Image via WikipediaMany, many years ago, studying history at my boyhood Grammar School, we had to research and write a small paper on any subject of interest, historical of course. I chose “Antarctica and the Race to the South Pole” or some such similar title. I think it was supposed to be about 20,000 words, it seemed quite daunting at the time. But I remember doing my research, reading up on Scott, Amundsen and Shackleton before them. I found it absolutely fascinating. I wrote the paper using a blue ink pen, a fountain pen mark you, with titles double-underlined in red ink. The paper was two-hole-punched and I put little ring strengtheners around the holes. There were tracings of the Antarctic continent, with little dots for each of the expeditions, and timelines. I still have it somewhere, it’s quite precious really.
As a result I was thrilled recently to visit the American Museum of Natural History in New York which has a wonderful exhibit entitled The Race to the End of the Earth. Norwegian, Roald Amundsen and Englishman, Robert Falcon Scott battled the elements, and bad luck, in their efforts to be the first humans to reach the South Pole. It is excellent, although I knew much of the information already. But when you see the facts ma’am, just the facts, professionally laid out on story boards, graphics, and stereo photography, it really comes alive. Of course it is the little details that are so touching, and at the same time confounding. For instance, Scott’s party was largely composed of Royal Navy personnel and so, typically, the large wooden structure that served as their base was divided between officers and the lower ranks, even to the extent of the mess areas, although they were all eating the same food! Not exactly an arrangement calculated to foster team work one would think. Amundsen’s team housed themselves inside the snow and ice, for better thermal protection. To them, Job One was reaching the South Pole first; nothing else was of any interest to the Norwegians.
Scott’s party even started a newsletter, using a simple printing press. And they took all the comforts of home, even bunting for a Christmas day dinner, and believe it or not, over 30,000 cigars! Perhaps not the best use of resources wouldn’t you say?
An interesting display of the exhibit showed the rations taken on what the newspapers of the day called, amusingly, the “dash for the Pole”. Dash it most certainly wasn’t. Now, picture this as your daily ration; about 14 ounces of pemmican (a dried meat and fat mix), 16 ounces of hard biscuits, 6 ounces of sugar, four of butter, two of tea (leaf tea no less, no record if they also took along a tea-cozy), and a ½ ounce of cocoa. Note the lack of anything that could provide Vitamin C. Liquid was provided by melting snow and ice. Experts have estimated this food provided about 4,500 calories, but they were burning over 7,000 per day. Their bodies would be breaking down and consuming much-needed muscle tissue. So as well as freezing to death from the outside in, they were dying from the inside out.
It’s easy to be a Monday morning quarter-back but they almost made it. Can you imagine what it must have felt like after over 50 hard back-breaking days of man-hauling sledges, with all your supplies and equipment aboard? On that fateful day, you see a little black speck in the distance. Starbucks? Hardly. A penguin? Possible, but not likely. You try to convince yourself it’s a mirage; it can’t be but it is. Amundsen’s tent is planted at the South Pole, the Norwegian Flag proudly flying in your face, literally. They got there first. Bear in mind that you have personally slogged 900 miles to get to this point, and you came second, makes marathon running a “walk in the park” category doesn’t it?
What would your reaction be? I can think of many words and phrases, “oh dear” not being one of them. “Never mind then, we’ll have a cuppa, and set off back”? Probably not, but that would be the typical British solution, most problems can be solved with tea. What utter despair they must have felt. Suffering from hunger, exhaustion, and snow blindness their return journey must have been absolutely awful. One of the men, Evans died after suffering debilitating falls. Oates, barely able to walk, voluntarily left the tent and walked to his death. Scott wrote that Oates' last words were, "I am just going outside and may be some time.” What a hero, choosing death in the hope that the remaining three could survive without carrying him.
Had they returned safely all the logistical mistakes, bad weather, insufficient rations, exhaustion would have been forgotten. But like an aircraft crash, individual actions cascade and result in tragedy. Scott’s Pole team started out late in the hope of avoiding bad weather; the motorized sledges were useless in the severe cold, a good idea but it would be many decades before they were used successfully in the Antarctic; the ponies were old nags; even the dogs went to the dogs; inexplicably Scott selected a fifth team member, though they only provisioned for four men; their last camp, after completing about 80% of the return journey, was within 12 miles of the potentially life-saving One-Ton depot (so-called because of the amount of supplies cached there). Severe bad weather prevented them leaving their tent for over a week and the rest is history. But, they almost made it.
Perhaps mention should be made of the 30 lbs of geological samples that they lugged along with them; or even the evaporating cooking-fuel stocks. Amundsen was successful because his strategy was simple; dogs and skis. And most importantly he didn’t make any of Scott’s, ultimately, fatal mistakes.
Where are the men today who would want to try and man-haul sledges 1,800 miles in three and a half months? Oh sure, it can be done but only with the benefit of modern-day accoutrements. Just like Mt. Everest, the Antarctic is a very unforgiving environment indeed. Scott was a good man, but not a natural leader it seems, making ill-thought out decisions. History hasn’t been terribly kind to him, though recently some have tried to restore his reputation. Amundsen was a doer, a realist, and better trained and equipped in the art of polar transportation.
It makes you wonder how do you recruit men to go on such epic journeys; it must be a little tricky surely. One can imagine the conversation. “Some of us chaps thought we’d sail down to Antarctica, do a bit of walking. Fancy joining us? Oh good. Well here’s the thing, it could be a bit cold, so better pack an extra layer.” There’s nothing like the English for understatement. “Oh, and one final point, we know when we are sailing but we don’t quite know when we will return, or even which year, so you’d better cancel the papers and the milk”.
On balance, they could have returned alive, small consolation perhaps. But, at least Scott had the final word, quite a few words in fact. Huddled up in their sad little tent, frozen dead comrades for company, writing words for history. Some say his writing was self-justification. Scott wrote his final words concluding “For God's sake look after our people". He also wrote his "Message To The Public", mostly defensive in nature, attributing their failure to inclement weather and other bad luck. He ended with these words “We took risks, we knew we took them; things have come out against us, and therefore we have no cause for complaint, but bow to the will of Providence, determined still to do our best to the last…Had we lived, I should have had a tale to tell of the hardihood, endurance, and courage of my companions which would have stirred the heart of every Englishman.” Well, yes but you lost two men and came second. I’m not quite sure what sort of story that would have made. Evans and Oates were the real heroes, done in by bad planning and Scott’s poor judgment.
Makes you wonder who are our modern day heroes? All the big geographical firsts are long gone, North Pole, the Matterhorn, even Mt. Everest without oxygen, solo round the world yachtsmen, rowing across the Atlantic, all done. We’re supposed to regard Sportsmen as heroes, for what, banking obscene amounts of money. Even that’s a direct deposit, not even trudging to the bank. Golfer Tiger Woods, humbled by his hole in more than one exploits; tattoed hulks, overpaid and lumbering up and down the basketball court. I don’t think so.
No, I prefer my heroes the old-fashioned way; achieving greatness through self-sacrifice, and with no expectation of monetary reward.
Please go to this site, for a fascinating discussion of Scott, Scurvy and Limes. http://idlewords.com/2010/03/scott_and_scurvy.htm
Antarctica, is named as being opposite (Ante) the Arctic, did you know that?