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Scott's Last Expedition

Wednesday, August 2nd 1911 – Account of the Winter Journey

The Crozier Party returned last night after enduring for five weeks the hardest conditions on record. They looked more weather-worn than anyone I have yet seen. Their faces were scarred and wrinkled, their eyes dull, their hands whitened and creased with the constant exposure to damp and cold, yet the scars of frostbite were very few and this evil had never seriously assailed them. The main part of their afflictions arose, and very obviously arose, from sheer lack of sleep, and to-day after a night’s rest our travellers are very different in appearance and mental capacity.

The story of a very wonderful performance must be told by the actors. It is for me now to give but an outline of the journey and to note more particularly the effects of the strain which they have imposed on themselves and the lessons which their experiences teach for our future guidance.

Wilson is very thin, but this morning very much his keen, wiry self – Bowers is quite himself to-day. Cherry-Garrard is slightly puffy in the face and still looks worn. It is evident that he has suffered most severely – but Wilson tells me that his spirit never wavered for a moment. Bowers has come through best, all things considered, and I believe he is the hardest traveller that ever undertook a Polar journey, as well as one of the most undaunted; more by hint than direct statement I gather his value to the party, his untiring energy and the astonishing physique which enables him to continue to work under conditions which are absolutely paralysing to others. Never was such a sturdy, active, undefeatable little man.

So far as one can gather, the story of this journey in brief is much as follows: The party reached the Barrier two days after leaving C. Evans, still pulling their full load of 250 lbs. per man; the snow surface then changed completely and grew worse and worse as they advanced. For one day they struggled on as before, covering 4 miles, but from this onward they were forced to relay, and found the half load heavier than the whole one had been on the sea ice. Meanwhile the temperature had been falling, and now for more than a week the thermometer fell below -60º. On one night the minimum showed -71º, and on the next -77º, 109º of frost. Although in this truly fearful cold the air was comparatively still, every now and again little puffs of wind came eddying across the snow plain with blighting effect. No civilised being has ever encountered such conditions before with only a tent of thin canvas to rely on for shelter. We have been looking up the records to-day and find that Amundsen on a journey to the N. magnetic pole in March encountered temperatures similar in degree and recorded a minimum of 79º; but he was with Esquimaux who built him an igloo shelter nightly; he had a good measure of daylight; the temperatures given are probably ‘unscreened’ from radiation, and finally, he turned homeward and regained his ship after five days’ absence. Our party went outward and remained absent for five weeks.

It took the best part of a fortnight to cross the coldest region, and then rounding C. Mackay they entered the wind-swept area. Blizzard followed blizzard, the sky was constantly overcast and they staggered on in a light which was little better than complete darkness; sometimes they found themselves high on the slopes of Terror on the left of their track, and sometimes diving into the pressure ridges on the right amidst crevasses and confused ice disturbance. Reaching the foothills near C. Crozier, they ascended 800 feet, then packed their belongings over a moraine ridge and started to build a hut. It took three days to build the stone walls and complete the roof with the canvas brought for the purpose. Then at last they could attend to the object of the journey.

The scant twilight at midday was so short that they must start in the dark and be prepared for the risk of missing their way in returning without light. On the first day in which they set forth under these conditions it took them two hours to reach the pressure ridges, and to clamber over them roped together occupied nearly the same time; finally they reached a place above the rookery where they could hear the birds squawking, but from which they were quite unable to find a way down. The poor light was failing and they returned to camp. Starting again on the following day they wound their way through frightful ice disturbances under the high basalt cliffs; in places the rock overhung, and at one spot they had to creep through a small channel hollowed in the ice. At last they reached the sea ice, but now the light was so far spent they were obliged to rush everything. Instead of the 2000 or 3000 nesting birds which had been seen here in _Discovery_ days, they could now only count about 100; they hastily killed and skinned three to get blubber for their stove, and collecting six eggs, three of which alone survived, they dashed for camp.

It is possible the birds are deserting this rookery, but it is also possible that this early date found only a small minority of the birds which will be collected at a later one. The eggs, which have not yet been examined, should throw light on this point. Wilson observed yet another proof of the strength of the nursing instinct in these birds. In searching for eggs both he and Bowers picked up rounded pieces of ice which these ridiculous creatures had been cherishing with fond hope.

The light had failed entirely by the time the party were clear of the pressure ridges on their return, and it was only by good luck they regained their camp.

That night a blizzard commenced, increasing in fury from moment to moment. They now found that the place chosen for the hut for shelter was worse than useless. They had far better have built in the open, for the fierce wind, instead of striking them directly, was deflected on to them in furious whirling gusts. Heavy blocks of snow and rock placed on the roof were whirled away and the canvas ballooned up, tearing and straining at its securings – its disappearance could only be a question of time. They had erected their tent with some valuables inside close to the hut; it had been well spread and more than amply secured with snow and boulders, but one terrific gust tore it up and whirled it away. Inside the hut they waited for the roof to vanish, wondering what they could do if it went, and vainly endeavouring to make it secure. After fourteen hours it went, as they were trying to pin down one corner. The smother of snow was on them, and they could only dive for their sleeping-bags with a gasp. Bowers put his head out once and said, ‘We’re all right,’ in as near his ordinary tones as he could compass. The others replied ‘Yes, we’re all right,’ and all were silent for a night and half a day whilst the wind howled on; the snow entered every chink and crevasse of the sleeping-bags, and the occupants shivered and wondered how it would all end.

This gale was the same (July 23) in which we registered our maximum wind force, and it seems probable that it fell on C. Crozier even more violently than on us.

The wind fell at noon the following day; the forlorn travellers crept from their icy nests, made shift to spread their floor-cloth overhead, and lit their primus. They tasted their first food for forty-eight hours and began to plan a means to build a shelter on the homeward route. They decided that they must dig a large pit nightly and cover it as best they could with their floorcloth. But now fortune befriended them; a search to the north revealed the tent lying amongst boulders a quarter of a mile away, and, strange to relate, practically uninjured, a fine testimonial for the material used in its construction. On the following day they started homeward, and immediately another blizzard fell on them, holding them prisoners for two days. By this time the miserable condition of their effects was beyond description. The sleeping-bags were far too stiff to be rolled up, in fact they were so hard frozen that attempts to bend them actually split the skins; the eiderdown bags inside Wilson’s and C.-G.’s reindeer covers served but to fitfully stop the gaps made by such rents. All socks, finnesko, and mits had long been coated with ice; placed in breast pockets or inside vests at night they did not even show signs of thawing, much less of drying. It sometimes took C.-G. three-quarters of an hour to get into his sleeping-bag, so flat did it freeze and so difficult was it to open. It is scarcely possible to realise the horrible discomforts of the forlorn travellers as they plodded back across the Barrier with the temperature again constantly below -60º. In this fashion they reached Hut Point and on the following night our home quarters.
Wilson is disappointed at seeing so little of the penguins, but to me and to everyone who has remained here the result of this effort is the appeal it makes to our imagination as one of the most gallant stories in Polar History. That men should wander forth in the depth of a Polar night to face the most dismal cold and the fiercest gales in darkness is something new; that they should have persisted in this effort in spite of every adversity for five full weeks is heroic. It makes a tale for our generation which I hope may not be lost in the telling.

Moreover the material results are by no means despicable. We shall know now when that extraordinary bird the Emperor penguin lays its eggs, and under what conditions; but even if our information remains meagre concerning its embryology, our party has shown the nature of the conditions which exist on the Great Barrier in winter. Hitherto we have only imagined their severity; now we have proof, and a positive light is thrown on the local climatology of our Strait.

Experience of Sledging Rations and Equipment

For our future sledge work several points have been most satisfactorily settled. The party went on a very simple food ration in different and extreme proportions; they took pemmican, butter, biscuit and tea only. After a short experience they found that Wilson, who had arranged for the greatest quantity of fat, had too much of it, and C.-G., who had gone for biscuit, had more than he could eat. A middle course was struck which gave a general proportion agreeable to all, and at the same time suited the total quantities of the various articles carried. In this way we have arrived at a simple and suitable ration for the inland plateau. The only change suggested is the addition of cocoa for the evening meal. The party contented themselves with hot water, deeming that tea might rob them of their slender chance of sleep.

On sleeping-bags little new can be said – the eiderdown bag may be a useful addition for a short time on a spring journey, but they soon get iced up.

Bowers did not use an eiderdown bag throughout, and in some miraculous manner he managed to turn his reindeer bag two or three times during the journey. The following are the weights of sleeping-bags before and after:

Starting Weight. Final Weight.
Wilson, reindeer and eiderdown 17 40
Bowers, reindeer only 17 33
C.-Garrard, reindeer and eiderdown 18 45

This gives some idea of the ice collected.

The double tent has been reported an immense success. It weighed about 35 lbs. at starting and 60 lbs. on return: the ice mainly collected on the inner tent.

The crampons are much praised, except by Bowers, who has an eccentric attachment to our older form. We have discovered a hundred details of clothes, mits, and footwear: there seems no solution to the difficulties which attach to these articles in extreme cold; all Wilson can say, speaking broadly, is ‘the gear is excellent, excellent.’ One continues to wonder as to the possibilities of fur clothing as made by the Esquimaux, with a sneaking feeling that it may outclass our more civilised garb. For us this can only be a matter of speculation, as it would have been quite impossible to have obtained such articles. With the exception of this radically different alternative, I feel sure we are as near perfection as experience can direct.

At any rate we can now hold that our system of clothing has come through a severer test than any other, fur included.

Effect of Journey. – Wilson lost 3 1/2 lbs.; Bowers lost 2 1/2 lbs.; C.-Garrard lost 1 lb.

Dr Wilson, Lieut. Bowers and Cherry-Garrard on return from winter trip to Cape Crozier. August 1st 1911
“Dr Wilson, Lieut. Bowers and Cherry-Garrard on return from winter trip to Cape Crozier. August 1st 1911”

Bernard Day digging out the snowed up motor tractors. August 1st 1911
“Bernard Day digging out the snowed up motor tractors. August 1st 1911”

Bernard Day digging out the snowed up motor tractors. August 1st 1911
“Bernard Day digging out the snowed up motor tractors. August 1st 1911”

The snowed up motor tractors. August 1st 1911
“The snowed up motor tractors. August 1st 1911”

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