Archive for September, 2007

frontispiece.jpg The first journey the men embarked on was called the Depot Journey, begun in summer 1910-1911 as soon as the Terra Nova had been unloaded and the hut built. Here they found out what they were up against.

They sledged with dogs and ponies 150 miles along the Ross Ice Shelf to set up a depot of food and fuel, the second of 11 depots in all. At this point they were about one-sixth of the way from their hut to the Pole.

Most of the attention is paid to Scott’s trip to the Pole, and some to the Winter Journey. It would be a shame to miss in here the story of a hair-raising couple of days for Bowers, Cherry, and Crean.

Returning from the depot they looked out onto the sea ice for their last 15 miles to Hut Point. Below them, there were whales:

Most of them at any rate were Killer whales (Orca gladiator), and they were cruising about in great numbers, snorting and blowing, while occasionally they would in some extraordinary way raise themselves and look about over the ice, resting the fore part of their enormous yellow and black bodies on the edge of the floes. They were undisguisedly interested in us and the ponies, and we felt that if we once got into the water our ends would be swift and bloody.

Bowers, Cherry, and Crean, with four ponies and four sledges, picked their way along the ice sheet staying clear of the whole scene.  They camped for the night on solid ice. Later, Bowers woke up,

Both my companions were snoring, I thought it was that and was on the point of turning in again having seen that it was only 4.30, when I heard the noise again. I thought – ‘my pony is at the oats!’ and went out.

I cannot describe either the scene or my feelings. I must leave those to your imagination. We were in the middle of a floating pack of broken-up ice. The tops of the hills were visible, but all below was thin mist and as far as the eye could see there was nothing solid; it was all broken up, and heaving up and down with the swell. Long black tongues of water were everywhere. The floe on which we were had split right under our picketing line, and cut poor Guts’s wall in half. Guts himself [a pony] had gone, and a dark streak of water alone showed the place where the ice had opened under him.

Cherry adds:

‘Cherry, Crean, we’re floating out to sea,’ was the startling awakening from Bowers, standing in his socks outside the tent at 4.30 a.m. that Wednesday morning…. I thought it was madness to try and save the ponies and gear when, it seemed, the only chance at all of saving the men was an immediate rush for the Barrier, and I said so. ‘Well, I’m going to try,’ was Bowers’s answer, and, quixotic or no, he largely succeeded. I never knew a man who treated difficulties with such scorn.

They worked their way back toward the shore by waiting for the wind and swell to knock two ice floes together. Bowers again:

My idea was never to separate, but to get everything on to one floe at a time, and then wait till it touched or nearly touched another in the right direction, and then jump the ponies over and drag the four sledges across ourselves. In this way we made slow, but sure progress…. We had to make frequent detours and we were moving west all the time with the pack, still we were getting south, too [nearer to the solid Barrier, or Ross Ice Sheet].

Bowers’s take on the situation is astounding:

Crean like most bluejackets behaved as if he had done this sort of thing often before.

The ponies behaved as well as my companions, and jumped the floes in great style.

A 12-feet sledge makes an excellent bridge if an opening is too wide to jump.

After six or eight hours they were within forty feet of the great Barrier ice cliffs, only to find the water choked with a kind of slushee-like brash ice and  orcas – “a case of so near and yet so far,” as Bowers put it.

They stuffed Crean’s pockets with food and sent him off to find a way up the ice cliffs to get help.

It was not a pleasant day that Cherry and I spent all alone there, knowing as we did that it only wanted a zephyr from the south to send us irretrievably out to sea….

I think in war movies and Westerns this is called an uneasy silence. I have never seen an orca and always wanted to, but this scene has tempered my enthusiasm a bit:

The Killers were too interested in us to be pleasant. They had a habit of bobbing up and down perpendicularly, so as to see over the edge of a floe, in looking for seals. The huge black and yellow heads with sickening pig eyes only a few yards from us at times, and always around us, are among the most disconcerting recollections I have of that day.

That was Bowers. Cherry said:

The Killers filled the whole place. Looking downwards into a hole between our berg and the next, a hole not bigger than a small room, we saw at least six whales. They were so crowded that they could only lie so as to get their snouts out of the water….

Eventually the men worked their way up close to the Barrier, to a point where any rational person would have scurried up the cliff and kept going. Not Bowers:

Everything was still, and Cherry and I could have got on safe ice at any time during the last half hour by using the sledge as a ladder…. However, there was the consideration of the ponies, so we waited.

Scott [when they saw him at the ice edge], instead of blowing me up, was too relieved at our safety to be anything but pleased. I said: ‘What about the ponies and the sledges?’ He said: ‘I don’t care a damn about the ponies and the sledges. It’s you I want, and I am going to see you safe here up on the Barrier before I do anything else….” He had been blaming himself for our deaths, and here we were very much alive. He said: ‘My dear chaps, you can’t think how glad I am to see you safe – Cherry likewise.’

I was all for saving the beasts and sledges, however, so he let us go back….

The Antarctic had shown its hand: During a gale on the way down the men had been forced to dump much of their coal supplies overboard to stay upright. Upon arrival at Ross Island, one of their motorized sledges fell through the ice and straight to the bottom of McMurdo Sound. And now, at the end of their first and easiest ice journey, just four months into their stay, the huskies had been reduced to “starved rakes” and eight of the ten ponies from the Depot Journey were dead.

Still, these were men who looked upon difficulties with scorn.

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frontispiece.jpg The birder in me wriggles with envy at the thought of Cherry and the rest of the Terra Nova crew surrounded by teeming hordes of Adelie penguins. They rule Antarctica at least in terms of numbers: sheer, mind-boggling hundreds of thousands. I’m sure once the physics is worked out, we’ll find that this fantastic density of cuteness warps the fabric of space-time, or at least sucks some of the cuteness out of surrounding regions of the universe.

The editor in me would like to add that Adelie should be written with an accent over the first ‘e’, and that syllable should be accented. As in “a daily dose of penguins.”

Anyway, I’ve never seen a penguin in the wild. Here’s what Cherry saw, in late 1910.

Hardly had we reached the thick pack…when we saw the little Adelie penguins hurrying to meet us. Great Scott, they seemed to say, what’s this, and soon we could hear the cry which we shall never forget. ‘Aark, aark,’ they said, and full of wonder and curiosity, and perhaps a little out of breath, they stopped every now and then to express their feelings.

Wilson, the zoologist, on the Discovery expedition eight years earlier, saw them

…with head down and much hesitation judging the width of the narrow gap, to give a little standing jump across as would a child, and running on the faster to make up for its delay.

Cherry sees another resemblance:

They are extraordinarily like children, these little people of the Antarctic world, either like children or like old men, full of their own importance and late for dinner, in their black tail-coats and white shirt-fronts – and rather portly withal.

But he suggests a reason why the cinematographers are able to get such great pictures of them gathering at the edge of an iceberg:

They will refuse to dive off an ice-foot until they have persuaded one of their companions to take the first jump, for fear of the sea-leopard which may be waiting in the water below, ready to seize them and play with them much as a cat will play with a mouse.

Because adults have no predators on land, they were often clueless there:

One day a team was tethered by the side of the ship, and a penguin sighted them and hurried from afar off. The dogs became frantic with excitement as he neared them: he supposed it was a greeting, and the louder they barked and the more they strained at their ropes, the faster he bustled to meet them. He was extremely angry with a man who went and saved him from a very sudden end, clinging to his trousers with his beak, and furiously beating his shins with his flippers. It was not an uncommon sight to see a little Adelie penguin standing within a few inches of the nose of a dog which was almost frantic with desire and passion.

Scott saw the same sort of thing from a different point of view:

The great trouble with [the dog teams] has been due to the fatuous conduct of the penguins. Groups of these have been constantly leaping on our floe. From the moment of landing on their feet their whole attitude expressed devouring curiosity and a pig-headed disregard for their own safety. They waddle forward, poking their heads to and fro in their usually absurd way, in spite of a string of howling dogs straining to get at them…. There is a spring, a squawk, a horrid red patch on the snow, and the incident is closed.

In the summer of 1912-1913, before he headed home, Cherry made some of the first observations of the curious way Adelies use rocks. They pile them up to raise their eggs above runoff and late snowfall – but at times they seem to acquire the importance of currency. Males roam about endlessly in search of choice rocks to proffer before their mates.

All the surrounding rookery made their way to and fro, each husband acquiring merit, for, after each journey, he gave his wife a stone. This was the plebeian way of doing things; but my friend who stood, ever so unconcerned, upon a rock knew a trick worth two of that: he and his wife who sat so cosily upon the other side.

The victim was a third penguin. He was without a mate, but this was an opportunity to get one. With all the speed his little legs could compass he ran to and fro, taking stones from [a] deserted nest, laying them beneath a rock, and hurrying back for more. On that same rock was my friend. When the victim came up with his stone he had his back turned. But as soon as the stone was laid and the other gone for more, he jumped down, seized it with his beak, ran round, gave it to his wife and was back on the rock (with his back turned) before you could say Killer Whale. Every now and then he looked over his shoulder, to see where the next stone might be.

I watched this for twenty minutes. All that time, and I do not know for how long before, that wretched bird was bringing stone after stone. And there were no stones there. Once he looked puzzed, looked up and swore at the back of my friend on his rock, but immediately he came back, and he never seemed to think he had better stop.

Cherry had been listed on the expedition as the “assistant zoologist” despite having essentially no science training (he had studied Classics and Modern History at Oxford) – but still managed to show that the key ingredient in a field biologist is the ability to pay attention.

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A few things I’ve been mulling over in between deciding I don’t have enough time to post:

First up is attack of the cicadas. Those are the cool spaceship-looking bugs that reach dizzying numbers every so many years and then make a deafening racket. This season is supposed to be a big one in Japan for the four-year cycle of the kumazemi, a cicada so awful that it has apparently spawned its own genre of haiku.

And the headline above is not misleading: these cicadas inject their eggs into the bark of trees, but have recently found that fiberoptic cables work just as nicely. They’re peppering exposed wires all around Osaka, and whole blocks are losing their Internet access. (The worst part is that then there’s no way for them to Google “What in the hell just happened?” So forward this post to all your Osakan friends while there’s still time.)

Science and Nature have stories on this, but you need a subscription. There’s free news here, and a blog post here. (thanks Charles)

Checking back in with the surf talk show Going Off (see Kind of Like Oprah…), host Pat O’Connell and returning guest Rob Machado take up the subject of the thruster’s total domination on the pro surfing circuit. (The thruster is a three-finned design that made for much faster boards and ushered in power surfing. A bit more background here.)

O’Connell squeezes some trenchant one-word sentences from Machado. (Hey, in some circles, distilling the truth into a handful of words is called poetry.)

Discussing the possibility of a four-fin board producing a winner:

MACHADO: Hey, Trestles. C.J. Hobgood. WQS. Different.

O’CONNELL: Grovelly.

MACHADO: But Trestles can have these moments of fatness.


MACHADO: You can’t take out of the equation the possibility of a single fin or maybe a twin fin.

O’CONNELL: <sound like tire deflating>

MACHADO: Don’t laugh at me, bro.

Even later, they stretch out a bit, and latch onto something:

MACHADO: It’s sad in a way, from my perspective. Being on tour, all I did was I had eight boards that were identical, and I just wanted to get the one that felt magic and I wanted to go out and ride that thing every day and do the same thing every day…. To expand your surfing and go somewhere else was the greatest gift about, uh, getting kicked off the tour. Wait did I say that?

It’s another step forward in the bold move to put words where no words have gone before. To unscrew the unscrutable, as it’s been put. But Pat, if you’re reading, next time you’re talking about the fine points of design, consider tackling why it works, not just whether.

Finally, if all you have time for (before the cicadas close in) is 30 seconds of video, you could watch Ozzie Wright get shacked for 18 seconds. That’s about 17.5 seconds longer than your typical Santa Cruz shack. This one’s in Indo, and I love how at the beginning you can’t tell how big the wave is. It looks about shoulder high. It isn’t. (Thanks Andy)

Apologies in advance for the soundtrack. No one should talk about killer whales that way.

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frontispiece.jpgOne of the hardest parts for me to grasp in this whole story is the status quo. This was an expedition without plastic of any kind. Without fleece, without Gore-Tex, without Velcro, without lexan, kevlar, mylar, or spectra. Without zippers, even. There was no gasoline. Cherry relished the chance to cook with clean-burning kerosene – and if you’ve ever tried to clean your fingers after picking up a pot cooked over kerosene, that should give you an idea.

No quick-release buckles, no Camelbaks, no headlamps, no flashlights, no batteries. No sunscreen and no sunglasses. The millennia-old technology of the compass didn’t even work because they were so close to the pole. The needle mostly pointed down, into the ground.

And they didn’t know enough about nutrition. After Cherry’s return, a little math indicated a large part of the problem the men had faced:

According to the most modern standards the food requirements for laborious work at a temperature of zero Fahr. (which is a fair Barrier average temperature to take) are 7714 calories to produce 10,069 foot-tons of work. The actual Barrier ration which we used would generate 4003 calories, equivalent to 5331 foot-tons of work.

Is it possible that every man on the sledging teams was supplying an extra 3,711 calories per day on top of what they got from their food – for up to three months at a stretch?

Actually, it was worse than that. The word “vitamine” was only invented in 1912, the year Scott died on the ice. By 1922, Cherry was still writing gingerly about the concept. You can almost hear him putting Dr. Evil-style quotation marks around the word “vitamins”:

Modern research suggests that the presence or absence of certain vitamins makes a difference, and it may be a very great difference, in the ability of any individual to profit by the food supplied to him. If this be so, this factor must have had great influence upon the fate of the Polar Party, whose diet was seriously deficient in, if not absolutely free from vitamins.

In the end, after comparing Scott’s approach to Amundsen’s, Cherry sums up the situation in one line:

We did not suffer from too little brains or daring: we may have suffered from too much.

Later, he goes on an extended tirade about the state of science funding which will be heartwarming to grant-writers everywhere:

But when one thinks of these Nimrods and Terra Novas [Shackleton’s first ship and Scott’s last one], picked up second-hand in the wooden-ship market, and faked up for the transport of ponies, dogs, motors, and all the impedimenta of a polar expedition, to say nothing of the men who have to try and do scientific work inside them….

And then the begging that is necessary to obtain even this equipment. Shackleton hanging around the doors of rich men! Scott writing begging letters for months together! Is the country not ashamed?

He goes on, and while he is impassioned, he’s also very farsighted:

Modern civilized States should make up their minds to the endowment of research, which includes exploration; and as all States benefit alike by the scientific side of it there is plenty of scope for international arrangement, especially in a region where the mere grabbing of territory is meaningless, and no Foreign Office can trace the frontier between King Edward’s Plateau and King Haakon’s…. Ross Island is not a place for a settlement: it is a place for an elaborately equipped scientific station, with a staff in residence for a year at a time.

The establishment of such stations and of such a service cannot be done by individual heroes and enthusiasts cadging for cheques from rich men and grants from private scientific societies: it is a business, like the Nares Arctic expedition, for public organization.

Specially built ships, and enough of them; specially engined tractors and aeroplanes; specially trained men and plenty of them, will all be needed if the work is to be done in any sort of humane and civilized fashion; and Cabinet ministers and voters alike must learn to value knowledge that is not baited by suffering and death.

I hope that by the time Scott comes home – for he is coming home: the Barrier is moving, and not a trace of our funeral cairn was found by Shackleton’s men in 1916 – the hardships that wasted his life will be only a horror of the past, and his via dolorosa a highway as practicable as Piccadilly.

Present-day McMurdo Station sits on the southwest tip of Ross Island and butts right up against Scott’s Discovery expedition hut.

And for researchers, explorers, and different-drummers everywhere, Cherry thinks you should keep going:

Some will tell you that you are mad, and nearly all will say, ‘What is the use?’ For we are a nation of shopkeepers, and no shopkeeper will look at research which does not promise him a financial return within a year. And so you will sledge nearly alone, but those with whom you sledge will not be shopkeepers: that is worth a good deal.

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