Assistant Editor David J. Hoff and Photo Editor Allison Shelley are filing periodic travel dispatches from Antarctica, where they are on assignment covering a National Science Foundation program for teachers. Here Mr. Hoff tours a historic explorers’ hut that calls up images and stories of the “heroic age” of treacherous South Pole expeditions.
McMurdo Research Station (Jan. 11)—If you walk less than half a mile from this site, one of the beacons of 21st-century scientific research, you can step into a building for a glimpse of life nearly 100 years ago.
The author takes a minute to reflect inside of Scott Hut.
Around the bend of McMurdo Sound is a hut used by four expeditions of explorers dating back to 1902. Inside, you can smell the residue of burned seal oil, see the tins of leftover English biscuits, and read the graffiti drawn by the British explorers who used this area as their base camps for their attempts to reach the South Pole, 800 miles away.
The hut may be the most important relic of the Heroic Age, the period when explorers competed to reach the South Pole.
“It’s possibly one of the most famous places in the history of exploration,” says Donal T. Manahan, the dean of research at the University of Southern California. Manahan, a biologist by training, is one of the many scientists who have studied the history of the area that is the center of the U.S. Antarctic research program today. “It paved the way for the discovery of the South Pole,” he says.
Members of Robert Falcon Scott’s Discovery expedition—the first attempt to reach the South Pole—built the hut when they arrived in the sound in 1902. The Discovery crew built the hut, which looks like a shed, as a storage facility, and occasionally created a stage for amateur theatrical productions presented as entertainment during winter nights. It also had a small room to the left of the entrance where early biological research on penguins was conducted. The dry and cold Antarctic air has preserved some of those bones.
Members of a Quark Expeditions Antarctic cruise visit Vince Cross, at Hut Point as their ship waits for them in McMurdo Sound.
Because the Discovery was frozen into the ice over the winter, the ship’s crew usually slept aboard ship. During their stay in the area, one of the ship’s seamen slipped near the hut in the winter darkness and slid down a hill into the sea ice. A cross commemorating his death stands overlooking the shelter.
Three other expeditions relied on the hut over the next 15 years. In 1907, Ernest Shackleton—an officer on the Discovery voyage—returned to McMurdo Sound for his own endeavor to reach the South Pole. Shackleton built his own hut closer to the sea because the sound remained frozen in the summer.
Shackleton and his crew on the Nimrod stored supplies in the Discovery hut and occasionally slept there if an exploring party needed emergency shelter. In the annex, a member of his team carved the name of the ship into the floor.
Scott returned in 1910 for his second effort to reach the South Pole. He built another shelter farther out. At his original hut, he stabled ponies on the porch, and the expedition’s scientists used it for their laboratories.
Scott and a party of four of his men reached the South Pole in 1912, but all died on the return. The men awaiting them built a memorial cross and erected it past the Discovery hut at the top of the hill that overlooks the McMurdo Research Station.
Shackleton’s men used the hut again, starting in 1915. While Shackleton led a party to the other side of the continent, he sent the crew to McMurdo Sound. He assigned them to march inland and store supplies for his transcontinental journey. One day, while anchored near the Discovery hut, the ship broke away from its anchor, stranding 10 sailors on land.
The 10 sailors completed their mission; little did they know that they didn’t need to. Shackleton’s crossing party was mired in sea ice and never managed to reach the shore. Every man accompanying Shackleton was rescued in one of the most challenging survival stories ever told.
Seven of the stranded men survived by living in the hut for almost two years. One died of scurvy, and the others set off to find their ship, the Aurora, by marching across the sea ice. They never made it.
The evidence of the Aurora survivors is mostly what I see when I tour the hut today. Seal carcasses are still strewn on the floor. Slabs of blubber used to light the lamps are oozing onto the floor. The stoves built from emptied food tins have small streams of oil sliding down them at the pace of a glacier.
Scott Hut, assembled in 1902 during Robert Scott’s first Antarctic expedition.
Most of the unopened tins state their contents: Hunter’s Famed Oatmeal, Fry’s Pure Concentrated Cocoa, Bird’s Baking Power Absolutely Pure. I wonder what I’d find if I opened one. The rails of the front porch are dented where Scott’s ponies gnawed while tied there.
The hut is a better reminder of the explorers and their hardships than the crosses erected for the dead. Those kinds of markers can be seen in any cemetery or memorial.
In the small, square shelter, I get a sense that people lived here through harsher weather than I experience today, and without the waterproof and windproof clothes I wear in McMurdo. Somehow—I don’t know how—most of them survived.