi. If our progress was nevertheless slow and difficult, this was due to the wretched going, which was real torture to all of us. A sledge journey through the Sahara could not have offered a worse surface to move over. Now the forerunners came into their own, and from here to the Pole Hassel. and I took it in turns to occupy the position.
The weather improved in the course of the day, and when we camped in the afternoon it looked quite smiling. The sun came through and gave a delightful warmth after the last few bitter days. It was not yet clear, so that we could see nothing of our surroundings. The distance according to our three sledge-meters was eighteen and a half miles; taking the bad going into consideration, we had reason to be well satisfied with it. Our altitude came out at 9,475 feet above the sea, or a drop of 825 feet in the course of the day. This surprised me greatly. What did it mean? Instead of rising gradually, we were going slowly down. Something extraordinary must await us farther on, but, what? According to dead reckoning our latitude that evening was 86° S.
November 27 did not bring us the desired weather; the night was filled with sharp gusts from the north; the morning came with a slack wind, but accompanied by mist and snowfall. This was abominable; here we were, advancing over absolutely virgin ground, and able to see nothing. The surface remained about the same — possibly rather more undulating. That it had been blowing here at some time, and violently too, was shown by the under-surface, which was composed of sastrugi as hard as iron. Luckily for us, the snowfall of the last few days had filled these up, so as to present a level surface. It was heavy going, though better than on the previous day.
As we were advancing, still blindly, and fretting at the persistently thick weather, one of us suddenly called out: “Hullo, look there!” A wild, dark summit rose high out of the mass of fog to the east-south-east. It was not far away — on the contrary, it seemed threateningly near and right over us. We stopped and looked at the imposing sight, but Nature did not expose her objects of interest for long. The fog rolled over again, thick, heavy and dark, and blotted out the view. We knew now that we had to be prepared for surprises. After we had gone about ten miles the fog again lifted for a moment, and we saw quite near — a mile or so away — two long, narrow mountain ridges to the west of us, running north and south, and completely covered with snow. These — Helland Hansen’s Mountains — were the only ones we saw on our right hand during the march on the plateau; they were between 9,000 and 10,000 feet high, and would probably serve as excellent landmarks on the return journey. There was no connection to be traced between these mountains and those lying to the east of them; they gave us the impression of being entirely isolated summits, as we could not make out any lofty ridge running east and west. We continued our course in the constant expectation of finding some surprise or other in our line of route. The air ahead of us was as black as pitch, as though it concealed something. It could not be a storm, or it would have been already upon us. But we went on and on, and nothing came. Our day’s march was eighteen and a half miles.
I see that my diary for November 28 does not begin very promisingly: “Fog, fog — and again fog. Also fine falling snow, which makes the going impossible. Poor beasts, they have toiled hard to get the sledges forward to-day.” But the day did not turn out so badly after all, as we worked our way out of this uncertainty and found out what was behind the pitch-dark clouds. During the forenoon the sun came through and thrust aside the fog for a while; and there, to the south-east, not many miles away, lay an immense mountain mass. From this mass, right across our course, ran a great, ancient glacier; the sun shone down upon it and showed us a surface full of huge irregularities. On the side nearest to the mountain these disturbances were such that a hasty glance was enough to show us the impossibility of advancing that way. But right in our line of route — straight on to the glacier — it looked, as far as we could see, as though we could get along. The fog came and went, and we had to take advantage of the clear intervals to get our bearings. It would, no doubt, have been better if we could have halted, set up our tent, and waited for decently clear weather, so that we might survey the ground at our ease and choose the best way. Going forward without an idea of what the ground was like, was not very pleasant. But how long should we have to wait for clear weather? That question was unanswerable; possibly a week, or even a fortnight, and we had no time for that. Better go straight on, then, and take what might come.
What we could see of the glacier appeared to be pretty steep; but it was only between the south and south-east, under the new land, that the fog now and again lifted sufficiently to enable us to see anything. From the south round to the west the fog lay as thick as gruel. We could see that the big crevasses lost themselves in it, and the question of what the glacier looked like on the west had to be put aside for the moment. It was to the south we had to go, and there it was possible to go forward a little way. We continued our march until the ground began to show signs of the glacier in the form of small crevasses, and then we halted. It was our intention to lighten our sledges before tackling the glacier; from the little we could see of it, it was plain enough that we should have stiff work. It was therefore important to have as little as possible on the sledges.
We set to work at once to build the depot; the snow here was excellent for this purpose — as hard as glass. In a short time an immense erection of adamantine blocks of snow rose into the air, containing provisions for five men for six days and for eighteen dogs for five days. A number of small articles were also left behind.
While we were thus occupied, the fog had been coming and going; some of the intervals had been quite clear, and had given me a good view of the nearest part of the range. It appeared to be quite isolated, and to consist of four mountains; one of these — Mount Helmer Hanssen — lay separated from the rest. The other three — Mounts Oscar Wisting, Sverre Hassel, and Olav Bjaaland — lay closer together. Behind this group the air had been heavy and black the whole time, showing that more land must be concealed there. Suddenly, in one of the brightest intervals, there came a rift in this curtain, and the summits of a colossal mountain mass appeared. Our first impression was that this mountain — Mount Thorvald Nilsen — must be something over 20,000 feet high; it positively took our breath away, so formidable did it appear. But it was only a glimpse that we had, and then the fog enclosed it once more. We had succeeded in taking a few meagre bearings of the different summits of the nearest group; they were not very grand, but better ones were not to be obtained. For that matter, the site of the depot was so well marked by its position under the foot of the glacier that we agreed it would be impossible to miss it.
Having finished the edifice, which rose at least 6 feet into the air, we put one of our black provision cases on the top of it, so as to be able to see it still more easily on the way back. An observation we had contrived to take while the work was in progress gave us our latitude as 86° 21’ S. This did not agree very well with the latitude of our dead reckoning — 86° 23’ S. Meanwhile the fog had again enveloped everything, and a fine, light snow was falling. We had taken a bearing of the line of glacier that was most free of crevasses, and so we moved on again. It was some time before we felt our way up to the glacier. The crevasses at its foot were not large, but we had no sooner entered upon the ascent than the fun began. There was something uncanny about this perfectly blind advance among crevasses and chasms on all sides. We examined the compass from time to time, and went forward cautiously.
Hassel and I went in front on a rope; but that, after all, was not much of a help to our drivers. We naturally glided lightly on our ski over places where the dogs would easily fall through. This lowest part of the glacier was not entirely free from danger, as the crevasses were often rendered quite invisible by a thin overlying layer of snow. In clear weather it is not so bad to have to cross such a surface, as the effect of light and shade is usually to show up the edges of these insidious pitfalls, but on a day like this, when everything looked alike, one’s advance is doubtful. We kept it going, however, by using the utmost caution. Wisting came near to sounding the depth of one of these dangerous crevasses with sledge, dogs and all, as the bridge he was about to cross gave way. Thanks to his presence of mind and a lightning-like movement — some would call it luck — he managed to save himself. In this way we worked up about 200 feet, but then we came upon such a labyrinth of yawning chasms and open abysses that we could not move. There was nothing to be done but to find the least disturbed spot, and set the tent there.
As soon as this was done Hanssen and I set out to explore. We were roped, and therefore safe enough. It required some study to find a way out of the trap we had run ourselves into. Towards the group of mountains last described — which now lay to the east of us — it had cleared sufficiently to give us a fairly good view of the appearance of the glacier in that direction. What we had before seen at a distance, was now confirmed. The part extending to the mountains was so ground up and broken that there was positively not a spot where one could set one’s foot. It looked as if a battle had been fought here, and the ammunition had been great blocks of ice. They lay pell-mell, one on the top of another, in all directions, and evoked a picture of violent confusion. Thank God we were not here while this was going on, I thought to myself, as I stood looking out over this battlefield; it must have been a spectacle like doomsday, and not on a small scale either. To advance in that direction, then, was hopeless, but that was no great matter, since our way was to the south. On the south we could see nothing; the fog lay thick and heavy there. All we could do was to try to make our way on, and we therefore crept southward.
On leaving our tent we had first to cross a comparatively narrow snow-bridge, and then go along a ridge or saddle, raised by pressure, with wide open crevasses on both sides. This ridge led us on to an icewave about 25 feet high — a formation which was due to the pressure having ceased before the wave had been forced to break and form hummocks. We saw well enough that this would be a difficult place to pass with sledges and dogs, but in default of anything better it would have to be done. From the top of this wave-formation we could see down on the other side, which had hitherto been hidden from us. The fog prevented our seeing far, but the immediate surroundings were enough to convince us that with caution we could beat up farther. From the height on which we stood, every precaution would be required to avoid going down on the other side; for there the wave ended in an open crevasse, specially adapted to receive any drivers, sledges or dogs that might make a slip.
This trip that Hanssen and I took to the south was made entirely at random, as we saw absolutely nothing; our object was to make tracks for the following day’s journey. The language we used about the glacier as we went was not altogether complimentary; we had endless tacking and turning to get on. To go one yard forward, I am sure we had to go at least ten to one side. Can anyone be surprised that we called it the Devil’s Glacier? At any rate, our companions acknowledged the justness of the name with ringing acclamations when we told them of it.
At Hell’s Gate Hanssen and I halted. This was a very remarkable formation; the glacier had here formed a long ridge about 20 feet high; then, in the middle of this ridge, a fissure had opened, making a gateway about 6 feet wide. This formation — like every — thing else on the glacier-was obviously very old, and for the most part filled with snow. From this point the glacier, as far as our view extended to the south, looked better and better; we therefore turned round and followed our tracks in the comforting conviction that we should manage to get on.
Our companions were no less pleased with the news we brought of our prospects. Our altitude that evening was 8,650 feet above the sea — that is to say, at the foot of the glacier we had reached an altitude of 8,450 feet, or a drop from the Butcher’s of 2,570 feet. We now knew very well that we should have this ascent to make again, perhaps even more; and this idea did not arouse any particular enthusiasm. In my diary I see that I conclude the day with the following words “What will the next surprise be, I wonder?”
It was, in fact, an extraordinary journey that we were undertaking, through new regions, new mountains, glaciers, and so on, without being able to see. That we were prepared for surprises was perhaps quite natural. What I liked least about this feeling one’s way forward in the dark was that it would be difficult — very difficult indeed — to recognize the ground again on the way back. But with this glacier lying straight across our line of route, and with the numerous beacons we had erected, we reassured ourselves on this score. It would take a good deal to make us miss them on the return. The point for us, of course, was to find our descent on to the Barrier again — a mistake there might be serious enough. And it will appear later in this narrative that my fear of our not being able to recognize the way was not entirely groundless. The beacons we had put up came to our aid, and for our final success we owe a deep debt of gratitude to our prudence and thoughtfulness in adopting this expedient.
Next morning, November 29, brought considerably clearer weather, and allowed us a very good survey of our position. We could now see that the two mountain ranges uniting in 86° S. were continued in a mighty chain running to the south-east, with summits from 10,000 to 15,000 feet. Mount Thorvald Nilsen was the most southerly we could see from this point. Mounts Hanssen, Wisting, Bjaaland, and Hassel formed, as we had thought the day before, a group by themselves, and lay separated from the main range.
The drivers had a warm morning’s work. They had to drive with great circumspection and patience to grapple with the kind of ground we had before us; a slight mistake might be enough to send both sledge and dogs with lightning rapidity into the next world. It took, nevertheless, a remarkably short time to cover the distance we had explored on the previous evening; before we knew it, we were at Hell’s Gate.
Bjaaland took an excellent photograph here, which gives a very good idea of the difficulties this part of the journey presented. In the foreground, below the high snow-ridge that forms one side of a very wide but partly filled-up crevasse, the marks of ski can be seen in the snow. This was the photographer, who, in passing over this snow-bridge, struck his ski into it to try the strength of the support. Close to the tracks can be seen an open piece of the crevasse; it is a pale blue at the top, but ends in the deepest black — in a bottomless abyss. The photographer got over the bridge and back with a whole skin, but there could be no question of risking sledges and dogs on it, and it can be seen in the photograph that the sledges have been turned right round to try another way. The two small black figures in the distance, on the right, are Hassel and I, who are reconnoitring ahead.
It was no very great distance that we put behind us that day-nine and a quarter miles in a straight line. But, taking into account all the turns and circuits we had been compelled to make, it was not so short after all. We set our tent on a good, solid foundation, and were well pleased with the day’s work. The altitude was 8,960 feet above the sea. The sun was now in the west, and shining directly upon the huge mountain masses. It was a fairy landscape in blue and white, red and black, a play of colours that defies description. Clear as it now appeared to be, one could understand that the weather was not all that could be wished, for the south-eastern end of Mount Thorvald Nilsen lost itself in a dark, impenetrable cloud, which led one to suspect a continuation in that direction, though one could not be certain.
Mount Nilsen — ah! anything more beautiful, taking it altogether, I have never seen. Peaks of the most varied forms rose high into the air, partly covered with driving clouds. Some were sharp, but most were long and rounded. Here and there one saw bright, shining glaciers plunging wildly down the steep sides, and merging into the underlying ground in fearful confusion. But the most remarkable of them all was Mount Helmer Hanssen; its top was as round as the bottom of a bowl, and covered by an extraordinary ice-sheet, which was so broken up and disturbed that the blocks of ice bristled in every direction like the quills of a porcupine. It glittered and burned in the sunlight — a glorious spectacle. There could only be one such mountain in the world, and as a landmark it was priceless. We knew that we could not mistake that, however the surroundings might appear on the return journey, when possibly the conditions of lighting might be altogether different.
After camping, two of us went out to explore farther. The prospect from the tent was not encouraging, but we might possibly find things better than we expected. We were lucky to find the going so fine as it was on the glacier; we had left our crampons behind at the Butcher’s Shop, and if we had found smooth ice, instead of a good, firm snow surface, such as we now had, it would have caused us much trouble. Up — still up, among monsters of crevasses, some of them hundreds of feet wide and possibly thousands of feet deep. Our prospects of advancing were certainly not bright; as far as we could see in the line of our route one immense ridge towered above another, concealing on their farther sides huge, wide chasms, which all had to be avoided. We went forward — steadily forward — though the way round was both long and troublesome. We had no rope on this time, as the irregularities were so plain that it would have been difficult to go into them. It turned out, however, at several points, that the rope would not have been out of place. We were just going to cross over one of the numerous ridges — the surface here looked perfectly whole — when a great piece broke right under the back half of Hanssen’s ski. We could not deny ourselves the pleasure of glancing down into the hole. The sight was not an inviting one, and we agreed to avoid this place when we came on with our dogs and sledges. Every day we had occasion to bless our ski. We often used to ask each other where we should now have been without these excellent appliances. The usual answer was: Most probably at the bottom of some crevasse. When we first read the different accounts of the aspect and nature of the Barrier, it was clear to all of us, who were born and bred with ski on our feet, that these must be regarded as indispensable. This view was confirmed and strengthened every day, and I am not giving too much credit to our excellent ski when I say that they not only played a very important part, but possibly the most important of all, on our journey to the South Pole. Many a time we traversed stretches of surface so cleft and disturbed that it would have been an impossibility to get over them on foot. I need scarcely insist on the advantages of ski in deep, loose snow.
After advancing for two hours, we decided to return. From the raised ridge on which we were then standing, the surface ahead of us looked more promising than ever; but we had so often been deceived on the glacier that we had now become definitely sceptical. How often, for instance, had we thought that beyond this or that undulation our trials would be at an end, and that the way to the south would lie open and free; only to reach the place and find that the ground behind the ridge was, if possible, worse than what we had already been struggling with. But this time we seemed somehow to feel victory in the air. The formations appeared to promise it, and yet — had we been so often deceived by these formations that we now refused to offer them a thought? Was it possibly instinct that told us this? I do not know, but certain it is that Hanssen and I agreed, as we stood there discussing our prospects, that behind the farthest ridge we saw, we should conquer the glacier. We had a feverish desire to go and have a look at it; but the way round the many crevasses was long, and — I may as well admit it — we were beginning to get tired. The return, downhill as it was, did not take long, and soon we were able to tell our comrades that the prospects for the morrow were very promising.
While we had been away, Hassel had measured the Nilsen Mountain, and found its height to be 15,500 feet above the sea. How well I remember that evening, when we stood contemplating the glorious sight that Nature offered, and believing the air to be so clear that anything within range of vision must have shown itself; and how well, too, I remember our astonishment on the return journey on finding the whole landscape completely transformed! If it had not been for Mount Helmer Hanssen, it would have been difficult for us to know where we were. The atmosphere in these regions may play the most awkward tricks. Absolutely clear as it seemed to us that evening, it nevertheless turned out later that it had been anything but clear. One has, therefore, to be very careful about what one sees or does not see. In most cases it has proved that travellers in the Polar regions have been more apt to see too much than too little; if, however, we had charted this tract as we saw it the first time, a great part of the mountain ranges would have been omitted.
During the night a gale sprang up from the south-east, and blew so that it howled in the guy-ropes of the tent; it was well that the tent-pegs had a good hold. In the morning, while we were at breakfast, it was still blowing, and we had some thoughts of waiting for a time; but suddenly, without warning, the wind dropped to such an extent that all our hesitation vanished. What a change the south-east wind had produced! The splendid covering of snow that the day before had made ski-running a pleasure, was now swept away over great stretches of surface, exposing the hard substratum. Our thoughts flew back; the crampons we had left behind seemed to dance before my eyes, backwards and forwards, grinning and pointing fingers at me. It would be a nice little extra trip back to the Butcher’s to fetch them.
Meanwhile, we packed and made everything ready. The tracks of the day before were not easy to follow; but if we lost them now and again on the smooth ice surface, we picked them up later on a snow-wave that had resisted the attack of the wind. It was hard and strenuous work for the drivers. The sledges were difficult to manage over the smooth, sloping ice; sometimes they went straight, but just as often cross-wise, requiring sharp attention to keep them from capsizing. And this had to be prevented at all costs, as the thin provision cases would not stand many bumps on the ice; besides which, it was such hard work righting the sledges again that for this reason alone the drivers exercised the greatest care. The sledges were put to a severe test that day, with the many great and hard irregularities we encountered on the glacier; it is a wonder they survived it, and is a good testimonial for Bjaaland’s work.
The glacier that day presented the worst confusion we had yet had to deal with. Hassel and I went in front, as usual, with the rope on. Up to the spot Hanssen and I had reached the evening before our progress was comparatively easy; one gets on so much quicker when one knows that the way is practicable. After this point it became worse; indeed, it was often so bad that we had to stop for a long time and try in various directions, before finding a way. More than once the axe had to be used to hack away obstructions. At one time things looked really serious; chasm after chasm, hummock after hummock, so high and steep that they were like mountains. Here we went out and explored in every direction to find a passage; at last we found one, if, indeed, it deserved the name of a passage. It was a bridge so narrow that it scarcely allowed room for the width of the sledge; a fearful abyss on each side. The crossing of this place reminded me of the tight-rope walker going over Niagara. It was a good thing none of us was subject to giddiness, and that the dogs did not know exactly what the result of a false step would be.
On the other side of this bridge we began to go downhill, and our course now lay in a long valley between lofty undulations on each side. It tried our patience severely to advance here, as the line of the hollow was fairly long and ran due west. We tried several times to lay our course towards the south and clamber up the side of the undulation, but these efforts did not pay us. We could always get up on to the ridge, but we could not come down again on the other side; there was nothing to be done but to follow the natural course of the valley until it took us into the tract lying to the south. It was especially the drivers whose patience was sorely tried, and I could see them now and then take a turn up to the top of the ridge, not satisfied with the exploration Hassel and I had made. But the result was always the same; they had to submit to Nature’s caprices and follow in our tracks.
Our course along this natural line was not entirely free from obstruction; crevasses of various dimensions constantly crossed our path. The ridge or undulation, at the top of which we at last arrived, had quite an imposing effect. It terminated on the east in a steep drop to the underlying surface, and attained at this point a height of over 100 feet. On the west it sloped gradually into the lower ground and allowed us to advance that way. In order to have a better view of the surroundings we ascended the eastern and highest part of the ridge, and from here we at once had a confirmation of our supposition of the day before. The ridge we had then seen, behind which we hoped to find better conditions, could now be seen a good way ahead. And what we then saw made our hearts beat fast with joy. Could that great white, unbroken plain over there be real, or was it only an illusion? Time would show.
Meanwhile Hassel and I jogged on, and the others followed. We had to get through a good many difficulties yet before we reached that point, but, compared with all the breakneck places we had already crossed, these were of a comparatively tame description. It was with a sigh of relief that we arrived at the plain that promised so well; its extent was not very great, but we were not very exacting either in this respect, after our last few days’ march over the broken surface. Farther to the south we could still see great masses piled up by pressure, but the intervals between them were very great and the surface was whole. This was, then, the first time since we tackled the Devil’s Glacier that we were able to steer true south for a few minutes.
As we progressed, it could be seen that we had really come upon another kind of ground; for once we had not been made fools of. Not that we had an unbroken, level surface to go upon — it would be a long time before we came to that — but we were able to keep our course for long stretches at a time. The huge crevasses became rarer, and so filled up at both ends that we were able to cross them without going a long way round. There was new life in all of us, both dogs and men, and we went rapidly southward. As we advanced, the conditions improved more and more. We could see in the distance some huge dome-shaped formations, that seemed to tower high into the air: these turned out to be the southernmost limit of the big crevasses and to form the transition to the third phase of the glacier.
It was a stiff climb to get up these domes, which were fairly high and swept smooth by the wind. They lay straight in our course, and from their tops we had a good view. The surface we were entering upon was quite different from that on the northern side of the domes. Here the big crevasses were entirely filled with snow and might be crossed anywhere. What specially attracted one’s attention here was an immense number of small formations in the shape of haycocks. Great stretches of the surface were swept bare, exposing the smooth ice.
It was evident that these various formations or phases in the glacier were due to the underlying ground. The first tract we had passed, where the confusion was so extreme, must be the part that lay nearest the bare land; in proportion as the glacier left the land, it became less disturbed: In the haycock district the disturbance had not produced cracks in the surface to any extent, only upheaval here and there. How these haycocks were formed and what they looked like inside we were soon to find out. It was a pleasure to be able to advance all the time, instead of constantly turning and going round; only once or twice did we have to turn aside for the larger haycocks, otherwise we kept our course. The great, clean-swept stretches of surface that we came upon from time to time were split in every direction, but the cracks were very narrow — about half an inch wide.
We had difficulty in finding a place for the tent that evening; the surface was equally hard everywhere, and at last we had to set it on the bare ice. Luckily for our tent-pegs, this ice was not of the bright, steely variety; it was more milky in appearance and not so hard, and we were thus able to knock in the pegs with the axe. When the tent was up, Hassel went out as usual to fetch snow for the cooker. As a rule he performed this task with a big knife, specially made for snow; but this evening he went out armed with an axe. He was very pleased with the abundant and excellent material that lay to his hand; there was no need to go far. Just outside the tent door, two feet away, stood a fine little haycock, that looked as if it would serve the purpose well. Hassel raised his axe and gave a good sound blow; the axe met with no resistance, and went in up to the haft. The haycock was hollow. As the axe was pulled out the surrounding part gave way, and one could hear the pieces of ice falling down through the dark hole. It appeared, then, that two feet from our door we had a most convenient way down into the cellar. Hassel looked as if he enjoyed the situation. “Black as a sack,” he smiled; “couldn’t see any bottom.” Hanssen was beaming; no doubt he would have liked the tent a little nearer. The material provided by the haycock was of the best quality, and well adapted for cooking purposes.
The next day, December 1, was a very fatiguing one for us all. From early morning a blinding blizzard raged from the south-east, with a heavy fall of snow. The going was of the very worst kind — polished ice. I stumbled forward on ski, and had comparatively easy work. The drivers had been obliged to take off their ski and put them on the loads, so as to walk by the side, support the sledges, and give the dogs help when they came to a difficult place; and that was pretty often, for on this smooth ice surface there were a number of small scattered sastrugi, and these consisted of a kind of snow that reminded one more of fish-glue than of anything else when the sledges came in contact with it. The dogs could get no hold with their claws on the smooth ice, and when the sledge came on to one of these tough little waves, they could not manage to haul it over, try as they might. The driver then had to put all his strength into it to prevent the sledge stopping. Thus in most cases the combined efforts of men and dogs carried the sledge on.
In the course of the afternoon the surface again began to be more disturbed, and great crevasses crossed our path time after time. These crevasses were really rather dangerous; they looked very innocent, as they were quite filled up with snow, but on a nearer acquaintance with them we came to understand that they were far more hazardous than we dreamed of at first. It turned out that between the loose snow-filling and the firm ice edges there was a fairly broad, open space, leading straight down into the depths. The layer of snow which covered it over was in most cases quite thin. In driving out into one of these snow-filled crevasses nothing happened as a rule; but it was in getting off on the other side that the critical moment arrived. For here the dogs came up on to the smooth ice surface, and could get no hold for their claws, with the result that it was left entirely to the driver to haul the the sledge up. The strong pull he then had to give sent him through the thin layer of snow. Under these circumstances he took a good, firm hold of the sledge-lashing, or of a special strap that had been made with a view to these accidents. But familiarity breeds contempt, even with the most cautious, and some of the drivers were often within an ace of going down into “the cellar.”
If this part of the journey was trying for the dogs, it was certainly no less so for the men. If the weather had even been fine, so that we could have looked about us, we should not have minded it so much, but in this vile weather it was, indeed, no pleasure. Our time was also a good deal taken up with thawing noses and cheeks as they froze — not that we stopped; we had no time for that. We simply took off a mit, and laid the warm hand on the frozen spot as we went; when we thought we had restored sensation, we put the hand back into the mit. By this time it would want warming. One does not keep one’s hands bare for long with the thermometer several degrees below zero and a storm blowing. In spite of the unfavourable conditions we had been working in, the sledge-meters that evening showed a distance of fifteen and a half miles. We were well satisfied with the day’s work when we camped.
Let us cast a glance into the tent this evening. It looks cosy enough. The inner half of the tent is occupied by three sleeping-bags, whose respective owners have found it both comfortable and expedient to turn in, and may now be seen engaged with their diaries. The outer half — that nearest the door — has only two sleeping-bags, but the rest of the space is taken up with the whole cooking apparatus of the expedition. The owners of these two bags are still sitting up. Hanssen is cook, and will not turn in until the food is ready and served. Wisting is his sworn comrade and assistant, and is ready to lend him any aid that may be required. Hanssen appears to be a careful cook; he evidently does not like to burn the food, and his spoon stirs the contents of the pot incessantly. “Soup!” The effect of the word is instantaneous. Everyone sits up at once with a cup in one hand and a spoon in the other. Each one in his turn has his cup filled with what looks like the most tasty vegetable soup. Scalding hot it is, as one can see by the faces, but for all that it disappears with surprising rapidity. Again the cups are filled, this time with more solid stuff pemmican. With praiseworthy despatch their contents are once more demolished, and they are filled for the third time. There is nothing the matter with these men’s appetites. The cups are carefully scraped, and the enjoyment of bread and water begins. It is easy to see, too, that it is an enjoyment — greater, to judge by the pleasure on their faces, than the most skilfully devised menu could afford. They positively caress the biscuits before they eat them. And the water — ice-cold water they all call for — this also disappears in great quantities, and procures, I feel certain from their expression, a far greater pleasure and satisfaction than the finest wine that was ever produced. The Primus hums softly during the whole meal, and the temperature in the tent is quite pleasant.
When the meal is over, one of them calls for scissors and looking-glass, and then one may see the Polar explorers dressing their hair for the approaching Sunday. The beard is cut quite short with the clipper every Saturday evening; this is done not so much from motives of vanity as from considerations of utility and comfort. The beard invites an accumulation of ice, which may often be very embarrassing. A beard in the Polar regions seems to me to be just as awkward and unpractical as — well, let us say, walking with a tall hat on each foot. As the beard-clipper and the mirror make their round, one after the other disappears into his bag, and with five “Good-nights,” silence falls upon the tent. The regular breathing soon announces that the day’s work demands its tribute. Meanwhile the south-easter howls, and the snow beats against the tent. The dogs have curled themselves up, and do not seem to trouble themselves about the weather.
The storm continued unabated on the following day, and on account of the dangerous nature of the ground we decided to wait awhile. In the course of the morning — towards noon, perhaps — the wind dropped a little, and out we went. The sun peeped through at times, and we took the welcome opportunity of getting an altitude — 86° 47’ S. was the result.
At this camp we left behind all our delightful reindeer-skin clothing, as we could see that we should have no use for it, the temperature being far too high. We kept the hoods of our reindeer coats, however; we might be glad of them in going against the wind. Our day’s march was not to be a long one; the little slackening of the wind about midday was only a joke. It soon came on again in earnest, with a sweeping blizzard from the same quarter — the south-east. If we had known the ground, we should possibly have gone on; but in this storm and driving snow, which prevented our keeping our eyes open, it was no use. A serious accident might happen and ruin all. Two and half miles was therefore our whole distance. The temperature when we camped was — 5.8° F. Height above the sea, 9,780 feet.
In the course of the night the wind veered from south-east to north, falling light, and the weather cleared. This was a good chance for us, and we were not slow to avail ourselves of it. A gradually rising ice surface lay before us, bright as a mirror. As on the preceding days, I stumbled along in front on ski, while the others, without their ski, had to follow and support the sledges. The surface still offered filled crevasses, though perhaps less frequently than before. Meanwhile small patches of snow began to show themselves on the polished surface, and soon increased in number and size, until before very long they united and covered the unpleasant ice with a good and even layer of snow. Then ski were put on again, and we continued our way to the south with satisfaction.
We were all rejoicing that we had now conquered this treacherous glacier, and congratulating ourselves on having at last arrived on the actual plateau. As we were going along, feeling pleased about this, a ridge suddenly appeared right ahead, telling us plainly that perhaps all our sorrows were not yet ended. The ground had begun to sink a little, and as we came nearer we could see that we had to cross a rather wide, but not deep, valley before we arrived under the ridge. Great lines of hummocks and haycock-shaped pieces of ice came in view on every side; we could see that we should have to keep our eyes open.
And now we came to the formation in the glacier that we called the Devil’s Ballroom. Little by little the covering of snow that we had praised in such high terms disappeared, and before us lay this wide valley, bare and gleaming. At first it went well enough; as it was downhill, we were going at a good pace on the smooth ice. Suddenly Wisting’s sledge cut into the surface, and turned over on its side. We all knew what had happened — one of the runners was in a crevasse. Wisting set to work, with the assistance of Hassel, to raise the sledge, and take it out of its dangerous position; meanwhile Bjaaland had got out his camera and was setting it up. Accustomed as we were to such incidents, Hanssen and I were watching the scene from a point a little way in advance, where we had arrived when it happened. As the photography took rather a long time, I assumed that the crevasse was one of the filled ones and presented no particular danger, but that Bjaaland wanted to have a souvenir among his photographs of the numerous crevasses and ticklish situations we had been exposed to. As to the crack being filled up, there was of course no need to inquire. I hailed them, and asked how they were getting on. “Oh, all right,” was the answer; “we’ve just finished.” — “What does the crevasse look like?” — “Oh, as usual,” they shouted back; “no bottom.” I mention this little incident just to show how one can grow accustomed to anything in this world. There were these two — Wisting and Hassel — lying over a yawning, bottomless abyss, and having their photograph taken; neither of them gave a thought to the serious side of the situation. To judge from the laughter and jokes we heard, one would have thought their position was something quite different.
When the photographer had quietly and leisurely finished his work — he got a remarkably good picture of the scene — the other two together raised the sledge, and the journey was continued. It was at this crevasse that we entered his Majesty’s Ballroom. The surface did not really look bad. True, the snow was blown away, which made it difficult to advance, but we did not see many cracks. There were a good many pressure-masses, as already mentioned, but even in the neighbourhood of these we could not see any marked disturbance. The first sign that the surface was more treacherous than it appeared to be was when Hanssen’s leading dogs went right through the apparently solid floor. They remained hanging by their harness, and were easily pulled up again. When we looked through the hole they had made in the crust, it did not give us the impression of being very dangerous, as, 2 or 3 feet below the outer crust, there lay another surface, which appeared to consist of pulverized ice. We assumed that this lower surface was the solid one, and that therefore there was no danger in falling through the upper one. But Bjaaland was able to tell us a different story. He had, in fact, fallen through the outer crust, and was well on his way through the inner one as well, when he got hold of a loop of rope on his sledge and saved himself in the nick of time. Time after time the dogs now fell through, and time after time the men went in. The effect of the open space between the two crusts was that the ground under our feet sounded unpleasantly hollow as we went over it. The drivers whipped up their dogs as much as they could, and with shouts and brisk encouragement they went rapidly over the treacherous floor. Fortunately this curious formation was not of great extent, and we soon began to observe a change for the better as we came up the ridge. It soon appeared that the Ballroom was the glacier’s last farewell to us. With it all irregularities ceased, and both surface and going improved by leaps and bounds, so that before very long we had the satisfaction of seeing that at last we had really conquered all these unpleasant difficulties. The surface at once became fine and even, with a splendid covering of snow everywhere, and we went rapidly on our way to the south with a feeling of security and safety.
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:50