The Polar Star J.S. Sweitzer -- Jan. 15, 1995
I had a couple of hours after dinner before I was due to leave, so I took a walk down to the ice pier to see the ice breaker that just pulled into port. It's called the Polar Star and is operated by the U. S. Coast Guard. It has a sister ship named the Polar Seas that is due in a couple of days. I just figured I would walk out and take a few pictures.
On the way I met a fellow wearing a gray-green parka. I asked him if he was in the Coast Guard and he said he was. He told me that if I went down to the ship, they might answer a few questions. He said, "Tell them Butch sent you." I had been reading a little about sea ice and ice breakers in the afternoon, so it was a treat to see the real thing up close.
The Polar Star is huge, about 400 feet long, weighs 13,000 tons and is capable of plowing through new hard ice 21 feet thick. It hammers the thick ice by raising up and then the ballast shifts, causing the stern to become extra buoyant and forcing the bow down. Butch had showed me how this worked using his arms.
Today ice breakers are used to clear a channel into McMurdo to ship in supplies. Ninety years ago, ships would come in and just stay locked in the ice for the winter. After I left the Polar Star, I took a left turn and walked out to where the first ship docked in these parts. It's out on a little spit of land called Hut Point at the south-west end of McMurdo harbor.
It's named Hut Point, because you find Capt. R. Falcon Scott's hut he built there in 1902. It's well taken care of by the Kiwi's who revere Scott, the way us Chicagoans remember Michael Jordan. Yesterday I'd been allowed to go inside where they have done a fairly good job of restoring and preserving the way it was at the beginning of the century. Basically, when you enter, you think you've entered a smoking house. There are cans and crates of food everywhere. The ceiling and walls are blackened by soot from the stove in the middle. It must have been a smoky business being indoors in those early years. Maybe that's how Scott motivated people to take suicide marches across the ice? The air on the plateau may be cold, but at least it's clean.
On the southern side of the point is where Scott first docked his ship "Discovery" in 1901. They built the hut in February, 1902, but used the ship as the base of operations. I understand that this was the place of the first expedition into the interior of the continent during the years 1901-04.
A hundred feet past the hut is the high spot on the point. Atop it is a large wooden cross. I decided to see who it was for. As I got to the top, I looked down the steep southern bank to imagine the place where the "Discovery" was frozen fast. When I got to the top I read that the cross was for George T. Vince (AB RN), March 1902. He had slipped in and drowned one month after the hut was built, the first casualty of Antarctic exploration.
As I walked back to town I racked my brain trying to figure out what AB RN meant. It didn't take too long to guess that RN meant Royal Navy, but what did AB mean? It surely wasn't that he held a bachelor's degree. Then it dawned on me that maybe it meant Able Body. At least that sounded like Royal Navy talk to me.
This was, of course, only the first place where Scott's expeditions led to loss of human life. I think he himself led his fateful assault on the Pole from Cape Evans a little ways from here. Every year there are still some fatalities, but your chances are much better, since there are so many people here. Last year I knew about a Norwegian skier who fell in a crevasse. A couple of years earlier two guys took a shortcut back from Scott Base nearby and fell into a crevasse too.
Gotta call now and see if my flight is still scheduled to go tonight. I'll be crossing my fingers the whole way out.