A Visit to Scott’s Discovery Hut

A Visit to Scott’s Discovery Hut
Written by Betty Trummel

Last night we took a walk out to Hut Point and had a tour of Robert Scott’s hut from the Discovery Expedition of 1901-1904. Abe, from Crary Lab, had been trained as a hut guide and he was an excellent source of information and an extremely friendly guide for our tour. Even though I’ve been to McMurdo Station two times before this season, I’ve not been able to go inside this hut, so I was looking forward to tonight with great anticipation. I was not disappointed.

History and geography are huge interests of mine, and this hut is a reminder of both great milestones in history and exploration of our planet’s remote geographical locations. Let me take you on a tour of the Discovery Hut and also give you the background on Robert Falcon Scott and his expeditions to this area.

Scott made several voyages by ship to this region, and this hut is only one of his huts remaining in the Ross Sea region. A second hut, officially named “Scott’s Hut” was erected in 1911 at Cape Evans, not far from McMurdo.

The Discovery Hut was a prefabricated hut built in a square, with a pyramid style roof. The hut had verandas on three sides. This hut was a strong building, but not particularly warm. Little insulation was provided by the felt placed between the inner and outer wood plank walls, and the hut was cold and drafty compared to Scott’s ship, the Discovery. In fact, the men decided to move back to the ship, which was anchored less than a mile away from Hut Point. They lived on the ship and used the hut for storage. Items such as flour, cocoa, coffee, biscuits, and meat in tins was left at the hut in case an emergency forced the men off the ship and into the hut. During the second year of the expedition the hut was used once in a while as a place to camp, but the men never did put up any permanent bunks or sleeping quarters.

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Here is a view of the hut as it stands today, with McMurdo Station and Ob Hill in the background.

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Our tour group included Peyton (and undergraduate student with WISSARD), myself, Susan and Mike (my Education and Outreach colleagues), and Abe (our tour guide). Not pictured is Dave, WISSARD videographer, who was busy, busy inside the hut shooting video footage.

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We had to brush off our shoes before we could enter the hut. This protective measure is necessary so visitors do not track in dust, dirt, and rocks. This debris can cause further damage and wear/tear on the 110-year old building. A light odor of something I couldn’t quite place at first pervaded the air in the hut. When I entered the small store room to the left in the entrance foyer, I figured out what it might be. Lamb! There were a couple of 100+ year old mutton (lamb) carcasses hanging in this room. It wasn’t an overpowering smell, but it definitely was there. Here is one of the lamb carcasses below. Looks a bit yucky, doesn’t it?

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Also in this room, several skulls and other bones. I wasn’t quite sure what these were from. I spotted a small seal carcass hanging on the wall, and the biggest clue there was the tail flipper that remained.

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In the main room of the hut was a pile of seal blubber, which would have been used for heating and cooking. The cold, dry climate has preserved this blubber for many years, but we could still see signs of decay. It really looked gross if you ask me, but it would have been an important provision for the men on this expedition.

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To my left, Huntley and Palmer’s Digestive Biscuits. I’ve seen this very same biscuit in the other historic huts of this region. They were a common supply item of the early Antarctic explorers.

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Another common item…hot cocoa.

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At first I found it curious that this particular wooden storage box was in this hut…notice the date, 1910. This box was from Scott’s Terra Nova expedition from 1910-1913. Then I remembered that the Discovery Hut was used as a staging area and rendezvous point for Terra Nova expedition members who were heading south toward the South Pole from Scott’s Hut at Cape Evans. In addition, this Discovery Hut had been used by another expedition led by Ernest Shackleton in 1908. Shackleton used it as a storehouse for supplies and a staging area for his own quest to reach the South Pole. Some members camped in the hut, but most of the men camped outside of the hut because it was warmer. The hut was used by the Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition from 1914-1917, but again abandoned when the expedition came to an end. The hut remained untouched until 1956. At that time U.S. expeditioners dug it out of snow and ice. It is remarkable that it still stands as a memorial to the men who first built it in 1901.

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These are fuel cans abandoned in the hut.

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When Scott left the McMurdo Sound area at the end of the 1901-1904 expedition, they stripped out the stove and other gear, but left lots of the food as a large depot for future expeditions.

Empty tin cans left behind…I wonder whether these were discarded outside (as was the custom in earlier days) and subsequently picked up and brought back in as part of the exhibition.  Every item in the hut has been cataloged by the Antarctic Heritage Trust and it is against the law to touch and/or remove these items.

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This was a fun discovery in the hut….a storage bin for dog biscuits. Sled dogs were used as part of the early Antarctic expeditions.

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It was very dark in parts of the hut, and in other sections the evening sun streamed into the hut through the windows.

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A kitchen “room” with pans on what would have been the stove. I don’t think a complete stove remained, but it was hard to tell. I do know that bits of seal fat were in the pan.

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I want to mention that this hut, along with other historic huts in this region, is protected by the New Zealand organization called the Antarctic Heritage Trust. A plaque in the entrance hallway reminded us that the building and its contents are protected under the Antarctic Treaty as a “shrine to human heritage.” Indeed, this hut and the things inside of it need to be protected and conserved for future generations.

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Even these bits of fat (above) and pairs of pants (below) are protected as important artifacts depicting the conditions and supplies used on Antarctic expeditions in the early 1900’s.

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More examples of clothing used on the expedition…gloves, hats, etc.

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Empty tin cans left behind…I wonder whether these were discarded outside (as was the custom in earlier days) and subsequently picked up and brought back in as part of the exhibition. Every item in the hut has been cataloged by the Antarctic Heritage Trust and it is against the law to touch and/or remove these items.

After 100+ years these biscuits don’t look that bad. Baking powder (in the tins behind the biscuits) would have been a key ingredient for baking.

I like to think of this lantern lighting the way for those early polar explorers. In essence those explorers lit the way for future exploration of the Ross Sea region, and ignited a fire of curiosity and learning for many who followed their journeys.

The journals that Robert Scott and other explorers kept are a testament to the Heroic Age of Antarctic exploration, and their powerful words describing their incredible experiences opened many doors for future expeditioners and learners like me. I got the feeling, as I have before, that any moment Scott and his men would walk in the door and tell me about their day. Standing in the footsteps of key polar explorers is a rare treat, and I am thankful to be a part of the scientific history here at McMurdo Station.

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