CHAPTER III. IN SEARCH OF WINTER QUARTERS
The days following the departure of the sledge party were exceptionally fine, but on Tuesday, March 11, those on board the ship woke to find the wind blowing from the east; and in the afternoon the wind increased, and the air was filled with thick driving snow. This Tuesday was destined to be one of the blackest days spent by the expedition in the Antarctic, but no suspicion that anything untoward had happened to the sledge party arose until, at 8.30 P.M., there was a report that four men were walking towards the ship. Then the sense of trouble was immediate, and the first disjointed sentences of the newcomers were enough to prove that disasters had occurred. The men, as they emerged from their thick clothing, were seen to be Wild, Weller, Heald and Plumley, but until Scott had called Wild, who was the most composed of the party, aside, he could not get any idea of what had actually happened, and even Wild was too exhausted, and excited to give anything but a meager account.
Scott, however, did manage to discover that a party of nine, In charge of Barne, had been sent back, and early in the day had reached the crest of the hills somewhere by Castle Rock. In addition, Wild told him, to the four who had returned, the party had consisted of Barne, Quartley, Evans, Hare and Vince. They had thought that they were quite close to the ship, and when the blizzard began they had left their tents and walked towards her supposed position. Then they found themselves on a steep slope and tried to keep close together, but it was impossible to see anything. Suddenly Hare had disappeared, and a few minutes after Evans went. Barne and Quartley had left them to try to find out what had become of Evans, and neither of them had come back, though they waited. Afterwards they had gone on, and had suddenly found themselves at the edge of a precipice with the sea below; Vince had shot past over the edge. Wild feared all the others must be lost; he was sure Vince had gone. Could he guide a search party to the scene of the accident? He thought he could - at any rate he would like to try.
The information was little enough but it was something on which to act, and though the first disastrous news had not been brought until 8.30 P.M. the relieving party had left the ship before 9 P.M. Owing to his knee Scott could not accompany the party, and Armitage took charge of it.
Subsequently the actual story of the original sledge party was known, and the steps that led to the disaster could be traced. On their outward journey they had soon come to very soft snow, and after three days of excessive labor Royds had decided that the only chance of making progress was to use snow-shoes; but unfortunately there were only three pairs of ski with the party, and Royds resolved to push on to Cape Crozier with Koettlitz and Skelton, and to send the remainder back in charge of Barne.
The separation took place on the 9th, and on the 11th the returning party, having found an easier route than on their way out, were abreast of Castle Rock. Scarcely, however, had they gained the top of the ridge about half a mile south-west of Castle Rock, when a blizzard came on and the tents were hastily pitched.
'We afterwards weathered many a gale,' Scott says, 'in our staunch little tents, whilst their canvas sides flapped thunderously hour after hour.... But to this party the experience was new; they expected each gust that swept down on them would bear the tents bodily away, and meanwhile the chill air crept through their leather boots and ill-considered clothing, and continually some frost-bitten limb had to be nursed back to life.'
At ordinary times hot tea or cocoa would have revived their spirits, but now the cooking apparatus was out of order, and taking everything into consideration it was small wonder that they resolved to make for the ship, which they believed to be only a mile or so distant.
'Before leaving,' Barne wrote in his report, 'I impressed on the men, as strongly as I could, the importance of keeping together, as it was impossible to distinguish any object at a greater distance than ten yards on account of the drifting snow.' But after they had struggled a very short distance, Hare, who had been at the rear of the party, was reported to be missing, and soon afterwards Evans 'stepped back on a patch of bare smooth ice, fell, and shot out of sight immediately.'
Then Barne, having cautioned his men to remain where they were, sat down and deliberately started to slide in Evans's track. In a moment the slope grew steeper, and he was going at such a pace that all power to check himself had gone. In the mad rush he had time to wonder vaguely what would come next, and then his flight was arrested, and he stood up to find Evans within a few feet of him. They had scarcely exchanged greetings when the figure of Quartley came hurtling down upon them from the gloom, for he had started on the same track, and had been swept down in the same breathless and alarming manner. To return by the way they had come down was impossible, and so they decided to descend, but within four paces of the spot at which they had been brought to rest, they found that the slope ended suddenly in a steep precipice, beyond which nothing but clouds of snow could be seen. For some time after this they sat huddled together, forlornly hoping that the blinding drift would cease, but at last they felt that whatever happened they must keep on the move, and groping their way to the right they realized that the sea was at their feet, and that they had been saved from it by a patch of snow almost on the cornice of the cliff. Presently a short break in the storm enabled them to see Castle Rock above their heads, and slowly making their way up the incline, they sought the shelter of a huge boulder; and there, crouched together, they remained for several hours.