The Race to Save Scott and Shackletons Antarctic Huts

Published in The Listener

Some 4000km south of New Zealand in the icy moonscape of Antarctica stand a few huts: a stack of weather-beaten boards in a Godforsaken cold and desolate landscape.  Walking into the huts is eerie, like stepping into a time capsule.  It’s one of the most profoundly moving experiences I have ever had.

Scott, Shackleton and their men built and used these simple buildins on the shores of the Ross Sea as the bases for their Antarctic explorations at the beginning of last century.  Even if you are not one to believe in any form of afterlife, you can feel the presence of the men who inhabited them and endured such privations.  Newspapers lie on the table, supplies are stacked on shelves, boots are tucked neatly under bunks on which Reindeer-skin sleeping bags lie.  Scientific equipment stands in the corner and behind a blanket lies a makeshift darkroom.  Amongst the artifacts are brands that are still around today.  The Huntley and Palmers biscuits and Heinz beans.

Touches of humour reveal the humanity of the me who lived in these simple huts.  Graffiti on the wall of Shackelton’s Hut at Cape Royds reads “Wild and Joyce, painters, book binders etc.  Gentlemen only” in homage to the ‘Rogue’s Retreat’ where the first book to be printed in Antarctica was produced in 1908.  The overall impression is as if the men had just left for a spot of exploration.  You almost expect to see a note on the table; “Popped out to the Pole – we may be gone some time”

Trying to explain the feeling of walking back in time is a dilemma.  Words really don’t do it justice.  The poet Bill Manhire, when he visited the huts, stepped neatly around this conundrum by composing a poem made up entirely of comments from the visitor’s book.  “Cool! Wow! Beautiful! Awesome!  Like going back in time.  Amazing! Historic! Finally I am truly blessed.”

Rob Fenwick, the chair of the New Zealand-based Antarctic Heritage Trust, the organisation that looks after the huts, says it perhaps as well as anyone.  “They really are a knockout aren’t they – just bloody magic!”

But if doing justice to the feelings one experiences when walking into the huts is a difficult, a far greater dilemma faces the Antarctic Heritage Trust.   Contrary to popular belief the huts and their contents will not be preserved in the dry cold Antarctic climate forever.  In fact the huts are starting to deteriorate rapidly.  They were never built to last in perpetuity and are increasingly suffering the ravages of corrosion, high relative humidity, salt damage, fungal attack, excessive light levels and deformation problems.  Fenwick and experts from the Antarctic Heritage Trust believe the huts will not last another 50 years unless major work is done.  Should we care?  Undoubtedly, because these huts are far more than a stack of weather beaten boards.  They are the repository of the hopes and dreams, heroism and tragedy of a period of Antarctic exploration known as the ‘heroic era’.   This was the period between 1895 and 1917 when Amunsden, Scott, Shackelton, Mawson, Borchgrevink and their men journeyed south in pursuit of knowledge but more particularly on a quest to reach the South Pole.  As Sir Edmund Hillary, first to climb Everest and patron of the Antarctic Heritage Trust notes, “these historic huts are the relics of some of the greatest adventures and expeditions of the twentieth century and we owe it to future generations to ensure they are preserved.”

The adventurers who built these huts came to the Ross Sea as it was the southernmost point their ships could reach each January or February during the short Austral summer when the sea ice breaks up.  Come March when the temperature starts to plummet and the days drawn in towards the long Antarctic winter the men would erect their prefabricated huts and hole up in their improbably small interiors though the long dark Antarctic winter.  Some 6 months later they would emerge as they days began to lengthen to head off south in pursuit of their distant goal.

These expeditions were voyages of almost unimaginable hardship.  Scott’s epic and ill-fated trek to the Pole in 1912 is well known, although the fact that their fate was as much a litany of bad planning and management as bad luck is not so well known.  But there were many other incredible journeys that are lesser known.  The 5 week long mid-winter trip undertaken by one of Scott’s officers, Apsley Cherry-Garrard, with Dr Wilson and Lieutenant Bowers who were both later to die with Scott, was immortalised in Cherry-Garrard’s book “The Worst Journey in the World”.  Shackelton’s Ross Sea support party who nearly starved in Scott’s Discovery Hut after returning from laying food depots across the Ross Ice Shelf without knowing that just feet away buried in the ice was a large store of supplies and lamp oil.  The stories are all epic and whilst they might be seen as a Boys Own adventure from a bygone era, they nonetheless remain timeless and inspiring stories of human endurance.

But once the Pole was achieved and with World War One blighting Europe, attention turned away from Polar exploration.  It was not until the 1950s when the Americans were establishing Operation Deep Freeze that the huts were rediscovered, largely filled with drifted snow.  During Sir Vivian Fuch’s British Trans-Antarctic Expedition of 1957-58 the crew of the New Zealand support ship Endeavour and Expedition personnel carried out essential maintenance on the huts at Cape Royds, Cape Evans and Hut Point.

With New Zealand’s traditional territorial claim to the Ross Sea region and the establishment of the Antarctic Treaty System in 1961, New Zealand assumed responsibility for the preservation of the huts and other historic sites in the area.  By 1969 that country’s Department of Scientific and Industrial Research introduced a hut caretaker programme and for many years members of the NZ Antarctic Society went south to conduct maintenance on the Ross Island huts.  In 1979 an action committee began to look at options to ensure the long-term survival of the huts and in 1987 the Antarctic Heritage Trust was formed.  Early tasks undertaken by the Trust included weather proofing the huts and establishing their structural integrity.  Since then the Trust has inventoried the 10,000 artifacts and drawn up management plans for the huts.  Conservation work has been undertaken each summer with advice and input from professional conservators, archeologists, museologists, historians and other specialists from around the world.  “Remember all of this has been done in an environment where such work has never been done before” notes Fenwick.  “We are leading the world in this work.”

Which brings us to today.  With the centenary of the Heroic Era upon us there is a revival of interest in this period overseas.  “The U.S is in the grip of something of a ‘Shackelton-mania’ right now” says Antarctic Heritage Trust Director, Nigel Watson.  Giant-screen film-makers, IMAX, have just released a film about Shackelton’s Trans-Antarctic expedition during which the expedition ship, the Endurance, became frozen and crushed in pack ice necessitating a daring open boat trip through some of the most treacherous seas on the planet.  Another team are currently recreating that journey for a documentary.  “The Endurance expedition is sometimes called the greatest story ever told” says Watson.  “I like to think of the huts as the storehouses of some of the greatest stories of human endurance and adventure nevertold.”  Indeed the huts are the most tangible legacy these adventurers left.  And as Watson points out, and the enduring interest in Shackelton confirms, these stories still provoke inspiration and wonder today.

The Trust’s dilemma is what to do now.  For the few privileged people who get to visit the huts it remains an experience that makes an indelible impression.  But the vast majority will never get the opportunity to visit the Ice.  In a sense the situation with the huts encapsulates the larger debate surrounding the future of the Continent.  Should Antarctica be kept isolated, restricted largely to a relatively few scientists?  Or is increasing tourism an inevitability that needs to be planned for?  There are strong arguments on both sides and no easy answers.

Currently tourist visits to the Continent number around 10,000 a year,  with the vast majority visiting the easily accessible Antarctic Peninsula on cruise ships leaving from South America.  But tourist ships are beginning to visit the more remote Ross Sea with visits to the heritage huts a highlight for most.  The Trust has imposed a limit of 2000 visits each summer and instituted a Code of Conduct for visitors.  This limit is reached each summer, with visitors from the U.S McMurdo and New Zealand Scott Bases significantly outnumbering tourists.  But Fenwick sees an increase in tourist numbers as inevitable.  “In 50 years there may even be a hotel on Ross Island.  Our job is to plan for that possibility and be prepared if it eventuates.”  Fenwick also points out that money from these tourists has helped finance the Trust’s work.  “We should also remember that these people go back home after their visit as the greatest advocates for preserving the huts, and the Antarctic environment generally” he adds.

In the short term the huts need urgent work to ensure they do not quite literally get blown away.  But the Trust has also done some hard work in envisaging future options to ensure this legacy is protected and to enable more people to experience the huts.  The Trust released a comprehensive strategy last September that includes management plans outlining the priorities for each hut.  Some artifacts may be replicated and replaced with the originals being stored in a more controlled environment.  Fenwick talks about developing “the best website in the world where people can take a virtual ‘walk through’ the huts and it is not limited to the lucky people who get down there”.   Other options include building an interpretation center at McMurdo and reducing visitor numbers to the huts themselves.  “What is certain is that we need a comprehensive solution not a sticking plaster approach” notes Watson.  “It is now acknowledged that we are no longer holding the line and the huts won’t be around much longer if we don’t do something.”

But all of this takes money and the logistics and expense of working in Antarctica seriously complicates matters.  The work of the Trust is largely supported by donations made by visitors to the huts.  The annual budget is a shoestring $110,000 and support from the New Zealand Government, whilst appreciated has been ad hoc.  Indirect government support the agency that runs New Zealand’s Antarctic programme, Antarctica New Zealand, has however been huge.  Fenwick calls Antarctica New Zealand a generous parent.  “They have transported Trust members and personnel to the Ice, housed and supported us and largely made restoration work possible.  But we are going to need a lot more support if these huts are going to last” he notes.  In fact The Trust estimates some $10 to 20 million will be needed to fund a multi-stage preservation project.  The Trust has embarked on a fund raising campaign to source this from international organisations, trusts or individuals.

$10 million is lot of money to raise to protect a few huts.  But then how do you put a price on history – especially such rich history as this?  Typically Fenwick has strong views on this.  “We have a duty to preserve this history for our grandchildren and their grandchildren.  As the world changes and technology moves I believe that international interest in the huts will increase and the stories they hold will become even more important and inspiring.  In that context spending $10 million to hold on to that is not a lot.”  And having been there I would have to say he is right.  They may become the most expensive sheds in the history of global real estate but they and the legacy they hold would still be worth every cent.