December 3, 1996

The Barne Glacier

It was as a sixth grader in Mrs. Gorman's class at Herndon Intermediate School back in Northern Virginia that I first heard of Sir Ernest Shackleton (1874-1922). She would frequently read aloud to us--particularly after lunch. Mrs. Gorman was a dynamic woman, nearing retirement, who would pick unusual things to share with the class. Always looking to bring a spark of enthusiasm to our faces she would touch on all manner of subjects: a biography of the Spanish painter, Velasquez and the incredible tale of the Shackleton party. The story of Shackleton's third expedition (1914-1916) became indelibly associated with the Antarctic to me. To this day, the word itself, "Antarctic," still conjures the famous night photograph of the Endurance, seized in the ice of the Weddell Sea--a personal pictograph that speaks of remoteness, isolation, loss and courage. More than Roald Amundsen and Robert Scott, Shackleton was, for me, an epic hero. I recently reread F.A. Worsley's account of the Endurance and passed it along to my girlfriend, Mary Townsend, to read to her son, Nick Kahn--also age eleven. When I got the keys to the hut at Cape Royds from Dave Bresnahan, the NSF Representative, I was filled with excitement and thought of Mrs. Gorman.

It was windy through the Dellbridge Islands--very windy. But the weather seemed to be clearing. After seeing the laboratory hut hauled off to McMurdo Station, we all set to tidying up the rest of camp. Mike and Rob helped take down the Scott polar tent that we had set up over a month ago when I began working out at Big Razorback. Dan came and chipped in as well. The tent had frozen into the sea ice and it took over an hour to extract and pack up. Once chores were completed, we loaded up our survival bags and moved out over the ice on snowmobiles towards Cape Royds. The wind had buffeted and polished the sea ice to a soapy green in the lee of the island and we rattled across bumps and cracks; breakup was coming...

Laboratory hut is hauled away

Mike and Rob help break camp

We rounded the terminus of the Barne Glacier, where we crossed a working crack that had widened in some places to about 8 feet--still frozen and snow covered, thankfully. In another spot we could see open water in the crack and Weddell seals had hauled out. I was riding with Tom Gelatt and he picked his way carefully through the ice. We were wary, as Dan had lost a shock absorber the previous day and we were a party of 5 on 3 machines. As we charted a circuitous route through Backdoor Bay, the wind blew a full 20-30 knots into our faces. Black and grey volcanic sand and rocks sheltered Shackleton's hut from our approach; the wind shifted momentarily, bringing the smell of the Adelie penguin colony out to Flagstaff Point to our side of the cape.

With the snowmobiles parked, we leaned into the wind and wended our way down to the hut. It lay at the edge of a large drift, called Home Lake, overlooking the penguin rookery. Rusted cans and hoops, nails and boxes lay strewn about the structure, which had been bleached grey by 90 years of wind and sun. Collectively, the group slowed and paused in an unconscious moment of silence before we started pulling out our cameras. We all knew the stories and, in the moment, had to place ourselves in some relationship to the history we had read and to the reality that lay before us. We poked around the lee of the building, examined half-open cans of corn and flour, two dog houses with a skull resting in the snow, pieces of machinery, a block and tackle and assorted tools. Then I unlocked the door...

Hut exterior

Discarded stores

Food stores

Dog hut




Hut interior

Ernest Shackleton was a 34 year old lieutenant when he built the hut at Cape Royds. It was the second of 4 Antarctic expeditions. His first experience was with Robert Scott in the 1901-1904 expedition. Shackleton left the group in 1903 to return to England, determined to return at the head of his own group. After several years of desperately trying to raise money and secure bank loans the British Antarctic Expedition under Shackleton's command was launched. On January 1, 1908, the Nimrod set out from Lyttleton Harbour, New Zealand, under tow by another vessel, the Koonya. The Nimrod, a 40-year old sealing ship, had been obtained as a less expensive alternative the Bjorn, a polar worthy Norwegian vessel which Shackleton had wanted to purchase, but could not afford. Laden so heavily that its draft brought the freeboard clearance to less than 4 feet, the Nimrod quickly came in danger of floundering as heavy seas were encountered within the first week. On January 15, as the ships encountered pack ice some 1,500 miles south of New Zealand, the Koonya bade farewell and headed for home. It was to take until February 3, after numerous frustrating bids at landfall, that Shackleton settled on Cape Royds as his base for the attempted trek to the South Pole.

Under the supervision of the "Boss," as Shackleton was called by his men, the expedition team of 15 members constructed the hut over the next 3 weeks. The hut measures about 33 feet in length by 19 feet in width with an 8 foot ceiling. The interior was warmed by a stove, burning coal augmented with Weddell seal blubber. A soft light filtered in through one of the three windows, and we inspected the contents of the hut. The kitchen was set in a corner with cans of food stored on sagging shelves along the walls. A small laboratory was set up in another corner. Each of the men shared a tiny cubicle, with two cots per and Shackleton had his own. At the evening meal, which was served promptly at 6:30pm, a table was lowered from the ceiling and all gathered together. The table now rests on the floor and the cots have been moved to the side in order to accommodate visitors. Boots and shoes are lined up on a bench to one side of the structure. Norwegian sleds hang from the ceiling. Otherwise, the hut remains as it was left in 1909. Clothing hangs from a line--with a pair of socks in need of mending. Stores of cocoa line one shelf, near the kitchen. While on another set of shelves, medicine bottles and chemicals are neatly arranged. Pots and pans sit on the stove top.

Hut interior




Food stores

Common space

Boots and shoes

Sleds hang from the ceiling

Clothing hanging up to dry


Medical supplies

Stove top

Outside, on a ridge overlooking the penguin rookery, Adams and Mawson, two of the expedition's members built an observatory, where regular weather measurements were taken. I looked around the hut, finding a salt supply and more stores of food. A pile of rusted cans lay out away from the hut.

Meteorological Station

Salt stores

Food stores

More food stores

While the British Antarctic expedition of 1907-1909 failed to reach the geographic South Pole--Shackleton turned back just 97 miles from his goal--their work was very important for science and a number of "firsts." The location of the southern magnetic pole had been established, Mt. Erebus was climbed successfully, a host of fauna and flora had been collected and examined and valuable meteorological data had been gathered. On his return in June of 1909, Shackleton was knighted by King Edward VII. He made another unsuccessful bid for a trans-Antarctic crossing in 1914 and died at sea near South Georgia Island in 1922, where he lies buried at the behest of his wife, Emily.