Scott Discovers the Dry Valleys
I remember well my feeling when I stepped from the helicopter into the Taylor Dry Valley. The immensity, the lack of ice, the absolute quiet … as I spent the next few hours wandering, looking for fossils, I decided this was one of my favourite places on earth.
Wind the clock forward three years, and I am currently re-reading RF Scott’s own account of his Discovery expedition to the Ross Sea (1901-4). Having been in the hut at Hut Point, and anchored off the Ferrar Glacier myself, this time round it is much easier to picture the place Scott so eloquently describes.
Last night, I came to the passage where Scott describes finding the Dry Valleys. What a joy! Particularly poignant is his coming across a seal skeleton, just as I had. Below is an extract from his story:
Quite suddenly these moraines ceased, and we stepped out on to a long stretch of undulating sand traversed by numerous small streams, which here and there opened out into small, shallow lakes quite free from ice.
I was so fascinated by all these strange new sights that I strode forward without thought of hunger until Evans asked if it was any use carrying our lunch further; we all decided that it wasn’t, and so sat down on a small hillock of sand with a merry little stream gurgling over the pebbles at our feet … We commanded an extensive view both up and down the valley, and yet, except about the rugged mountain summits, there was not a vestige of ice or snow to be seen; and as we ran the comparatively warm sand through our fingers and quenched our thirst at the stream, it seemed almost impossible that we could be within a hundred miles of the terrible conditions we had experienced on the summit …
From our elevated position we could now get an excellent view of this extraordinary valley, and a wilder or in some respects more beautiful scene it would have been difficult to imagine. Below lay the sandy stretches and confused boulder heaps of the valley floor, with here and there the gleaming white surface of a frozen lake and elsewhere the silver threads of the running water; far above us towered the weather-worn, snow-splashed mountain peaks, between which in places fell in graceful curves the folds of some hanging glacier…
I cannot but think that this valley is a very wonderful place. We have seen to-day all the indications of colossal ice action and considerable water action, and yet neither of these agents is now at work. It is worthy of record, too, that we have seen no living thing, not even a moss or a lichen; all that we did find, far inland amongst the moraine heaps, was the skeleton of a Weddell seal, and how that came there is beyond guessing. It is certainly a valley of the dead; even the great glacier which once pushed through it has withered away.
[pp625/6/7 “The Voyage of the ‘Discovery’.”]