The Hut at Cape Evans and Scott’s Last Expedition
The historic hut at Cape Evans is the last hut from this region that I am going to share with you. It is nearly 101 years (January 17, 1912) since Robert Falcon Scott and four of his colleagues reached the South Pole and met a tragic death on the return trip. Scott’s hut from the Terra Nova expedition is a reminder of exploration, endeavor, and courage. This expedition, along with many others, still stands as epic adventure during what is referred to as the “Heroic Age” of Antarctic exploration.
In the past two years, many centenary commemorations have taken place here, in New Zealand, and in Great Britain to mark the 100 year anniversary of Scott’s last expedition. It was 1910 when Scott and his men embarked on this journey to Antarctica on the former whaling ship Terra Nova. This was Scott’s second journey to explore the Antarctic region, but no one would have predicted that it would be his last.
Recalling my earlier post, Scott had ventured to this region on the Discovery Expedition of 1901-1904. The Discovery Hut is the one very close to McMurdo Station, out on Hut Point. Scott was aiming for Hut Point when he sailed to this region in 1910, but thick sea ice prevented the ship from accessing that spot and they landed about 15.5 miles farther north. The landing spot was a thin strip of volcanic land that Scott named Cape Evans, after Lieutenant Edward “Teddy” Evans, his second-in-command on the expedition.
After their arrival, the men immediately went to work constructing the prefabricated hut they had brought with them from London. Construction of the main hut was completed in about nine days. This measured 49 feet x 26 feet, and is the largest of any building constructed in Antarctica during the Heroic Era. Stables for the ponies were constructed on the northern side of the hut. An entrance/porch area was located on the western end of the hut.
Here is a glimpse of the porch area…many tools and pieces of equipment are now displayed in this section of the hut. Remember, the historic huts are protected and preserved by the Antarctic Heritage Trust. Items on display have been cataloged and arranged as they might have looked back in Scott’s days here on the ice, but I doubt they were this tidy and organized.
There is even a bicycle that had been used on the ship and possibly here on the ice.
Hockey sticks are mounted on the wall…a reminder that the men did engage in recreation to pass the time.
As you proceed through a slim corridor, there is a pile of seal blubber which might been used for cooking, heating, and to light lanterns. As in the other historic huts, everything seems frozen in time, although in recent years warmer temperatures during the austral summer are causing decay.
Here’s a look at the stable area…added on to the northern end of the hut.
Horse grooming tools and supplies hang on the walls. The Manchurian ponies didn’t survive the expedition, some died from the cold, and others were shot as they became weaker and unable to perform their duties. The ponies chosen for the expedition had been poor quality and not suited for prolonged work in the harsh Antarctic environment. Yet, their names survive on the walls of the stable…a reminder of their part in early attempts of exploration in Antarctica.
The main area of the hut was occupied by 25 men (it was a crowded place) during this expedition and it still stands as a piece of living history… a fabulous place to learn first- hand how these men lived and survived in the harsh conditions of Antarctica. This was the very first historic hut I visited in Antarctica back in 1998, and I could imagine what the hut would sound like, filled with voices of men sitting around the long wooden table that was placed in the center of the main part of the hut. Each time I’ve been lucky to visit one of the huts I could have stayed there for hours…I was never sure where to look first.
(photo above taken by Brent Pooley)
The best strategy is to stand perfectly still, trying to absorb it all. It takes your eyes a few minutes to adjust to the dim light, but soon things come into focus. Boxes of food, tins of biscuits, hot cocoa mix, and many other food items are neatly stacked around the hut. Dishes sit on shelves, cups hang from hooks, furs and items of clothing are scattered on beds or hanging from bunks. Scientific equipment sits out on tables…books lay open, tools are hung on the wall. Everywhere you turn there are countless reminders of the life these men made for themselves during the expedition.
When first entering the main part of the hut, you would be standing in the galley (kitchen area) and living quarters of the men (not officers) on the expedition.
Check out the ketchup and mustard! Those labels and containers haven’t changed much in 100 years!
The officers occupied the back section of the hut…more living space was allotted for officers. Scott divided his men based on Royal Navy practice.
Near the very back of the hut is where Scott slept…his bunk area is separated from those of two other men by a work table…which has a faded stuffed Emperor penguin laying on it, as well as a weather-worn open book, and a newspaper from London. It is amazing to see these things…preserved by the cold, dry Antarctic climate…since 1910!
One of my favorite little corners of the hut is the science area. Many of the men on Scott’s expedition were acting in a scientific research role, in addition to their roles of adventurers and explorers.
An epic adventure and scientific journey within a journey is described by Apsley Cherry-Gerrard in his book “The Worst Journey in the World.” Cherry-Gerrard, Wilson, and Bowers made a trek to Cape Crozier to observe the breeding of Emperor penguins and retrieve eggs during the winter of 1911. Also from that book is the following passage written about Griffith Taylor, one of many that describe the science that was taking place:
“His diary must have been almost as long as the reports he wrote for Scott of his geological explorations. He was a demon note-taker, and he had a passion for being equipped so that he could cope with any observation which might turn up. Thus Old Griff on a sledge journey might have notebooks protruding from every pocket, and hung about his person, a sundial, a prismatic compass, a sheath knife, a pair of binoculars, a geological hammer, chronometer, pedometer, camera, aneroid and other items of surveying gear, as well as his goggles and mitts. And in his hand might be an ice-axe which he used as he went along to the possible advancement of science, but the certain disorganization of his companions.”
I have always imagined Griffith Taylor decked out with all of those items, making observations and taking notes to record the scientific information from the expedition. Other men on the expedition gave lectures on topics such as meteorology, biology, ice problems, medical issues like scurvy, geology, wildlife, sketching and surveying. Can’t you just picture the scientists bent over the table below, working on some experiments? I certainly can.
Penguin eggs were collected as part of scientific endeavors.
This all reminds me that Antarctica has long been a place for science research. Many research expeditions came before WISSARD, and many will come after. Through the Antarctic Treaty, this wonderful continent is protected for peaceful scientific purposes. There is a lot to learn about every area of science from studies taking place in Antarctica.
And now…here’s a short version of the trek to the South Pole, but I’d suggest you read one of the many books available on this subject to learn more. It is a fascinating tale of exploration, science, adventure, and in the end…tragedy for the Polar party.
After leaving the hut at Cape Evans, Scott and teams of men used a combination of ponies, sled dogs, motor sledges and good old man power hauling sleds themselves. As they proceeded south, they laid supply caches. Most of the strategies of movement had limitations and in the end, Scott and his men resorted to the British standby of man-hauling.
As the group marched on, the southbound party reduced in size as the support teams turned back for Cape Evans. In early January the last two teams of four men reached the 87 degree south latitude point.
Robert Scott made a last minute change, to take an additional man with him on the push to the South Pole. This decision has long been debated. Scott and four companions reached the South Pole on January 17, 1912 after a grueling journey. Upon their arrival they discovered that they weren’t the first ones there. Roald Amundsen (and his team), from Norway, had beaten Scott’s group by just a few weeks. Amundsen’s team arrived at the Pole on December 14th, 1911. Scott and his team found a tent left by Amundsen, and a note to the King of Norway that Amundsen had asked Scott to deliver.
They were extremely disappointed and as they started their long trek back to the hut at Cape Evans their spirits were dampened. Scott’s diary recorded his disappointment and anguish at the South Pole:
“The worst has happened”; “All the day dreams must go”; “Great God! This is an awful place.”
On the return trip Scott and his men were hungry, exhausted, suffered from frostbite and snow blindness, and they were slowed down by deep snow. Edgar Evans died from injuries sustained while descending the Beardmore Glacier. Lawrence Oates (suffering from extreme frostbite) walked outside of the tent to his death one night in a blizzard. In one of the most famous quotes from Scott’s journal, it was noted that Oates’ parting words to the other men were, “I am just going outside and may be some time.”
Robert Scott, Edward Wilson, and Henry Bowers died in their tent in late March, 1912. They were about 11 miles from one of their supply depots, called One Ton Depot. They had been trapped in a blizzard, exhausted and running out of food and fuel. Placement of the depot had been the subject of a debate between Oates and Scott the year before, when laying the supply depots along their route.
Scott’s last message to the public in his journal:
“I do no think human beings ever came through such a month as we have…We are weak, writing is difficult, but for my own sake I do not regret this journey, which has shown that Englishmen can endure hardships, help one another, and meet death with as great a fortitude as ever in the past.”
The remaining men were waiting for Scott and his companions back in the hut at Cape Evans…and wait they did…all through the long Antarctic winter of 1911-1912. Some had gone out to try to meet Scott and the Poalr party, but to no avail. In November 1912 the bodies of Scott, Wilson, and Bowers were found in the tent. A cairn (pile) of snow was erected over the tent, and topped with a crudely fashioned cross. Journals, photographs, and other artifacts were retrieved from the tent; a record of Scott and his men reaching the Pole, and of their struggles until Scott was too weak to write any longer.
In January 1913 the hut was closed up, a cross was carried up Observation Hill and erected in memory of the men who had perished on the South Pole journey, and the remaining members of the expedition sailed home on the Terra Nova. The cross on Ob Hill today is not the original cross, but it still stands in memory of those who lost their lives on this expedition.
Stepping back outside, out of history…and into the reality of present-day Antarctica, I think most people who visit this hut are in a contemplative mood. You just cannot visit a place such at Scott’s hut and not have your head swimming with thoughts about what it would have been like to be part of this expedition.
This is a special piece of history that I will always be grateful to have seen. It was a lonely view Scott’s men had from this vantage point…beautiful but very remote and isolated from the rest of the world.
There are so many wonderful books that detail life and exploits during the Heroic Age of Antarctic Exploration. Check one out…learn all you can…I guarantee it will be interesting reading. I hope you enjoyed today’s peek into the past.
(all photos from 2006, Betty Trummel, unless otherwise noted)