A staff post from Jesper Ericsson, Curatorial Assistant at The Hunterian.
The Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition was composed of two parties – the Weddell Sea Party led by Sir Ernest Shackleton and the Ross Sea Part led by Aeneas Mackintosh.
The Weddell Sea Party sailed on Endurance to the Weddell Sea side of Antarctica. From there, the plan was that Shackleton would lead his party in a sledging expedition across the frozen continent. The Ross Sea Party sailed to Australia and on to the Ross Sea side, the opposite coast to Shackleton. Their aim was to lay a chain of vital supply depots on the last part of the sledging route and to undertake scientific work as they waited for their Weddell Sea Party comrades to arrive. However, disaster struck both parties. Shackleton and his men didn’t even manage to set foot on Antarctica. The Endurance got stuck in ice, which eventually crushed the vessel. The party was forced to embark on an incredible journey back to civilization, emerging intact without losing a man.
The Ross Sea Party knew nothing of this. Without any way of receiving news and having lost their own ship, the Aurora, to an Antarctic storm in May 1915, they worked on regardless in the belief that their efforts might mean the difference between life and death to the Weddell Sea Party. But their heroic efforts were in vain.
Alexander Stevens’ tall, lithe frame was not suited to the appalling rigours demanded by the expedition and the unforgiving environment he found himself working in. Most of the 26 dogs that the party had brought with them were no good for pulling the weight of the sledges of supplies for the depots. This meant that the men were forced to do most of the hundreds of miles of pulling themselves. Nevertheless, Stevens did his bit out on the ice shelf, even falling down a crevasse on 27 October 1915, which left him badly shaken but fortunately uninjured. But due to exhaustion and illness, he was ordered back to Captain Scott’s old hut at Cape Evans (which the party was using as a base). Stevens remained there alone between 30 October 1915 and 16 January 1916, before other party members started to trickle back. His only company during that time of solitude was two huskies and a litter of pups. He kept himself busy by taking meteorological readings every four hours and maintaining other experiments, such as observations of earth, ice and sea temperatures.
Three more men arrived at the hut on 15 July 1916. They brought with them terrible news. Stevens’ best friend, the Reverend Arnold Spencer-Smith, was dead. Two more were missing, including Mackintosh, their leader. The two were never seen again. The seven survivors stayed in the hut, wondering what fate had befallen Shackleton and the Weddell Sea Party, until their rescue on 10 January 1917.