An A-frame in Antarctica

AHEAD WAS A peculiar vision. Black Island appeared to levitate above the Ross Ice Shelf. A shimmering dark lake had formed below it where there had not been rain for over two million years. I rest on my ski poles and in the thin Antarctic air catch my breath. I watch the lake grow legs, fold, collapse and gently lower Black Island back in place.

On a calm day mirages are common here. Roald Amundsen and his party, who were the first people to the South Pole in 1911, saw their fair share of them. Perhaps the most famous of these mirages was seen within days of their reaching the pole. ‘Our finest day up here,’ wrote Amundsen. ‘Calm most of the day with burning sunshine… As we were breaking camp Hassel called out, “Do you see that black thing over there?” Everyone saw it. “Can it be Scott?” someone called. Bjaaland skied forward to investigate. He did not have to ski far. “Mirage,” he reported laconically, “dog turds.”’

To the east of where I stand lies a black dot; not a dog turd but an A-frame hut. The hut has become an institution at New Zealand’s Scott Base since it was rescued from the American McMurdo Station trash pile in 1971. The New Zealanders quickly made the A-frame hut their own. It is a small pointed gesture in the vastness of the Ross Ice Shelf, which captures the New Zealand desire to get away from it all, to simplify and make do.

Every year the A-frame is dug out of the snowdrift and roughly levelled on its skids. Inside, it has a timber panel finish, a selection of saggy couches and beds, and most of the time it contains good company. It’s nearly 11 pm by the time I reach the hut but the sun shows no inclination to set. I am greeted by an artist from Auckland and a scientist from Dunedin. Like me, they have come out here for a night away from the hustle of Scott Base. They seem happy to see me. They are even happier when I produce a bottle of whiskey from my pack.

Inside the hut it is warm. We drink the whiskey. It is rough but somehow it tastes smooth. We talk with big pauses, as if the vastness of the Ross Ice Shelf itself is nudging in between our words. We talk of Ed Hillary’s last night here and of Amundsen and his dogs.

On the rough timber shelf above the saggy bunk I have reclined on, there are novels and non-fiction epics of varying quality. In one of the better ones Robert Macfarlane writes, ‘Ideas are like waves and have fetches. They arrive having travelled vast distances, and their pasts are often invisible, or barely imaginable.’ Antarctica is one of those ideas and, like the Southern Ocean that surrounds it, has the greatest fetch of any on the planet. Antarctica is an idea that has been brewing for a long time.

It was 319 BC that Aristotle first guessed at the presence of a great Southern land. In the intervening two thousand or so years, before Antarctica was actually discovered, the resulting void proved an attractive vacuum into which rushed every conceivable theory and myth, populating a geography of hope that still persists to this day. There were Arcadian forests, lost civilisations and UFO bases projected onto the white page of this undiscovered continent. Being inaccessible, these ideas were hard to refute and proliferated like sastrugi in a blizzard.

Amongst the visions of Arcadia and UFO bases, it was perhaps John Symmes’ theory of a hollow earth that was most remarkable. Symmes was a captain in the United States Army who, in 1818, expounded a hollow earth theory that gained considerable notoriety. The poles were supposed to be surrounded by a barrier of ice that protected a warm climate and super-race of people who had access through a hole at the poles to the habitable centre of the earth.

Symmes’ half-baked theory appealed to the sense of the sublime so fashionable at the time. The sublime was attributed to experiences or landscapes that contained equal parts of terror and fascination for the observer. Like any good half-baked theory, Symmes’ hole tended to morph and change like a mirage, growing legs and setting itself down away from the critics’ eye.

The A-frame hut is as close to the utopia of Symmes’ hole as it is possible to get. The hut is a human scale, triangular refuge from the white hell outside. Like Symmes’ version of Antarctica, the A-frame goes against expectation. It is the direct contrast of its black to the landscape’s white, its vertical to the horizontal and its warm to the cold that surrounds. The A-frame takes you by pleasant surprise.

New Zealand has grown up with Antarctica and this intimate association has imbued our concept of landscape, weather and history. Around my homeport in Lyttelton Harbour there are constant physical reminders of the departure of the expeditions of Scott. Each morning in summer my commuter ferry skirts another icebreaker bunkering before heading south, and I step onto the wharf Scott left from and pass the pub where he had his last drink. At night Antarctica occasionally visits with an icy blast from the south, which rattles the roof of my bach. Antarctica is never far from New Zealand’s thoughts.

In a country that should know better, we colonise just like the rest of them. We make sense of a new landscape by furnishing it to remind us of home. The clues about how to be in this place are obscure, so instead we retreat towards Massey Ferguson tractors, corrugated iron and rugby goal posts.

Like other colonisers we attempt to name the landscape around us. Despite our best intentions, Antarctic naming has a strong sense of the absurd about it, in no part due to the violence, movement and constant attempts at illusion of the physical environment. This is not a landscape that tolerates being pinned down.

Names in Antarctica are now dished out, not to remind us of events or of people who have dwelt there, but for studious sacrifice to the world of science and bureaucracy and for seriously good politicking. Most of the named will never see their col, glacier or mountain and within a few generations, the connection will be lost in the thick volumes of the Composite Gazetteer of Antarctica. It’s as if the words refuse to stick to the slippery substrate they are confronted with. Perhaps because of this the colonisers of Antarctica revert to things rather than words. Things are like a comfort blanket, familiar, tangible and soft to the touch. Over the hill at the American McMurdo Station they have Frosty Boys, bowling alleys, cable TV and ATMs. The New Zealanders have a ski-field and a bach on the Ross Ice Shelf. Escape seems to be our national anthem.

I brew a midnight cup of tea for the inmates of the A-frame. From the frosted window near the kitchen the only feature of the landscape that appears to be living is the looming presence of Mt Erebus to the north. It is an active volcano, puffing wispy, white smoke from its top. Like a portrait with eyes that follow you around the room, the mountain remains the same size no matter how far you move away from it. The A-frame is manoeuvred to face it, scared to turn its back on such an eerie phenomena.

From where I sip my tea Mt Erebus looks like a child’s sketch of a mountain, harmless and easy to ascend. Robert Macfarlane reminds us, ‘Without doubt it is these harmless looking conical mountains that have killed the most in human history.’ He was right, and this mountain is no different. On the north side the mountain hides a scar a few kilometres long that contains the wreckage of flight TE 901, which ploughed into the mountain in 1979 on a sight-seeing trip from New Zealand to McMurdo Sound. In one violent moment more New Zealanders have died in Antarctica than any other nationality.

Death on a smaller scale is a constant in this place. Below the A-frame hut is eighty metres or so of glacial ice, floating on the dark waters of McMurdo Sound. Further towards the mainland and buried some sixteen metres down are Scott, Bowers and Wilson, more than one hundred years on from their death and still on their journey home. They lie together, frozen into their sleeping bags and wrapped in their tent, where the effects of scurvy, malnutrition and frostbite ushered them into sleep. Out beyond them Oates lies curled up. Further back near the base of the ice shelf, Evans lies slumped forward as if in prayer. They are all on a journey to the sea and around five hundred years from now Scott and his companions will be committed to the deep east of the A-frame hut, somewhere near Cape Crozier.

Being alone is a rare thing on Base and a week of this intense scrutiny is enough for any sane person. The A-frame offers an escape from all of this and is the only thing that unites the current inhabitants.

Compounding this need for sanctuary in the A-frame is an equally powerful desire to escape from the colour green – Chelsea Cucumber to be precise – and the entire exterior of Scott Base is painted in this gruesome fashion.

In the 1970s Bob Thompson, the then manager of the New Zealand Antarctic Programme, came up with the idea of a green Scott Base after returning from a visit to Ireland. He adored the white houses set in the green fields and thought the inverse would be just as suitable in Antarctica. The idea persists inside the buildings, which blessedly are not green, but contain picturesque, Andris Apse photos of New Zealand rural landscapes. The A-frame hut is free from this green obsession and merely makes its statement with the more vernacular idea of black plywood and red trim.

I doze on the saggy bed with the spectacular view. With no night at this time of year the sun merely does loops around the horizon and its perpetual presence means that sleep is neither deep, nor rewarding. The shadows it casts are the only clue to time passing.

When the shadows stretch out in a westerly direction I rise and make thick porridge to steel us for our ski back to Scott Base. I leave the remains of the whiskey bottle on the shelf next to the eclectic selection of books. It is a small koha for our sanctuary and will most likely be finished by another New Zealander from Scott Base looking for an escape of one form or another. The ever-watchful eyes of Mt Erebus follow us as we clip into our skis and glide into a slow rhythm. The A-frame hut slips behind into the white haze.

Some time after these notes were written the A-frame hut burnt down. A clumsy relighting of the diesel heater, a malfunctioning fire extinguisher and the A-frame became a place of absence. The bitumen and plywood construction, dried to a crisp by years of living in a desert, went up with an audible whoompf. In the perpetual darkness of May the flames shot up in a funeral pyre, fuelled by saggy beds, diesel fuel and memories.

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