Shackleton's First Sledge Journey

by David Yelverton


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'Don't go looking for Antarctica without this book.' - Susan Solomon



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 frostbites.

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 bags.

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 ice.

Pressing 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 slope …'

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 … getting a splendid view of level barrier surface stretching away to the South.' (3)

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.

The 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. 67.
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 USGS map.

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.


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