Historical Expeditions around Robertson Bay

Between Cape Adare and Cape Barrow lies Robertson Bay, the place where early Antarctic explorers spent considerable time. It also happens to be one of the possible starting points for the Mt Bevin Expedition team.

Sailing directly from New Zealand to Antarctica, you most likely would arrive at Cape Adare and Roberston Bay. And this is what some of the early Antarctic explorers did.

The first undisputed landing on the Antarctic Continent was by the men of the Antarctic whaling ship. On the 24th of January 1895 conditions permitted a whaling boat to be lowered and 6 men where able to land at what is now called Ridley Beach at the tip of Cape Adare. One of these men was Carsten Borchgrevink, who four years later would arrange a return trip to the very same beach.

Borchgrevink returned to London and the Royal Geographical Society to report that he had observed a route to the top of the Cape Adare Peninsula. A route which would allow access into the mountains and ultimately the Magnetic South Pole. So, four years later, Borchgrevink, thirty other men and ninety Siberian huskies headed south on the Southern Cross exploration ship. On the 17th of February 1899 they all sailed into an ice-free Roberston Bay and landed again at Ridley Beach. On the 3rd of March the Southern Cross sailed north leaving behind ten men and seventy-five dogs. The plan was for the party to head inland and explore the geology and biology of the mountains and head towards the Magnetic South Pole. Unfortunately they found no place to climb out of the Bay and spent their entire time locked in the Bay. The winter darkness arrived and exploration came to a halt. The ice had cleared from the bay around New Year’s Day and on the 27th of January 1900 the Southern Cross returned. Nine of the original 10 men with their remaining supplies re-boarded and it was not long before they all sailed away. The tenth man unfortunately died and is buried above Ridley Beach.

Captain Robert Scott aboard the Discovery sailed into Robertson Bay early January of 1901 and stopped at Ridley Beach for some sightseeing. However they did not linger and soon continued their journey south.

The next expedition party to land at Robertson Bay was led by Lieutenant Victor Campbell from the exploration shipTerra Nova. They landed on the 18th of February 1911 at the site of Borchgrevink’s hut for a little wintering over.

They soon found that the steepness of the mountains and the instability of the sea ice prevented them from exploring beyond the confines of Robertson Bay, exactly as Borchgrevink had reported.[1]

On the 3rd of January 1912 they were picked up and relocated to Terra Nova Bay where they completed some survey work.

It is hard to believe that neither of these two parties, after each spending a year in the Robertson Bay area, were able to find a way out of the bay and into the mountain interior. It is worth noting that both parties were mainly made up of geologists, botanists, surveyors and able bodied seamen and not mountaineers.

In contrast, 1967 Sir Edmund Hillary led a team of mountaineers with previous Antarctic and Himalayan experience up Robertson Glacier. They were also unsuccessful:

From here five men (Hillary, Harrington, Hancox, Gill and White) attempted to get through to Robertson Bay without success; but the geologists were able to work in Cape Klovstad area until an approaching blizzard drove both parties back to the camp below the saddle which they reached just as the blizzard broke.[2]

The above account was also recorded by Mike Gill in the Alpine Journal.

On crampons we strode down a gully of ice beside a rib of black basalt. Abruptly it came to an end and we found ourselves looking down steep rock and ice into the head of the bay. There was no lee shelter as we had hoped. Wind howled around us, swelling to gusts of frightening power, and the climb down was not easy. To the left tongues of ice probed their way down steep basalt slopes, while right of where we were, an ice-fall plunged into the sea. Below us there was a route but there was little temptation to use it – we had a feeling that if the weather thickened much further we might not return.[3]

Clearly the early explorers had difficulties with the cliffs around Robertson Bay. If the Mt Bevin Expedition uses Robertson Bay as our insertion point we will need to be sure we can actually get out of the bay and onto the glaciers. Further research is definitively required.


[1] The Roof at the bottom of the world: discovering the Transantarctic Mountains, by Edmund Stump, ISBN 978-0-300-17197-9, page 91

[2] Antarctic, published quarterly by the New Zealand Antarctic Society, Vol. 4, No. 12, December, 1967, page 596

[3] Alpine Journal, Mike Gill, Volume 3, Nos 316 and 317, 1968, page 182.