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NOTES ON THE WESTERN JOURNEY
Christmas Day at Knob Head Mountain: In search of Fossils: Adrift on a Floe: Party picked up by the Nimrod, January 26
MEANWHILE the Western Party, which had left the winter quarters for the second time on December 9, had been working in the western mountains. The three men (Armytage, Priestley, and Brocklehurst) reached the stranded moraines on December 13, and on this occasion succeeded in securing a large supply of skuas' eggs. The anticipated feast was not enjoyed, however, for only about a dozen of the eggs were "good enough for eating," to quote the words of a member of the party. The other eggs were thrown on to the snow near the tent, and the result was an invasion of skuas. They not only ate the eggs, but also made themselves a general nuisance by pulling about the sledge harness and stores. At this time the men were troubled by patches of thin ice, about an eighth to a quarter of an inch thick, forming a lenticle, the top of the middle being sometimes as much as five or six inches from the actual surface. When these patches of ice were trodden on they broke down, and not infrequently disclosed a puddle of salt water an inch or two deep. Priestley thought that they were the final product of the thawing of snowdrifts, and owed their character to the fact that the salt water worked faster from below than did the sun from above.
On December 15 the party started to ascend the Ferrar Glacier, Priestley examining the rocks carefully on the way with a view to securing fossils if any were to be found. The surface was hard for the most part, soft snow being encountered where ice had been expected. On December 19 they were held up by a blizzard, and then they got on to very slippery crevassed ice. On December 20 they camped near the Solitary Rocks, at the spot where Captain Scott had camped after leaving Dry Valley. The idea of getting to Depot Nunatak had to be abandoned, for a heavy snowfall made the travelling difficult, and the time at the disposal of the expedition was short. Priestley worked under the Bluff between Dry Valley and the east fork of the glacier without success and then they moved over to Obelisk Mount. An examination of the Solitary Rocks proved that the map was incorrect at this point. The previous expedition had thought that the rocks formed an island, with the glacier flowing down on either side, but a close examination showed that the rocks were in reality a peninsula, joined to the main north wall by an isthmus of granite at least one thousand feet high. Priestley proceeded with geological and survey work in the neighbourhood. On December 24 a new camp was pitched at the foot of Knob Head Mountain.
Christmas Day was spent at this camp, and, as was the case with the other sledging expeditions that were out at the time, a special feast was provided. For breakfast they had hoosh, sardines in tomato sauce and raisins; for lunch, Garibaldi biscuits and jelly; and for dinner, potted boneless chicken and a small plum pudding. Armytage picked up a piece of sandstone with fernlike markings, but Priestley was not hopeful of finding fossils in the greatly altered sandstone. The day was spent in geological work. "We lose the sun here about 9.30 p.m." noted Priestley in his diary, "and it is curious to observe the sudden change from bright light to darkness in the tent, while outside the thin surface of ice covering the thaw-water round the rocks immediately contracts with reports like a succession of pistol-shots, and sometimes breaks up and flies about in all directions, making a noise like broken glass. This is the effect of the quick cooling of the ice by the cold plateau wind immediately the sun's influence is withdrawn. The plum pudding was 'top hole.' Must remember to give one of the pot-holed sandstones to Wild for the New Zealand girl who gave him the plum pudding."
On December 27 the men proceeded down the glacier again in order to see whether the Northern Party had arrived at Buttez Point. Priestley studied the moraines on the way down, and made an extensive collection of specimens, and on January 1 they arrived at the depot. They had constant trouble with crevasses and "pot-holes" on the way down the glacier, but met with no serious accident. The snow-bridges many times let them through up to their knees or waists, but never broke away entirely. The weather was unpleasantly warm for the sort of work they were undertaking, since the snow was thawing, and they were constantly wet.
They found no sign of the Northern Party at Butter Point, and after waiting there until the 6th they proceeded to the " stranded moraines," a day's trek to the south, in order that geological specimens might be secured. The moraines, which were found by the Discovery expedition, and are relics of the days of more extensive glaciation, present a most varied collection of rocks, representative of the geological conditions to be found in the mountains to the west, and are of very great interest on that account. After spending two days at this spot, the party went back to Butter Point with about 250 lb. of specimens, and camped again till the 11th. Still there was no sign of the Northern Party, and on the 12th they went north to Dry Valley. There Priestley found a raised beach, about sixty feet above sea-level, and Brocklehurst climbed the mountain known as the Harbour Heights.
They went back to the depot on the 14th, and pitched camp in order to wait for the Northern Party until the 25th, when they were to make their way back to winter quarters, or signal for the ship by means of the heliograph. On January 24-25 this party had a very narrow escape from disaster. They were camped on the sea-ice at the foot of Butter Point, intending to move off on the return journey early on the morning of the 25th. Their position was apparently one of safety. Armytage had examined the tide-crack along the shore, and had found no sign of more than ordinary movement, and the ice in the neighbourhood seemed to be quite fast. At 7 A.M. on the 24th Priestley was first out of the tent, and a few minutes later he came running back to his companions to tell them that the ice they were on had broken away and was drifting away north to the open sea. The other two men turned out promptly, and found that his statement was only too true. There were two miles of open water between the floe and the shore, and they were apparently moving steadily out to sea. "When we found that the ice had gone out," wrote Armytage in his report to me, "we struck camp, loaded up the sledge, and started away with the object of seeing whether we could get off the floe to the north. The position seemed to be rather serious, for we could not hope to cross any stretch of open water, there was no reasonable expectation of assistance from the ship, and most of our food was at Butter Point. We had not gone very far to the north before we came to an impassable lane of open water, and we decided to return to our original position. We went into camp and had breakfast at 11 A.M. Then we held a consultation and agreed that it would be best to stop where we then were for a time, at any rate, on the off-chance of the ship coming along one of the lanes to pick us up on the following day, or of the current changing and the ice once more touching the shore. We waited till three o'clock in the afternoon, but there did not seem to be any improvement in the position. The killer-whales were spouting in the channels, and occasionally bumping the ice under us. Then we marched north again, but met with open water in every direction, and after we had marched right round the floe we got into camp at the old position at 10 P.M. We had a small meal of hooch and biscuit. We had only four days' provisions on the floe with us, and I decided that we would have to go on short rations. We were encouraged by the fact that we had apparently ceased to move north, and were perhaps getting nearer the fast ice again. We got into our sleeping-bags in order to keep warm. At 11.30 P.M. Brocklehurst turned out to see whether the position had changed, and reported that we seemed to be within a few hundred yards of the fast ice, and still moving cowards the land. I got out of my bag and put on my finnesko, and at midnight saw that we were very close to the fast ice, probably not more than two hundred yards away. I ran back as fast as I could, deciding that there was a prospect of an attempt to get ashore proving successful, and gave the other two men a shout. They struck the camp and loaded up within ap very few minutes, while I went back to the edge of the floe at the spot towards which chance had first directed my steps. Just as the sledge got up to me, I felt the floe bump the fast ice. Not more than six feet of the edge touched, but we were just at that spot, and we rushed over the bridge thus formed. We had only just got over when the floe moved away again, and this time it went north to the open sea. The only place at which it touched the fast ice was that to which I had gone when I left the tent, and had I happened to go to any other spot we would not have escaped. We made our way to Butter Point, and at about three o'clock in the morning camped and had a good meal. Then we turned in and slept. When we got up for breakfast, there was open water where we had been drifting on the floe, and I sighted the Nimrod under sail, ten or twelve miles out. We laid the heliograph on to the vessel, and after flashing for about an hour got a reply. The Nimrod came alongside the fast ice at three o'clock in the afternoon of January 26, and we went on board with our equipment and specimens. We left a depot of provisions and oil at Butter Point in case the Northern Party should reach that point after our departure."
On January 22 and 23 a fresh sand blew from the south and commenced to break up the ice-sheet in the neighbourhood of Cape Royds, compelling the ship to refasten further to the southward. From this point Davis took a sledge-party to Hut Point with despatches that the supporting-party was to convey to me at the Bluff Depot. On the 25th the ice had broken up to such an extent that Captain Evans thought there would be a chance of getting far enough across McMurdo Sound to search the western coast-line for the party that had been exploring the western mountains, and also for the Northern Party, which might by that time have returned from the journey to the Magnetic Pole and reached Butter Point. The Nimrod stood out into the sound, and from a distance of ten or twelve miles a heliograph was seen twinkling near Butter Point. The ship was able to get right alongside the fast ice, and picked up Armytage, Priestley, and Brocklehurst.
After this date fine weather was experienced only at short intervals, the season being advanced, and as a consequence the fast ice that remained in the sound commenced to break up rapidly, and took the form of pack trending northwards. When blizzards blew, as they did frequently, the Nimrod moored on the lee-side of a stranded iceberg in the neighbourhood of Cape Barne, with the object of preserving her position without the consumption of more coal than was absolutely necessary. After the ice had broken up sufficiently, shelter was found under Glacier Tongue.
The waiting was rather unpleasant for the remaining members of the shore-party and for those on board the ship, for the time was approaching when it would be necessary to leave for the north unless the Nimrod was to be frozen in for the winter, and two of the parties were still out. I had left instructions that if the Northern Party had not returned by February 1 a search was to be made along the western coast in a northerly direction. The party was three weeks overdue, and on February 1, therefore, the Nimrod went north, and Captain Evans proceeded to make a close examination of the coast. The ship did not get back to the hut until February 11. During this time Murray and Priestley found work of scientific interest. Priestley tramped the country, and now that the snow had in great measure disappeared, was enabled to see various interesting geological deposits previously covered up. Beds of sponge spicules, enclosing various other fossils, were evidence of recent elevation of the sea bottom. A thick deposit of salts was found on a mound between two lakes, and some curious volcanic formations were discovered. The smaller ponds were entirely melted, and gave a chance to find some forms of life not evident in winter. The penguins continued to afford Murray material for study.
The Nimrod's search for the Northern Party was both difficult and dangerous. Captain Evans had to keep close to the coast, in order to guard against the possibility of overlooking a signal, which might consist only of a small flag, and the sea was obstructed by pack-ice. He was to go north as far as a sandy beach on the northern side of the Drygalski Barrier, and he performed his duty most thoroughly in the face of what he afterwards modestly described as "small navigational difficulties." The beach, which had been marked on the chart, was found to have no existence in fact, but the Nimrod reached the neighbourhood indicated, and then proceeded south again, still searching every yard of the coast. On the 4th a tent was sighted on the edge of the Barrier, and when a double detonator was fired the three men who had been to the Magnetic Pole came tumbling out and ran down towards the edge of the ice. Mawson was in such a hurry that he fell down a crevasse, and did not get out again until a party from the ship went to his assistance. "They were the happiest men I have ever seen," said Davis in describing the finding of the party. Their sledge, equipment, and specimens were taken on the Nimrod, which was able to moor right alongside the fast ice, and then Captain Evans proceeded back to the winter quarters. In the chapters that follow Professor David tells the story of the Northern Party's journey.