Monday, January 10, 2011

Back to the Future: a Visit to 1902

Back to the Future: a Visit to 1902

When the exploration of Antarctica began seriously and competitively at the start of the 20th century, expeditions were often gone for years at a time. In the age before icebreakers and helicopter recon flights, in order to find a way south the sailing ships had to work their way between leads in the pack ice. If they found a secure harbor they marked it on their charts and stockpiled supplies for return visits.

Doing this in 1902, Robert Falcon Scott built a small house on what is now called Hut Point.

His expedition and others used this several times over the next decade. Scott and a doomed party did reach the South Pole in January, 1913, but found another man’s flag there first: the better-prepared and better-organized Roald Amundsen had beaten him by a full month. Frostbitten and out of supplies, Scott and his four companions died on their way back. A relief party found their frozen bodies and buried them in a cairn on the spot.

When the survivors sailed home to England they left behind Discovery Hut on Hut Point. This building still stands and I visited it today with a history guide from McMurdo. It’s not just that the building itself is still here—even more remarkable, their food and tools are here still as well. In the desiccating air of Antarctica, these remarkable objects are still intact. Trousers hang from the rafters, butchered seals wait in a pantry, dog biscuits for the sled dogs are stacked by the entryway.

Standing there made my heart pound: the heroes I had read about as a child lived exactly here. Inside this hut they enacted foolish skits, they mended sleds, they gave each other goofy nicknames, they made snowshoes for their horses, they wrote in their journals. Other huts still exist in Antarctica from this age of exploration, but in my case, I won’t be able to visit those. This is the only one I can reach on this trip. It was more than enough.

In the photo below, my guide, Cheryl Parker from the Crary Science Lab, points out where the names of the doomed men were written on the wall. History happened here, in this exact place. The hut was a time machine and I felt blessed to be there. The floorboards were scuffed by hobnailed boots; blubber for the stove still waits in a slightly musty, slightly rancid smelling pile. I tried to imagine spending months of winter darkness in this tiny place, struggling to stay warm and wondering if I would ever make it home.

More pictures will follow in a second post.


  1. Not knowing the story of Robert Falcon Scott, it makes me wonder why their party would head back out into the cold with no supplies and sufferng from frostbite.

  2. Scott had supplies, both with him on the way to the Pole and in depots along the way. The frostbite came later (on the way back); he famously died just before a final supply cache. He is a famous hero in British culture, more than American, and his fame indeed is larger than the organized fellow who beat him to the Pole, the Norwegian, Amundsen. Both of their stories are interesting, and Wikipedia gives a good summary.