Inside the Discovery Hut

The night before last, we got the rare chance of going inside the hut built in 1902 during Scott’s Discovery expedition. The hut, meant as a storage building rather than living quarters, was also used by Shackleton’s 1907-1909 Nimrod expedition (the name “Nimrod” is notched in a door), Scott’s party again in 1911-1914 (this is the last building Scott slept in before heading to the Pole, never to come back), and once more in 1914-17 by a team in charge of laying depots to the Pole for Shackleton’s party, in the first attempt to cross Antarctica coast to coast (40 years before the Commonwealth Antarctic Expedition).

Shackleton’s attempt at the trans-Antarctic crossing went awry almost from the get go. One of his two ships, the Aurora, brought the support party on Ross Island near today’s Mc Murdo, but was blown away during a storm, leaving them trapped on land. The other, the Endurance, sailed to the Weddell Sea on the opposite side of Antarctica, where it got trapped in the pack ice and eventually sank. Shackleton and the 28-men crew wandered off in the world’s worst seas in life boats, ducking crushing icebergs, fog, and storms until they reached the narrowest of flat land, a few dozen meters across on Elephant Island. There they camped through the winter, after which eventually Shackleton was able to lead one of the boats north to South Georgia and find rescue. He first rescued his winter crew from their forsaken “beach” before heading back around Antarctica to pick up the crew marooned for 2 years on Ross Island, who had laid out the depots for nothing.

The hut today is just as Shackleton’s men left it, in a hurry. Pants are hanging on a line, there is seal blubber (not fully burned) on a stove, crates of biscuit, cocoa, oatmeal, and herring are lying around, and dead seals are piled in a corner, barely decomposed in this permanent freezer. All this makes for a strange smell, and we were also warned to be mindful of any signs of potential pathogenic infections in the coming months, given the people and animals who died here. Items from all four expeditions are mixed and matched, as it was British Navy tradition to leave everything for later-comers who might need it. The floor bears the marks of the ponies that were brought inside during the worst storms. As this hut was not meant as living quarters, it was not insulated and therefore inhabited mostly in temporary or dire situations. Hence the campground-like layout, with blankets hanging from the ceiling in order to provide meager protection against the cold and wind.

I’m very grateful to have seen this legendary place.

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