So I’ve been reading Ranulph Fiennes “Race to the Pole” although I must admit, my progress has slowed significantly since my transition to the day shift (which is 8am to 6pm). This is mostly because I now actually have a social life which leaves me with a lot less time for reading and writing but is, on the whole, a new and enjoyable development.
Don’t get me wrong, it’s not that I didn’t have friends before – I really loved getting to know the other people working Midrats! Matt and Alex in the kitchen, Michelle, Todd, Chris, Caroline, Mae and Jim the DAs…. I even started to get to know the other members of the community who were permanently on the night shift as they were the ones that would turn up to be fed week after week. It was like we were a secret club, having to stay up all night – we’d give each other discreet nods as we’d pass each other in the hallways. But we were also always sleeping when activities were going on and everyone had different starting times so it was hard to plan our own social gatherings.
Since my shift switch, it feels like there has been a lot more going on around here and it all kicked off with the epic weekend I briefly described in my last post, starting with the tour of Discovery Hut. This tour fit in very nicely with where I was in Fiennes’ book at the moment.
The Discovery Hut is named for the RRS Discovery, Robert Falcon Scott’s ship for the 1901-1904 expedition to Antarctica. Interestingly to me…and possibly only to me…is that the Discovery was very nearly almost built in a Barrow-in-Furness shipyard. Barrow-in-Furness is a small city located in the Lake District of England, not far from Cartmel, where Simon Rogan has his flagship restaurant and where I very nearly almost ended up moving. At any rate, that shipyard lost the bid, a shipyard in Dundee built it instead, and on the 31st of July, 1901, Scott and his 61 men sailed south to Antarctica to explore the area, conduct scientific research, and, if possible, reach the South Pole.
Obviously this is a very condensed version of events but on February 8th, 1902, Scott and his men – already well into Antarctic waters – found “that the bay immediately to the south of their anchorage was ideally suited as a winter harbor, being shallow enough to protect the ship from invading bergs, a constant threat in such a place. So they maneuvered with care through the rocky shoals and around to the next bay south of Arrival Bay. This, their new home, they called Hut Point.” Their plan was to winter in the harbor, and set out on overland expeditions – including one to reach the Pole – using a combination of dog-sledging and man-haul sledging. In the following two weeks after anchoring in what is now called Winter Quarter’s Bay, a 30 ton prefabricated hut was erected to be used for shore deployment and as an observatory. Eight months of provisions were laid by inside in case an emergency forced the boat away from shore while teams were still on land.
Almost exactly one hundred and eleven years later, McMurdo Station sits across Winter Quarter’s Bay from where Scott and his men erected their hut. My dorm is almost exactly 1 kilometer from Discovery Hut and Winter Quarters Bay, where Scott found safe anchorage for his ship during the winter, is where our “Ice Pier” is located once the summer “thaw” starts.
The remains of a seal – an uneaten meal – greets you as you approach the hut on land from the station. It is very VERY slowly decomposing as it thaws in the summers but then re-freezes every winter.
Inside, you will still find numerous provisions, and not just from Discovery’s expedition. Subsequent expeditions – Shackleton’s Nimrod and Scott’s Terra Nova – both used the hut again, as it was the closest permanent shelter to the South Pole. You also see all the attempts the men made to insulate the hut with whatever was to hand.
What I found particularly charming about the “excursion” is that all the guides are instructed to notify you that you will be exposed to nonviable anthrax spores and asbestos inside the hut. Oh joy. At any rate, as I said, the hut was used by several other expeditions because of it’s desirable location, but when Shackleton’s Nimrod expedition attempted the Pole in 1908, he found the wind had blown the hut’s door ajar and it had become jammed in position by snow, so he’d had to break in through one of these lee windows.
Scott erected the cross on the summit at Hut Point in the memory of George Vince, who was the first man to die in McMurdo Sound.
Vince was part of a team of nine men who were caught in a blizzard during an expedition. The team leader, Michael Barne, knew the hut was only 4 miles away along the ridge on which they had camped. Against all best practices, he decided they should make a break for it. However, the ridge was steeper than anticipated and the footing more slick because of the fresh snow covering the ice. George Vince was one of two men who were wearing only soft-skinned sleeping boots because his ski boots had frozen so hard during the previous night they couldn’t be worn. Both he and the second man, Clarence Hare, couldn’t gain traction when the team descended the ridge and slid over the edge to the sea below. Vince’s body was never recovered. Miraculously, Hare returned to the ship by himself, 48 hours later, in fine fettle without a trace of frostbite.
Once at the summit of Hut Point, looking down the other side towards the Ross Sea, there are numerous pressure ridges where the still frozen sea meets the volcanic rock and this is where the seals love to come up through the ice to “chill out”.
You can also see discoloured spots on the ice – those are blood stains, not only from seals fighting each other and eating fish and penguins but also from pupping. It is spring after all!
After this, I hiked the 1 kilometer straight back to my dorm – there are days where I can stretch the route back and forth to the Hut into a 5k run but today, I had a deadline. I was bound for Scott Base and their bar for my first Happy Hour in Antarctica.
Oh, and for those that noticed that the ship was the RRS Discovery and not the HMS Discovery – I tell you this: it stands for Royal Research Ship and you can see it on display in Dundee, Scotland.