Writing in the cold!

Uni PowerTank FrostyIn case you missed it, February was very cold and wet here in the UK and so far the start of March has not been much of an improvement! Spring, however, is not far away and we should all start to thaw out pretty soon, we hope! But the consistent cold has made us wonder, what's it like to write in freezing conditions?

We are all familiar with Scott's ill-fated journey to the Antarctic, but how much do you know about the trials and tribulations he, his team and other explorers had when using pens, pencils and inks in sub-zero temperatures? Perhaps not that much, but that is all about to change as guest blogger, Susanna Gregory explains all...

Writing in the cold - Or how Antarctic explorers kept their diaries and records

Antarctica is the coldest, windiest and most inhospitable continent on Earth. The average winter temperature in the interior is -60°C, and the explorer Douglas Mawson recorded an average wind speed of 60.7 mph (97.7 kmh) during the May of 1912 (but the wind-meter blew away long before the highest gust could be measured). The lowest temperature ever recorded on the Earth’s surface was at Russia's Vostok Station in the continent's interior: a staggering -89.2°C.

The ice on the vast Polar Plateau is, at places, more than 4.5 km thick, and holds 70% of the world’s fresh water, which is amazing when you consider that all the world’s rivers, glaciers and streams account for the rest — and the Amazon alone discharges an average of 209,000 cubic meters of fresh water a second.

However, the men of the ‘Heroic Age of Antarctic Exploration’ did not allow all this to deter them from their goals. They went south to conquer the vast emptiness of the White Continent, and to delve into its secrets — to learn about its rocks, climate and wildlife. And, of course, some went with the intention of being the first to the South Pole, a geographical goal some 1300 km from the nearest open sea.

Whether they were scientists or explorers, they were required to keep written records. The scientists had to record the data they were collecting, and jot down observations, while those whose goal was the South Pole had to keep diaries and logs, so that they could plot distances and bearings. And tragically, when things went wrong, they wanted to be able to scrawl final messages to friends and loved ones.

This was long before the days of biros (or pressurised pens that can write in any climatic conditions), so the Antarctic pioneers were restricted to ink pens and pencils. There were problems with both:

"My ink has just frozen, and I keep having to thaw out my ink and pen over my candle as I write. At first, when I found black clots all over my nib, I thought that I had come to the end of my ink, and it was only just now that I awoke to my mistake."

This was written on 9 February 1912 by 25-year-old Belgrave Ninnis, a lieutenant in the Royal Fusiliers who had joined Douglas Mawson’s Australasian Antarctic Expedition (AAE). Ninnis was hired to look after the sledging dogs, a task he shared with Swiss mountaineer and ski champion Xavier Mertz.

Ninnis seems to have resolved the problem, for his diary continues in a flowing hand until 15 June, just six days before Midwinter Day. Then he wrote to complain that Stillwell, whose turn it was to keep the stove going while the others slept:

"...had let the temperature of the hut down to 32ºF or under and we arose with exclamations and remarks as bitter as the weather indoors. Also it happened that for the first time for many months, I found my ink frozen when I went to write to-night."

On 10 November 1912, a three-man sledging team, comprising Mawson, Ninnis and Mertz left their ‘cosy’ base at Cape Denison, and set off to survey King George V Land. A little more than a month later, Ninnis fell to his death down a crevasse so deep that the bottom could not be seen, taking the best dogs, the tent and most of the food with him. It happened at a point when the three men were more than 300 miles from base.

Scott writing in his hut Mertz and Mawson struggled on as best they could, but Mertz died three weeks later, leaving Mawson all alone — ill, weak, with virtually no food and deteriorating weather conditions —some 100 miles from the base. The remarkable story of Mawson’s slow and painful journey back to Cape Denison, against all odds and in the face of death, is one of the greatest achievements in the history of exploration.

Other members of the AAE also recorded their difficulties with writing in Antarctica’s extreme cold, the magnetician Alexander Kennedy noted:

"Buckets of water froze solid 2 yards from the stove. Gramophone refuses duty owing to oil clogging it. Ink in my pen is frozen."

While expedition members had the luxury of writing their diaries in the hut, where there was warmth of a sort, they all had to work outside. Clearly, if the ink was freezing inside the hut, using it outside was going to be impractical (although Ernest Shackleton did use pen and ink in his outdoor met screen during his British Antarctic Expedition of 1907-09).

Wilson’s pencil sketch of Amundsen’s flag flapping in the wind, which they found the day before they reached the vicinity of the Pole.Pencils were used instead, although even these had their difficulties. The scientist Charles Laseron wrote about recording data while working outside:

"It was impossible to write with mitts on, so the hand had to be kept uncovered, and got so stiff and cold that the pencil could hardly be held."

Captain Robert Falcon Scott had problems with pencils, too. On the Discovery Expedition of 1901—04, he wrote about a particularly cold and windy day:

"...not only would one's fingers freeze very rapidly, but one's breath would form an icy film on the paper through which it was difficult to make the pencil-mark."

Six years later, Scott returned to the Antarctic on his Terra Nova Expedition of 1910-13, during which he made his ill-fated assault on the Pole. He and various members of his support party, including the four men who would join him in the final Polar Party — Edward Wilson, Henry ‘Birdie’ Bowers, Captain L.E.G. Oates and Edgar Evans — set off on their march south on 1 November 1911, full of confidence and hope. They reached the Pole on 17 January 1912, the day after they realized that they had been beaten there by a party led by Norwegian Roald Amundsen, when they saw a black flag fluttering in the wind — which Wilson sketched in pencil.

Scott was meticulous about keeping his diary. It is written in pencil, and is contained in three slim 'MS' books - little volumes intended to be used by artists. They were made of tough, soft, pliable paper that took the pencil well, and weighed very little — no mean consideration when everything had to be man-hauled on sledges.

With no food or fuel, and temperatures plummeting, Scott, Wilson and Bowers made their final camp. Scott kept his diary for a few more days, and also wrote letters to his family and sponsors — all in pencil. The final diary entry was on 29 March, when he scrawled:Scott's last entry

"Last entry. For God’s sake look after our people."

The diary, still legible in faint pencil, is held at the British Library in London.

Roald Amundsen described his writing materials in detail:

"I must also mention our paper-supply, which was in all respects as fine and elegant as it possibly could be: the most exquisite notepaper, stamped with a picture of the Fram and the name of the expedition, in large and small size, broad and narrow, old style and new style — every kind of notepaper, in fact. Of pens and penholders, pencils, black and coloured, india-rubber, Indian ink, drawing-pins and other kinds of pins, ink and ink-powder, white chalk and red chalk, gum arabic and other gums, date-holders and almanacs, ship’s logs and private diaries, notebooks and sledging diaries, and many other things of the same sort, we have such a stock that we shall be able to circumnavigate the earth several times more before running short."

He also kept a sledging diary of his journey to the Pole, although his entries are terse and factual, and read more like a ship’s log. Like Scott's journal, it was written in pencil.

These days, most Antarctic bases have central heating, and scientists can write their reports and recollections in comfort. However, writing outside is still a problem — fingers still get frostbitten if gloves are removed below certain temperatures, ink still freezes, and pencils still don’t write very well on damp paper. Many instruments record their readings electronically, obviating the need for treks out in the cold, but some still need to be taken by hand. We might have mapped Antarctica and probed its icy treasures, but working there is still a challenge — and will continue to be for many years to come.


 Susanna Gregory

Carmarthenshire-based Susanna Gregory is the author of serveral historical crime fiction novels, including the Matthew Bartholomew and Thomas Choloner series. Explore Susanna's work here.

Pens & Pencils Today

While pencils have changed little since the early Antarctic explorations, pen design has advanced over the years to cope with cold and wet conditions. The Tombow Airpress and Uni-ball PowerTank pens, for example, spring to mind, as do pressurised pens and refills. Inks have also developed in recent years and non-freezing options are available, such as Noodler's Polar range, although we can't stock them here unfortunately. If you're in the UK, though, you're unlikely to need ink that can cope with antarctic conditions! Where is the coldest place you have ever written and what pen or pencil did you use for the job? Tell us below...

7 March 2013


  • John the Monkey 7 March 2013
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    Ah, just noticed that you mentioned Noodler's, sorry!

  • John the Monkey 7 March 2013
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    Nothing compared to the great explorers, but probably on Geology field trips in the lake district. Our problems there weren't really the cold, but the rain - I can remember trying to take notes with my hands and field book inside a transparent plastic bag. Interestingly, the Noodler's company has made some freeze resistant inks; http://noodlersink.com/noodlers-durable-ink-classification/ (see the "Freeze Resistant" range). Although the first range were freeze proof, the reformulated inks concentrate on limiting damage from frozen ink expanding.

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