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Huts became havens for South Pole explorers

The men spent months in the structures with nothing to do except eat, sleep and read.

July 29, 2007|William Mullen | Chicago Tribune

Like today's International Space Station, the three utilitarian wooden huts built by the Antarctic explorers were survival capsules, havens in an impossibly hostile environment.

In summer, the men made brutal trips into the field, facing unknown terrain and dangerous, fast-changing weather. They slept in tents and dragged sledges across ice and snow while doing scientific observations or installing supply depots along the route toward the South Pole. Some lost limbs to scurvy and frostbite; others lost their lives.

But during the long months of 24-hour winter darkness, the weather was even worse, forcing the men to jam together in the small huts for months at a time, isolated from the outside world.

As the days dragged on, mealtimes were immensely important to the men's morale. Food was always on their minds, as evidenced by a detailed account written by photographer Herbert Ponting in his memoir of the 1910-1913 British Antarctic Expedition led by Robert Falcon Scott.

"The steward called us at 8.30, and we breakfasted at 9 on porridge, bread, butter, marmalade and cocoa," Ponting wrote. "For lunch, we had bread and butter, cheese and cocoa ... and we had sardines and canned lambs' tongues once a week.

"For dinner we had always soup, of which there was an abundant assorted supply in tins; and seal meat appeared on the table six days out of seven, as a rule ... we had a fine assortment of dried and canned vegetables -- potatoes, sprouts, peas, beans, etc. -- and two were always on the menu."

The crews relied on seals and penguins for fresh meat but brought a tremendous quantity of canned and dried foodstuffs from home for variety's sake. Scanning the contents of items left behind in the three huts yields a veritable grocer's catalog of Edwardian English foods.

There are 42 types of canned-meat products, including curried rabbit, herring, chicken and ham pate, ham loaf, boiled mutton, tripe and onions, stewed rump steaks, minced steak, minced collops, Irish stew and mutton cutlets.

There are biscuits of many kinds; plum and gooseberry jams; currants; pea, tomato and mulligatawny soups; Hunters Famed Edinburgh Oatmeal; Symington's Pea Flour; McDoddie's Pure Preserved Cabbage; Celebrated Savoy Sauce; Lea & Perrins Worcestershire Sauce; Colman's Powdered English Mustard; Heinz Ketchup.

And pickles. Lots of pickles.

"Our commissariat was remarkable for the vast quantity of pickles it contained," Ponting wrote. "There were sufficient to supply 10 times our number for about as many years."

He added dryly: "One's taste does not run overmuch to pickles in such latitudes."

All three huts are prefabricated buildings brought by expedition ships and designed to be put up in a hurry. By necessity, all of them are surprisingly small, but the tiniest is Ernest Shackleton's hut at Cape Royds.

"During our first severe blizzard," Shackleton later wrote, "the hut shook and trembled so that every moment we expected the whole thing to carry away," prompting the men to string an anchor cable across the roof and bury the ends deeply on either side.

The cramped quarters taxed the ingenuity of the men to make maximum use of the space. Shackleton and his 17 men hung tarps for privacy between beds they built of empty packing crates and rigged a pulley system so the dining table could be hoisted out of the way between meals.

"This gave ample room for the various carpentering and engineering efforts that were constantly going on," Shackleton later wrote. "At first we used to put the boxes containing knives, forks, plates and bowls on top of the table before hauling it up, but after these had fallen on the unfortunate head of the person trying to get them down, we were content to keep them on the floor."

For the long winter nights, the men brought plenty to read, not only Shakespeare and Dickens but also scientific technical books from which they each taught their own specialties to the others. They also liked to put on skits and plays.

In fact, the first of the huts, Discovery Hut, was better for theater than for living quarters. The structure was so drafty and cold that the expedition crew lived on their ship and used the hut for storage and entertainment.

"When fitted with a stage and decked with scenery, footlights etc., it probably forms the most pretentious theater that has ever been seen in polar regions," Scott wrote.

The hut may have been miserable to live in, but it became a crucial emergency shelter for later expeditions. Twice, men from Shackleton's last expedition were caught in bad weather and had to hole up for months in Discovery Hut, unable to get back to their headquarters at Cape Evans. In 1915, six men spent two months in the hut with just three lined leather sleeping bags between them.

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