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, 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.