A century of Captain Scott's hut: one hundred years after it was built, Scott's hut at Cape Evans still stands as a testament to a remarkable period in history. While its original construction and the effects of the dry, frigid climate have undoubtedly contributed to their preservation, it's the work of conservators that has kept it in such extraordinary condition.
Six huts and three ruins survive from the Heroic Age of Antarctic exploration. Eight other huts have been lost due to natural causes: the calving of ice shelves, melt and storm, and dilapidation in severe weather. A few other historic huts are found on the islands surrounding the continent, but fewer than half of the original huts remain.
There was no expectation that the huts would endure much beyond their intended use. However, where winter parties landed, they were well stocked with provisions for two reasons: the possibility of an extra enforced winter if ice prevented a relief ship arriving, and as potential refuges for any case of shipwreck or other stranding. Thus, an astonishing .amount of food and other items remains in the surviving huts.
The huts' excellent condition more than 100 years after they were built is a result of several factors, including the strength of their original fabric (built to withstand blizzards), their locations (typically in sheltered sites), the generally frigid and dry climate (they may be said to be 'in the freezer'), the rarity of visitors--most of whom are well aware of their historical significance--and, especially, the work of the organisations responsible for them. For all three of the huts on Ross Island, this is the New Zealand Antarctic Heritage Trust (NZAHT), which has the largest concentration of historic huts and has been assiduous in looking after them.
The Cape Evans hut had been inhabited by 25 men in midwinter of 1911, 13 in 1912, ten in 1915 and four in 1916. It was closed, rather precipitously, on 16 January 1917, when the seven survivors of Shackleton's Ross Sea Party departed what had been distinctly a hardship post after their ship, with most of their supplies, was blown away during a blizzard.
The hut was undisturbed until February 1947, when a brief visit was made during the USA's Operation Highjump. In January 1948, a second visit was made, and both reported that the hut was largely filled with ice.
In the 1955-56 Antarctic summer, preparation for deployment of scientific stations on Ross Island were begun by the USA and New Zealand as part of their contributions to the International Geophysical Year. After this finished, both countries continued to maintain their stations--and permanent occupation of the island began with McMurdo Station for the USA and Scott Base for New Zealand. They were about 20 kilometres from Cape Evans and this proximity provided excellent opportunities for examination and maintenance of the historic huts.
Shortly after arrival, the New Zealand personnel took detailed photographs that showed the degree of dilapidation and penetration of snow. Blowing snow can enter any building through the smallest hole--even a nail hole will do--in the form of spin-drift, a very fine powder that slowly, but steadily, accumulates and consolidates into ice. Interestingly, the process is by no means disastrous, for the ice, by engulfing artefacts, may preserve them; it also makes uncontrolled access difficult and provides a degree of structural strength to the building.
The New Zealanders, with a degree of international support, became increasingly involved with the huts. By 1960, a huts-restoration party had begun the slow, careful work. In those years, several survivors from the Heroic Age expeditions were still living and able to offer advice.
Removing the accumulated ice was a long, difficult job that required careful, dedicated work. Numerous items had become encased in the ice, including very delicate glass objects. Slowly and steadily, the excavation was finished, with photographic records being made as it progressed.
A wealth of items was revealed, but a proportion was in need of conservation. For many items, this was comparatively simple, but the converse involved specialised tasks. Many tins, cans and other containers of food remained--some of the oldest preserved foods in existence. (The abundance of dried cabbage makes one think that it must have been as popular a century ago as it is today.)
All of the huts have their own particular external problems; the Cape Evans hut recently suffered from the accumulation of drifts of snow, which became consolidated ice against the inland wall. This ice had reached the roof and begun to exert pressure on the wall. Its removal involved arduous pick-and-shovel work until the lower parts were reached, which had embedded artefacts. Then, more careful, although no less arduous, excavation removed the remainder.
The problem of how to stop drifts accumulating remained. However, it was solved using modern technology in the form of a series of five vortex generators, deployed about 25 metres inland from the hut. These triangular aluminium inclined planes, about two metres long and sitting on pedestals about two metres high, passively minimise snow accumulation from behind the hut. They look slightly space-age near a historic hut, but after several winters, it appears that they're having a positive effect.
Ice had also accumulated beneath the floor and, during a severe melt in the 2004 summer, a couple of centimetres of water flooded the hut. This was potentially a disaster, and NZAHT personnel immediately set about re-establishing drainage and removing melt water.
Removal of the accumulated ice was difficult as there was virtually no crawl space, so the original linoleum was rolled on a large drum, the floor lifted, ice removed and everything replaced. Improved drainage was unobtrusively provided and an impermeable membrane was fitted inside the outer cladding around the hut.
Conservation problems in the huts have tended to become more varied as time progresses. Decades of freeze--thaw activity have slowly increased structural damage. Fungal and bacterial decay is slow in Antarctic conditions, but they've had a century to accumulate their deleterious effects.
Most of the huts are situated close to the sea, so salt spray is another corrosive factor. Penguin guano contains a high concentration of uric acid crystals, which cause, from both chemical and physical processes, corrosion. And the sharp mineral substrate of volcanic ash from Mount Erebus is abrasive when blowing in the winds.
From the beginning, there has been a great deal of effort to avoid any significant alteration to the huts. This is often difficult, and a degree of compromise is necessary. Many items, such as the reindeer-fur sleeping bags, which were left by the original party on the bunks, have been separated from their substrate by parsilk, a tightly woven polyester fabric cut to shape so as to be imperceptible without close examination.
Exterior abrasion is a problem for all of the Antarctic huts, as snow crystals blown in a blizzard erode timber progressively. Timbers, both external and internal, have sometimes had to be replaced, but the same type of wood is used. Following the completion of this work, the fresh light-coloured weatherboards on the outside were particularly conspicuous, but the answer was simple--do nothing for a few years and Antarctic conditions will make them identical to the original boards.
Similarly, some wooden beams have sagged or even broken under the weight of decades of winter snows. These have been reinforced with stainless-steel bars set within, thus giving no indication of their presence.
Preservation of the tinned, dried and other preserved food presented problems, mainly due to the deterioration of containers. For some, the contents were removed and the label cleaned of rust and other stains.
Cutlery, crockery, kitchen utensils, and even scientific ware and other apparatus was carefully cleaned and then replaced in position such that it appeared as if it was still in use. Original photographs, supplemented by others regularly taken, allow for the proper positioning and understanding of the many artefacts.
From around the 1950s, many huts were revisited for the first time and objects sometimes taken. These ranged from acquisition of museum specimens, adaptation of items for use in more recent stations, minor souveniring and even outright pillaging. Thankfully, now that the huts are well maintained, some of these items are being sent back to Cape Evans.
The remoteness of the Ross Sea region is substantial, and the huts on Ross Island receive relatively few visitors--fewer than 3,000 people annually--mostly tourists on ships that call in during the austral summer, as well as visitors from the Antarctic research bases.
I've been visiting the huts for about 20 years, and have seen the steady maintenance and repair work being undertaken. It's to the great credit of the NZAHT that despite the extensive work that has been carried out, the atmosphere of the huts has always been maintained.
My early thoughts, after having read the words of those who used them so long ago, were that one may get the impression that the huts are full of ghosts--but friendly ones. One can see 'the tenements' and know whose bunk was where: Captain Oates's bunk still has pony tack around it; rocks remain beneath that of Frank Debenham, the geologist; Herbert Ponting's darkroom still has the pervading smell of photographic chemicals.
Visits aren't without their problems, mostly involving changes in humidity and temperature, which are monitored by inconspicuous instruments. And, of course, there are strict fire precautions, essential because most of the structures are wooden and very dry--and, of course, in the Antarctic, water is usually in solid form and is rarely available in quantity for an emergency.
But I believe that it's important that people are able to visit the huts, in order to appreciate their history and the endeavours of the men who inhabited them. Speaking to visitors, it's clear that after seeing the huts and so much else, most have become ambassadors for the Antarctic.
* Because of the high cost of logistics, preserving the historic huts is an expensive task. Thus, raising funds is important for the New Zealand Antarctic Heritage Trust, an endeavour in which it is supported by the United Kingdom Antarctic Heritage Trust. I
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|Title Annotation:||Scott: CONSERVING SCOTT'S HUT; Robert Falcon Scott|
|Comment:||A century of Captain Scott's hut: one hundred years after it was built, Scott's hut at Cape Evans still stands as a testament to a remarkable period in history.|
|Date:||Jan 1, 2012|
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