Monday, January 22, 2018

Discovery Hut

Discovery Hut
McMurdo Sound was one of the first areas of Antarctica reached by European explorers, so it is rich in history from the "heroic age." One of the most notorious Antarctic explorers, Robert Scott, camped in McMurdo Sound and set out from here on multiple expeditions, including his infamous, ill-fated quest for the South Pole. While at McMurdo Station, my fellow trainees and I have had the privilege of touring Scott's historic Discovery Hut, located just down the road from the station. The hut is a specially-managed historic structure, and access is allowed by permission only. It was a rare opportunity for us to experience the early history of Antarctic research and the poignant realities of life on the southern continent before well-established infrastructure.

That, my friends, is a century-old seal carcass
Discovery Hut was never meant to be inhabited. Scott and his men used a design common in the Australian outback - obviously not a fitting choice for Antarctica, designed to shed, instead of retain, heat. They intended the hut to merely serve as a storage unit, a place to leave extra supplies when they headed out on treks over land. During harsh winters on subsequent expeditions, the men did end up living in the hut, and their diaries reveal how atrociously cold it was inside. They lived in near-hypothermic, near-starvation conditions for months on end.

Old supply boxes inside Discovery Hut
As I stood outside, waiting to enter the hut, I couldn't help but notice a long black object to the right of the door. I stepped closer to examine it and discerned a head and shriveled flippers. It was a seal carcass, over 100 years old, left behind by Scott's men and too cold to rot.

The primitive "kitchen" inside Discovery Hut
When I stepped inside, the first thing I noticed was the darkness. There are very few windows inside the hut and no electric lighting. It took about 30 seconds for my eyes to adjust. The second thing I noticed was the smell, which was something like stale dust mixed with old manure. We were warned there was horse manure inside, but I never saw any. Instead, I focused on a pile of wooden boxes, all labeled for the expedition, some still carrying canned foods. Our course instructor explained that Scott's expedition relied on hunted seals and canned meats they had brought with them for food, and they suffered from terrible scurvy.

We worked our way around the central axis of the hut to an area partitioned with hanging fabrics. This area was the kitchen, or the closest equivalent, and the blankets were meant to retain heat from the stove. An old metallic bowl held charred bits of something that reminded me of burnt bacon - leftover pieces of seal meat, abandoned where they lay for over 100 years. Our instructor pointed out the crude wooden planks where two of Scott's men had lain and been tended to just prior to their deaths. He showed us the short brick chimney where the scientist, Wilson, had done his first studies on magnetism in an attempt to locate the magnetic south pole.

The latter point is actually a defining characteristic of Scott's expeditions: he brought a scientist with him. Roald Amundsen, the other famous Antarctic explorer, was much more efficient and successful (Amundsen beat Scott to the South Pole) but did no science along the way. Scott's expeditions were the first real foray into Antarctic research, but each expedition was more ill-fated than the last, culminating in the deaths of him and his entire team. After seeing Discovery Hut, I must admit: I do not wonder why Scott died. Amundsen showed up with professional skiers and sled dogs and fur coats; Scott's men had no such training and pulled their gear on sleds themselves. I respect their raw grit but marvel that Scott ever convinced men to follow him, much less to return with him, to the Antarctic.

The contrast is best summarized by a famous quote attributed to Raymond Priestley: "For scientific discovery, give me Scott; for speed and efficiency of travel, give me Amundsen."

It was a rare privilege to see inside Discovery Hut, and I was grateful for the opportunity. The historic hut provides a poignant view of the continent's history and valuable lessons for modern research.

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