Cold as Ice

A new book by Susan Solomon tells us what Robert Scott was willing to sacrifice to win the race to the South Pole.

In June of 1910, Robert Falcon Scott set sail from Britain, hoping to lead a team of Englishmen to become the first to reach the South Pole. According to one newspaper, that was only fitting since "Great Britain has done all the pioneer work, and has already established a sort of claim over the South Pole Continent."

Americans had previously reached the North Pole, but as a military superpower with a vast empire, the British assumed it was their right to plant the Union Jack first in the South. Scott, a congenial naval officer with a scientific bent and previous Antarctic experience, was the man leading the effort.

Norwegian explorer and stoic personality Roald Amundsen, however, had also set his sights on the South Pole. What happened at the bottom of the world in 1911 and 1912 has become the basis of much speculation and controversy.

Amundsen, using dogs and his experience in polar regions, won the race but not public acclaim. Scott and his four companions, having pulled heavy sleds of supplies for hundreds of miles, perished on their return journey from the pole and instantly gained the sympathy of many.

Scott's legacy, however, began to be questioned decades later. He and his men left behind volumes of written material, and those journals led to questions about Scott's leadership qualifications and decision-making abilities.

This criticism grew with the 1979 publication of Scott and Amundsen, a book which compared the two men. The ridicule of Scott peaked later with a Canadian production of a television mini-series based on the book.

Now Susan Solomon, an experienced Antarctic scientist, has set out to correct what she sees as the unfair characterization of Scott as an inept bungler. Using modern climatic information and a through analysis of the journals and data left behind by the British, Solomon concludes it was unnaturally cold weather, and not Scott's continual misjudgments, which doomed his effort.

Solomon is an avowed Scott fan and someone who is clearly awed by the terrible Antarctic weather. She not very convincingly tries to make the case that three weeks of temperatures 10 to 20 degrees colder than anticipated doomed the British team on its return journey from the Pole. It is her obvious bias, however, that results in The Coldest March being less successful than it should have been.

While this tale of Scott's expedition is mostly easy-to-read and well researched, the repetitive pronouncements of how hard life at the Pole must have been for the Englishmen and how brave and unwavering they were in the face of constant problems gets boring after awhile. Plus, once the story of the team's demise is retold, the reader still has 50 pages of meteorological data to slog through as Solomon seeks to prove it was the cold weather that did the men in. The poor Englishmen trying to haul their sled to safety across the unforgiving Antarctic surface didn't have it much worse than the reader trying to make a mad dash to finish this book.

While it may have been a rare period of extreme cold that actually killed Scott and at least some of his men, the author is far too forgiving of his leadership style and many of his critical choices. The animal skins his team relied on for warmth were not of top quality. The food and water rations provided were not sufficient given the extreme amount of labor they were doing and the men often faced hunger and dehydration.

Unlike Amundsen, Scott had problems with leaking oilcans needed for critical fuel because he hadn't tested them properly. Scott in his decision-making also constantly cut things too close, hoping it would be just enough. Meanwhile, the Norwegian assumed mishaps would happen and built contingency supplies into his planning.

But it was Scott's choice not to rely on sled dogs for which he is best remembered. Amundsen used dozens of dogs to race to the pole and get back quickly. Along the way, he sacrificed many of them for food.

With a lot of English sentimentality, Scott thought, "No journey ever made with dogs can approach the height of that fine conception which is realized when a party of men go forth to face hardships, dangers, and difficulties with their own unaided efforts, and by days and weeks of hard physical labour succeed in solving some problem of the great unknown. Surely in this case the conquest is more nobly and splendidly won."

Solomon is trying to restore some of Scott's tarnished reputation that is justifiably based on decisions like that. Not using dogs may have been a very-British thing to do, but in the end it was a fatal miscalculation.

The Coldest March is certainly not an unbiased analysis of Scott. But whether he was a bungler or just an inappropriate risk-taker done in by unforeseeable bad weather is not the chief lesson to be learned from this chapter of history. Rather, what should be remembered is that under Amundsen's strict leadership, his men survived, while those who followed the well-liked Scott, whatever the excuses offered, perished. In the end, that was the real difference between the two men.