“…this is a terrible place…”
The words of Captain Robert Falcon Scott on realising that the race for the south pole had been lost.
It’s 100 years ago this week that Scott and four others arrived at the bottom of the world.
But, Scott was a month behind Norwegian Roald Amundsen.
Scott’s failure from triumph has become legend or myth, even. By March 1912, the five Britons perished as the Antarctic weather fatally delayed their return to safety.
In marking the “triumph”, Scott’s supporters have been keen to emphasise that expedition’s scientific aspects. Both Scott and his contemporary Shackleton are rightly seen as pioneers in arctic research. To get the sizeable funding needed for antarctic adventures it was necessary to add on the scientific part. However, particularly in Scott’s fateful journey, this made the whole venture large and unwieldy.
The positives aside, almost as soon as news filtered back to civilisation of Scott’s death, doubts arose about his reputation as a leader and polar expert. In more recent times, several authors undertook forensic study of Scott’s character and preparation for the expedition.
I can’t remember exactly why, but I picked up Roland Huntford’s “The Last Place on Earth” scathing dissection of Scott about 15 years ago. My only previous reading on he subject was a Blue Peter annual in my childhood which maintained the Scott mythology and bravery.
Huntford had little sympathy for Scott who he described as more or less a bumbler, certainly no match for the better prepared and experienced Amundsen.
Huntford’s study was controversial and caused great upset for the Scott family. Scott’s name lives on in the polar research institute at Cambridge. He still has many vocal supporters, not least of which is polar explorer Ranulph Fiennes, who managed a (Jon) snow job on Channel 4 news the other night.
Scott suffers badly from comparison with Amundsen. The latter had the advantage that he was not encumbered with the logistical and scientific baggage placed upon Scott. Amundsen learned much from the most famous of Norwegian explorers, Nansen. Scott failed to learn any lessons from the Norwegians. He insisted upon man-hauling, the grueling technique of harnessing men to sledges laden with hundreds of pounds of supplies. In contrast, Amundsen’s men used skis and supplies were loaded to dog pulled sledges.
In almost every aspect and with 20-20 hindsight, Scott’s preparation was bad. Amundsen’s was professional and avoided using untried or discredited techniques.
Scott almost certainly helped in his own downfall. Despite the triumph of reaching the pole, he did so at great cost. Instead of the planned four man team, he inexplicably chose five. This is the sort of on the hoof decision that Amundsen would avoid.
In the end, a combination of factors both human error, failing equipment and poor weather delayed Scott’s team on its return. So, the legend takes over. Brave men, stuck on the ice shelf in appalling conditions, short of food and other supplies. One man dead, others suffering from the cold and open wounds. Death was inevitable.
If the pole was a terrible place, what was Scott’s tent?
The controversy will live on. In part, because it is such an enthralling story – which is why I am blogging about it – brought to life by the diaries of Scott and his party. Amundsen’s writings pale in comparison. (And, why aren’t we celebrating Amundsen’s success?)
Scott remains a hero. Perhaps more a hero because of his human frailties and flaws.
Credit: photo by Rita Willaert, licensed under Creative Commons.