Ernest Shackleton set off from Ross Island with Edward Wilson and geologist
Hartley Ferrar on 19 February 1902 with the objective of reaching the
highest point on White Island, to obtain a view to the south.
The trio's journey was crucial to one of the Discovery Expedition's
primary aims: Robert Falcon Scott's southern journey the following season
that would, it was hoped, set a new farthest south record and determine
whether there was an Antarctic continent.
Prospects for Scott's journey would depend on what they would see from
the island. The great unknown was: did Ross's great Ice 'Barrier', which
they had just sailed along, extend astride the due-south course from
White Island that Scott hoped to follow?
Starting about 11.00 a.m. from the eastern end of The Gap, which divides
the slopes of Observation Hill from those of Crater Hill, immediately
east of where the Discovery was anchored at Hut Point, the three
men pulled their heavy sledge, laden with the Pram, southward
over the sea ice. With little yet known about the distance to the edge
of the Barrier proper in the direction of the island, Scott had insisted
that they carry the boat in case the sea ice broke away. During a 20-minute
lunch break at about 2.00 p.m. in bright sunshine, a southerly blizzard
engulfed them before they could pack up.
The urgent need to get off the sea ice dictated that they continue,
and the ensuing nine hours of relentless effort were very much the trio's
'baptism of fire' in a world of numbing frostbites. After another half
hour they were, in Wilson's words, 'simply done' and decided to camp
until the wind died down.
When the flapping tent was finally up and stayed to the sledge, with
its edges weighted down with blocks of ice, they could attend to their
Shackleton's ear and hands were badly blistered, as was one of Wilson's
big toes. The 'defrosting' was a painful process (with soreness persisting
for days afterwards). Eventually, after a warming meal, they tackled
the business of getting into the 'furs' that were to serve as sleeping
Designed on Norwegian advice and made from wolf skins Armitage had
purchased in Norway when he collected the dogs, the furs comprised a
jacket that fastened to what was effectively the bottom half of a sleeping
bag. They were deemed to be adequate insulation, after Bernacchi had
slept outside on Armitage's short journey over the Barrier from Balloon
Bight, when no floor cloth had been taken for the tent. However, sleeping
on their Jaeger blouses they found that the cold crept through wherever
the fur outfits touched the icy floor.
Shackleton made no mention of this in his report to Scott afterwards,
and the outfits were used twice more before being abandoned in favour
of the sleeping bags made from reindeer skins, also purchased in Norway
by Armitage. Turning out again at 3.30 a.m. on 20 February, the wind
having dropped two hours earlier, they marched on for four hours to
reach a point about two miles from the island, now securely on Barrier
on from there, they found that the tide crack between Barrier and shore,
and abundant crevassing, made landing the sledge and boat impossible.
Shackleton's report to Scott (1) states that
they retreated to pitch camp and then 'proceeded to [the] East end of
the island, but pressure ridges and crevasses were much larger so we
decided to pitch camp where we had it before.' Wilson's diary entry
on 20 February describes how they did their 'little bit of exploring
with care, as Shackle[ton] had got one foot down a covered crevasse.
So we roped and managed things easily then.' He makes clear the camp
they returned to was about a mile from the shore.
Precisely where their camp location was should be possible to determine
from the compass bearings and angles Shackleton gave in his report,
but they are confusing and do not all add up to the same location. There
is no mention of the group taking a theodolite, and it is certain they
did not carry one on the ascent of Mt Heine, so that the angles must
have been arrived at by using a magnetic compass. These readings would
have been subject to varying amounts of deflection from the magnetic
influence of the island's volcanic rocks.
Writing that the bearing of Mt Erebus was 'N 8° E True' (after
applying '160° E variation'), he recorded the angles between various
other summits, notably 'Mt Discovery to Crater II (Mt Hayward) 49°'
and 'Pyramid Mtn to Mt Discovery 20° 12'.
However, for the latter to be true, their camp would have had to be
about four miles west of the direct route to the north end of White
Island, and the angle between Mt Discovery and Mt Hayward would have
been approximately 85°. Such a position simply does not equate to
Wilson's description of their subsequent movements.
Shackleton's 49° angle between those mountains places the camp
on direct course from The Gap to the north end of the island. From there,
however, the bearing of Mt Erebus is N 6° W, some 14° different
from Shackleton's observation, which would easily be accounted for by
the deflecting influence of the island's magnetized volcanic rock, at
this stage in the journey only about a mile away. However, the angle
between Pyramid Mountain to Mt Discovery is only some 15°.
That angle measure from Hut Point is just about 20°, and Shackleton
would certainly have memorized that, if not measured it himself. Could
it have been a 'slip of the pen' when Shackleton wrote his report? Whether
so or not, we are left with Wilson's diary account to decide the camp's
probable location, and his description of their start for Mt Heine certainly
supports the suggested position of the camp. Describing how they slept
until 4.00 p.m., then turned out and cooked a meal before starting out
on foot, he relates that they went 'a mile or two along to a steep scree
Only the camp position (shown on the map above) on the direct line
from The Gap fits that, and at the same time Shackleton's description
of their first reconnaissance as having been to 'the east', as well
as the angle subtended between Mt Discovery and Mt Hayward. Wilson continues
his description of the scree slope as 'of loose stones, which ran some
400 ft up at an angle of 40° [after which] we had a short bit of
glacier stuff to cross.'
It has been alleged (2) that they failed to
rope up on the climb, but later Shackleton, in a letter to Captain Gordon
of the Cunard Line, wrote that they 'roped together and got across a
snow bridge, then climbed to the top of the island
splendid view of level barrier surface stretching away to the South.'
In yet another direct contradiction of an assertion originated by Roland
Huntford, Wilson described the later phase of the climb as 'good travelling,
chiefly over level or slightly ascending stony plateaus of volcanic
ash, sometimes crossing a broad ice slope
then a steep scramble
up rugged volcanic ash and rock' to reach the top at midnight.
two accounts, taken with Ferrar's elevation sketch (4),
add up to convincing support for the route proposed here for their ascent.
In a sketch of the view from the Summit of Mt Heine, also reproduced
in the writer's history of the expedition Antarctica Unveiled
(University Press of Colorado, 2000), Wilson showed a distant range
of mountains on the horizon beyond and above his all-too-accurate depiction
of the hill, today named Scallop Hill, at the south-east extremity of
Black Island. The true bearing of that point from the summit of Mt Heine
roughly equates to the bearing of the 'new range' that Shackleton gave
as 'S 50° W' in his report. The mountains they saw are today named
the Conway Range, in which, at midnight, the north face of Mt Keltie
would have presented the prominent conical form seen in Wilson's sketch.(5)
John M. Alexander, operations manager at Scott Base in the 1990/91 season,
kindly took three panoramic photos for the writer, to correspond with
the view recorded by Wilson from the summit of Mt Heine. He had led
a party to the summit, approaching from the south, having travelled
most of the way on skidoos. Surprisingly, the righthand photo showed
that the distant mountains, viewed from Mt Heine, would have been obscured
by Black Island. Taken with Wilson's 21 February account of how, the
next day, they left camp at 2.00 p.m. 'and walked towards the south-west
end of the island', the writer concluded that they must have travelled
via, or visited the southern slopes of Mt Hayward (Crater II), the only
position on that side of the islands from which the distant mountains
could be seen directly. However, on page 5 of Ferrar's report to Scott,
he refers to 'a glacier pressing down from the plateau in which the
new range stands' and in the sketch map on page 3 he depicts a 'snow
platform' in front of the 'distant range' above the south-east corner
of Black Island - the very point above which Wilson depicts the range.
So, all three men were unanimous in recording that they saw the distant
range from Mt Heine.
It follows that what they saw that midnight was a mirage and Wilson's
sketch, probably the first portrayal of an Antarctic mirage, was a superbly
accurate illustration of what they saw.
Shackleton had made the Discovery Expedition's third historic discovery
- one that would reshape Scott's plans for the Southern Journey. When
later viewed by Scott from the Bluff Depot and bed, the distant mountains
would reinforce in his mind the theory, prevailing in some geographical
circles, that Victoria Land was a southern Greenland, and that they
had sighted its southern end. Sending Barne's support party back earlier
than planned to explore that, thus adding a sixth sledge to the train
pulled by his dogs, certainly contributed to the travails of the journey,
on which Shackleton and Wilson would play such crucial roles.
1. Scott Polar Research Institute ms366/12/4D.
2. In Huntford's 1985 biography Shackleton: p. 68 and Shackleton
and McKenna (2002) Shackleton: An Irishman in Antarctica: p.
3. SPRI ms1537/2/7/3 D: 24.9.1902.
4. SPRI ms366/14/1-7 page 3 of 7. The nunatak marked A on Ferrar's sketch
corresponds with the small 600 m contour ring marked on the USGS map
almost 2 statute miles north of Mt Heine, but the one marked B on his
plan sketch does not obviously equate to any feature emphasised on the
5. Op. cit. p. 125.
© David E. Yelverton, FRGS. This article first published in
Antarctic, 22:1. A retired engineering planning and logistics
manager turned Antarctic historian, David is well known for his definitive
work on Scott's first expedition, Antarctica
Unveiled . He has written several articles on Antarctic history
and is also a recognized authority on early awards of the British Polar
Medal. His new book Quest for a Phantom Strait: The saga of the
pioneer Antarctic Peninsula expeditions 1987-1905 is to be published
in September by Polar Publishing Ltd and is available through bookshops
or directly from this website.