History / Out in the field

Scott’s hut on Cape Evans

So far, the geology on this trip has faced some stiff competion from history and penguins, but on tuesday it came into its own.

We moved across McMurdo Sound overnight and into the fast ice on the west coast, ready for an assault on the Dry Valleys. It was a lovely sunny day on the ice, but low cloud covered the mountains and the helicopters couldn’t fly. You soon get used to the idea that the weather and the ice dictates your schedule in this part of the world.

So we waited, passing the morning by lowering the gangway and wandering on the ice around the ship and photographing Emperor penguins who came to see what we were up to. They are just as curious about us as we are about them. The morning passed and mid afternoon, just as it seemed we’d have to wait until evening, a break in the clouds to the west gave us a chance to fly in a scouting party. There was still low cloud in places as we flew up the Taylor Valley and found a landing place near the foot of the Canada Glacier.

Taylor Valley

Taylor Valley

There were no penguins here, and no life apart from some endolithic lichens and bacteria. Just rocks. The valley floor is strewn with moraine containing a huge range of lithologies, sourced from the mountains. The main valley glacier is long gone and now the main agent of erosion is the powerful katabatic winds which race down off the icesheet at up to 320 km/hr.

Everything is blasted by wind-blown sand, pebbles and boulders are polished smooth or scoured hollow. These ventifacts were noted by Scott when he discovered this valley in 1903.

Frank Debenham, one of three geologists on the Terra Nova expedition. He didn't take part in the final journey to the South Pole, after sustaining a knee injury playing football in the snow.

It was further explored on his second expedition by geologists Frank Debenham and Griffith Taylor for whom the valley is named. This extreme environment still attracts a lot of attention, especially for its likely similarities to Mars. It was almost midnight by the time we finished here, but with 24 hours of daylight, this isn’t a problem. Through the evening the weather got better and better, with beautiful sunlight on the hanging glaciers on the valley sides. I think I’ve now convinced most of the group that geology is cool!

Scott’s hut

Today, though, even geology has to take a back seat. We’re at Cape Evans on Ross Island where Scott’s last expedition was based. The rocks here are the same as at Cape Royds, black phonolites from Mount Erebus with large feldspar phenocrysts.

Scott's expedition hut

Scott's expedition hut

The hut still stands, its interior instantly recognisable from the famous photographs of the expedition photographer, Herbert Ponting. The table Scott sat at for his birthday and midsummer celebrations still occupies the centre of the room, and all around are supplies and equipment. There are still rocks on the floor beneath geologist Frank Debenham’s bunk.

I find it hard to believe that I am actually here. But it is a sense of tragedy that prevails, seeing the beds left by Scott and his companions almost exactly 100 years ago as they set out on their South Pole journey, and knowing that they froze on the Ross Ice Shelf in 1912. Outside, the weather shows what it can do just a month short of midsummer, with a windchill of -10oC and blowing snow and spindrift.

Inside Scott's hut

Inside Scott's hut

Scott writing his journal in the Cape Evans hut, winter 1911

Scott writing his journal in the Cape Evans hut, winter 1911








4 thoughts on “Scott’s hut on Cape Evans

  1. Tragedy and immortality are often linked, tragedy and achievement less so. What they achieved stands – as solidly as what they built.
    Astonishing preservation of those buildings- even allowing for conservation work, it’s hard to believe unprotected timber can last so well. Absence of bacterial decay? Up close, are the planks warped by freeze / thaw? Did the cold not rupture the cell structure – or were the original timbers extremely thoroughly dried? Absolutely amazing. It’s like a 23rd century scientist visiting the long abandoned first base on Mars.

    Find any Martian meteorites?

  2. Alastair: Yes the preservation of the hut timbers is impressive. Little decay in the dry cold here. What has happened, though, is that sometimes the timbers are scoured by the wind and abraded to such an extent that the nailheads are left protruding.

    No Martian meteorites, sadly, but lots of black, smooth, polished, wind-eroded basalts in the Dry Valleys that bear a remarkable resemblance to irons, except in their density.

  3. Sorry, I couldn’t get to any of the Scott exhibitions this year despite feeling the cold winds blowing around South Ken in January and February were ‘antarctic’ enough. Did the tent get preserved is what I want to know? Huts like Scott’s and Mawson’s seem to have lasted well, but my interest in the tent stems from having described, with colleague Gavin Young, fossils that were in the rocks alongside the bodies. Turinia antarctica was my little contribution to the scientific outcomes of the Terra Nova Expedition.

  4. Susan – Thanks for your comment. When the search party discovered Scott’s last camp in November 1912, the tent was still standing, but largely buried by the winter snows. After diaries, letters and other artefacts had been removed, the inner tent was collapsed over the bodies, a funeral service was conducted and a cairn of snow blocks erected over the tent. The skis of one of the search party, Tryggve Gran, were used to make a cross to mark the grave. Gran skied back to Cape Evans using Scott’s skis. The bodies, tent, cairn and cross will now be long buried in the accumulation of a century of snow and will now lie within the Ross Ice Shelf, many kilometres north of its original position. At some point in the future the grave will be part of a tabular iceberg that will break off from the northern edge of the ice shelf and drift out into the Southern Ocean. When it melts, the bodies will receive a fitting burial at sea.

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