BOOK EXTRACT: Shackleton's Whisky Chapter 17 - The Abandoned Years

Whisky label through a wrapper

This is the last of five extracts from Shackleton's Whisky by Neville Peat, available now, published by Random House. 

The book tells the story of Ernest Shackleton's heroic 1907 expedition to Antarctica with 14 other adventurers, and the case of  Mackinlay's Scotch whisky left under their hut, not to be found until 2007.

This extract is from Chapter 17: 'The Abandoned Years''. It details what happened to Shackleton's hut after he and his crew left it, while that case of whisky remained untouched underneath for nearly a century.

For three decades, the hut at Cape Royds was left to the Adelie penguins and scavenging skuas, as well as unconfirmed spectral entities and the more tangible elements — specifically, desiccating winds of diabolical force, blizzards, ice, permafrost and temperatures well below zero for much of the time.

By and large, the hut’s defences held. The roof stayed on. Wooden shutters on the south-facing windows fended off the ferocious gales from that direction.

But each storm would blast the wallboards with scoria sand, snow and sea salt in summer and tear or chemically ablate a tiny fraction of wood fibre from the boards until the nails stood proud.

Rust stains from the nails dribbled down the boards. During blizzards, snowflakes sought out the smallest cracks in the hut’s cladding. The gaps were few.

Any snowflake that did manage to penetrate the interior encountered a dark, calm, compatible environment. Ice crystals could survive here.

The interior was virtually the same temperature as the air outside: below freezing point for all but a few days through summer.

Beyond the little hut, the lakes gained and lost ice cover according to the season, and the penguins, free of rampaging huskies and human egg collectors, doggedly raised their young at the physical and climatic limits of penguin breeding.

If some nests were buried by heavy snow, the affected Adelies might nest somewhere more sheltered the next season.

Over decades, the colony’s shape changed, the abandoned areas looking like bald patches on the rocky headland.

In any one season a few penguins would waddle over to the hut, perhaps to prospect for a new nesting area or a new source of the coveted nest pebbles, Adelie ‘bullion’, or simply to satisfy curiosity.

Some might wander over to moult in the garage or stables area. Guano built up and discarded feathers would fly under the hut in strong winds.

A few curious penguins even climbed onto the bales around the stables — fodder for ponies long gone. Conspicuous in the nesting grounds on the Cape Royds headland were the remains of a 1907 wooden storage box.

Presumably it had been blown there in a storm. Alternating as windbreak and nest box, it was a freakish object in the colony, almost as unlikely as a penguin turning up in the streets of central London.

Since the year 2000 the crate has broken up, but its pieces are still visible — distinctive debris.

Besides the Adelies, Pony Lake and the hut area received occasional visits through the three decades from lumbering Weddell seals.

For them it was a change from the sea ice. A crabeater seal might also have turned up — a species renowned for journeying far and fatally into the Dry Valleys on the other side of McMurdo Sound, there to become mummified by the intense, dry cold.

On the sound itself, expressing almost organic intent, the sea ice maintained its annual cycle of birth, growth, dispersal and disappearance.

Inside the hut, on the other hand, change was imperceptible. The still, dry, freezing air slowed the processes of decay. No one came through the porch to rekindle the Mrs Sam stove, reignite the acetylene plant or light up a cigarette.

Beneath the floor of the Nimrod Hut, in the crawl space between the spruce boards (Shackleton called the timber ‘stout fir’) and the scoria ground cover, lay several cases of whisky and brandy that were nestled in the black volcanic sand with sundry supplies and equipment.

In the dim world of the crawl space the cases were well protected from the sun’s ultraviolet rays and wind damage. But blizzards could deposit small amounts of their frozen freight under the hut.

The snowflakes sneaked in through the packing-case walls disturbed by the departing expedition team and through gaps in rocks or woodwork at the front of the hut.

Snowflakes inherit the penetrative power of the parent water. They get in. Year by year, blizzard by blizzard, snow slowly collected around the cases and turned to ice.

Sporadic melt-water floods in summer aided and abetted the development of solid ice under the hut. Such floods might occur in December or January as sun and daytime temperatures above zero melted snow accumulating as drifts against the hut walls.

The melt-water would drain under the hut and some would refreeze at the end of the short summer.

This then was the scene for 30 years — the hut confronting the elements and seasonal wildlife at the edge of a frozen wilderness, the continent of Antarctica.

Given the near-continuous expedition activity of the early years of the 20th century, why did people not venture here between 1917 and 1947?

For one thing, the South Pole had lost a good deal of its mystery for overland explorers, and there had been some disastrous setbacks, including the loss of Captain Scott and his polar party in 1912 and the failure of the first attempt at a trans-Antarctic crossing three years later, led by Shackleton, now Sir Ernest.

Antarctic exploration, already a ‘hard sell’, was less appealing to sponsors, private, corporate or government. Then came the Great Depression of 1929, although world recession did not stop a well-heeled American explorer and aviator, Richard Evelyn Byrd, from mounting two Antarctic expeditions.

A United States Navy commander, Byrd wanted to make his mark initially through aviation. He sought a reliable flat surface for take-off  and landing.

McMurdo Sound sea ice being dicey in summer, he opted to base his expedition on the Ross Ice Shelf, at Shackleton’s Bay of Whales (also used by Amundsen as a base).

With three others, Byrd flew from the Bay of Whales to the South Pole in November 1929. They were in the air for nearly 16 hours, and afterwards Byrd famously dismissed the Pole as a salient landmark: ‘The center of a limitless plain,’ he wrote. ‘One gets there, and that is about all there is for the telling.’

Norwegian whalers operated in the Ross Sea with factory ships and catchers in the 1920s and early 1930s, from a base at Stewart Island, but had no need to confront the McMurdo sea ice and had little interest in the land.

Politically, though, the ground moved. In August 1923, New Zealand formally took over British responsibility for administering the great wedge of Antarctica between longitudes 150 degrees west and 160 degrees east, due south of New Zealand.

The sector encompassed the Ross Ice Shelf, McMurdo Sound, Ross Island, the Dry Valleys and a fair chunk of the Trans-Antarctic Mountains and ice cap all the way to the South Pole.

This region, the southern gateway to the geographic South Pole and arguably the most interesting sector for earth and life sciences in all of Antarctica, became known as the Ross Dependency.

The British flag had been raised in the Ross Dependency over and over again but New Zealand now had administrative oversight.

By this time the curtain had come down on the heroic era at the frozen ends of the Earth. Exploration on the grand scale of former times seemed a reckless waste of money — at least for the British.

In the next decade came portents of war then war itself, which developed into a black hole for resources and human lives. Interest in Antarctica bottomed out.

Following the war’s end in 1945, Antarctica once more became a focus as countries with an historical stake in exploring the continent engaged in a surreptitious race for its resources and a rush for sovereignty.

The Americans were the first out of the blocks. Towards the end of 1946 the United States Navy launched Operation High Jump with three task forces, 13 ships, 4700 personnel and more than 20 aircraft.

Its operations south of New Zealand were centred on the Bay of Whales again. Flag-flying and coastal mapping were major imperatives, together with an interest in occupying the Geographic South Pole and all the time eyeing up the frozen continent’s mineral resources.

For the first time, ice-breakers with thick hulls of steel shaped like rugby footballs came crunching through the Ross Sea’s pack ice and the sea ice closer to the continent. New Zealand took no part. Its government, absorbed by postwar priorities, expressed little interest in Antarctic activity.

United States Navy ice-breakers were the first vessels to penetrate McMurdo Sound since the departure of Shackleton’s Ross Sea support party in 1917.

On 20 February 1947, Operation High Jump’s Burton Island came alongside sea ice off  Cape Evans and shore parties were dispatched to check out Scott’s two huts at Cape Evans and Hut Point. Solid ice partially filled both huts, limiting access.

The following summer, under the banner of a smaller American expedition, nicknamed Operation Windmill, the ice-breaker USS Edisto, a sister of Burton Island, landed a party at Cape Royds by helicopter.

They found the old garage and stables without a roof, and wall sections in a state of collapse.

Going inside the hut, the United States Navy men fingered and photographed old newspapers, magazines and nautical almanacs, and marvelled at the good condition of the 40-year-old foodstuffs and the bewildering array of expedition artefacts from an era that would have regarded a helicopter as techno-science fiction.

Someone sampled maize from the hut that would later germinate back in the United States. There was talk about whether some members of the woefully deprived Shackleton support party based at Evans might have scavenged timber here for fuel.

No one appears to have looked under the hut.

Never mind; the long siege of silence for the Nimrod Hut was over. 

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