- Easiest access to the Polar Range is from the Edwards Valley, although routes are possible from the Hawdon (up Discovery Stream) or from Sudden Valley
- Topo50 BV20, BV21
To mark Wilderness magazine’s 30th anniversary, current and past editors and contributors scoured the archives for the 30 best trips we’ve published over the decades. This story, original published in May 2012, was included. You can find all 30 of the greatest Wilderness trips in the October 2021 issue.
Shaun Barnett sets about righting a wrong on the Polar Range
Many trampers wile away countless hours examining maps, planning trips, or admiring contours. One of my favourite maps is NZMS 260 K33, Otira, which covers the mountains of Arthur’s Pass National Park.
One day, when looking at K33, I noticed something. The Polar Range has three mountains named after members of the famous British Antarctic Expedition of 1910-13: Mts Wilson, Bowers and Scott. And on the adjacent Aicken Range lies Mt Oates. But where was Captain Scott’s fifth man, Edgar Evans?
One hundred years ago, the five men of Scott’s polar party toiled to the South Pole, only to find their Norwegian rivals, led by Roald Amundsen, had beaten them. Scott famously wrote: ‘Great God! this is an awful place and terrible enough for us to have laboured to it without reward of priority…’.
What a psychological blow this defeat must have been to the five British men we can only guess at, but the physical toll of their late arrival soon became all too clear. Petty Officer Edgar Evans was the largest man of the polar party and the first to succumb to the intense cold and exhaustion of their torturous return from the Pole. He collapsed on February 17, 1912 and was hauled by his teammates on an empty sledge back to camp but never regained consciousness and died that night. A tragic end for the big Welshman who had once been considered the strongest of the five, the one most likely to prove himself a polar hero.
Exactly 100 years on, I’m toiling too, albeit on a much lesser scale, up an enormous scree slope in the Edwards Valley. Steve Baker, Fraser Crichton and I had tramped up the Edwards the previous day, staying the night at Edwards Hut. We plan to ascend an unnamed peak on the Polar Range and dedicate it to Edgar Evans. It’s a fine day, cool in the shadow of the range as we claw our way up the steep scree slide beneath Mt Bowers. Higher up, the breeze is cool too, but hardly polar, and the sun promises to emerge.
When the gradient eases off we try to gain our bearings. Mt Bowers must be above us, hiding behind an apron of boulders and small rock ribs. Ahead, Mts Scott and Wilson remain out of sight. Plans to gain the ridge and traverse it are foiled by a nasty section of rock that looks so rotten it’s putrid. Our peak is ahead, beyond the crumbling crest.
We decide to sidle around its scree flanks, then up the skyline ridge. Fine black shale spills beneath our boots, and it’s like plugging through soft snow. More bouldery travel ensues. It’s not technical, but steep enough, and hard work. We gasp with the effort, and rocks slide under our feet, but we make steady progress until at last we crest the Polar Range to stand on the summit of Pt 2019m.
This is one of four peaks I’d picked from the map as suitable candidates for Mt Edgar Evans, and I’m pleased to see that, although close to Mt Wilson, it has its own distinct summit. This is it.
The views are panoramic: the layered, steep ridges of Sudden Valley and beyond, the Edwards Valley, stretching away below the innumerable other summits – some glacier-gilded – of Arthur’s Pass National Park.
I pull two sheets of yellow corflute, the same plastic material favoured by Real Estate agents, from my pack. It’s not inappropriate: our mission hopes to claim a piece of real estate for a dead explorer. On the sheets I’ve written ‘Mt Edgar Evans’ in blazing red, and hand them to Fraser and Steve to hold on the summit. I pull out two laminated photographs, one a portrait of Evans, and the other showing the polar party at the South Pole. We take some photographs. Then it’s time to say a few words in tribute to Evans, build a cairn to house the photographs, and swig some fine single malt whisky from Steve’s hip flask.
Being an enthusiastic drinker, I think Evans would have approved. Although in a new biography, Captain Scott’s Invaluable Assistant, author Isobel Williams demonstrates that Evans was no greater a drinker than any of his navy compatriots. He did have the occasional binge and one very nearly resulted in his expulsion from the Terra Nova expedition during its journey south. After a soggy episode in a Lyttelton pub, Evans fell off the gangplank when boarding the ship and plummeted into the harbour. He later had to beg an unimpressed Scott to be reinstated on the trip. Had Scott refused, Evans would not have perished on the bleak Antarctic plateau.
Despite this episode, ‘Taff’ Evans was well regarded. Scott spoke of Evans as ‘a giant worker – he is responsible for every sledge, every sledge-fitting, tents, sleeping-bags, harness, and when one cannot recall a single expression of dissatisfaction with any one of these items, it shows what an invaluable assistant he has been.’
Evans had also been a major player in Scott’s first Antarctic expedition in Discovery during 1901-1904. There, in 1903, he, Scott and William Lashly participated in the ‘Furthest West’ sledge journey to the interior of Victoria Land.
Evans had a second chance to cheat death too. Scott had originally chosen four men for the polar party, not including Evans. But the captain made a last-minute decision to take five men, requiring a somewhat hasty rearrangement of provisions at the last depot before their final push. As a result, the party of five had to make do with rations intended for four. In a recent New Zealand Alpine Journal, polar veteran Colin Monteath stated simply ‘Antarctica does not forgive mistakes like that.’
As the largest man in the group, Evans was probably weakening faster than his companions. Not long after departing from the Pole, Bowers noted ‘Evans has got his fingers all blistered with frostbites, otherwise we are all well, but thinning, and in spite of our good rations get daily hungrier.’
Evans’s demise was painfully slow. His mental condition, already darkened by the defeat at the Pole, worsened too – possibly as a result of falls, one of which concussed him, and perhaps also compounded by the early onset of scurvy. Progress was slow resulting in greater exposure to the wretched cold and more frigid hours shivering in the tent. Evans pulled until he could no more. He died aged just 35.
On the summit, these thoughts swirl through my head. We’re in the warm sun, with plenty to eat. Fraser, a Scotsman by birth and New Zealander by immigration, reckons it’s one of the best trips he’s had in the mountains.
Having friends here to share in this project means a great deal to me. Steve, a friend of more than 20 years, with whom I first explored the mountains of Arthur’s Pass. And Fraser, a new friend.
Later, back at Edwards Hut, we record our trip in the logbook. I ponder why Evans was missed off the Polar Range. Was there some prejudice against him because he died first? Did his drinking count against his character? Or is a more mundane explanation likely?
There’s evidence from Williams’ biography that good old-fashioned class prejudice played a role. Evans was the only one of the five to come from a working-class background. ‘Posthumously Edgar was blamed in some quarters for causing the deaths of the whole party,’ observes Williams. ‘It was suggested that his failure was due to his relative lack of education, which made him less able to endure the conditions than his well-educated companions.’
Clearly, this view is deplorable, and I hope would not have washed with more egalitarian-minded New Zealanders, although one report in a Christchurch paper during the aftermath suggests as much.
New Zealanders deeply felt the loss of Scott’s polar party, and the sacrifice of Scott and his men led to naming of the Polar Range sometime prior to the 1930s. As the most visible peak from Arthur’s Pass road and railway, Mt Oates (2041m) on the Aicken Range was probably named first. Canterbury Mountaineering Club (CMC) members Betsy Blunden, John Pascoe and Bryan Barrer made a first ascent of it in February 1931.
CMC members made their first serious forays onto the virgin Polar Range during 1930. The three significant peaks on the range, commemorated Bowers (1891m), Scott (2009m) and Wilson (2035m). Evan Wilson and Andy Anderson made first ascents of Mts Bowers and Wilson in December 1930, while James Gill, Jim Wilson and Doug Brough climbed Mt Scott that same month.
But why was there no Mt Evans?
The following day we walk beneath Mt Oates. Its ruddy red ridges arc to a summit policed by gendarmes. Over Tarahuna Pass, we reach the giant rubble pile beneath Falling Mountain. An entire face of the peak collapsed during the 1929 Murchison Earthquake. Eighty years on, edelweiss flowers provide proof that life perseveres even in the wake of such destruction. A steep climb up a gut leads to the tranquil tarn at Tarn Col, where we meet two other trampers, an uncle and nephew, curiously enough with the surname of Scott.
Did the views of his own party discriminate against Evans after his death? Wilson, normally a sympathetic man, and one of the most liked of the whole Terra Nova expedition, expressed this opinion of Evans ‘…to my surprise he shows signs of losing heart over it – which makes me much disappointed in him.’ Oates was blunter in his diary: ‘It’s an extraordinary thing about Evans, he’s lost his guts and behaves like an old woman or worse. He’s quite worn out with the work, and how he’s going to do the 400 odd miles we’ve still got to do, I don’t know.’
After Evans died, Scott wrote in his diary ‘In case of Edgar Evans…the safety of the remainder seemed to demand his abandonment, but Providence mercifully removed him at the critical moment.’ Harsh words, but never having been to Antarctica, who am I to judge?
Evans had stopped writing in his journal, so we don’t have his viewpoint.
At the new Hawdon Hut, we’re surprised to have avoided the forecasted rain, and camp beside Discovery Stream, presumably named after the ship from Scott’s first Antarctic Expedition. In the morning, we laze, drink coffee, read, and avoid making a decision about what to do. It’s cloudy, but the drizzle dissipates, and eventually we pack and head up Discovery Stream. It’s a boulder-hop up a confined valley, black cliffs rising on one side. At the first prominent forks, we take to the stunted beech forest to avoid three waterfalls, and emerge into the upper valley. A slog up more scree leads around a nasty defile, and up onto the slopes of the Polar Range once more. We camp near an unnamed saddle, and the clouds part to reveal the craggy prow of Mt Scott.
We prepare so much food for our meal that night that we can’t get through it and have to bury the excess. I can’t help feeling a tinge of guilt. Lack of food possibly played a role in Evans’ early death. He had probably pulled more than his fair share of the sledge while he remained healthy, but little consideration was given to his extra size or efforts. Expedition member Apsley Cherry-Gerrard summed up the contribution and terrible plight of Evans best when he wrote: ‘I do not believe that this is a life for such men, who are expected to pull their weight and to support and drive a larger machine than their companions, and at the same time to eat no extra food…. It is clear that the heaviest man must feel the deficiency sooner and more severely than others who are smaller than he. Evans must have had a terrible time: I think it is clear from his diaries that he suffered very greatly without complaint.’
American scientist Susan Solomon calculated that Evans weighed about 90kg compared with about 70kg for most of his companions and would have needed an additional 300-500 calories per day as compensation.
It appears Scott’s own party had little understanding of the extra energy demands on Evans, but probably that is excusable given the harrowing nature of their journey. In the end, each man must have had to cocoon himself towards his own survival. Veteran Antarctic explorer and science technician Arnold Heine believes that the rations theory of Evan’s fast demise may be a myth, and that scurvy and sheer cold probably played a greater role.
Another factor, perhaps the most telling, was that Evans had already man-hauled considerably more than his companions. He was originally part of the motor-sledge party, while other teams skied beside sledges pulled by dogs or ponies. As the tractors quickly broke down, Evans and his team began man-hauling much earlier.
Why no-one named a peak after Edgar Evans remains a mystery. When I quizzed mountaineering historian Graham Langton he said that the most mundane explanation is usually the right one. So probably it was just an oversight, or the fact that another Mt Evans already existed. Nevertheless, the absence of a Mt Edgar Evans on the Polar Range seemed to me to be a slur on a man who suffered as greatly and toiled as hard as any.
From our Polar Range camp, we watch the sunset from the door of our tents as ominous black clouds begin building. In 10 minutes flat we’ve packed and departed. Over the unnamed pass in fading light, we charge down a 400m gut, choked with scree and rough-cut boulders. Unstable cliffs threaten us from one side, and we move fast, trying to avoid knocking boulders onto one another. Helmets provide some semblance of security. It’s dark by the time the gradient eases and then Steve wrenches his ankle. He can still move so we make our way to Edwards Hut, arriving just as great spotted kiwi start calling at 11pm. The two Scotts are in residence and we try not to disturb them.
In the morning they ask us about our trip, and the younger Scott says he thought the expression ‘Great Scott’ came from the movie Back to the Future. I guess we all take our reference points from contemporary culture. It’s even more ironic that we don’t say ‘Great Amundsen’. Scott’s tale was too tragic and too well written for Amundsen’s meticulous, almost perfect streak to the pole to stand any chance of being the better story.
On our last day we tramp out the Edwards Valley. I notice, with some satisfaction, that our Mt Edgar Evans is the most dominant mountain visible on the Polar Range behind Edwards Hut.
So how to make Mt Edgar Evans official? The proper procedure is to make an application to the New Zealand Geographic Board, stating our case. The board does not usually grant Christian names as well as surnames, but I hope to put forward a strong case for using both. Firstly because a number of other mountains called Mt Evans – named after other people – already exist in New Zealand. Secondly, there were two men named Evans on Scott’s expedition; our man Edgar and Lieutenant Edward (Teddy) Evans, in command of Terra Nova.
This year, the centenary of Edgar Evans’ death, is perfect timing to right an omission on New Zealand’s Polar Range, and remember a polar explorer.