Scott's, Shackleton's & Mawson's Huts In Antarctica & Their Amazing Contents
- Antarctica Huts: Relics of the Heroic Era of Antarctic Exploration
- Discovery Hut: Hut Point (Ross Island)
- Shackleton’s Hut: Cape Royds (Ross Island)
- Mawson’s Huts: Cape Denison (Commonwealth Bay)
- Scott’s Hut: Cape Evans (Ross Island)
- Some Intriguing Finds at Antarctic Huts
- Visiting the Historical Huts of Antarctica
Of all the relatively few (compared to other continents) human structures found in Antarctica, including the research stations and bases that thrum along with scientific activity, none quite so captivate the imagination as the remains of expedition huts from the “Heroic Era of Antarctic Exploration.”
This was the period from the last years of the 19th century into the first two decades of the 20th that saw the first great exploratory and scientific forays into large, unmapped swaths of the White Continent, undertaken by expedition leaders who rank among the truly legendary names of polar adventure.
There are a small number of huts left behind by these early expeditions widely scattered throughout Antarctica, though many exist only as spare ruins. That is, significantly, not the case for the very first hut established: Borchgrevink’s Hut, built at Cape Adare by Carsten E. Borchgrevink’s Southern Cross (British Antarctic) Expedition of 1898-1900. The Southern Cross Expedition undertook the first overwintering on the mainland of Antarctica, and it’s testament to a high caliber of craftsmanship that Borchgrevink’s Hut—the surviving one of two huts, actually, which were constructed by the Southern Cross Expedition at the site—remains standing in remarkably good condition.
Among the other of the very best-known Antarctica huts—namely, those of the iconic expedition leaders Robert Falcon Scott, Ernest Shackleton, and Douglas Mawson—are given their own more in-depth profiles below.
The hut Robert Falcon Scott’s National Antarctic (or Discovery) Expedition built along McMurdo Sound, at Hut Point on Discovery Island, is one of the signal structures in Antarctica. Still standing, it served not only that momentous Discovery Expedition, but also several major subsequent Heroic Era expeditions in the Ross Sea.
Plenty of big-time significance took place on this Discovery Expedition, including a crew—Scott, Ernest Shackleton, and Edward Wilson—penetrating the farthest south thus far (82°16.5’ S); the first climb onto the Antarctic Polar Plateau, led by second-in-command Albert Armitage; the earliest documentation of an emperor-penguin breeding colony; and the taking of the first aerial photographs of Antarctica (the work of Ernest Shackleton on a balloon flyover with Scott of the Ross Ice Shelf—the “Barrier,” as the men knew it then—in early February 1902).
The 36-by-36-foot Discovery Hut had been prefabricated in Sydney from Douglas-fir and Scots pine timber, and had something of an Australian-style design, with a veranda wrapping around three sides. The inability to adequately heat the hut during the expedition meant it was used more for scientific and repair work as well as socializing rather than as a true home base, which became the ship Discovery itself.
But given the fact that the hut was situated closer to the South Pole than any other outpost, it received further use by later exploratory outfits. Shackleton’s 1907-1909 Nimrod Expedition—which, though failing to reach the South Pole, did pioneer an important route across the Ross Ice Shelf and onto the Polar Plateau approaching that coveted point—reoccupied the structure.
And Scott’s Terra Nova (British Antarctic) Expedition of 1910-1913 also utilized the hut, though a new one at Cape Evans was the main base. Upon first reaching the old Discovery Hut in January 1911, Scott noted that Shackleton’s party, a few years before, had left a window open, and “as a result, nearly the whole of the interior of the hut is filled with hard ice snow, and now it is impossible to find shelter inside.”
Scott’s men refurbished Discovery Hut and, through some trial-and-error design work, managed to significantly improve its comfort with the installation of a blubber stove.
Following the deaths of Scott and his polar party, eight men of the Terra Nova Expedition stayed briefly at Discovery Hut in late January 1913, and erected a makeshift white cross on nearby Observatory Hill to honor the fallen.
Finally, the Ross Sea Party of Shackleton’s 1914-1917 Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition also took advantage of Discovery Hut as well as Scott’s Hut at Cape Evans as part of their quest to lay supply depots for Shackleton’s attempted first-ever traverse of the White Continent.
As it happened, Shackleton never even truly started that attempt, given his ship, the Endurance, became trapped in the sea ice of the Weddell Sea on the other side of the continent, thus initiating one of the most famous survival sagas in the history of polar exploration. (The shore members of the beleaguered Ross Sea Party, who—wholly unaware of the fate of the Endurance crew—successfully laid the depots despite losing three men in the process, ended up marooned for months at Cape Evans. Finally, in January 1917, they were rescued by their supply ship, the Aurora, which had gone adrift and prevented by ice in resupplying the shore party.)
Following the Ross Sea Party, the Discovery Hut sat unvisited for some three decades until a U.S. icebreaker, the Burton Island, swung by in 1947. McMurdo Station, the biggest research base in Antarctica, stands within view of Discovery Hut today.
The Discovery Expedition had visited and named Cape Royds, which fronts McMurdo Sound a bit more than 20 miles to the north of Hut Point on Ross Island. This headland came to be the over-winter base for Ernest Shackleton’s aforementioned Nimrod Expedition, aka the British Antarctic Expedition of 1907-1909.
Shackleton, in fact, had first intended to set up a base at the eastern end of the Ross Ice Shelf. Ice conditions, however, forced him to instead journey to McMurdo Sound—despite his promise to Robert Falcon Scott, who claimed use of the Hut Point base and also intended to return to the Antarctic, to avoid that area. Pack ice also prevented the Nimrod from accessing Hut Point, hence the eventual choice of Cape Royds.
The roughly 33-by-19-foot hut installed at the cape by the Nimrod crew, which was prefabricated in London in 1907, served as cramped (but cozy) home for 15 men over some 14 months. As we’ve already mentioned, Shackleton failed in his goal to reach the South Pole during this expedition, but nonetheless accomplished much, not least pioneering the Beardmore Glacier route onto the Polar Plateau (later used by Scott on his ill-fated trip to the Pole), reaching a new farthest-south point (88°23’ S), and climbing Mount Erebus for the first time.
The hut wasn’t occupied after the Nimrod Expedition departed, though some of its provisions were pilfered by the Terra Nova Expedition’s Ross Sea Party. (Shackleton’s team had left a note inviting subsequent parties to use the hut and its supplies.)
Resurrection and restoration work on Shackleton’s Hut began during the U.S. Operation Deep Freeze expeditions of the late 1940s and early 1950s, and intensified in the 21st century through the efforts of the Antarctic Heritage Trust. Today it’s a heritage site visited on occasion by sightseeing cruises to the Ross Sea. Plenty of canned foods, bottles, and other provisions remain within, as does one of the two stoves Shackleton’s expedition used: the large, photogenic “Uncle Sam” heating stove. You can see the men’s sleeping cubicles and Shackleton’s tiny cabin, and coats still hung on hooks.
Outside, along with various storage crates and dog kennels, stand stables for the Manchurian ponies brought on the expedition as well as the garage for the Arrol-Johnston motorcar: the first-ever automobile in Antarctica.
Moving away from the Ross Sea, we’ve got another striking historical site in the form of Mawson’s Huts: a collection of structures dating back to the 1911-1914 Australasian Antarctic Expedition (AAE), helmed by Dr. Douglas Mawson. Trained as a geologist, Mawson had been part of Shackleton’s Nimrod Expedition, and his AAE marked the most significant scientific endeavor on the White Continent of its time.
Cape Denison proved a rather extreme place for an expedition base: Scoured by the ferocious katabatic winds that spill down from the ice-sheet heights of the Antarctic Polar Plateau to the coastline, it was, in Mawson’s words, “the windiest place on Earth.” (Indeed, Cape Denison is known for the highest officially recorded annual average wind speed on the planet: 44 miles per hour, though maximum gusts can be much greater.)
The Mawson’s Huts complex, which is preserved through the efforts of the Australian Antarctic Division and the Mawson’s Huts Foundation, includes several timber-built huts. The so-called Main Hut is actually two conjoined prefab huts: a 24-by-24-foot living hut, with sleeping quarters, a kitchen, dining area, and spaces for darkroom work, laundry, and storage, and a 21-by-18-foot workshop. Thanks to the AAE’s fine workmanship and the dedicated modern upkeep of the historic site’s stewards, the “bones” of the Main Hut are in good, solid shape, though the interior is mostly filled with ice.
Fitted with a veranda on three sides, the Main Hut came edged with a hanger made from cases that housed the expedition’s wingless monoplane, which had been damaged before shipment to Antarctica and was repurposed as an air-tractor sledge.
Also at Cape Denison—not far from the offshore South Magnetic Pole—stands the still-intact Magnetograph House, which collected continuous data on the planet’s magnetic field, and the ruins of the Absolute Magnetic Hut, the measurements of which were used to calibrate those of the Magnetograph House.
The mostly ruined Transit Hut rounds out the huts at Cape Denison; it served as the base’s Astronomical Observatory.
The Mawson’s Hut Historic Site also includes a memorial cross, placed in November of 1913 to honor the two casualties on the AAE: Belgrave Ninnis and Xavier Mertz. Those men lost their lives during a perilous sledge journey with Mawson into the trackless George V Land interior; Mawson himself nearly lost his life on that ordeal, which he survived only by making an improbable solo trek of better than 100 miles back to Cape Denison.
Not to be confused with the earlier Discovery Hut, Scott’s Hut refers to the building constructed during Robert Falcon Scott’s fateful 1910-1913 Terra Nova (British Antarctic) Expedition. This was to be Scott’s last expedition: He and four companions perished on their return march from the South Pole in early 1912.
Cape Evans, a bleak sprawl of volcanic rock flanking Mount Erebus, was selected as the expedition’s base after the original location, Cape Crozier, proved too ice-locked to access. Ross named the cape—some 15 miles north of the Discovery Hut location—after the Terra Nova Expedition’s second-in-command, Edward “Teddy” Evans.
This is the biggest of the Heroic Era huts in the Ross Sea, and Scott’s own description gives some sense of the structure’s scale: “The word hut is misleading. Our residence is really a house of considerable size, in every respect the finest that has ever been erected in the polar regions; 50 feet long by 25 wide and 9 feet to the eaves.”
Scott’s Hut was prefabricated in London and roughly put together as a test in New Zealand ahead of its ultimate construction at Cape Evans, which took nine days in January of 1911. Abandoned by the remainder of the Terra Nova Expedition’s Shore Party in January 1913, Scott’s Hut would be used subsequently by members of the Ross Sea Party of Shackleton’s Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition (1914-1917).
The hut remains much as it was when the Terra Nova men resided here, with well-preserved provisions, dishware, and scientific instruments. Within, packing-box walls partition off the officer quarters from those of lower-ranking expedition members. Work stations look as if those using them had just stepped outside a moment or two ago. A sleeping bag lies on Scott’s bunk, below a wall-hung pair of socks and hot-water bottle.
The associated stables, which housed the expedition’s ponies, still contain snowshoes used for those stock, as well as (poignantly) the skeleton of a dog.
No shortage of remarkable artifacts have been found in and around the historical expedition huts of Antarctica in the decades since they were constructed, preserved by the deep-freeze climate and, in some cases, long hidden away by drifted snow and ice.
In 1964, for example, the New Zealand Antarctic Society inventoried a number of notable items while inspecting and clearing Discovery Hut at Hut Point, including the script for a play that Scott’s men performed in 1902 as well as chess pieces fashioned out of broom handles.
Among the more widely touted discoveries were the three crates of Mackinlay & Co. Scotch whisky found by the Antarctic Heritage Trust buried under Shackleton’s Hut in 2010. The current owner of the Mackinlay brand, White & Mackay, conducted an analysis on the unopened whisky, bottled in 1898, and used its findings to reconstruct the majorly vintage blend, releasing a recreation as the Shackleton Rare Old Highland Malt. The whisky crates, meanwhile, were returned to Shackleton’s Hut to be preserved there as part of the historical contents.
More recently yet, a century-old fruitcake, still in its wrapper and a remnant of the enclosing tin, was recovered during archaeological work at the ruins of the Cape Adare hut built in 1911 by the Terra Nova Expedition’s Northern Party.
The most intact and best-known historical expedition huts of Antarctica lie well away from the most-visited part of the White Continent, the Antarctic Peninsula. But cruise options exist into the Ross Sea area, and such itineraries often, if conditions allow, include visits to Borchgrevink’s Hut, Discovery Hut (easily reached from McMurdo Station), Shackleton’s Hut, and/or Scott’s Hut. Some tour operators also run cruises to remote and little-visited Commonwealth Bay, where Mawson’s Huts can be seen.
As you would expect (and hope), strict visitor regulations apply to these huts, which are rigorously protected as historic sites and heritage monuments. Such regulations include limiting the number of people who can be in or around a hut at any one time, and the duration of tours inside.
Needless to say, however, the lucky (comparably) few who get to peer within the well-preserved interiors of Robert Falcon Scott’s and Ernest Shackleton’s huts experience some of the most remarkable “time-capsule” moments available anywhere on Earth: Such is the lived-in look of the huts, their untouched contents, and the grandly harsh polar scenery that enfolds them.
(And, by the way, if you can’t make a trek to the Ross Sea anytime soon, you can get a taste for what Shackleton’s Hut and Scott’s Hut look like via this website’s virtual tours. There’s another online virtual tour of Scott’s Hut here.)
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