Wednesday, February 24, 2010

'Great God! This is an awful place'*

Felting needle

Even though it happened 98 years ago; even though I've known the ending of this story most of my life; even though I have read,watched and heard dozens retellings in the past decade of pursuing my passion for Antarctica; I still find myself sleepless with anxiety for Scott's Polar Party.

A thin layer of undyed wool roving between the blanket contours

The past few days I have been immersed: in the mornings stitching the great empty waste of East Antarctica onto the contour that meets the tops of the Queen Maude mountains; in quiet times at work in the afternoons leafing through reproductions of Amundsen's lantern slides; in the evenings reading Apsley Cherry-Garrard's literate, harrowing, defensive and deeply sorrowful account of the Worst Journey in the World. Cherry is the most quoted of Antarctic explorers, for good reason, but this is the first time I've read his book in the original.

The tops of the Beardmore Glacier (Scott's route) and the Axel Heiberg Glacier (Amundsen's route)

There is something immensely moving to be stitching over the miles covered by the final five who went to the Pole with Scott and never returned, at the same time as I am reading about the support parties who were battling their own awful journeys and ultimately waiting with fading hopes for Scott's return; with my minds eye illustrated by Amundsen's snapshots of his own 'dream run' to and from the Pole a month earlier than Scott.

The dark basting marks the South Pole (Amundsen 14.12.1911; Scott 17.1.1912)

I am so cross with Scott (no doubt influenced by recently reading Huntford's attack on him) as it seems unforgivable to have made so many poor (sentimental, impetuous, arrogant and ignorant) choices that led to the death of such fine men. I identify much more strongly with Amundsen, being more attracted to pragmatism than romance. Amundsen's triumph (always seen in the shadow of Scott's tragedy) was the result of careful considered planning and decisions at every stage.

A nice smooth contour of East Antarctic ice dome- no worries there

Some of my current Antarctic anxiety may be related to the challenges of adding a new contour. My technique, although trialed on with reasonable success on Ross Island, is by no means a reliable approach for this much larger work. I am constantly questioning my methodology and trying to improve the results. It's not as hard as man hauling through blizzards with scurvy, but it's still a challenge. I want desperately to live up to Amundsen example, but I fear I share many of Scott's weaknesses.

* Robert Falcon Scott, on reaching the South Pole, second

1 comment:

Tim Jones said...

Excellent post!

I tend to side with Amundsen too (though I like Shackleton even better - although Cherry-Garrard is a better writer, Shackleton's "South", his book on the Endurance expedition, is a wonderful tale of adventure and survival), but Dr Susan Solomon's "The Coldest March" is well worth reading as a counterweight to Huntford.

Although Dr Solomon acknowledges some of Scott's mistakes, she makes the case that the Polar Party were very unlucky in the weather they encountered on their return journey.

More power to your elbow, in any case!