deep freeze

Posted by Ellen

In 1907, Ernest Shackleton led his first expedition aimed at reaching the South Pole. He'd already spent years in Antarctica, serving under Robert Scott, failing to reach the Pole but learning much about survival and leadership. Shackleton's 1907 trip would make it closer to the Pole by far than earlier explorers, though he and his men still fell short by 87 miles. 

They first landed in Antarctica at a place called Cape Royd on McMurdo Sound, where Shackleton oversaw the building of his hut for wintering over in Antarctica. He and his men huddled there through the winter of 1908, and when they left that spring to attempt their sprint to the Pole, the hut was equipped with food and fuel to last 15 men for one year.

They left a note with details about provisions and the coal store and then locked the door and nailed the key to the door.

They never returned to the hut, though they did make it back safely to England in 1909, where Shackleton immediately began planning his next trip to the South Pole.

Almost a century later, in 2006, the hut was dug out of the ice and snow and reopened. Much of the food was described as "perfectly preserved," though some meat was said to be quite rancid. Several cases of McKinlay & Co. scotch whisky were retrieved from the cellar and found to be delicious; based on a chemical analysis of this whisky, the distillery is again producing the old single-malt scotch.

The hut has now been restored through the World Monuments Fund, and the land surrounding it has been designated an Antarctic Specially Protected Area.

Shackleton did succeed in raising money for another expedition, which set sail on the Endurance in 1914 but never reached the Antarctic mainland; he Endurance was crushed by ice near the coast, initiating years of fear and suffering, out on the sea ice. Shackleton's renown as a leader dates from this disastrous voyage, when he was able to sustain morale and eventually get the men to safety 700 miles away at a whaling station in the South Georgia Islands. They made it back to England in 1917.

His fully provisioned little hut, meanwhile, complete with a coal-burning stove and crates of scotch, sat on the opposite edge of the Antarctic continent, closer to New Zealand than to South America. It might as well have been on the moon.