Excerpted from CHAPTER 12:
The blizzard droned on, unabated, for days. Venturing outside was foolhardy, save for the essential task of tending the dogs, which Joyce, Richards, and Hayward took in turns. The other tent, housing Wild and the invalids, had fallen disturbingly silent. The snatches of Wild’s singing, sometimes audible through the roar, had stopped. They had run out of kerosene and were scraping bottom on rations as well. Two biscuits and a chunk of snow made up the day’s meal on February 21. “Shall have to make more holes in my belt,” recorded Wild tersely. Spencer-Smith minded less; he had lost his appetite, though obsessive thoughts of food plagued him. His breathing came in irregular, shallow gasps, and he could no longer stand. Wild hoisted him to his feet and propped him up for bodily functions. He endured the pain and indignity without complaint. “He dosn’t howl much like I should,” wrote Wild. Mackintosh was too morose to speak. Wild could see from the red stain seeping through the snow over the latrine hole that, like Spencer-Smith, Mackintosh was bleeding from the bowels.
On the fourth day pinned in the tents, thirst became as urgent as hunger. Without kerosene, it was impossible to melt snow for water. Only a little denatured alcohol remained. Richards lit some in a mug and thawed cupfuls of snow over it to yield dribbles of water. Joyce had husbanded the rations, but by February 22, eight lumps of sugar and a half of a biscuit remained. On the seventh day of the storm, Joyce could no longer tolerate the inaction. “Richards, Hayward & I after a long talk decided if possible to get under way tomorrow in any case or else we shall be sharing the fate of Scott & his party.”
In March 1912, Scott’s party had faced the same predicament not far from their position, struggling with weather and terrain “awful beyond words” as they retreated from the Pole. One of Scott’s men had already died, another was crippled by frostbitten feet, and the three men left standing were powerless to tow the invalid, likely in the throes of scurvy. Bogged down in a blizzard eleven miles short of their depôt at 79º28’53” S 169º22’4” E, they camped and waited. Sometime after ten days, death came mercifully. Their bodies lay in a tent under a shroud of snow, somewhere along the Ross Sea party’s path. Unlike Scott’s party, they harbored no illusions that rescue might be on the way. There was no telling what had become of Gaze, Jack, and Cope, groping their way across the ice shelf with no compass. Stevens, alone at Cape Evans, was incapable of sledging alone.
On the morning of February 23, Joyce, Richards, and Hayward crawled out of the tent, struggling to stand against the barrage of wind. Barely visible through the haze were surreal meringues of sastrugi rising ten feet high. Entering the other tent, they discovered that Spencer-Smith had deteriorated badly during the storm. He fainted as they lifted him onto the sledge. The party crept forward, tatters fluttering in the wind, like a procession of wretched beggars. Mackintosh followed behind in a rheumatic shuffle, tethered to the rear of the sledge.. Every fifteen minutes, Richards fished his hands out of his fur mitts to check the compass, his bare fingers seared by the cold metal. To keep the course in whiteout conditions, he stared intently at the snow streaking across Joyce’s back to judge the wind direction and mentally calculated the angle between the wind and their intended direction. Marching forward, Richards tried to steer the sledge at the same consistent angle off the wind. An hour into the journey, Richards guessed that they had crept a quarter of a mile.
Even at that pace, Mackintosh was falling behind. He crabbed along in a stiff crouch, his knees locked at an angle. When the sledge jammed on peaks of sastrugi, the team yanked on the rope to drag it over and Mackintosh lurched along with it. At one point, the sledge became dead weight. Joyce called a halt. Behind the sledge, Mackintosh was lying motionless in the tracks. Through the clamorous wind, they all heard him wailing piteously, “Oh my hands, my hands are gone.”