Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Whisky on (Antarctic) ice

Explorer Ernest Shackleton loved his Scotch whisky. And he left a stash at the bottom of the world.

CAPE ROYDS, Antarctica — This spit of black volcanic rock that juts out along the coast of Antarctica is an inhospitable place. Temperatures drop below -50 Fahrenheit and high winds cause blinding snowstorms. The only neighbors are a colony of penguins that squawk incessantly and leave a pungent scent in their wake.

But if you happen upon the small wooden hut that sits at Cape Royds and wriggle yourself underneath, you'll find a surprise stashed in the foot and a half of space beneath the floorboards. Tucked in the shadows and frozen to the ground are two cases of Scotch whisky left behind 100 years ago by Sir Ernest Shackleton after a failed attempt at the South Pole.

Conservators discovered the wooden cases in January 2006. They were unable to dislodge the crates, but are going in with special tools in January during the Antarctic summer to try to retrieve them. An international treaty dictates that the crates, and any intact bottles that are inside, remain in Antarctica unless they need to be taken off the continent for conservation reasons. The whisky's condition after a century of freezing and thawing is unknown.

Polar explorers of that era relied on their alcohol of choice to help them and their crews through the long Antarctic nights and insomnia-inducing days. And Shackleton knew a thing or two about being well prepared for an adventure. On a later trip to the continent he kept all 28 members of his crew alive during 15 harrowing months after their ship got marooned in and then slowly devoured by ice. So it's no surprise that he brought 25 crates of Scotch with him when he set off on an expedition to the South Pole in 1907.

The earlier trip didn't go well, either. Shackleton turned around 97 miles short of his destination, telling his wife, "I thought you’d rather have a live donkey than a dead lion." When the ship arrived in 1909 to pick the men up, they left their supplies behind in their hut, including reindeer sleeping bags, tins of boiled mutton and bottled gooseberries. And, as we now know, they also abandoned two cases of Charles Mackinlay & Co. whisky.

Al Fastier is a program manager in New Zealand with Antarctic Heritage Trust, the group charged with preserving the hut at Cape Royds along with three others on that section of Antarctic coastline. He was there the day the crates were discovered. The team was clearing out a century's worth of ice that had accumulated under the hut and was causing structural problems.

"It was a very exciting time of actually finding artifacts that possibly hadn't been seen since the historic explorers left," he said. The group also found felt boots and jugs of linseed oil. The other 5,000 or so artifacts left behind are inside the hut or on the ground nearby and had been catalogued and viewed by the occasional tourist and on the internet.

In January, the conservationists will use a special drill that chips into the rock so they can pull the crates out and let them melt free in the omnipresent Antarctic summer sun.

So what will century-old, Antarctic-iced Scotch taste like?


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