'Anything was worth investigation'

On St Valentine’s Day, 14 February 1912, John King Davis put Aurora alongside fast ice a few hundred metres out from the 30-metre cliffs of Shackleton Ice Shelf, about 27 kilometres from what became known as Antarctica’s Queen Mary Coast. Blocked by sea ice, this was as close as the ship could reach to land.

This was decision time for Davis and Wild. ‘Anything was worth investigation,’ wrote Davis in recounting his story many years later, ‘and Wild led a party over the floe-ice and up one of these snow ramps to the top of the shelf-ice and beyond it.’

On his return [said Davis] he reported that the land was still about 17 miles away but that the barrier consisted of blue glacier ice. He described it as being not unlike the Beardmore Glacier and considered that excellent winter quarters could be sited at a point about six hundred yards inland from the edge of the shelf. At first sight this seemed the policy of desperation, as indeed to a certain extent it was, but Wild felt sure that the shelf-ice, or glacier, was a stable feature. He urged me to establish the western base there and then.

The ‘desperation’ Davis mentioned stemmed from the lateness of the season. With the sun receding ever more rapidly northward, Antarctic sea ice begins re-forming in late February. Davis knew that an iced-in Aurora would spell serious problems for the expedition as a whole, so dependent on the ship. The ship was also running short of coal — if it was to make it back to Hobart the landing would have to be done without delay. This final roll of the dice called for a rapid decision.

'As a site for a wintering station,’ wrote Mawson in The Home of the Blizzard, ‘nothing so daring had been attempted before, for they were threatened with the possibility of the breaking away of part of the ice-shelf, setting them adrift on nothing more substantial than an iceberg.’ Notwithstanding the risks, ‘after a brief examination, Wild and his party unanimously agreed to seize upon this last opportunity.’

Davis understood the significance of the moment, and asked Wild to put his decision on record, in a letter to him. ‘I am a very poor hand at making speeches,’ wrote Wild, ‘and I feel that I have not thanked you half enough for the way in which you have worked for us … It is quite possible that during the 12 months of our stay here small portions will break away from the edge, but at the distance back at which I intend to build the hut I consider we are certainly as safe as Amundsen on the Ross Barrier.’ Davis remained unconvinced of their safety.

And so it came to pass that the Western Party made their home on a potential iceberg.