Stepping Into the Past — Shackleton’s Hut

Stepping Into The Past  — Shackleton’s Hut                       

Written by Betty Trummel

Incredible and inspiring…those are words I’d use to describe the next adventure I’m going to take you on!  It’s not one I got to take part in on this trip to Antarctica, but I have had the opportunity to take this field trip on previous trips to this icy continent.  The history bears repeating in this blog though, because I want you to learn about the past Antarctic explorers. 


Today’s explorer is one of my favorites…Sir Ernest Shackleton.  His family motto was “Fortitudine Vincimus” which is Latin for “by endurance we conquer.”  Shackleton was an explorer who demonstrated his power of endurance on many occasions.  In fact, one of his ships was named Endurance.



If I was to travel from north McMurdo Station to Shackleton’s hut at Cape Royds (a distance of about 32 km or close to 20 miles) , I would pass by the awesome Barne Glacier.  (all photos from 2006)


 A climb up and over a volcanic hill brings Sir Ernest Shackleton’s hut into view.  This hut is from Shackleton’s

Nimrod Expedition  (1907-1909).


This prefabricated (premade) hut was constructed at Cape Royds and Shackleton and his men in just ten days.  They took an additional three weeks to insulate it from the cold and built an outer wall around the south and east sides to enhance the insulation.  They packed crates and volcanic rocks into the space between the wall and the hut.



Stepping inside the cabin is stepping inside a history book.  Eyes adjust to the dim light, and senses pick up subtle hints such as the musty smell of old clothing and sleeping bags. Textures appear….hardened fabrics, smooth metal, rusted objects rough with age, hard wooden floors and walls, glass bottles, waxy candles, rough rope hanging from nails.  It’s all so much to take in.  I have always felt the presence of the men that used this hut.  It’s as if they will come walking in, after a day of exploring, and share their tales of adventure!  I would love that!


When you hear the term “frozen in time” it certainly applies to the historic huts…in more ways than one.  First things are preserved because they appear as the men on Shackleton’s expedition left them.  Historic huts (and their contents) in the Ross Sea region are protected by the Antarctic Heritage Trust.  Their work is completed to exacting heritage standards.  The Trust’s specialist conservation teams are employed year round in Antarctica and work in challenging environmental conditions to conserve and protect the historic huts.


The cold temperatures and dry conditions also helped “freeze” things in time.  Not much has decayed compared to what would happen in other climates around the world.


There is quite a bit of natural light in this hut.   It’s funny how your eyes can adjust.  I did have to use my flash to get these photos….there was not enough light without using that feature on the camera, even though it looks much brighter in my photographs.


I tried to photograph every little detail so that I would always remember how special it is to visit such an incredible place.  In some way I don’t think I even needed the camera.  Something about a place like this makes an imprint in your mind and you remember it forever.  I’m fascinated with the expeditions of the early Antarctic explorers—tales of adventure, danger, discovery and at times, tragedy.  Their determination to leave their mark in history brought out amazing personal characteristics that were instrumental in meeting and surmounting the many challenges that came their way during the Heroic Age of Exploration in Antarctica.


Shackleton had joined Robert Falcon Scott on an earlier expedition to Antarctica…the Discovery Expedition from 1901-1904.  It was to be the first of four Antarctic expeditions for Shackleton.  Determination led him back to Antarctica for the Nimrod Expedition in 1907, for a second try at reaching the South Pole. 


In terms of records, this expedition was a big success. Shackleton and three other members of the team sledged toward the South Pole and reached 88 degrees south latitude…a new record for farthest south.  They ran short of food and were forced to turn around, only 150 kilometers from the Pole.  But, Shackleton had pioneered a new route up to the Polar Plateau.  That wasn’t the only success of this expedition.


A second group from his party had set off to reach the South Magnetic Pole.  This had been a goal (not achieved) of James Clark Ross back in 1841.  T.W. Edgeworth David, Douglas Mawson, and Forbes Mckay accomplished this goal on January 16, 1909…sixty-eight years later. 


In another “first” T. W. Edgeworth David and five other men made the first ascent (climb) to the top of Mt. Erebus.  This feat took them five days.  Just look at Erebus in and of my my photos and I think you’ll agree that even today with modern equipment and better clothing…it’s still a formidable mountain.



Another momentous “first” was that Shackleton had planned all along to not just write papers while he was on this expedition…he wanted to publish a book. In fact, the book “Aurora Australis” (Southern Lights) was indeed published inside of this hut at Cape Royds, during the long winter months of the expedition.  Expedition members Wild, Joyce (both responsible for printing), Marston (illustrator), and Day (who manufactured the covers), with Shackleton as editor, had completed the first book printed in the Antarctic. 


It’s easy to see that there were many significant successes in Shackleton’s Nimrod Expedition. 


While in Tasmania in 2005, Andie Smithies from the Australian Antarctic Division shared an original copy of “Aurora Australis” with me.  Only 25-30 copies of the book were printed, sewn and bound, which makes this an extremely rare book.  Notice how the cover is made from one of over 2,500 provision boxes, in this case one that had previously held butter.  We had to handle the book carefully and wear gloves.  It is an extremely valuable item in their collection of Antarctic artifacts.

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 Take a visual tour of inside the hut with the following photographs.


I turned this photo (below) upside down so you could read the words:  “British Antarctic Ship Nimrod” and the “Lyttleton” refers to their point of departure…Lyttleton Harbor in New Zealand.



 Amongst the boxes and tins of supplies  (Photo by Megan Berg)


Quite a supply of candles….


Notice the date on this provision box…the box is used for a storage shelf


 A canvas curtain used to partition (close off or separate) areas of the hut…


Supply boxes and an old doghouse outside of the hut


Cape Royds is not only known for Shackleton’s Nimrod Expedition hut, but it is also the site of the Adelie penguin rookery where Jean is studying colonies of penguins. See my previous posts for more information on Jean’s work.  I’ll leave you with these little Adelies…on a mission across the snow and ice.  Wherever you are, enjoy your day!


 Headed out on the sea ice… (Photo by Megan Berg)












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