Our most recent helo trip out from McMurdo on our NSF Artists & Writers Project took us to Cape Evans, the site of Robert Scott’s Terra Nova Hut, where they based their 1910-1913 trip to the South Pole. We went with Anthony Powell (the filmmaker from Scott Base who made the movie “Antarctica: A Year on Ice”. He has an engineering/tech “day job” at Scott Base and is a moviemaker in his off time). The Terra Nova Hut is the most elaborate and extensive of the 3 main historic huts in the McMurdo-ish area (the other 2 are Discovery Hut, right at McMurdo, and the Shackleton Nimrod Hut at Royds – described in earlier posts in this series). Here is a shot of the outside of the hut with Mount Erebus in the background.
The restoration work done by the Antarctic Heritage Trust is quite evident as the Hut is in absolutely great shape. Inside this hut there are many bunks, a full science lab (about the size of the average American home bathroom), a large dining table that easily seats 12, a variety of other work and storage areas partially or fully partitioned off. From just inside the the front door it is possible to go into the areas described above, or go around the outer section (still fully inside the hut but well separated from the rest by an inner set of walls) – this outer section contains the horse stables (where they kept 4-6 horses or “Siberian ponies”) and where the dogs were able to stay inside as well. Here is a photo of myself and Katy Jensen who is working with us inside the hut.
Here is a shot of one of the lab benches – they were doing so much science that this is actually an extra bench set up just outside the actual lab area in the hut. The lab area itself is roped off to block access, as are several other side rooms in the Hut (sort of like how the upstairs is roped off at Graceland).
Scott’s first expedition, the Discovery Expedition in 1901-1904, which established the Discovery Hut near present day McMurdo, apparently soon realized that the harbor area there froze over more often than expected (sometimes requiring ships to be “blasted” out of the ice, or be unable to get in close enough to dock) – so the Terra Nova Expedition established the hut at Cape Evans, about 12 miles away, where ship access was more consistent (although it is only 12-ish miles from McMurdo, after the sea ice starts to melt near the end of December it only gets accessed by helicopter as the overland route is much longer and quite hilly). The water was open on all 3 sides of Cape Evans while we were there (in early Feb).
Just over the hill we saw two Emperor penguins just hanging out behind a small ridge (keeping them out of the wind – the entire time we were there the wind was about 30mph with higher gusts – another day of never letting go of the tripod – and our big tripod weighs about 14 pounds and would easily be blown over in this wind). Mount Erebus is behind the penguins in this view.
It was nice to be able to go into the hut from time to time to get out of the wind for a few minutes. Even though the Terra Nova Hut seems like a small, self-contained city, and is surrounded by scattered historical artifacts all around it, again the sense of isolation is profound and present here, even for us. Even knowing that the helo was coming back a little after midnight (we had been dropped off at 7pm), even knowing that 3 of us had radios, or that if we needed, it was “only” an estimated 1-2 day climb (up and down hills) to get back to McMurdo, the wind and cold and scarcity of wildlife (2 penguins, about a dozen skuas, and 3 seals while we were there) – these things somehow conspire to give the feeling of only being connected to “safety” by a thin thread that might easily break at any moment. This feeling must have been amplified by so many orders of magnitude for the early explorers. I mean if this place, including McMurdo, routinely feels separated from the rest of the world on a moment to moment and day to day basis today, it is interesting to even try to imagine what it must have felt like for them. Even going to the moon, even eventual human trips to Mars, will not be as isolated from connection to the outside world as the early Antarctic explorers were. More soon…