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There have been times on polar expeditions when even the most well thought out plans go wrong and have to be abandoned. If they are to survive a polar explorer has to be quick-witted and good at solving problems such as how to build a shelter when stranded in the polar regions without many supplies. The use of rocks, boats, ice and sacks may not be the first things thought of as useful when seeking to build shelter, but all these items have contributed to the survival of expedition members who find themselves, through no fault of their own, without shelter.
When the ship Endurance was crushed on the Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition 1914-16 this left the men stranded on an ice floe in the Southern Ocean. If there had been land close to where the ship had been crushed they would have had the opportunity to salvage more building materials from the wreck of the ship. However, this ice was not stable and their chance of rescue was nonexistent. Instead, the men had to move closer to a point where there was a chance of rescue. This meant they had to haul their whale boats to the sea and then row or sail to Elephant Island. The men were extremely limited in what they could take with them and many potential building materials had to be left behind.
Shackleton left his men on Elephant Island whilst he went in search of help for the expedition. The men constructed themselves a shelter whilst they waited for the return of ‘the Boss’. At first the men lived in an ice cave; however, with 22 men inside the temperature was nearly always above freezing and so there was continual thawing which meant that the men would never be dry. As they were going to be there for some time a more permanent hut was needed. One was made using large stones collected off the beach; this was hard work for men weakened by a poor diet. On top of the rocks the men placed the two remaining boats in which they had sailed to Elephant Island, providing an attic space. The material from one of the torn tents was then spread across the top and lashed down to guy ropes. They made a door using a tube of canvas through which the men could crawl, tying it up as they went. To make a floor the snow was swept out and the remainder of the fabric from the tents spread on the floor. Ten of the men slept in the boat attic, the remaining 12 on the floor.
They did find flaws with the build. For example, during a blizzard fine drift snow forced its way through the crevices between the stones. However, by spreading a Jaeger sleeping bag and coats on the outside of the walls and then packing them with snow this kept out all the drifts.
They even managed to fit a chimney; this meant cooking inside would now be possible as the hut would not fill with smoke. The men would take it in turns to sit by the fire so that in turn each of them could dry their clothes. Their major problem was a lack of light, but they were able to make lamps out of sardine tins with surgical bandages for wicks. Eventually they were even able to make windows by sewing some celluloid panels from a photograph case into the walls.
This improvised hut showed a great ingenuity that managed to keep the men safe and reasonably comfortable until Shackleton was able to arrange their rescue. Everyone he left on Elephant Island survived.
Bagshawe and Lester, were on the British Expedition to Graham Land 1920-22 when they ran into problems. The expedition was intended to be a large expedition of 50 men. However, constrained by lack of funds the team only consisted of four men. Once at Graham Land the men discovered they were unable to undertake their original aims and the leader Cope left Graham Land to find a boat. At the same time another member, Wilkins, frustrated by lack of progress, left the expedition. This left Bagshawe and Lester as the only remaining expedition members. They were not ready to abandon the expedition and decided, against the advice of whalers who knew the area, to over winter.
Fortunately, their landing at Paradise Bay was close to the location of a water boat abandoned by whalers eight years previously. By extending the hulk with packing cases, sacks and timber, they made themselves a small, uncomfortable but almost weatherproof hut. Their base on a tiny island off the Antarctic Peninsula was named Waterboat Point. Supplies of food were limited to biscuits, baked beans, pemmican, a little alcohol and crème de menthe sweets. However, they were able to supplement their diet with seal, penguin meat and penguin eggs and so their health remained good.
As well as improvising their hut they also had to improvise some of their scientific equipment. For example, the carpenter of the whaling ship built their meteorological screen, on top of this stood a homemade wind vane and fitting to hold a portable anemometer. This screen was mounted near the base on a small hill; for the duration of their stay they took readings every two hours, which enabled them to compile a record of weather conditions for a complete year. They also recorded tidal conditions for a full year by using a boulder-filled wooden barrel with a calibrated half oar attached.
Cope never did return with a boat, but the whalers who had dropped the men off came to collect them and they safely returned to Britain, having successfully wintered in their modified upturned boat.
During the British Antarctic Expedition 1910-13 Scott’s Northern Party found themselves unexpectedly wintering. The expedition’s ship Terra Nova had dropped the party off at Terra Nova Bay in January 1912, where they were to study the geology for six weeks until the middle of February. Unfortunately when the ship came to pick the men up it found its way blocked by sea ice and was unable to reach the men. The party was trapped and were forced to winter with only their tents, light clothing and small amount of food. They knew they would not be able to make it to the base camp before winter set in and so they were forced to wait where they were until the summer arrived.
Whilst the men had tents it was unlikely that they would have lasted them through an Antarctic winter, it was vital that these tents were preserved for the journey back to camp and so they could not risk them getting damaged. As they had not been intending to winter the men had no building materials from which they could make a hut. They decided that the best course of action would be to fashion themselves an ice cave. They selected a hard drift under the lee of a small hill and began to dig back into it using ice axes. They dug down and along to produce a deep trench going back towards the hill, at the end of the trench was a chamber 13 feet by 9 feet. Afterwards they sealed the roof of the trench with sealskins and snow, forming a long passage. A biscuit tin was used to create a chimney allowing for ventilation. The chamber was lined with blocks of ice to give further insulation and the floor was covered with pebbles and then a layer of seaweed with tent cloths on top; this was a great insulator preventing their sleeping bags from ever getting too cold or damp. Doors were formed with sacks; by having three doors they managed to keep the temperature of the chamber above freezing.
Inside, the space was divided into the men’s quarters and the officer’s quarters, with the men sleeping on one side of the cave and the officers on the other. This was typical for the period where the officers “above decks” and the men “below decks” would have different sleeping areas on board ship and in the expedition’s hut. There wasn’t much space in cave and all six men suffered from bad backs, having been hunched over for so long.
The cave had a blubber stove for cooking and lamps made out of old tins filled with blubber with old rope for wicks. The party described their stay in the ice cave as fairly comfortable, apart from two occasions where the chimney blocked with snowdrift and the party nearly asphyxiated. Luckily, on both occasions someone woke and was able to clear the drift.
The men remained as well as could be expected in their cave and, once summer returned, they made their journey to base camp. All of the men survived the trip.
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