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Preserving the past

Antarctic Heritage Trust restores Scott's expedition hut at Cape Evans

 

Al Fastier vividly recalls sloshing through nearly a foot of water as the first tourist of the season to enter what’s become known as the Cape Evans Hut, a century-old wooden building that sits on a sloping black volcanic beach on Ross Island.

That was in 2004. Fastier snapped a few photos of the rising tide of water and made sure they reached New Zealand’s Scott Base, a research station on the other end of Ross Island, which is attached to the Antarctic continent by a permanent ice shelf. Someone from the base forwarded the photos on to the Antarctic Heritage Trust in Christchurch, New Zealand.

“I never thought that at that stage I’d be involved in solving the problem,” says Fastier on a recent, mild December day in Antarctica, standing just outside the same building he had seen flooded by meltwater seven years ago.

Today, a subterranean dam built into the concrete-hard permafrost diverts any runoff from the snow bank around the hut, which has been nearly restored to its original condition after five summer seasons of intensive work. About 5,000 of its more-than-8,500 artifacts have been painstakingly conserved by an international team of experts.

The Trust is a New Zealand-based nonprofit organization devoted to conserving the historic structures built during the Heroic Age of Antarctic Exploration at the turn of the 20th century. In 2002, it kicked off its ambitious Ross Sea Heritage Restoration Project to save four historic sites from the era, including the flooded Cape Evans Hut that had been built in 1910 by members of the British Antarctic (Terra Nova) Expedition.

It was from this modest base — measuring about 1,250 square feet and housing as many as 25 British Navy officers, seamen and scientists — that Capt. Robert Falcon Scott launched his bid on Nov. 1, 1911, to become the first person to reach the South Pole, along with four companions. The five men would reach their goal on Jan. 17, 1912, only to perish on the return journey.

While the world commemorates the achievements of Scott and his Norwegian rival Roald Amundsen, who beat him to the bottom of the world by about a month, Fastier’s crew nears the end of its race against time to save the largest Heroic era structure in Antarctica.

Small organization with a big job

“It’s a small New Zealand charity, with an international board and mandate. This is British heritage but of global significance,” says Nigel Watson, executive director of the Antarctic Heritage Trust, during an interview at the organization’s offices, located in the same building with Antarctica New Zealand and the U.S. Antarctic Program near the Christchurch international airport.

Watson explains that by the late 1990s it was apparent that the historic structures in the Ross Sea region were succumbing to the withering effects of time and the elements. With help from the New Zealand government and supporting founders the Getty Foundation in Los Angeles and the U.K.-based Garfield Weston Foundation, the Trust carried out detailed site surveys for each location and prepared comprehensive conservation plans.

Then the fundraising began.

The first beneficiary was the hut left from the British Antarctic Expedition of 1907-09, also known as the Nimrod Expedition, after the ship that carried the explorers to Ross Island. (Ship names are often used as shorthand names for the expeditions.)

This was the base from which polar explorer Ernest Shackleton made his own attempt for the South Pole, falling short by only about 112 miles, after it became apparent that he and his three companions would likely die if they pushed all the way. Shackleton famously told his wife of his decision to turn around: “I thought you’d rather have a live donkey than a dead lion.” She agreed.

It took four years to secure and weatherproof the building and conserve its 5,000 artifacts — including the well-publicized find of two crates of Scotch whiskey, discovered in the ice-choked underbelly of the building.

“The global interest in the whisky find has been phenomenal,” Watson says.

A battle with the elements

As the major renovation work on Shackleton’s Hut at Cape Royds on Ross Island wound down in 2008, conservation at the Cape Evans Hut began in earnest. While both structures had been on the World Monuments Fund’s Watch List for endangered cultural sites, Scott’s Terra Nova base was, in many ways, in greater danger and more challenging to preserve.

“The building was basically being engulfed in snow and ice, causing us some real challenges around the building and the fabric, and that caused quite a bit of damage,” Watson says. Or, as Fastier describes it: “A mini glacier was pushing toward the hut.”

Of course, there was also the problem of the summer melt that periodically flooded the building, which would then refreeze. The roof on the adjoining stables had partially collapsed from the snow load. High humidity inside the building from ice encased under the flooring was damaging papers and textiles, and allowing mold to grow.

Job No. 1 was to tame the environment around and inside the hut before repairs and restoration could begin, according to Fastier, who for the last six years has worked for the Trust as its program manager, the point person responsible for planning and executing each season’s conservation fieldwork in Antarctica.

The subterranean dam mitigated the flooding. A good deal of muscle was devoted to clearing the encroaching and crushing ice and snow. The linoleum floor was rolled up, the ice melted and sucked away, and then the flooring returned to its original place, followed by a little ingenious re-stretching after the material had shrunk.

“In the end, we could drop the nails back down into the exact same holes,” Fastier says proudly.

Back to the original condition

Lizzie Meek escorts her visitor into the hut’s semi-dark interior, scraping her heavy boots in the annex on an iron grating to clear any debris — standard protocol for anyone entering one of the historic structures that are protected under the Antarctic Treaty system.

Program manager of artifact conservation for the Trust, Meek speaks in hushed, reverential tones as she notes points of interest in the hut. She apologizes for the floodlights and other modern tools and equipment, which in her mind break the spell of the place.

Still, it is hard not to imagine that the men had only just left, boarding the ship for home in 1913, after discovering the frozen bodies of their companions. A pair of Apsley Cherry-Garrard’s socks, his cloth nametag sewn into the wool, sits at the end of his bunk bed. His book, The Worst Journey in the World, is perhaps the most famous historical account of the expedition.

“I think it’s the personal items you find that suddenly brings it home to you that these were real people living in a harsh environment just like you,” Meek says. “You can relate it to your own life in the field here today.”

Farther along the tour, in an alcove dominated by a large table that displays a Feb. 29, 1908, edition of The Illustrated London News alongside a freeze-dried emperor penguin used for scientific study, is Capt. Scott’s bunk. Expedition photographer Herbert Ponting’s darkroom, filled with unused glass plates and vials that read “poison,” seems to await his return. Light through a double-paned window on the other side of the room illuminates a table of test tubes, glass vials, magnifying glasses and other scientific equipment.

“They had an incredibly sophisticated science set up,” Meek notes. Indeed, if Scott had never attempted the Pole, his expedition would have been considered a success based solely on the research it accomplished. For instance, a small extant building at Cape Evans, built without iron fastenings, was used for magnetic observations — research that continues there to this day.

“Time and time again, I’m really struck by [Scott’s] ability to describe things accurately, understand them, and pull together bits and pieces of knowledge, and draw a conclusion,” says Meek, who is reading Scott’s expedition diary every day. “He had that ability to really understand what his scientists were telling him.”

Behind the scenes

Back toward the front entrance of the hut is the galley. Crates of sugar, flour, cocoa, salt, Coleman’s mustard and Heinz vinegar reach toward the ceiling. The shelves are also crowded with condiments. Ceramic cups, many of which look as if though they’ve been repeatedly scorched, hang from a shelf loaded with bottles of pickled onions.

Most of the galley items, Meek points out, have already been evaluated, described, conserved, cataloged and returned to the hut.

“You shouldn’t be able to tell, unless you look really closely, that we’ve been here,” says Meek, who first worked on the project as a paper conservator in 2008 over the Antarctic winter at Scott Base before joining the Trust full time to manage the artifact collection.

“When people walk in … what they should see is old-looking objects but with more detail revealed, minus the corrosion or obvious mold That’s the goal,” she adds. “And, yes, I do obsess about it.”

It’s her job to hire the experts in textiles, metals, paper and other specialties who either work at a lab on site during the Antarctic summer months or back at Scott Base over the winter. “Luckily, the people I hire, that’s their job to [obsess about] it as well, and they collectively out-obsess me.”

Each year, a half-dozen conservators from around the world conserve about 1,500 artifacts.

“It’s definitely not an easy process to try to find the right people to work down here, because it requires a particular kind of personality,” she explains. Meek and Fastier are obviously looking for highly skilled workers, but also people whose personalities can mesh with the small team on the Ice.

And the days are long: six-and-a-half days a week, with Sunday afternoons off, for each six-month contract.

“The life down here has been completely different from my normal comfort zone, and the work has been incredibly hard physically,” says John Kermister, a 63-year-old conservator who normally works at the Australian War Memorial museum in Canberra restoring tanks and military machinery.

His job today is to cobble back together a stove flue, and he is outside gently hammering out a section of pipe, which looks like an oversized muffler that’s been exposed to the elements far too long. The metal is extremely brittle, almost paper-like, and the new sections meant to fit inside the original pipe to reinforce it — another example of discrete conservation practiced by the Trust — aren’t the correct size.

“I just discovered that we have three different sizes [of pipe flue], which complicates matters a little bit,” says Kermister matter-of-factly.

Fidelity to history and conservation

Fidelity to history is something of a mantra among the Antarctic Heritage Trust crew. The conservation plan, developed nearly a decade ago, is as an important roadmap, nearly as inviolate as the Bible. Any changes to the plan must go through the nonprofit’s Board of Trustees, which includes U.S. Ambassador to New Zealand David Huebner.

Fastier estimates that more than 90 percent of the Cape Evans Hut will consist of the original materials after his team finishes its carpentry work this year. (Restoration of the artifacts collection still has another four years to go.)

Getting it right means loads of research, from studying journals to poring over expedition photographer Ponting’s images, which have proven to be an invaluable resource over the years.

“Even buying the right nails may take two or three days of research to actually find them. If you can’t, then we have them made. It’s down to a fine detail,” Fastier says. “On the logistics front, it’s quite complex to get it right.”

Even those charged with the restoration work are amazed at the level of detail.

“There’s an awful lot of thought and work before the actual result comes out — an awful lot of time and effort. It’s quite phenomenal,” says carpenter Jamie Ward from Scotland, who generally restores big oak timber frames and doors in castles in his native homeland.

In many ways, he says, the jobs aren’t much different.

“It’s a mixture of repairing things and doing them in such a way that it will last 40 years,” he explains. “It’s an awful lot more than just restoring something. You’re trying to restore it, but it’s got to last. There’s no point in doing this if in a few years time people have to come back and repair things. It’s a very long-term thing, but it’s very worthwhile.”

For example, take the roof above the stable, which housed ponies used by Scott and his team for some of the southward hauling of supplies. Restoring it to its original condition wouldn’t be enough to keep the snow load from crushing it again. The solution: Routing a channel out of the top of the beams and inserting stainless steel to reinforce the wood.

A home away from home

There was only one professional carpenter among the Terra Nova crew, Francis Davies, who supervised the construction of the hut, which had been prefabricated in London. A test-build by the crew in Lyttelton, New Zealand, revealed serious deficiencies in the sizes and quantities of some timbers, which were corrected before the ship sailed to Antarctica.

Scott was well pleased with his new Antarctic home, quite the contrast to his first effort in Antarctica on the Discovery Expedition of 1901-04. That structure, still sitting today — and on the Trust’s restoration list — on a spit of land referred to as Hut Point, was so drafty and gloomy that he preferred to bed down on the ship.

Scott’s own words describe the solace the building would bring against the harsh Antarctic climate:

“The hut is progressing apace, and all agree that it should be the most perfectly comfortable habitation. It amply repays the time and attention given to the planning. The sides have double boarding inside and outside the frames, with a layer of our excellent quilted seaweed insulation between each pair of boardings.”

Their new home was built in less than two weeks, much to Scott’s satisfaction:

“The hut is becoming the most comfortable dwelling-place imaginable. We have made ourselves a truly seductive home, within the walls of which peace, quiet and comfort remain supreme. Such a noble dwelling transcends the word ‘hut’, and we pause to give it a more fitting title only from lack of the appropriate suggestion. What shall we call it? The word hut is misleading.”

Ward agreed that it would have been a wonderful place to live.

“It’s a very honest building. It’s not pretentious. It was here to do a purpose, and a hundred years later, it’s amazingly still structurally sound,” he says. “I love the weathering of the wood and the character in it.”

Layers of history

Retaining that character has been a priority. But the question, at times, has been which character to retain, as the Terra Nova party wasn’t the last Heroic-era expedition to use the base.

After the prize of the South Pole had been claimed by Amundsen on Dec. 14, 1911, Shackleton conceived of the Trans-Antarctic Expedition, which set off in 1914. The plan was for Shackleton to lead a team across the continent, beginning from the Weddell Sea, crossing the South Pole, and then north to the familiar territory of the Ross Sea.

It never happened. The expedition’s ship, the Endurance, became locked in pack ice, and eventually crushed, stranding Shackleton and his men on the ice. What ensued would become known as one of the greatest stories of survival ever told, and Shackleton lionized as a fearless leader of men.

A lesser-known story is that of Shackleton’s Ross Sea Party, charged with laying supplies across the Ross Ice Shelf for the Trans-Antarctic Expedition for the second leg of the adventure. They used and occupied the Cape Evans Hut for about two years, from 1915-17.

“We try to keep both layers of history,” Meek says. “It was decided in the conservation plan that the aim was to restore this building as it was at the end of the Heroic Era, which is the end of the Ross Sea Party occupation, but with a focus on the Scott expedition.”

That meant restoring the bulkhead of crates that had created a sort of wall in the middle of the hut, which separated the enlisted men on the Terra Nova expedition from the officers and scientists. Shackleton’s crew had no such prohibitions, so they tore it down. But the soot that coats the ceiling from the burning of seal blubber by half-starved members of the Ross Sea Party remains untouched.

“It was quite amazing what a difference it made to the hut, to have that division in there again,” says Martin Wenzel, a restoration carpenter originally from Germany but who settled in New Zealand more than 20 years ago. “It gave you a completely different spatial feeling for the hut. It was really exciting to see. We hadn’t seen that before and experienced that before.”

Wenzel had repaired many of the bulkhead crates, working by the “200-millimeter, two-meter rule,” meaning his fixes should be invisible at a distance of two meters or more, only noticeable to someone taking a closer look.

This past year he completed off-site repairs to all of the food storage boxes at Cape Royds, which had been used by Shackleton’s men to build a garage and stable. The wood boxes had been full of food and falling part, with gull-like skuas scavenging the powdered flour, milk and eggs that had spilled out.

“As we got inside the content, there were tins that were virtually new,” says Wenzel, who has worked for the Trust for four years, including a winter at Scott Base. “Some of them even had a recipe book in them.”

Job satisfaction

The conservation team has no reservations about replacing more modern-day additions to the hut, particularly restoration work done in the 1970s. Fastier says the repairs done by those volunteers helped protect the structures, but they didn’t make any attempts to maintain historical accuracy.

“It was well-intentioned conservation work at that time,” he says.

The carpenters have had to swap out several windows, but have been fortunate to find some materials on site, including an old window frame in the stables. They had similar luck with the discovery of a door that they used to replace one from the 1970s.

Fastier sees parallels between the ways his crew must be creative with their fixes and how the Scott and Shackleton parties might have once been forced to find their own innovative solutions to problems.

“I think we’re the same in some ways. We’ve got the tools and good people, and we’ve got lots of challenges. If you think outside the square, you can make it happen,” he says. “In fact, quite often I think the old fellows are still behind us, helping us out, because we have a lot of luck with the weather and everything else.

“At the end of the season, we’re typically all pretty tired, but we also leave pretty satisfied that we’ve done a good job,” he adds. “That’s our reward. Everyone is passionate and behind it.”

Even the grandson of the famous explorer is behind it — and a part of it.

Falcon Scott, only grandson of Robert Falcon Scott, joined the conservation effort in early January. A self-taught builder by trade, Falcon Scott had applied for a job as a carpenter with the Trust several years ago. This year he finally got his chance.

“I understand what the conservators are all about now,” he says after about a week or so on probably his most unusual job site. “It’s really quite a unique thing. You’re dealing with the history, but in another way, you’re moving into history.

“This conservation project that they’re doing is going to be a major event in the life of the hut. In a hundred years time, they’ll say this was when major conservation was done,” he adds. “I’m pleased to be working with people who are doing such a professional job.”

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Curator: Peter Rejcek, Antarctic Support Contract | NSF Official: Winifred Reuning, Division of Polar Programs