The Winter Journey: Part IV

Degrees of Frost

When we last left the men of the Crozier party, they had just finished their first full day of sledging on the McMurdo Ice Shelf and they came to find it was a real drag. Temperatures hovered at or below -50°F (-45.6°C), creating a rough, sandy pulling surface for the men. A few of the men are already starting to suffer from frostbites, and sleep is hard to come by in the frigid tent at night. How were things on the morning of June 30th, 1911?

Position: Camp 3

Time: 10:00

Temperature: -54.5°F (-48.1°C)

Wind Direction/Speed: Calm

Sky Condition: Clear

Overnight Minimum Temperature: Not reported

British Antarctic Expedition 1910-1913, Meteorology, Vol. III Table 69

The party struck camp and started off to the east-northeast by late morning, using a sliver of daylight on the horizon to navigate. However, the men quickly ran into problems. The extreme cold and sandy snow surface prevented the men from pulling both sledges at once. As such, they were reduced to a grueling day of relay work, pulling one sledge forward and then returning to retrieve the other. In essence, the men had to cover 3 miles for every mile made good – talk about two steps forward and one step backward!

The cold only intensified as the day went on – Birdie Bowers recorded a temperature of -61.6°F (-52°) at lunch. Compounding the low temperature was the fact that the men were now entering an area known as the Windless Bight. This region along the southern fringe of Ross Island is known for it’s general lack of wind, owing to the complex terrain of the northwestern Ross Ice Shelf. The lack of wind allows loose snow crystals to gather in this area, and the deep, sandy snow is hell on sledge travelers. The manifold mesoscale and microscale wind patterns are outside the scope of this series, and probably deserve their own article in order to do them justice.

Image credit: Lori Perkins, NASA Scientific Visualization Studio

After lunch, the little natural light the men had earlier in the day had faded, and the men navigated by a combination of candlelight and celestial bodies, sparking one of my favorite quotes from the journey:

It was the weirdest kind of procession, three frozen men and a little pool of light. Generally, we steered by Jupiter, and I never see him now without recalling his friendship in those days.

Apsley Cherry-Garrard, The Worst Journey in the World

It took the Crozier party 11 hours to cover just over 3 miles for the day, marching a total of 10 miles to do it. The men pitched camp in the late evening and took the last weather observation for the day:

Position: Camp 4

Time: 21:00

Miles Made Good: 3.25

Temperature: -65°F (-53.9°C)

Wind Direction/Speed: Calm

Sky Condition: Clear

British Antarctic Expedition 1910-1913, Meteorology, Vol. III Table 69
Crozier party progress after four days


I can only imagine the men had to feel nothing more than abject misery on this march. The temperature was -55°F (-48.1°C) at the start of the day, and only got colder, falling to -65°F (-53.9°C) by late evening. The lack of wind surely led to the decrease in temperatures, with outgoing longwave radiation continuing unimpeded under the light wind and clear skies. How do the 1911 conditions stack up against today’s obseration? Much colder….the most recent temperature reported by the Windless Bight automatic weather station is -23.8°C (-10.8°F). I also came across an interesting weather term that I love…degrees of frost. Essentially, a degree of frost is calculated by finding the difference between the freezing point, 32°F (0°C) and the observed temperature. At -65°F, the Crozier party experienced 97 degrees of frost!

Will the men of the Crozier party get a respite from the intense cold? Check in tomorrow to find out!


The Winter Journey: Part I

A New and Bold Venture

Winter Journey Sledge Weights
Expendable Storeslbs
‘Antarctic’ biscuit135
3 cases for same12
Spare parts for primus, and matches2
Toilet Paper2
The Worst Journey in the World, pg. 223
Permanent Weightslbs
2 9-ft sledges, 41 lbs. each82
1 Cooker complete13
2 Primus filled with oil8
1 Double tent complete35
1 Sledging shovel3.5
3 Reindeer sleeping bags, 12 lbs. each36
3 Eider-down sleeping-bag linings, 4 lbs. each12
1 Alpine rope5
1 Bosun’s bag and 1 Bonsa outfit (repairing material and tools)5
3 personal bags, 15 lbs. each45
Lamp box with knives and steel21
Medical and scientific box40
2 ice axes, 3 lbs. each6
3 Man-harnesses3
3 Portaging harnesses3
Cloth for making roof and door for stone igloo24
Instrument box7
3 pairs skis and sticks (discarded before departure)33
1 Pickaxe11
3 Crampons, 2 lbs. 3 oz. each6.5
2 Bamboos for measuring tide if possible4
2 Male bamboos4
1 plank to form top of door of igloo2
1 Bag sennegrass1
6 Small female bamboo ends and 1 knife4
The Worst Journey in the World, pg. 224

The three men of the Crozier party stepped off into the darkness from Cape Evans around 11 a.m. on June 27th, 1911 hauling two sledges bearing approximately 757 lbs. of gear (ski gear was left behind at the last moment). The men were not able to fit all of the supplies on a single 12-ft sledge, and so opted to bring two 9-ft sledges. At first, the men were assisted by 5 other members of the Terra Nova Expedition, boosting them through the hummocky sea ice near the Erebus Glacier Tongue before turning back. The first partial weather observation was taken at 13:15, near the edge of the glacier tongue:

Off Glacier Tongue

Temperature: -14.5°F (-25.8°C)

Remarks: Breeze came away from E, Force 3-4

British Antarctic Expedition 1910-1913, Meteorology, Vol. III Table 69

At this point, Apsley Cherry-Garrard noted that his sweat was already starting to freeze within his clothing. After the men pulled for another mile, they stopped and pitched camp for lunch at 14:30. This was the first time the men would set up camp in the dark, and Cherry-Garrard referred to the experience as an “education.” All three of the men were experienced sledge travelers, but none had yet had the distinct pleasure of pitching camp in total darkness with a stiff breeze in their faces. Another issue that would plague the men in the weeks to come also presented itself during this first lunch camp – the accumulation of ice in the tent. The act of cooking released a significant amount of water vapor, which would then freeze along the interior liner of the tent. As Dr. Wilson noted in his journal:

The lowest third of our tent, as a matter of fact, became badly iced up, but the upper parts we managed to keep clear of ice.

Diary of the ‘Terra Nova’ Expedition to the Antarctic 1910~1912

In addition to the enormous weight the men were already pulling with their supplies, the weight of accumulating ice was something they would also have to contend with. The men would later encounter additional trouble with the accumulating ice, but that is for later posts in this series.

After removing as much ice as they could from the interior of the tent, the men struck camp at 16:00 and got back in harness. After pulling for another 3 miles, the men decided to pitch camp for the night in the shadow of Castle Rock. At 21:30, Birdie Bowers took a full weather observation:

Position: Camp 1

Miles Made Good: 9.75

Temperature: -15°F (-26.1°C)

Wind Direction: ESE

Wind Speed: Force 5 (17-21 knots)

Wind Chill: -44°F (-42.2°C)

Sky: Clear

British Antarctic Expedition 1910-1913, Meteorology, Vol. III Table 69

That the men managed to pull 757 lbs. almost 10 miles in complete darkness was a feat in itself. The men did not know it yet, but this would be their best sledging effort with respect to mileage until the last day of the journey.

Crozier Party Progress after Day 1

The Winter Journey

The Cape Crozier Party before their departure from Cape Evans From left to right (Henry “Birdie” Bowers, Dr. Edward Adrian Wilson, Apsley Cherry-Garrard) (Image Credit: Popperfoto/Getty)

On June 27th, 1911, three men set out into the polar darkness from Cape Evans on the windswept western shore of Ross Island, Antarctica. Behind them, the men dragged two 9-foot wooden sledges laden with 757 pounds of food and supplies – an average of 252 pounds per man. Their destination? The Emperor penguin rookery located at Cape Crozier on the far eastern end of Ross Island, a 70 mile trek.

Why undertake such a journey in the heart of the Antarctic winter? Dr. Edward Adrian Wilson, FZS, a veteran of Scott’s Discovery Expedition and leader of the party, had noticed that Emperor chicks were present at the Crozier rookery in September during his Discovery days. The Emperor penguin was considered to be the most primitive species of bird during the Heroic Age of Antarctic Exploration, and Dr. Wilson hoped that obtaining Emperor embryos and eggs in early stages of development would provide the missing link between reptiles and birds. As such, the men sledged out into the cold in what one member of the party described as:

The weirdest bird’s nesting expedition that has ever been or ever will be

Apsley Cherry-Garrard, The Worst Journey in the World

I’ve been fascinated with the stories of the men of the Terra Nova Expedition since my first deployment to McMurdo Station in 2012. The story of the Winter Journey resonated with me…I felt an almost personal connection with their story after exploring the expedition huts that were left behind. The Winter Journey is not only an epic story of survival in the face of insurmountable odds and immeasurable suffering, but a testament to the bonds of friendship and the perseverance of the human spirit. That these men managed to survive unimaginably cold temperatures and brutal sledging conditions is nothing short of inspiring.

As a lifelong weather nerd and former Antarctic meteorologist, I was thrilled when I obtained a copy of the meteorological registers for the Terra Nova Expedition. Naturally, the first set of observations I looked up were those from The Winter Journey. I wanted to see just how cold the overnight temperatures were in the Windless Bight and how strong the gales were that raked the stone hut at Cape Crozier. As I pored over the daily records and journal entries from the Cape Crozier party, the idea behind this series of blog posts was born.

From June 27th to August 1st, I plan to post daily updates detailing the progress of the men and the weather conditions they faced to commemorate the 109th anniversary of their sojourn. I will also post the current conditions from the Ross Island region. I wanted to share the story of these men as they experienced it, as well as provide some meteorological context and background as well.

I hope you all find the story as inspiring and interesting as I do!


Bio General

About the Author

I’ve always been fascinated by the weather. As a child, I spent many an hour watching The Weather Channel (yes, they actually talked about the weather on-air back then) and anxiously awaiting every thunderstorm or winter weather event that impacted the greater Charlotte, NC area. My interest in hurricanes grew as well, especially after listening to my grandparents tell stories about the infamous Hugo.

I joined the military right out of high school in 2003, and I was thrilled when I learned my ASVAB scores allowed me to choose my desired job of Weather Apprentice, fulfilling a lifelong dream of working the field of meteorology. After my technical training, I spent time forecasting the weather for the southeastern United States, Southwest Asia, and Korea. I left the military in 2012 and took a job as a contractor providing meteorological services to the United States Antarctic Program.

I found that forecasting the weather in Antarctica was the most challenging and rewarding assignment in my career. I spent countless hours reading scientific journals and looking at data in order to hone my skills, and I loved every minute of it. I felt a certain sense of accomplishment every time an aircraft delivered fuel, cargo, and scientists to a remote field camp, knowing that it was supporting important research.

After seven years and four deployments to “The Ice,” life circumstances necessitated a more stable home environment for me and my children. I traded in my parka for a pair of Dockers and now work as an analyst at an IT company. I started the Antarctic Weather Blog as a way to stay connected to my passion and to share the wonders of Antarctica with the world.

Feel free to drop me a line at my Twitter page @AntarcticWx

“Antarctica has this mythic weight. It resides in the collective unconscious of so many people, and it makes this huge impact, just like outer space. It’s like going to the moon.”

Jon Krakauer