William Flew on Anniversary

January 8, 2012 § Leave a comment

It was  December 14, 1911; 100 years ago. Olav Bjaaland, a talented Norwegian ski racer who had twice won the jumping and crosscountry event at Holmenkollen — still the world’s premier event for Nordic skiing — found himself, with four companions, at 90 degrees south. Perhaps part of the reason why the race to the South Pole remains compelling is because, in an age of satellite phones and Google Earth, hardly any place on Earth is now uncontactable or unimaginable. Space and time compress and collapse so that no traveller who remains on our home planet is out of reach for long.

So to imagine what it must have been like to travel to the South Pole a century ago, the most useful parallel to draw is one that ventures much farther afield. There would be no communication with the outside world; no possibility of help from outside. “Antarctica is the one environment on Earth where a man has reasonable control over his own fate,” the polar historian Roland Huntford says. “There are no hostile men; no hostile bacteria. It’s all down to you. It’s worth studying the polar exploration of that era for space travel; essentially it’s the art of keeping people sane in an isolated environment.”

And Bjaaland’s diary entry of that momentous day, translated from the Norwegian by Huntford for Race for the South Pole: The Expedition Diaries of Scott and Amundsen (Continuum, £10.99 £9.89), is on the blasé side of sane. “So now we have attained the goal of our desires, and the great thing is that we are here as the first men, no English flag is flying, but a three-coloured Norwegian,” he allows. “Yes, if only you knew Mother … that now I’m sitting here at the South Pole and writing, you’d celebrate for me. Here it’s as flat as the lake at Morgedal and the skiing is good.”

Morgedal is known as the birthplace of skiing; to Bjaaland, the journey to the pole was simply a kind of extended ski tour. “To write that way after 1,200km [746 miles] — well, I think that’s great,” Huntford says simply.

His admiration for Bjaaland — and for his leader, the great Norwegian polar explorer Roald Amundsen — is boundless, a stance that has found him in some pretty hot water over the years. It is astonishing that after 100 years the British/Norwegian rivalry over the conquest of the South Pole still seems to be going strong. We know the story, or we think we do: in the winter of 1911 two parties set off for the South Pole in what became a race; once it was discovered that Amundsen was heading south, not north, as he had announced. Using teams of Greenland huskies to pull his sledges, and travelling on the skis that are a natural part of life in Norway, Amundsen and his party were the first at the pole. But the news didn’t get out until the beginning of March 1912, when Amundsen’s ship, the Fram (you can still visit her in Oslo), reached Tasmania.

Scott and his party set out hoping to get to the pole using motor sledges. The machinery, however, hadn’t been tested in the cold and was no more than dead weight. Captain Lawrence “Titus” Oates, was in charge of the pony transport; when the ponies couldn’t hold out against the weather any longer the men dragged their sledges, reaching the pole on January 17, 1912, to find the Norwegian flag flying. Their return journey was slowed by the weather, by hunger, thirst and scurvy. Oates walked out of the tent to his death — “I am just going out and may be some time” — on March 17, the morning of his 32nd birthday. Scott’s final diary entry is dated March 29. “For God’s sake look after our people.” Amundsen was enjoying the fruits of fame — on a lecture tour in Madison, Wisconsin — when the news of the deaths of Scott and his team broke. It was February, 1913. “I would gladly forgo any honour or money,” he remarked to a journalist, “if thereby I could have saved Scott his terrible death.”

The world of polar history remains, for the most part, divided between the Scott and Amundsen camps. To Huntford, Scott was little better than a fool who risked the lives of his men; ponies at the South Pole? To others, such as the explorer Ranulph Fiennes, Scott remains a hero, “an incredible guy” whose scientific legacy — only recently the rocks that Scott’s men hauled from the pole were found to contain some of the first plant fossils discovered in Antarctica — outweighs any question of a race won or lost. “It’s utterly immaterial whether he was ‘beaten’ or not,” Fiennes says.

However, Huntford’s books, drawing as they do on Scandinavian sources (he is the only British polar historian to speak and read Norwegian), highlight the remarkable achievement of Amundsen, who was also the first to sail through the Northwest Passage, the treacherous sea route that claimed the lives of Sir John Franklin and his men in the 19th century.

To Sara Wheeler — author of Terra Incognita: Travels in Antarctica,as well as a fine biography of Apsley Cherry-Garrard, one of Scott’s men — that is Huntford’s great achievement. But one of the reasons the story has continued to fascinate, she says, is because Scott “was such a great writer. The diaries are immortal. God knows where that came from — how did he do that? It’s the magic of what writing is. He pulled it out of somewhere. He managed to raise it to the level of parable himself — which is why it’s such a pity it’s been dragged into this argument.”

She is correct: Amundsen’s diaries of his journey are terse and usefully descriptive. To read Scott’s diaries, however, is to be present on the journey. On Christmas Day, 1911, at 85 degrees South, he wrote: “The wind was strong last night and this morning; a light snowfall in the night; a good deal of drift, subsiding when we started, but still about a foot high. I thought it might have spoilt the surface, but for the first hour and a half we went along in fine style. Then we started up a rise, and to our annoyance found ourselves amongst crevasses once more, and therefore very difficult to get foothold to pull the sledges.”

One of his men, Lashly, fell into a crevasse and had to be dragged out. Scott writes: “Lashly says the crevasse was 50 feet deep and 8 feet across, in form U, showing that the word ‘unfathomable’ can rarely be applied. Lashly is 44 today and hard as nails. His fall has not even disturbed his equanimity.”

Recently, a further achievement of Scott’s was revealed, with the publication of a book of photographs finally attributed to him; Herbert Ponting was the expedition’s official photographer, but inThe Lost Photographs of Captain Scott by David M. Wilson (Little, Brown, £30 £27) Scott’s eye for an image is revealed to be remarkable.

Next year holds a couple of fascinating centenaries, linked at least by their connection with ice. Less than a month after Scott perished in his tent, the RMS Titanic set sail from Southampton; thanks to an iceberg she never reached New York, and her story, along with that of Scott, are metonyms for an era’s end. Yet just before that world collapsed, it’s fitting, and heartwarming, to think of Bjaaland with Amundsen, Helmer Hanssen, Sverre Hassel and Oscar Wisting, five men from a country that had been an independent nation for only six years, feeling at home at the South Pole.



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