Frozen in Time
I recently returned from seven months in Antarctica. I had been offered the chance of a secondment from my job with the National Trust in the U.K. to lead a team of conservators working on the contents of the historic huts from the heroic age of exploration in Antarctica.
My decision to go on the trip was a difficult one for family reasons. However, it was one of those opportunities that rarely come along, and I just couldn’t turn it down.The project, sponsored by New Zealand’s Antarctic Heritage Trust and other international agencies, aims to conserve the small group of wooden huts erected around the turn of the 20th century by the Antarctic explorers – Norwegian Carsten Borchgrevink (1899), Englishman Robert F. Scott (1902 and 1911) and Irish-born Ernest Shackleton (1908). The first to be conserved was Shackleton’s hut at Cape Royds on Ross Island, which lies within the Antarctic dependency of New Zealand.
The period of my secondment on the ice was from February to the end of August – late summer through the brutal Antarctic winter. As we were going to be in a hostile environment with limited medical facilities and no regular flights off the ice during the winter, I underwent extensive medical testing beforehand. This proved to be one of the most difficult aspects of my involvement in the project. With my own doctor and the local hospital’s unfamiliarity with some of the specialist tests required, getting tested in good time proved to be a challenge. On top of this, I was declared dentally unfit. It was only after some emergency repairs that I finally got the green light – a week before my departure date.Once cleared for take off, I flew to Christchurch in New Zealand, the main hub and staging post for a number of countries’ Antarctic activities. It is also a town with an important historical link with Antarctica; Shackleton’s 1907-9 expedition aboard the Nimrod and Scott’s ill-fated 1910-12 expedition – on which the explorer and four companions perished in March 1912 – on the Terra Nova both departed from Christchurch’s nearby harbour at Lyttelton.
With a few days free before flying farther south, I took the opportunity to explore the wonderfully diverse and scenic countryside of New Zealand’s South Island. Just five hours into my excursion, I found myself riding in the back of an ambulance after writing off my rented car by wrapping it around a tree on a country road. I was thankful for the invention of the airbag, which undoubtedly saved me from serous injury. By chance, that morning I’d switched from an older vehicle without airbags; I returned it because I felt uneasy driving it.
Returning to Christchurch to fly out, I was decidedly unfit to travel to Antarctica. If there had been a pre-flight medical I probably wouldn’t have been able to make the trip.
After collecting a vast kit bag full of polar protective clothing, we boarded a C-17 military transport plane for the five-hour flight to Ross Island, an ice-covered volcanic atoll, 2,460 square kilometres in area. Stepping off the plane on our arrival literally took my breath away, not just from the initial shock of inhaling in the –30-degrees-C. air, but also from the magnificent landscape of my new surroundings.
On one side, stretched as far as the eye could see, was the Ross Ice Shelf, a vast area the size of France. It is formed by slow-moving ice fed by the glaciers from Antarctica’s continental ice sheets. To the east, the mainland was flanked by spectacular mountain ranges, and to the north was the 3,795-metre looming presence of the active volcano Mount Erebus with its plume of smoke. On Ross Island’s southernmost foot was a small cluster of buildings that was to be my home for the next seven months.
New Zealand’s Scott Base, consists of a series of low-level interlinked buildings, not unlike large insulated containers. The facility can accommodate about 80 people in a place that’s somewhat like an upmarket youth hostel. By the end of February the base population contracts to the 20 or so people who “winter-over.” When I was there, these 20 people consisted of my team of four conservators working on artifacts from Shackleton’s hut, a four-person construction team, and a skeleton crew of workers who maintained essential scientific work and kept the base ticking.
Scott Base had marked its 50th anniversary in 2007 with festivities to commemorate both its establishment and the International Polar Year (IPY). Visitors on that special occasion included the then-New Zealand Prime Minister Helen Clark and special guest of honour Sir Edmund Hillary, who led the initial party that set up the base in 1957.
One of the highlights of my time in Antarctica was a visit to see the historic huts, which we did soon after our arrival at Scott Base. Although these structures are within 25 kms of the base, they are inaccessible by vehicle except for a few months in late winter/early spring, when the sea ice is sufficiently hard for tracked vehicles to cross it. Considering the very exposed positions of the huts, the harsh environment, and the flimsy materials from which they were made, it is remarkable how well preserved they are. In part, this is due to the fact that the huts, after a number of years were entombed in ice and quite literally became frozen in time.
The huts were rediscovered and opened up again in the late 1950s. Since that time there has been ongoing attrition to the exterior of the huts from wind-blown ice particles, which bring about a scouring or sand-blasting action that erodes the timbers. Inside, there has been a marked deterioration in the condition of objects, caused by the cyclical freezing and thawing. There has also been a noticeable increase in the growth of moulds, which may be related to the slightly higher summertime temperatures and longer melt periods associated with global climate change.
Most of the outbuildings around Shackleton’s hut have now collapsed. The plywood food crates that were stacked against the outside of the hut for extra insulation are breaking down, and there was concern about potential contamination of the site from the disintegration of old foodstuffs. There are also fears this could have an adverse impact on the area’s biodiversity. Shackleton’s huts sit in the middle of the southernmost colony of Adelie penguins. Shackleton’s hut was considered at such risk that in 2004 it was placed on the World Monuments Watch List of the 100 most endangered sites.
The utter remoteness of these huts, the tiny foothold they occupy in the vastness of southern sea and ice, and their survival is impressive and inspiring. This is especially so with Scott’s hut – which is more substantial than Shackleton’s – in a spectacularly impressive location on the shore of McMurdo Sound. The interior of distant mountains against the great volcanic backdrop of Erebus was awe-inspiring. Little had changed since the explorers had departed, and knowing what they had to endure, I felt both privileged and humbled to have visited these remote places.
Of the two huts, it was the conservation of the artifacts from Shackleton’s hut at Cape Royds that was my team’s principal concern. Conserving the contents of Scott’s hut at Cape Evans, a much larger job, began last year and will not be completed until 2012-13. Work on Borchgrevink’s hut will begin then.
When Shackleton’s expedition departed from this base camp in 1909, the members left behind many stores, equipment, and supplies with the thought that these items might be of use to future expeditions. As Shackleton noted in his journal, “I left…stores sufficient to last 15 men one year. The vicissitudes of life in the Antarctic are such that such a supply might prove of the greatest value to some future expeditions.” These contents amount to more than 4,000 artifacts, the majority of which relate to food preparation and foodstuffs, but there is also bedding, clothes, tools, and technical equipment, sledging materials, and even a few personal possessions. There were also the remains of parts from the 1907 Arrol Johnson motor car that Shackleton hoped he could use to haul supplies in his dash to the South Pole. Not surprisingly, it proved to be of little use on the rough ice of the barrier.
The approach of the Antarctic Heritage Trust is to conserve as much as possible on the ice, and any artifacts deemed to be beyond meaningful conservation, are to be left untouched and reinterred by the huts. Artifacts to be conserved were packed and brought back over the sea ice to be stored at Scott Base, where a temporary lab has been set up with facilities and equipment sufficient for basic conservation. Any artifacts requiring more specialist intervention are flown to New Zealand for treatment.
What I found especially surprising was the remarkable condition of some of the artifacts. The dry air and the cold had helped preserve many of these objects, and for some there was little to be done apart from removing the volcanic dust that summer winds had blown in. Treatment methods were developed for each category of material so that some batch processing could occur, and by the end of our time in Antarctica we had treated nearly 1,000 objects.
When I first arrived at Scott Base there was almost total daylight, but by the end of May there was little light left in the sky and for two months we lived in total darkness. “Mid-winter day” – the third week of June – was a time of celebration for the 750 people who inhabit the 40 or so bases scattered across Antarctica.
Keeping busy is important if one is to get through the long winter and stay sane. Numerous recreational diversions and entertainment events are organized to help: salsa dancing lessons, concerts, themed evenings, and sporting challenges such as international satellite darts every Friday (N.Z. versus the U.S., with a radio link to the South Pole), a mid-winter run to Discovery Hut and back, and traditional “ice plunges.”
Fortunately, the New Zealand base is close to the main American base at McMurdo, which houses up to 1,500 people in summer and provides many of the continent’s entertainment and recreational facilities, including a now-historic and much-prized 1965 manually set, two-lane bowling alley.
Highlights of my experiences in Antarctica were entering Scott’s hut for the first time, getting out to the great glacier tongue that sweeps down from the slopes of Mount Erebus, and watching the most spectacular display of the aurora australis that had been seen for many years – the whole sky ablaze with great curtains and shafts of light that pulsed and shimmered and mesmerised.
The biggest surprise at Scott Base was meeting a man named Gordon McDonald, one of the team of specialist conservation carpenters who had worked on the Scott and Shackleton huts for two seasons. He comes from the small village of Cobble Hill on Vancouver Island, that just happens to be where my Canadian father grew up on a strawberry farm before returning to England in the 1930s and where Gordon honed his early carpentry skills doing odd repair jobs on my great uncle’s farm which is just down the road from where Gordon lived. Big continent; small world.
After seven months away from England I was relieved to get off the ice and return home. Reflecting on my time in Antarctica I consider the spectacular scenery and harsh environment awesome in every sense of that word. Despite the hardships and privations of wintering over and being isolated for all those months, I feel privileged to have had the chance to journey to and experience life on this most inaccessible of continents. I also feel honoured to have made a contribution to conserving the historic huts of the Antarctic explorers, these remarkable outposts of human endeavour.
British naval officer and polar explorer Robert Falcon Scott (1868-1912) led two expeditions to Antarctica: the Discovery Expedition, 1901-04, and the ill-fated Terra Nova Expedition, 1910-13. It was on this second venture that Scott led a party of five men to the South Pole, arriving there on January 17, 1912, only to find that Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen had been there before them. Scott and his companions, exhausted, frozen, and hungry, died on the 1,200-km return journey.
Irish-born Sir Ernest Henry Shackleton (1874-1922) was one of the principal figures of the period that became known as the “Heroic Age of Antarctic Exploration”. Shackleton led or was involved in four Antarctic expeditions, the penultimate of which was a failed attempt to cross the continent that ended with his ship being crushed by heavy pack ice. In 1922, Shackleton set out for the Antarctic one final time, intending to carry out a program of scientific and survey activities. However, he died of a heart attack while en route.
Carsten E. Borchgrevink (1864-1934), “Norway’s forgotten explorer,” was the precursor of Robert F. Scott, Ernest Shackleton, Roald Amundsen, and the other more famous names from what became known as the “Heroic Age of Antarctic Exploration”.
British-born Chris Calnan was one of the 12 members of the first Master of Arts Conservation (MAC) class at Queen’s.
For information about Antarctic heritage conservation efforts and to take a (It’s really cool!) virtual tour of Scott’s and Shackleton’s huts, please visit http://www.nhm.ac.uk/antarctica-blog/.
For information about the activities of the New Zealand Antarctic Heritage Trust visit http://nzaht.org/AHT/ .
The Trust is recognized internationally as being responsible for the care of four key sites associated with the “Heroic Age of Antarctic exploration (1895 – 1917).”
They include the expedition bases associated with the Scott, Shackleton, and Borchgrevink expeditions. Located in the Ross Sea region of Antarctica, all four sites are listed on the U.S. World Monuments Watch List of the 100 Most Endangered Sites.
The Trust has implemented a long-term cold-climate conservation project to conserve these sites and the associated 15,000+ artifact collection, and has a year-round presence on the ice. The conservation teams regularly blog (hosted by the Natural History Museum, London). Access is via the Trust’s home page.