A day of blizzard and adventure.
The wind arose last night, and although the temperature advanced a few degrees it remained at a very low point considering the strength of the wind.
This forenoon it was blowing 40 to 45 m.p.h. with a temperature -25º to -28º. No weather to be in the open.
In the afternoon the wind modified slightly. Taylor and Atkinson went up to the Ramp thermometer screen. After this, entirely without my knowledge, two adventurous spirits, Atkinson and Gran, decided to start off over the floe, making respectively for the north and south Bay thermometers, ‘Archibald’ and ‘Clarence.’ This was at 5.30; Gran was back by dinner at 6.45, and it was only later that I learned that he had gone no more than 200 or 300 yards from the land and that it had taken him nearly an hour to get back again.
Atkinson’s continued absence passed unnoticed until dinner was nearly over at 7.15, although I had heard that the wind had dropped at the beginning of dinner and that it remained very thick all round, with light snow falling.
Although I felt somewhat annoyed, I had no serious anxiety at this time, and as several members came out of the hut I despatched them short distances to shout and show lanterns and arranged to have a paraffin flare lit on Wind Vane Hill.
Evans, P.O., Crean and Keohane, being anxious for a walk, were sent to the north with a lantern. Whilst this desultory search proceeded the wind sprang up again from the south, but with no great force, and meanwhile the sky showed signs of clearing and the moon appeared dimly through the drifting clouds. With such a guide we momentarily looked for the return of our wanderer, and with his continued absence our anxiety grew. At 9.30 Evans, P.O., and his party returned without news of him, and at last there was no denying the possibility of a serious accident. Between 9.30 and 10 proper search parties were organised, and I give the details to show the thoroughness which I thought necessary to meet the gravity of the situation. I had by this time learnt that Atkinson had left with comparatively light clothing and, still worse, with leather ski boots on his feet; fortunately he had wind clothing.
P.O. Evans was away first with Crean, Keohane, and Demetri, a light sledge, a sleeping-bag, and a flask of brandy. His orders were to search the edge of the land and glacier through the sweep of the Bay to the Barne Glacier and to Cape Barne beyond, then to turn east along an open crack and follow it to Inaccessible Island. Evans (Lieut.), with Nelson, Forde, and Hooper, left shortly after, similarly equipped, to follow the shore of the South Bay in similar fashion, then turn out to the Razor Back and search there. Next Wright, Gran, and Lashly set out for the bergs to look thoroughly about them and from thence pass round and examine Inaccessible Island. After these parties got away, Meares and Debenham started with a lantern to search to and fro over the surface of our promontory. Simpson and Oates went out in a direct line over the Northern floe to the ‘Archibald’ thermometer, whilst Ponting and Taylor re-examined the tide crack towards the Barne Glacier. Meanwhile Day went to and fro Wind Vane Hill to light at intervals upon its crest bundles of tow well soaked in petrol. At length Clissold and I were left alone in the hut, and as the hours went by I grew ever more alarmed. It was impossible for me to conceive how an able man could have failed to return to the hut before this or by any means found shelter in such clothing in such weather. Atkinson had started for a point a little more than a mile away; at 10.30 he had been five hours away; what conclusion could be drawn? And yet I felt it most difficult to imagine an accident on open floe with no worse pitfall than a shallow crack or steep-sided snow drift. At least I could feel that every spot which was likely to be the scene of such an accident would be searched. Thus 11 o’clock came without change, then 11.30 with its 6 hours of absence. But at 11.45 I heard voices from the Cape, and presently the adventure ended to my extreme relief when Meares and Debenham led our wanderer home. He was badly frostbitten in the hand and less seriously on the face, and though a good deal confused, as men always are on such occasions, he was otherwise well.
His tale is confused, but as far as one can gather he did not go more than a quarter of a mile in the direction of the thermometer screen before he decided to turn back. He then tried to walk with the wind a little on one side on the bearing he had originally observed, and after some time stumbled on an old fish trap hole, which he knew to be 200 yards from the Cape. He made this 200 yards in the direction he supposed correct, and found nothing. In such a situation had he turned east he must have hit the land somewhere close to the hut and so found his way to it. The fact that he did not, but attempted to wander straight on, is clear evidence of the mental condition caused by that situation. There can be no doubt that in a blizzard a man has not only to safeguard the circulation in his limbs, but must struggle with a sluggishness of brain and an absence of reasoning power which is far more likely to undo him.
In fact Atkinson has really no very clear idea of what happened to him after he missed the Cape. He seems to have wandered aimlessly up wind till he hit an island; he walked all round this; says he couldn’t see a yard at this time; fell often into the tide crack; finally stopped under the lee of some rocks; here got his hand frostbitten owing to difficulty of getting frozen mit on again, finally got it on; started to dig a hole to wait in. Saw something of the moon and left the island; lost the moon and wanted to go back; could find nothing; finally stumbled on another island, perhaps the same one; waited again, again saw the moon, now clearing; shaped some sort of course by it – then saw flare on Cape and came on rapidly – says he shouted to someone on Cape quite close to him, greatly surprised not to get an answer. It is a rambling tale to-night and a half thawed brain. It is impossible to listen to such a tale without appreciating that it has been a close escape or that there would have been no escape had the blizzard continued. The thought that it would return after a short lull was amongst the worst with me during the hours of waiting.
2 A.M. – The search parties have returned and all is well again, but we must have no more of these very unnecessary escapades. Yet it is impossible not to realise that this bit of experience has done more than all the talking I could have ever accomplished to bring home to our people the dangers of a blizzard.