I’m climbing a hill, Observation Hill, 700 feet, chocolate rock poking through dry powdery snows. I’m exhausted. The sun has been circling for twenty-one hours, eclipsing my sleep – and now it’s bouncing off the aspirin white ice fields. Pity I forgot my sunglasses. When I reach the top, I’ve leaked sweat into my waterproof trousers which quickly starts to freeze-dry.
I scan the monstrous horizons – monstrous horizons across a tiny chip of the Antarctic continent. At the foot of the hill lie the frozen sea waters of McMurdo Sound. If they weren’t stiff with ice they’d lap the Ross Ice Barrier to the south, a grinding slab the size of France. The Barrier is a cliff face, sometimes 200 feet high, though it’s a mere pencil scribble from up here. My furthest horizon is the spiky Transantarctic mountains, tracing the edge of both Sound and Barrier, clad in creaking, rupturing glaciers. Behind me, there’s a 13,500-feet volcano. It’s white, with sulphur dioxide pluming piously from the cone. It last vomited its boiling red guts in 1841.
Amundsen and party, South Pole, December 14, 1911.
Another of our party (clad in regulation issue red polar parka) makes it up onto the summit of Observation Hill. “Hoo!” he goes. “Wow!” He’s pointing at a gap in the ice, to what looks like a toy in the bath. It’s our Russian ice breaker, the Kapitan Khlenbikov, cooling its 25,000hp engines in a patch of black water. Small inflatable zodiacs ferry more red parkas from the hull to the shore. Puffy aliens on a white Mars.
Interior of the hut at Cape Evans, with Cherry-Garrard, Bowers, Oates, Meares and Atkinson. Photograph: Herbert Ponting
But we worked for this. Three days sailing through oily grey seas from Hobart; two days more through eerie white mangroves of bergs; a day of hull-scraping fury as the Khlebnikov’s ice-knife, slung under the keel, cut through meter-thick pack ice. The effort of sea voyage has not only put us in a different space, but in a different time, a flickering black and white time, when people felt less in control of their planet.
As I breathe in through my nose and feel a hair stiffen as the mucous frosts, I realise this continent, 1.5 times the size of the US, is still a blank – a blank in my knowledge, a blank in my experience. The maps of Antarctica drive me potty: there are no colours to orientate by, no forest greens, marsh browns, sandy yellows or farmland quilts; and because there’s no north (all directions from the geographical South Pole are north), the cartographers rotate the continent like a dial on their bloody accordions of paper. I can’t find myself here.
But wait. There is one place I feel I know.
In the selective memory of the school child (or perhaps it’s the selective teaching), Antarctica is all about the British Antarctic Expedition from 1910-1913 when the indomitable Robert Falcon Scott raced to plant the Union Jack at the Pole: an heroic foray into the unknown which ended in physical torment and sacrifice. And the geography visible from where I stand on Observation Hill – the frozen sea, the Barrier, the Beardmore Glacier and then 800 miles to the South Pole – was where it happened.
“I recall sitting in a rather sweaty Sydney, reading Apsley Cherry-Garrard’s account of the blighted polar expedition, The Worst Journey in the World, idly thinking it might be fun to get cold in the seventh continent. But I can tell you it isn’t fun. It hurts.”
Yet Britain’s thirst for heroes drowns the facts. The expedition was chiefly about scientific investigation carried out by twenty-four men over three years – six considerable volumes of science are testament to their work. And there was not one heroic foray but several, many of which also ended in physical torment and sacrifice.
In 1911 Apsley Cherry-Garrard, Dr ‘Bill’ Wilson and Lieutenant ‘Birdie’ Bowers left the expedition headquarters in Cape Evans and trekked to Cape Crozier to retrieve eggs from the only known emperor penguin colony. The scientific community in Britain would use them to trace a link between primitive birds and reptiles.
Siberian ponies, Terra Nova expedition. Photograph: Herbert Ponting
The party went out in June, mid-winter, practically guinea-pigging themselves to see how much hardship men could endure. In nineteen days, the party man-hauled 750lbs on two sledges for seventy miles across ice-covered mountain slopes in days afforded only one hour of daylight.
Temperatures dropped as low as -77F. They recited poetry in their heads to fend off the fierce cold; blisters grew like inch-long slugs on feet and hands, and when the fluid froze and expanded it caused such excruciating pains that the explorers popped them with pins for relief at night. Their heart rates slowed, their sleeping bags froze shut and had to be prised apart with broken feet. They shivered “for many minutes at a time”, wrote Cherry-Garrard, “until I thought my back would break.” If warmth ever came it afforded grim pleasures: “The risen temperature allowed all our ice to turn to water, and we lay [in our bags] steaming and beautifully liquid.”
Reaching Cape Crozier, the party constructed an igloo with a canvas roof 800 feet up Mount Terror. Then, after tumbling into crevasses, scaling ice cliffs and traversing lethal ridges, they collected five eggs – only to get lost on their return in Force 4 wind. Death was thought of as a friend as they groped their way back.
The following night in the igloo, the blubber-burning stove fired a blob of boiling oil into Wilson’s eye. The night after, the tent housing supplies for the return journey blew away in ‘black snow’, which they retrieved as “the earth was torn in pieces: the indescribable roar and fury of it cannot be imagined.” Then the hurricane took the roof from the igloo as well, leaving them sealed in their bags, shrinking in the shadow of Mount Terror. “I might have speculated on my chances of going to heaven,” wrote Cherry-Garrard, “but candidly I did not care.”
The party made it back to Hut Point. Cherry-Garrard even made it back to London, to the Natural History Museum in South Kensington to present the three eggs that survived the journey. The museum custodians kept him sitting alone in a “gloomy passage” most of the day for a receipt of his eggs.
Roald Amundsen. Photograph: Anders Beer Wilse
Though the entire British Antarctic Expedition resolutely “travelled for science”, Captain Scott knew the British people were fixated with conquering the Pole. “One cannot affect to be blind to the situation,” he wrote. “The scientific public, as well as the more general public, will gauge the result of the scientific work of the expedition largely in accordance with the success or failure of [Polar conquest].”
It was doubly bad news then, when Scott’s colleagues aboard the ship Terra Nova learned that Arctic explorer Roald Amundsen had landed his team in the Bay of Whales 450 miles west, in a bid to plant the Norwegian flag at the Pole. So now it was a race; Scott and Amundsen would sit out the winter at their respective starting lines, striking out on the earliest date they dared.
To help plant his flag, Amundsen had brought with him 116 dogs.
The black rubber zodiacs scuff onto a shore, engines cut. The red parkas stumble out, clap their gloves, look around: no-one for hundreds of miles; possibly no-one for years. We have to scout along the sloping sweep of rocky shore for a point of interest – a hole in the ground, last marked by a pale wooden sign in 1969.
It’s located: I set out up the slope, trudge through snow packed with surprises, sometimes covering my wellington boot, other times swallowing my waterproof trousers. It always conceals fractured rocks of varying size and sharpness.
We surround the site, the first ever tourists to visit Inexpressible Island. Truth is, we’re not sure whether to be proud of this, but one man is glowing with the experience. “A tremendous bonus to be here,” growls Syd Kirkby.
Syd is a living Antarctic explorer. Somewhere on the white maps, the wind rages over a Kirkby Glacier and a Mount Kirkby, named in honour of his surveying the eastern coast during the ’50s and ’60s.
His whiskery enthusiasm helps us relive how another party from the British Expedition were cut off from the ship Terra Nova by a frozen sea, and survived the winter in an ice cave – an ice cave collapsed under these very snows and rocks. He tells how they sat around their black blubber stove on a carpet of seaweed as the winter scoured the coast, their ‘blubber faces’ grotesquely contorted from their constant diet of seal. One seal’s stomach offered up a fabulous prize of only partly digested fish to temper the scurvy.
And to keep their minds from rotting they held regular lectures.
We take lectures after piping hot coffee on the Khlebnikov. Syd has good knowledge of Antarctica and absolute respect for its awesome physics. The projector clicks and we’re on a sled behind a trace line of dogs in harness. “People think of dog sledging in a romantic light. But sledging is probably the dirtiest, most ruthless and brutal pursuit you can embark upon. The dogs themselves are tall rangy, starving, insane creatures who will quite literally run themselves to death.”
(Click: a slide of an orange caterpillar tractor emblazoned with ‘Australian National Antarctic Research Expeditions’, arse-up, jammed into the maw of a blue-throat crevasse, men working with ice picks to recover it.)
“But dog sledging works.”
Syd goes on to explain the ability of these Greenland/Siberian wolf-mix dogs to endure snow blizzards, crevasse falls and frugal rations. They also reward their keepers with loyal service and companionship. We see a picture of ‘Brownie’ being pulled out of a crevasse, and ‘Vida’, sitting at a window in Mawson Base waiting for her morning tea from Syd. “We’d talk about what we had to do today, what we thought the weather would bring.”
And then in the field, he tells how a dog like Brownie gets lame, unable to keep up with the expedition team running for their lives between tasks. Syd is grave, troubled, reliving the moment when a working man in extraordinary circumstances has to do his job against his best instincts. “I went up to Brownie, where he was wagging his tail thinking his old friend had come to save him. I scratched behind his ears, told him how we appreciated his hard work. Then I put a pistol to his head and shot him.”
Scott himself was repelled by the bloody business of dogs, choosing instead to rely more on Siberian ponies to load the string of crucial bases supporting the Polar party on its trek south.
Ponies were a fiasco from the start. They wasted in the winds. They bit and kicked their handlers. They sank deep into the snows. Three ponies were lost to exhaustion on an earlier mission to construct the One Ton Depot supply dump; three more when the fickle sea ice in McMurdo broke up at night, leaving men and ponies awash on huge floes, killer whales suddenly circling in the black waters. Two ponies, unable to be pulled from the freezing waters despite frantic efforts, were miserably dispatched by the explorers using pick axes.
The Polar party left their headquarters in Cape Evans in the spring of 1912. The ponies, or at least the broken crocks remaining, took the team over the Barrier to the Beardmore Glacier, half way to the Pole. But they cost valuable man hours and more importantly, energy. The explorers were exhausted even before they began to arduously man-haul sledges over the glacier’s treacherous crevasses.
But Scott’s most extraordinary decision was made days before the last support party peeled away and returned to base. Scott chose to take a party of not four men but five to the Pole. Five men with only four sets of skis. Five men with rations for only four. Why? No-one’s really sure. All the while Amundsen drove south with his dogs.
“The Norwegians have forestalled us and are first at the Pole. It is a terrible disappointment, and I am very sorry for my loyal companions,” wrote Scott, two and a half months and 800 miles after setting out from Cape Evans. And later: “Great god! this is an awful place…”
After two months more on the return journey, they were critically undernourished from their superhuman efforts hauling sledges: “Every day we have been ready to start for our depot 11 miles away, but outside the door of the tent it remains a scene of whirling drift. I do not think for any better things now. We shall stick it out to the end, but we are getting weaker, of course, and the end cannot be far.”
Evans died first, apparently mad with brain damage from an accident; Oates, crippled by a grotesquely swollen foot, suicided; Scott, Wilson and Bowers, perhaps hastened by opium tablets, died on March 29, 1912.
In November, with the winter safely passed, Cherry-Garrard and the search party located the bodies in a tent less than 200 miles from Hut Point. “Scott lay in the centre, Bill [Wilson] on his left, with his head towards the door. Bill especially had died very quietly with his hands folded over his chest. Birdie also quietly. Oates’ death was a very fine one. We go on tomorrow to try and find his body.”
The tent was collapsed onto the corpses and a cairn built around. To be subsumed by the ice they tried to conquer.
The scuff of the zodiacs again on another deserted shoreline, only this one hauntingly beautiful. Seals looping through a sparkling sea, calm as a sleeping infant, in a sunset that lasts all day; at the back, the gorgon white volcano, Mount Erebus.
We’re here for a hut, a square timber construction, dwarfed, alone, incongruous. Its timbers are lashed pale by the wind, the grain raised like veins. I steal inside with a group of eleven parkas, where Syd explains how this was a happy place, where Scott and his men planned, experimented and logged, read, smoked and debated, ate and slept.
It’s packed to the blackened rafters with the very materiel on which the party lived at the bottom of the world, heady treasure, iconic clutter. There’s a picture of a woman glued to a bunk; a row of tea cups; a jumble of glass flasks and test tubes; the long table of which Herbert Ponting took the famous birthday party photograph, Scott at one end, young Cherry-Garrard at bottom left. I smell the suppurating slabs of seal blubber and it’s the smell of polar history; the faded colours of famous brand foods lined on deathly-still shelves are an empire’s memento mori.
It’s a heavenly place, stalked by good and recent spirits: the kettle has only just gone off the cast iron stove; the dottle only just tapped from the pipe; the desk only just cleared of papers by Scott himself. It’s Marie Celestial.
Outside, as the glassy sea licks a sparkling ice foot and rocks black pebbles on the shore, the wind zips over sledges, pony fodder, supply crates branded ‘England’. And there, some way behind the hut, amongst debris of rock and snow, is a grizzled wrack of fur, bones and a skull. Where the animal’s neck used to be is a collar, attached by a long rusting chain to a tether.
It’s a dog.
On Observation Hill I try to scribble some notes.
I recall sitting in a rather sweaty Sydney, reading Apsley Cherry-Garrard’s account of the blighted polar expedition, The Worst Journey in the World, idly thinking it might be fun to get cold in the seventh continent. But I can tell you it isn’t fun. It hurts. A paltry -22C degree wind (0F) crucifies the tips of my ears, nose and worst of all fingers: chilled human tissues cramp my hand into a throbbing claw as I write.
But really I’m playing: -22C is a summer temperature and I’m guessing at the agonies gone before.
I stand up, stick my claw back into my mitt and prepare to step-stumble back down to the tiny zodiacs. I can’t help feeling that all of them, Cherry-Garrard, Amundsen, Scott, and the many who followed, were completely, stark-staring mad.
I take a step downwards. Then stop, and move to the stolid wooden cross looming out of the rock summit. I remove my glove again, reach up and run a numb finger over the names carefully etched into the jarrah: Scott, Oates, Wilson, Bowers, Evans. And then the words of Tennyson: To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.
I recall it from the classroom. But I should remember it.
Max Anderson travelled to Antarctica with Quark Expeditions. You can too.