Glowing rose-red and turquoise in the midnight sun, and trailing a long banner of steam over ross Island’s miles of snow and ice, Mount Erebus is the very symbol and beacon of Antarctic exploration. At its feet lies the modern sprawl of the US McMurdo Base and, not far off, the huts that expeditions commanded by Robert Scott and Ernest Shackleton.
These huts are shabby now, but otherwise, from tinned food to phonographs, they remain exactly as they were left, unchanged and timeless in the deep preserving cold. It was to those early 20th- century explorers particularly that 12, 261ft (3743m) Mount Erebus was mentor and friend, the witness of their triumphs and tragedies, the guide that beckoned them home from a score of mapping or scientific forays.
Christening the two peaks that guard the end of the known world terror and Erebus suggests a nice poetic touch on the part of their discoverer – especially Erebus, for it was the name the Greeks gave to the dark realm through which all the dead must pass. But in fact, the names were simply those of the ships that Captain James Clark Ross RN led into the pack ice in January 1841, in search of the South Magnetic Pole.
As the expedition pressed on southwards, they saw one morning a large and shapely mountain rising above the clouds ahead. From its top there flew a scarf of what at first they took to be blown snow. At this very moment of introduction, the mountain revealed itself as a volcano, letting forth one of its rarish, full-scale eruptions of fire and steam – an astonishing sight in that icy waste. Captain Ross named it Erebus after his own ship, and the smaller, inactive volcano nearby was called Terror, after the companion vessel.
Ross never reached the magnetic pole. His way south was blocked by the vast ice shelf, the size of France, that would later be named after him. Nevertheless, the voyage was accounted a great success, and he returned to England full of honours.
The next explorers to pass by were the men of Captain Scott’s expedition of 1901-4. But not until Ernest Shackleton attempted to reach the magnetic and geographical poles in 1907-9 was the first attack made on the summit. The climbers were inexperienced and conditions were frightful – near-vertical plates of blue ice thinly overlaid by snow and temperatures that dropped to -33C (-28F). Breathing was difficult in the thin air, and one of the parties developed frostbite on the foot.
But at last, they gained the summit and found it to be a very peculiar place indeed, with four craters superimposed one on top of the other. The ground was littered with perfectly formed feldspar crystals, and all about stood an array of ghost-like fantastical shapes that appeared to be waiting in welcome. These greatly puzzled the party until it was realised that they were fumaroles or columns of steam that had seeped up through solid as they rose. The active crater, 900ft (275m) deep, poured out clouds of sulphurous smoke and spat lava bombs high into the air.
Displays of volcanic artillery are a regular feature at the summit of Mount Erebus, as Colin Monteath, survival expert at New Zealand‘s Antarctic Scott Base, reported in 1978. ‘Dozens of spinning, molten missiles corkscrew high above us, seemingly in slow motion. Some thud down out of the sky while others hurdle between us, low and fast. Most are about the size of a teapot; however, some are very much larger…bombs are poured into the main carter as they melt into the snow.
Despite its alarming displays, Mount Erebus had never harmed anyone until a tragic day in November 1979, when a New Zealand plane on a sightseeing tour flew into the mountainside, killing all 257 passengers and crew aboard. Largely, they were victims of ‘whiteout’, a polar hazard in which all horizon definition between white land and pale, overcast sky abruptly vanishes. Much of the wreckage is still strewn over the ice – a reminder that Antarctica, although fascinating and beautiful in its way, is always a dangerous place.