Conservators from New Zealand’s Antarctic Heritage Trust were working at Captain Scott’s famous Cape Evans hut when they came across an extraordinary find. A small box, previously unnoticed, contained a pile of unseen photographic negatives from a century earlier.
The cellulose nitrate negatives were in the darkroom at Scott’s base. And they had been made by members of the Ross Sea Party, a component of Irishman Ernest Shackleton’s last major expedition – the grandly named Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition.
The trek was driven by Shackleton’s plan to cross the Antarctic on foot – a feat never before achieved. Captain Robert Falcon Scott and his British team had built the Cape Evans base in 1911, before setting off from it on their ill-fated attempt to be the first men to reach the South Pole.
Scott reached the Pole in January 1912, only to find that he’d been beaten by the Norwegian Roald Amundsen. Then, on his way back from that expedition, Scott and his party perished in the icy wastes of the Antarctic.
Three years later, meanwhile, the Ross Sea party reached the other side of the frozen continent to Scott’s starting point. Their ship, the Aurora, had landed at Cape Evans in January 1915 as part of Shackleton’s own Antarctic crossing attempt. And the party’s mission was to lay a trail of supply dumps halfway across the Antarctic.
Shackleton was then to cross the Weddell Sea in his vessel the Endurance. His plan was to land near Vahsel Bay before trekking to the South Pole. Then, they would press on to Ross Sea on the other side of the continent.
Shackleton left with enough supplies to reach the dumps, which were designed to sustain the second half of the journey. However, things didn’t go quite according to plan.
The expedition started well enough, with leader Aeneas Mackintosh and his men leaving Cape Evans to lay the supply dumps. The crew of the Aurora were left behind aboard their ship.
But at Cape Evans, disaster struck. In May 1915 a storm broke the Aurora’s moorings, and she consequently drifted off to sea with her crew. The ship eventually broke free of ice in the Southern Ocean in February 1916 and subsequently sailed to New Zealand.
That left ten men on shore at Scott’s Hut with very little in the way of supplies. Most of their equipment, food and clothing had been stowed on the ship that had now drifted off – and the stores for Shackleton’s supply dumps had already been unloaded.
Fortunately, there were some materials at the base which they could use or adapt. Mackintosh wrote at the time, “We have to face the possibility that we may have to stay here, unsupported, for two years. We cannot expect rescue before then, and so we must conserve and economize on what we have, and we must seek and apply what substitutes we can gather.”
And the explorers were nothing if not ingenious. They made clothes, for example, from an old canvas tent left behind by Scott and his men. Meanwhile, they improvised an essential of the time – tobacco – by mixing herbs, sawdust, tea and coffee together. They called it Hut Point Mixture.
After a break for the winter, then, the heroic men carried on with their task of laying Shackleton’s supply dumps. It was an arduous and often dangerous task in the severe polar conditions.
The work involved hauling the supplies across ice and rock using manpower and the four fit dogs that had survived from the much larger team. Three men lost their lives in this arduous struggle, including expedition leader Mackintosh, but the rest of the men achieved their mission of laying the dumps.
Perhaps mercifully at this point, Mackintosh’s surviving men didn’t know that their work was to be in vain. Indeed, Shackleton’s attempt to reach the Weddell Sea coast on the other side of Antarctica had ended in catastrophe.
In fact, Shackleton’s ship, the Endurance, had not set off for the Antarctic summer season of 1914-15 because it had arrived at its setting-off point of South Georgia too late. Word of this delay never reached Mackintosh, who had worked on the basis that he must get the supplies laid down as quickly as possible.
The Endurance finally embarked to the Antarctic in December 1914 but was continually delayed and diverted by thick ice. In October 1915, moreover, the pressure of the ice floes surrounding the Endurance crushed her hull, and the crew abandoned ship to camp on the ice. Attempts to walk to supply dumps failed, and Shackleton’s men subsequently settled down to camp at Elephant Island.
Despite many trials and tribulations, though, most of Shackleton’s men reached South Georgia and safety in May 1916. A successful rescue mission was then launched to pick up the men who had been left behind on Elephant Island after the Endurance was crushed.
Somehow, meanwhile, the surviving members of the Ross Sea party kept themselves going until they were rescued in January 1917. To their disbelief, their savior was Shackleton himself, and the ship he arrived on was the same Aurora they’d lost in 1915.
Looking at these ghostly pictures that were discovered in Scott’s Hut, we can barely imagine the hardships that the men went through to supply Shackleton’s aborted expedition across the Antarctic. Sadly, it was an expedition that never even reached the continent’s coast – an unfitting epitaph for the brave men of the Ross Sea party.