This Is Why I Came

After a week’s delay due to weather, I got to go on my field trip last night, rumbling in the van over ice-slicked, dark roads the two miles (give or take) to Scott Base, the New Zealand station just over the hill from us, with ten other fortunate souls. I’ve been to Scott Base before (and have the cool merino hoodie and fantastic merino socks to prove it), but never to visit the workspace of the Antarctic Heritage Trust.

During the summer, a few conservators examine the historic huts in and around Ross Island, which the Kiwis are largely responsible for maintaining. They select items that are in desperate need of preservation work, as well as items that they can’t identify (past records were not the most, shall we say, detail-oriented) and bring them to the AHT workspace at Scott Base. In the winter, three conservators spend the long dark working on those items brought back in summer.

Sarah, the Australian conservator who is leading the winter AHT work, spends her off-Ice time preserving and restoring military textiles at the Australian War Museum in Canberra. Can I tell you how cool I think that is?


Last night, however, she was our tour guide, starting with showing us how the conservators work. Every item brought in from the huts (there are four on Ross Island, built by Scott’s men) first gets photographed, like this box, found under floorboards at Cape Evans hut:

Box being photographed... the bag of corn beside it is just an example of the kinds of things they find in these boxes after opening them, sometimes well-preserved and sometimes not. Because summer temps often get just above freezing, a lot of items such as flour and corn can get moldy - but not always, depending on where the box was and whether it was exposed to temperature fluctuations. Not bad for 100 year old corn, huh? Food that is not moldy is returned to the container as found. Foodstuffs (or other items) that are rotten, moldy, spoiled or otherwise pose a health risk are sent to New Zealand for incineration.

Items, depending on what they are, are then taken apart, cleaned and/or restored.

Sarah took us next into the lab, where they are working on tracing the manufacturer of various parts of the first bicycle ridden in Antarctica, back in 1910. Beside it on the table is half of a marine dredge that they are cleaning. In this case, cleaning it involves removing the corrosive chlorides by soaking it in highly alkaline, boiling liquid for days on end.

That's Sarah on the right, behind half of the rusty marine dredge. The bicycle parts are on the table beside it, the wheels are in the box underneath.

Both Sarah and fellow conservator Victoria admitted there are things that they have not identified, such as these canvas and wood items marked as “wind socks” on a previous inventory… nevermind the items are too heavy and don’t swivel. Two people in our group thought they might be sea anchors for a small boat, or even another kind of marine dredge, and when they offered this up you could see both the conservators eyes light up with excitement.

World's Heaviest, Least Swivvelly Windsocks... or not.

Here’s another mystery…

Sure, it looks like a dog collar, it looks exactly like the dog collars I’ve seen in Antarctic exploration exhibits in New Zealand and the States, but what you can’t tell from this photo is that it’s about half as big as the collars I’ve seen. They think it may have been a horse hobble, but I don’t know what that is and from the sound of it, it would upset me to find out. I think it may have been a puppy training collar. With all those dogs about, you think they didn’t get busy and have litters? I’m jus’ sayin’.

Here are an assortment of items from the hut at Cape Royds… it’s kind of interesting how, even a hundred years later, a wrench is still a wrench. A bowl looks like a bowl. The more things change…

My favorite bits were the textiles, including a blanket taken from Scott’s bed, still with wax drippings from a candle and strands of reindeer hair from the reindeer sleeping bags they used.

Sarah at the textile table... Scott's blanket is in the foreground. The white hairs are indeed reindeer, and right in the center of the blanket is a small light circle that's remnants of candle wax.

Sarah explained that the oilskin coat laid out on the table was a special project… it was retrieved from the Cape Evans hut rolled into a ball, and she had to heat it with a hair dryer slowly to get it to soften enough to de-crumple (note: not actual conservator term). After taking a close look at it, she discovered the name “Anton” written inside the collar and realized this must have belonged to the Russian horse handler Scott hired to select and care for the Siberian ponies he brought with him on his doomed expedition.

The oilskin coat that belonged to Scott's Russian horsehandler. The enlarged photo laying on the left side of the coat shows the condition it arrived in, scrunched up into a ball for a century.

[Sidenote: Robert F. Scott, ponies? Seriously? Dude, what were you thinking? Did you do any research before you sailed on down here or did you just give a “Pip! Pip! Tallyho!” and pack your ponies aboard a ship and head south? I think you would have had more success with sleds pulled by cats.]

Of everything we saw in the lab, all of which was cool, I have to say I was most taken with a patched sweater believed to be from the Ross Sea Party of 1914-17. Shackleton arrived at the Weddell Sea, on the other side of the continent, in the Endurance with the goal of traversing Antarctica. While the Endurance was sailing to its doom, another ship, the Aurora, traveled to the Ross Sea. The crew had the mission of laying depots, or caches, of food on this side of the continent for Shackleton’s team to pick up and use as they trekked across the icy wastes.

A woollen jumper, or sweater, patched with canvas, possibly from the Ross Sea Party of 1914-17

Everyone knows how the Endurance got stuck in ice and crushed, leaving Shackleton and his men stranded until Ernie showed he had the minerals to row, row, row a tiny boat through the insane Southern Ocean to get help and save all his crew (the dudes, anyway… the dogs and cat, sadly, were killed early on).

While Shackleton was getting his hero on, the Aurora crew was, well, experiencing technical difficulties. Everything from the ship not being outfitted for Antarctic travel to papers not in order delayed their departure from Australia and, once in Antarctica, the party was beset with infighting, poor decision-making and a long list of events that make it sound like it was a prototype of Survivor, only without the bikinis and sunblock. You can read all about it here or just take it from me.

Patched long johns, bottoms up

The nadir of the Aurora expedition came when a gale blew the ship far out to sea, stranding a shore party for two years. One member died of scurvy and two others had the bright idea to walk to the next hut across thin sea ice (and were never seen again) but the rest of the party not only survived on a diet of seal blubber but they still managed to lay the food depots for Shackleton, thinking he would be needing them.

I’ll be honest. I don’t think you’d find that kind of dedication today.

The reason Sarah feels the patched sweater belongs to a member of the Ross Sea Party is because, well, it’s so patched. And if you lean in close, which we were able to do – something we could never have done in a museum – you could smell the stink of seal blubber, not only the diet staple but the main fuel source.

Close-up of some of the repair work done on the sweater (lead image for this post is also a close-up of the stitching)

I just looked at that sweater, smelling its rancid, smoky stench, seeing the uneven, homely stitches and saw a man, leaning over his work in the dim light, trying to patch his sweater one more time, maybe wondering why the hell he ever thought coming to Antarctica was a better deal than going off to fight in the trenches of Belgium or France. It was such a clear image to me.

Yeah, the stitching got to me.

It was an amazing hour spent seeing how the conservators work, their jobs equal parts art and science, their days a mix of painstaking detail work (often using their own spit… turns out human saliva is great for cleaning stuff!) and tantalizing mysteries (“what the hell is it?”). Yes, it was very cool to see the first bicycle ever ridden on the continent, to see century-old flour and the oilskin coat of a Russian guy whose crewmates, if accounts I’ve read are true, thought was kind of an idiot.

But I know the image I’ll carry with me is that of a man bent over his clumsy needlework in the smoky, stinking light of a seal blubber fire, hoping to make his jumper last just a little longer, with no idea whether rescue would ever come.


9 thoughts on “This Is Why I Came

  1. Your history lessons are never boring! Written with so much emotion that I, too, felt like I was there (shivers and all). Thanks for sharing your moment with us.

  2. I posted the photo of the “wind sock” to a forum I subscribe to for fans of the Patrick O’Brian novels (“Master & Commander”, Aubrey and Maturin, etc.). There are tons of nautical enthusiast subscribers…and apart from jokes about piping bags and pony feed bags (pithy bunch these nautical types) the consensus is they are indeed SEA ANCHORS.

  3. Hello, I’m from Brazil and I’m reading about first bicycles in South Pole.
    Do you know if the bicycle on the table is the same that was hanged on Scott’s Hut?

  4. Hi Denir… the bicycle was brought in for restoration from Scott’s hut at Cape Evans but was not used at the South Pole, which is several hundred miles from here. Hope that helps.

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  7. Great post… quite moving too. I was interested in your comments on Scott and the ponies, my Dad who was a scientist in Cambridge working at the Low Temperature Research Station after the war had no time for Scott at all; he said he was arrogant… the pony thing rather demonstrates that, don’t you think? Whatever his failings, he was certainly very brave, most courageous.

    • Thanks, Lois. I think arrogance was a key personality trait of every polar explorer–it had to be. Even now, when you step off the plane with all your high-tech gear and vehicles and GPS and whatnot, there is a tangible feeling that you are in a place a human has no place being. To tackle reaching the Pole back in the day, those men had to have a mix of arrogance, courage and tenacity. Glad you’re enjoying my posts…you may also enjoy my musings on Scott’s final hours: And thanks for reading!

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