Shackleton’s Historic Hut in Antarctica

Ernest Shackleton, 33 years old, was determined to be the first to reach the South Pole when he led his first expedition to Antarctica.

In late 1908, leading a party of four, Shackleton reached 97 nautical miles from the Pole when he decided to turn back. His single base at the Antarctic still stands at Cape Royds.

In 1903, he had returned home with scurvy from Robert Falcon Scott’s Discovery expedition on which he was a Third Officer. Since his return, he worked as a magazine journalist, secretary of the Scottish Royal Geographical Society, and public relations worker for a Glasgow steelworks.

By late 1906, he was itching to return to the South Pole. His steelworks employer William Beardmore and other businessmen got him a bank loan for £20,000. In 1907, he announced his plans to lead an expedition to Antarctica with the intention of reaching the South Pole.

Shackleton intended to establish his base in King Edward VII Land at the eastern end of the Ross Ice Shelf and from there to make the journey to the South Pole. He assured Scott that he didn’t intend to enter McMurdo Sound or make use of Scott’s old base at Hut Point since Scott claimed rights not only to the hut he had built in 1902 but also to the route to the Pole that he had pioneered.

Shackleton recruited 14 men who would make up the shore party of the expedition and purchased the 200 ton Nimrod. He also procured a specially designed prefabricated hut, 15 Manchurian ponies, nine dogs and an air-cooled four-cylinder 11kW (15 hp) motorcar, the new Arrol-Johnston. Nimrod sailed from Torquay, England, bound for New Zealand on 30 July 1907.

Sailing on New Year’s Day 1908 from New Zealand, the Nimrod, with great difficulty, ended its travails of 2,410 km with the sighting of the first icebergs on 15 January.

Shackleton, intending to establish his base, was discouraged by pack ice and was unable to reach Hut Point near the site of the present-day United States McMurdo Station. Finally, he selected a site 32 km further north at Cape Royds, named by Captain Scott’s Discovery expedition after its meteorologist, Lieutenant Charles Royds, RN.

Shackleton’s hut is listed by the Antarctic Treaty System as an Antarctic Specially Protected Area and is cared for by the Antarctic Heritage Trust (AHT) as part of the Ross Sea Heritage Restoration Project. Between 2004 and 2008, an international team of heritage and conservation specialists spent each Antarctic summer securing Shackleton’s hut for future generations to enjoy. For conservation reasons, only eight people are permitted inside at one time and only 40 are allowed ashore at once.

A freeze-dried buckwheat pancake still lies in a cast-iron skillet on top of the large stove at the back of the hut beside a tea kettle and a cooking pot. Colored-glass medicine bottles line several shelves. One of the few surviving bunks, to the left toward the back, has its fur sleeping bag laid out on top.

Many tins of food with names, such as Irish brawn, boiled mutton, Army Rations, Aberdeen marrow fat, lunch tongue and pea powder, lie on the floor along with bright-red tins of Price’s Motor Lubricant.

In January 2010, in a sensational find, conservators unearthed three crates of Shackleton’s Mackinlay’s whiskey and two crates of brandy from under the hut. After they had been thawed in Christchurch in 2011, the master blender at Whyte & Mackay (owners of the Mackinlay’s brand) in Scotland analyzed and replicated the expedition’s whiskey precisely!

Outside the hut lie the remnants of the pony stables and the garage built for the Arrol-Johnson motorcar (Antarctica’s first car). Shackleton had brought Siberian ponies which were unfortunately unsuited to Antarctic labour. They did not have the stamina or versatility of dogs. One of the car’s wheels leans up against a line of provision boxes. Its wooden spokes scoured by the wind.

Cape Royds is home to the least visited of the Ross Island historic huts. The hut has become one of the most fascinating sites in Antarctica. Visitors will find the hut door opening out to the world’s most southern Adelie penguin population along with a panoramic view that includes the Trans-Antarctic Mountains, Mt Erebus, the Barne Glacier and McMurdo Sound.

Upon leaving Antarctica to go back home, Shackleton wrote: “We all turned out to give three cheers and to take a last look at the place where we had spent so many happy days. The hut was not exactly a palatial residence. But, on the other hand, it had been our home for a year that would always live in our memories. We watched the little hut fade away in the distance with feelings almost of sadness, and there were few men aboard who did not cherish a hope that someday they would once more live strenuous days under the shadow of mighty Erebus.”

Although his expedition failed to make it to the South Pole, Shackleton was knighted upon his return to England. Five years later, he made his most famous attempt at the Pole. The Endurance Expedition, in which his ship became trapped and sunk in ice, was another technical failure, but an epic success story of survival against all odds.

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