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The Coldest March 77

Stalwart reviewer Duncan Lawie contributed this review of Susan Solomon's The Coldest March, the epic tale of an early and tragic polar expedition, not long after returning from an Antarctic trip of his own. (Imagine spending New Year's en route to the southern ice.) Duncan's been cooking up some other things lately, too -- like an interview with Science Fiction writer Ken Macleod and a review of the LotR movie from a "bookist" perspective.
The Coldest March: Scott's Fatal Antarctic Expedition
author Susan Solomon
pages ~400
publisher Yale University Press (Australasia: Melbourne University Press)
rating 8.5
reviewer Duncan Lawie
ISBN 0-300-08967-8
summary "Cold equations" throw a new light on significant events of the Heroic Age of Antarctic exploration.
Susan Solomon is a senior scientist at NOAA , and an acclaimed one. In 1986 she led a scientific expedition to Antarctica to investigate the causes of the ozone hole; she subsequently received the USA's National Medal of Science for her insights. Whilst working from such locations as McMurdo Station, Solomon had the opportunity to see the bases and places discovered in the early years of the twentieth century. This led her to a new "hobby." Solomon became interested in the history of Antarctic exploration and in the disjunction between the common belief in Scott's incompetence and the apparent perceptiveness of his and his party's own writing. As an atmospheric scientist, Solomon decided to embark upon the exercise of tracking down the weather data of the era and testing it against data subsequently collected.

The Coldest March is the outcome of Solomon's interest in her hobby. It is, in essence, a history of Captain Scott's voyages to the Antarctic, a story which has been told many times in the decades since Scott's death. Yet, never before has the history been focused through the lens of true science. Science was held in high esteem by these Edwardian explorers and is the continuing basis for human occupation of the Antarctic. Solomon's close attention to the meteorological record becomes genuinely interesting as it is possible to make an intelligent comparison between the historical data and the automated data collection of recent decades. The modern route to the Pole from McMurdo Sound is close to that used by the British explorers 90 to 100 years ago. Whilst few attempt the journey on the ground, automated weather stations are vital for US Antarctic Research Program flights in the region. This data, collected every ten minutes since 1984, provides a statistically significant basis for investigation.

The technical substance of what Solomon has to say in this book first reached publication in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, in a paper co-authored with Charles R. Stearns. Those few dense pages form a scientific data quality check and comparison, with the conclusion that the March of 1912 was significantly colder than the average, that Scott's weather forecasters had collected sufficient data to have a good idea of what that average was and that the unexpected cold was a primary factor in the deaths of the party returning from the Pole. These cold facts have been expanded into a solidly researched history of Scott's Antarctic career, with a strong focus on the collection and interpretation of weather data.

The basic point of this book should prove within the grasp of anyone capable of interpreting a graph. The historical issues, however, require a larger context. The book approaches the debate on Scott through the clever technique of "the visitor". At the start of each chapter, there is a vignette offering a view of the modern Antarctic experience which parallels the main subject of the chapter. In this space, Solomon can provide informal commentary and bind the historical discussion with description of the achievements and misunderstandings that are still possible after over 40 years of continuous human occupation of the continent. The visitor provides an access for the modern reader to a well known story. Scott's Pole party arrived at the South Pole in January 1912, five weeks after Amundsen. He and his four companions died on the return journey, Scott, Wilson and Bowers only 11 miles from a supply depot. At the time this tragedy quickly became a heroic example; some modern writers have considered Scott's whole Antarctic experience closer to farce. The heritage of the expedition often turns on the perceived reputation of Scott himself; this book reflects positively on Scott and his colleagues, principally because of the primacy of doing good science in their work. Nevertheless, it acknowledges the mistakes made by both Scott and his rival and recognises the strengths of each party. It is a decent account of the so-called "Race to the Pole", providing a setting in which the relevance of the weather thesis to Scott's death can be fully developed and strongly argued. By dredging bare facts to the surface, The Coldest March has rendered almost every published history of the period out of date.

Each generation seems to find its own vision of Scott. Solomon sees him as a frustrated scientist and, at its centre, this book is a celebration of scientific method. It is tempting to think that the author has seen most strongly the elements of Scott that a modern scientific mindset might wish to find -- as earlier generations have praised him as a heroic exemplar of the British Empire or damned him as a middle class bumbler. Countering this are the words of members of Scott's own scientific party, many of whom relished his ability to ask the right question. Coming from such an original perspective, and providing genuinely new information, this is as significant a book as Apsley Cherry-Garrard's The Worst Journey in the World, published 80 years ago. The Coldest March is a wonderful (re-)introduction to the Matter of Scott.

You can The Coldest March at Fatbrain. If this review interests you, perhaps you'll enjoy the Coldest March website. More information, incuding sample chapters from the book, are available at Yale University Press.

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The Coldest March

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  • I want to get that in e-book so i can read on my wearables when i make the first weara... damn.
  • I can imagine doing that. It would, after all, be the longest day of the year there. You would have total daylight. The champagne might freeze, though.
    • Re:New Year's Eve (Score:2, Interesting)

      by -brazil- ( 111867 )
      In fact, you'd have total daylight for several weeks! The polar circle is already the latitude at which there is exactly one day where the sun doesn't go down completely, i.e. it just touches the horizon on midsummer's day. Beyond the polar circle, you get several days or more without a night.
    • It's big fun. One year, we played frisbee at midnight [] outside the bar. On New Year's Day itself, there's a big rock concert [] at McMurdo - "Icestock".

      As to the champagne freezing, it's the middle of summer - at the coast, it frequently gets above 32F. They just set an all-time high at McMurdo last month - 51F!

      • Thai food, Kahlua and cream, rock music - you guys really suffered. I made it down to the tip of the continent in Jan. '95 accompanying the first Antarctica Marathon []. Looks like Thom still has a couple of spots open for this year's run. (I didn't run; I stood around and watched.) At least around the edges, Antarctica isn't so bad in January. Everyone jumped in the sea just to say they had done it (well, it was in a spot where a hot spring vents into the ocean near the beach). I remember seeing thousands upon thousands of penguins. Apparently they have a 50% fat content; you can use them for both food and fuel if you're desperate. I felt a little guilty enjoying hot meals and a heated cabin on the trip, thinking about how those early explorers suffered. Shackleton's Valiant Voyage a/k/a Endurance was one of my favorite books when I was a kid. Too bad Scott didn't take Shackleton along - they might have got out alive.
        • Well... we only got Thai food because I cooked it myself! The regular chow in the Galley isn't so nice. It's funny... I was down at the same time you were, but a couple thousand miles away. My first reaction when I arrived in mid-January was that I got on the wrong plane. I have a photo from that afternoon of Chuck Gallagher (for whom "Gallagher's" was later named) in his shirt-sleeves, waiting to greet a Distinguished Visitor from our flight.

          We also jump in the ocean, but not near a thermal vent - the water is 29.2F (there's that much salt in it). In the summertime, the jump is somewhat pleasant. In the winter, the wind-chill was -35F or so.

          Having wintered-over, I have a deep respect for the explorers at the turn of the 20th century. We had hot meals almost every day (in the field, we might get hot drinks and cold sandwiches), running water, warm housing, space-age clothing and the Internet. Things improved dramatically from even 1960 to 1990.

  • "with the conclusion that the March of 1912 was significantly colder than the average, that Scott's weather forecasters had collected sufficient data to have a good idea of what that average was and that the unexpected cold was a primary factor in the deaths of the party returning from the Pole."

    I find it almost impossible to believe that they didn't PLAN for severe weather. Granted, hindsight is 20/20, but I figure if you are going to an extremely cold area, you plan for extremely cold weather. Seems like a major blunder in an otherwise profitable journey.
    • When your method of transporting supplies is to have men pull sledges up the glacier and through the snow, it just isn't possible to build in much of a safety margin. Scott had it calculated out very well for normal weather, with enough margin for some bad weather, but not quite enough for what he encountered.

      Amundsen went through the same weather, but had much wider margins -- not only because he used dog-teams, but also when the loads got lighter, he killed the extra dogs, and fed the carcasses to men and dogs...
      • Actually, Amundsen experienced significantly different weather - he was not out on The Ice in March at all.

        The fascinating thing about this book is that is shows that, even in 1912, Scott had an excellent idea of what _normal_ weather was.

        • Actually, Amundsen experienced significantly different weather - he was not out on The Ice in March at all.

          The point is (from what I've heard) that Scott consistently reported worse weather than Amundsen at the time where they were in the same area.

  • by cybrpnk ( 94636 ) on Monday February 04, 2002 @11:35AM (#2950325)
    If you liked this book, you will LOVE Endurance: Shackleton's Incredible Voyage []. Some sample pages are here []. From the jacket blurbs:

    In October 1915 the ship Endurance was crushed by Anarctic ice, and the crew became castaways in one of the harshest regions of the world. Their adventures make one of the most intense, gripping stories ever written.

    Description from The Reader's Catalog
    The story of polar explorer Shackleton's survival for over a year on the ice-bound Antarctic seas. "One of the most gripping, suspenseful, intense stories anyone will ever read"--Chicago Tribune

    From the Publisher
    In August 1914, explorer Ernest Shackleton and his crew set sail from England for Antarctica, where Shackleton hoped to be the first man to cross the uncharted continent on foot. Five months later, the Endurance - just a day's sail short of its destination - became locked in an island of ice, and its destiny and men became locked in history. For ten months the ice-moored Endurance drifted until it was finally crushed, and Shackleton and his crew made an 850-mile journey in a 20-foot craft through the South Atlantic's worst seas to reach an outpost of civilization. Inspired by the ordeal that Time magazine said "defined heroism," author Alfred Lansing conducted interviews with the crew's surviving members and pored over diaries and personal accounts to create his best-selling book on the miraculous voyage. In Audio Partners' abridged recording of Endurance, reader Patrick Malahide renders a masterful portrayal of these courageous men.
    • If you liked this book, you will LOVE Endurance: Shackleton's Incredible Voyage [].

      I second this recommendation. If you decide to get the book, don't get the edition mentioned in the link, though. There's another edition with the photographs of Frank Hurley, the expedition's photographer that are absolutely haunting.
    • This is the edition to get: 5/ ref=ase_battlestarzone/104-7837614-2157565
      • You are absolutely correct, the photos taken by the photographer during the Shackleton voyage were a monumental historical, artistic and technical achievement. They would be remarkable today...but in 1912, they were utterly dumbfounding. There is an IMAX movie [] about this, too...
        • ...they'd be dumbfounding in 1912, alright, since they were taken in 1914-1916....I seem to have Titanic on the brain here....
    • Shackleton's story was recently made into a TV two-parter shown in the UK over Christmas and New Year, with Kenneth Branagh as 'the Boss'.

      Shame they messed up on the historical accuracy by having the crew sing songs that weren't written when they were stuck on the ice though. Whoops.

      Its probably coming to a small screen near you soon.

      • You want to see South [].

        This is the film actually shot DURING Shackleton's expedition, and for a black and white silent film is absolutely stunning because it's real!
        • by dhogaza ( 64507 ) on Monday February 04, 2002 @01:13PM (#2950874) Homepage
          As a photographer myself, one who sells on occassion to national magazines, has a few book covers (and a book) to my name, etc ... yeah, Fred Hurley's photography on the Shackleton Expedition was stunning.

          All that large-format B&W stuff taken until they set off on foot after losing the ship was especially amazing. A year or so ago I was in Boston and ran up to the museum in Salem, MA where there was an exhibit of Hurley's photography. Beautiful 16x20, 20x24'ish prints from those big, beautiful B&W negatives. Just stunning.

          The most famous, perhaps, and my favorites at least are those he took during the long hours of darkness they experienced at those latitudes when the ship was icebound, but before the spring shifting of the ice crushed it. These are the exposures that make the ship seem almost ghost-like, made by putting his large-format camera on a tripod, opening the shutter, then walking around popping off his flash equipment.

          The same technique is a popular and overworked trick used perhaps too frequently today, but Hurley's use would've seemed fresh to his audience. The images are mysterious and compelling and far superior to most of those made today using this technique.

          Even more interesting in some ways were the collection of COLOR transparencies he took, using an early color process (I forget which, unfortunately, though I bet a few minutes in Google could uncover the answer). Somehow seeing the scenes in color made the human connection that much more vivid, though as photographs go the B&W ones were much stronger.

          Unfortunately, when they left on foot they couldn't keep all of Hurley's negatives (remember, they were glass plates back in those days). They kept 150 of the best and destroyed the rest. Shackleton made certain they were destroyed because he feared that Hurley might secretly try to bring them along, one of many hard decisions made by Shackleton during their adventure.

          And of course the unused plates, large-format camera and the motion picture camera were all left behind. All Hurley had available was a Kodak Vestpocket with a single load of film, a few tens of exposures only.

          He used them carefully and wisely as he still had a few unexposed frames left when Shackleton finally rescued those left behind when he'd gone off to South Georgia Island seeking help. As he got there too late to get a ship in time to rescue his crew that winter, those left behind had to survive several more months waiting for "The Boss" to return, not knowing if he'd succeeded in his cross-ocean travel in the ship's boat they'd modified for the trip.

          Hurley's grainy, poor-quality shots are incredibly poignant, with the crew, who'd nearly given up hope, waving from shore and the rescue ship steaming towards them in the distance. "Poor quality", in this context, refers only to the technical quality of the prints. Think "disposable camera" to get some idea of the crudity of the small Kodak Vestpocket.

          Now ... as to all the photographic equipment, large store of glass plates, motion picture film, etc ... if you're curious as to why it was along, the answer's a very simple one. Shackleton's intent was to repay the expenses of the expedition on the lecture tour (thus the film), and by writing a book about it afterwards. This meant that Hurley's duties were, at first, solely photographic though later, of course, he had to pitch in and work for survival just like everyone else. We're fortunate that he was able to concentrate on his photography until they left the ship and struck out over the ice.

          And while the Shackleton work is by far Hurley's most famous work, he had a solid career as a photographer for some decades afterwards.

          OK ... enough about Hurley, back to hacking!
    • I just finished reading "Endurance" and it is an incredible story. Any ONE of the many trials they went through would have been an amazing story of survival. It just kept going and going from one epic trial to the next

      Oh hell, I might as well plug my own Amazon link too. Here is Shakletons own telling of the story South : A Memoir of the Endurance Voyage []

      Here is Alfred Lansing's classic book - It does have a few of photos but there are only a few and they are printed rather small Endurance : Shackleton's Incredible Adventure [] (this is the one I just finished reading)

      And here is Caroline Alexander's in hardcover with much better photography The Endurance : Shackleton's Legendary Antarctic Expedition []
    • a documentary on this was recently shown at a theatre in Chicago. I saw it, it was amazing. It was not a "based on" story, but rather a true documentary.
      • Landmark Theatres is (or was last weekend) currently showing this documentary at their Dallas Inwood theatre and another theatre in Seattle. If you're anywhere near these area and have any interest in this at all, make an effort to see it, as it's a very interesting and stunning film. The creators make use of Hurley's original film, which really adds a feeling of authenticacy that's missing in many documentaries.
  • by markmoss ( 301064 ) on Monday February 04, 2002 @11:38AM (#2950339)
    The amazing thing about Scott's expedition is how close it came to succeeding, in spite of a fundamentally _stupid_ plan and the bad luck of apparently hitting the worst weather in a century. Scott didn't get along with sled-dogs for some reason, so he tried a tractor (broke down immediately -- in 1912 that was no surprise), and ponies from somewhere north of England (Antartica was too cold for them, and they ate too much). Finally he decided to just pull the sledges by manpower. That didn't allow enough food per man. Still, they almost made it.

    Amundsen adopted a plan that made it much easier to get the food up the glaciers, although it the English professed to be shocked when they heard about it. He surveyed a route that went several hundred miles on sea ice, then up a glacier, then a long, nearly flat run to the pole. He started with heavily loaded sleds and enormous dog teams. By the time they reached the glaciers, the sleds were lighter, so the dogs didn't have much trouble pulling them uphill. At the top, Amundsen got out a pistol, shot the extra dogs, and loaded up the sleds with fresh meat.

    And you probably thought "dog eat dog" was just an expression.
    • the bad luck

      "Victory awaits him who has everything in order - luck, people call it. Defeat is certain for him who has neglected to take the necessary precautions in time - this is called bad luck."

      - Roald Amundsen (when hearing about Robert F. Scott's death)

      In the spirit of this quote, those "in the know" among Norwegian mountaineers and expeditionists will not wish each other good luck. Luck isn't a part of it for these people. If you want to express support, you'll say something like "I am confident that you will successfully achieve your goals".

      Amundsen was a cold-hearted man, but he had a few good points.

  • the epic tale of an early and tragic polar expedition [...] (Imagine spending New Year's en route to the southern ice.)

    Oh yeah, I'm sure that missing New Year's eve was this guy's biggest concern.
  • A Great Read (Score:2, Interesting)

    by SolidCore ( 250574 )
    A great read. Susan Solomon superbly combines the human tradegedy of Scott's doomed expedition with new scientific insight. The story is gripping throughout for those analyticaly minded and for those wanting to understand the personalities involved. How fitting that the reputation of Scott, who was himself scientifically minded, should be restored by an accomplished scientist.
    • How fitting that the reputation of Scott, who was himself scientifically minded, should be restored by an accomplished scientist.

      Scott wasn't "scientifically minded" as much as he was promotionally minded. Leading an Artic Exploration was a quick way to rise in the British Navy (at the time).

      Read "The Last Place on Earth []" for a different account. Whereas Amundsen took years to prepare his exploration (studying Nansen's journal, studying Eskimo survival, learning to drive sled dogs), Scott did virtually no preparation.

  • by peter303 ( 12292 ) on Monday February 04, 2002 @11:59AM (#2950419)
    Denver Museum of Science, Monday Feb 4, 7PM. There is an admission fee.
    • Her book is basically pro-Scott, with qualification "mistakes were made".

      My first introduction to this topic was about a decade ago with the PBS special "Race to the Pole". This documentary essentially blasted Scott as being ignorant and bureaucratic- thus costing his life.

      Susie calls Scott the careful and scientific one and Amundson a gambler (who succeeded). Scotts expedition compiled very accurate weather temperature profiles - similar to current results. However they hit the "1 in 20" bad year when winter starts a month early than normal. Scott was "on plan" until winter arrived early. Its was so cold that sleds and skis would not slide. Slipperness is caused by thin frictional melt beneath the skis.

      Amudson built his base camp on the ice shelf edge which breaks off every year. He set up a minimum of food depots, compared to Scott's abundance. Shakleton's earlier expedition that ran out of food was the motivation for Scott's extra depots. The Brits had bad luck with dogs and good results with Siberian ponies. Amundson knew to how to get good and fast fast results out of the dogs.
  • So I guess it was this extra cold weather that kept the icebergs from melting further south in the Atlantic, and which ultimately saw the end of Titanic?

    I'd always wondered why it was no longer a problem for modern ships on the same route...
  • by KjetilK ( 186133 ) <kjetil @ k> on Monday February 04, 2002 @01:25PM (#2950970) Homepage Journal

    some modern writers have considered Scott's whole Antarctic experience closer to farce.

    Perhaps unsurprisingly, this is pretty much what we here in Norway hear. Scott is portrayed as rather stupid, failing to heed advices from expeditionists much more experienced than himself, not testing his equipment, and had very little experience to foresee what would await him. Amundsen OTOH was a very cold-hearted man, but extremely efficient and a logistical genius.

    One of the stories is that during some of the preliminary expeditions in Antartica, one of the teams got in serious trouble. The leader of the group successfully saved the life on one of members of the team, who had come to the brink of exhaustion. Amundsen did not like this act, it was his clearly stated opinion that everyone who signs up to one of his expeditions must be able to support himself and not delay the expedition in any way. If he is unable to follow, he must be prepared to be left to die. When the team leader did not follow this policy, Amundsen punished him by not allowing him to be on the party that went for the pole.

    When I read foreign texts, it is interesting to note that Scott is portrayed as a great hero, who suffered the ultimate hardships. In Norwegian literature, there is nothing glorious about getting yourself killed. He failed, miserably. Besides, he made so many mistakes, for example, leaving the dog-sleds behind, there is really no wonder he failed. Another thing is Scott's spirituality. He put his faith in God's hands. When you're in Antarctica, this is a fatal mistake. There are no hands there but your own. Unless you realize that it is only what you can do that decides whether or not you'll live, you're doomed.

    • Yeah, and to follow-up on myself, I did a search in the archives of Norwegian newspaper "Aftenposten" and came up with a review [] of the same book. Though this review was written before the book was published, the article says that though Scott got some really nasty temperatures, it didn't last longer than that the two other guys could have made it to the next depot. Scott himself was beyond rescue, it says. Also, Amundsen made recordings of the same storms (and his data were significantly different). It casts doubts on the accuracy of Scotts data, it further says.

      I guess I have to read the book.

    • Perhaps there is an elusive undertone in what is meant when (often British) people refer to Scott as a hero. In fact, having just bothered to check a definition, I'm not too sure if it's very elusive at all, it's just the meaning:

      1. In mythology and legend, a man, often of divine ancestry, who is endowed with great courage and strength, celebrated for his bold exploits, and favored by the gods.
      2. A person noted for feats of courage or nobility of purpose, especially one who has risked or sacrificed his or her life

      It's nothing to do with being well prepared and doing stuff "right". It's all to do with how you react when things go pearshaped. This is why IMHO Shackleton is more of a hero than Amundsen.

      It is true there is nothing especially glorious in getting yourself killed, but there can be something glorious in the way you go about it. When Oates, who presumably was in no doubt about the seriousness of his condition, walked outside to die, he didn't go to a glorious death in the freezing cold, but he did do something heroic. Something perhaps more heroic than good planning.

      0.02 etc
      • Something perhaps more heroic than good planning.

        No argument there. I never intended to say that Amundsen was a hero. Going on expeditions like these are IMHO not heroic in the first place, it is something you do for your own enjoyment and experience.

        That is what attracts me to start doing expedition-like treks anyway.

    • One of the stories is that during some of the preliminary expeditions in Antartica, one of the teams got in serious trouble. The leader of the group successfully saved the life on one of members of the team, who had come to the brink of exhaustion. Amundsen did not like this act, it was his clearly stated opinion that everyone who signs up to one of his expeditions must be able to support himself and not delay the expedition in any way. If he is unable to follow, he must be prepared to be left to die. When the team leader did not follow this policy, Amundsen punished him by not allowing him to be on the party that went for the pole.

      Close, but not quite correct.

      In one of the initial expeditions to set up supply depots, the team ran into bad weather on the way back. When they were within a few miles from the base, Amundsen inexplicably drove his dog team harder and left the others behind. Johansen (who was also Nansen's expedition partner across Greenland and to the North Pole), stayed behind to help the stragglers.

      When Johansen reached the base, he gave Amundsen a piece of his mind. Amundsen was a control-freak, and since Johansen's outburst was done in front of the others (undermining Amundsen's authority), he punished Johansen by not including him in the party that went to the south pole.

  • by graybeard ( 114823 ) on Monday February 04, 2002 @01:25PM (#2950975)
    They didn't know about vitamins & minerals in 1912. The English diet contained a lot of processed wheat, fat, and meat. The Norwegian's included buckwheat and preserved berries. By the end, Scott & his team had starved to death. Read all about it in Roland Huntford's "Scott and Amundsen". (unfortunately, out of print)
    • The Huntford book is in print as The Last Place on Earth []. There was an adaptation for "Masterpiece Theatre" available on DVD [].

      There have been discussions about the weather findings. Not surprisingly, Huntford largely dismisses them as a complication Scott should have been more prepared for. Let's itemize some of the things Scott did wrong. (1) He didn't have his team learn to ski; (2) He didn't believe in dogs; (3) He sent someone who didn't know horses to get them, and left behind someone who did (poor Oates); (4) He didn't lay adequate supplies -- His "one ton depot" was half the size of Amundsen's, and was to support larger parties; (4) He chose to bring an unqualified crony in P.O Evans, who should have been discharged for drunkeness.; (5) He brought along physically unqualified Cpt. Oates (war injury) to keep "the army" involved; (6) He broght along Bowers at the last minute, complicating the distribution of provisions; (7) His final party had 4 on skis, and Bowers on foot, having had Bowers leave his skis the day before; (8) he did not mark his depots well, and lost time looking for them; (9) He didn't supervise unloading of his motor sledges, and two of three fell into the ocean when non-qualified people didn't recognize the weak ice; (10) he left behind the motor sledge development engineer, so they had little expertise when the last one broke down. (11) Dragged 50 punds of rocks around when his party was in desparate straights.

      On the positive side, he wrote a beautiful diary blaming it all on the weather, not the plan, execution or personnel decisions he had made. This made him the poster child of the "noble failure" for 60 years, and the very model of the upright Englishman who would walk into the trenches of WWI.

      Bah. Proving he did have bad luck with the weather doesn't excuse the other suicidal decisions he made.


      ObBias, My great-great-uncle Charlie liked Amundsen, and had some credentials [] from which to form an opinion.

      • And Shackleton,who knew Scott and I believed had served under Scott in other circumstances (not the ill-fated expedition) had:

        1. Men trained on skiis

        2. Lots of dogs

        3. No tractors

        4. No ponies

        In other words, explicit acknowledgement that Scott planned poorly while Amundsen planned well.

        Even the Englishmen can learn given half a chance :) Seriously, Shackleton understood, like Amundsen, that you had to learn which technology fit the job, rather than try to fit the job to the technology you were familiar with.

        Scott did not.

        Of course, Shackleton's expedition never got on the ground despite being well-prepared. But that preparedness was the key to survival after catastrophe struck, along with sound leadership and a crew which brought a wide range of skills to the table as well as an ability to put up with almost unbelievable hardship.
        • Actually, Shackleton's low-tech approach resulted less from "lessons-learned" and more from lack of funding. (He always had to scrape for cash.) Scott had the blessing of the RGS, so he could afford to experiment. And all sailing ships carried plenty of experience on them; they had only themselves to rely on. The history of Arctic exploration if full of ships stuck in the ice, marooned explorers, etc. I would agree that Shackleton was probably the best leader of explorers there has ever been.
      • Yes, all these contributed to their deaths, but if Scott et al had been properly nourished, they *would* have made it back. Compare to the 1986 walk to the pole (and back!) by Mear, Swan, and Wood.
    • Captain Cook carried citrus fruit on his long voyages in the 1700s. I guess this is what the berries may have been for.
    • That's what they used to call British sailors. They'd bring limes on their sailing ships to provide vitamins and stave off scurvy. And they'd been doing it for centuries by the time of Scott's expedition. They may not have known the limes had vitamins as such, but they damn well knew they had *something* people needed to stay healthy.
    • "By the end, Scott & his team had starved to death"

      Oh great, you TOTALLY ruined it for me now.

      And that, kids, is why I hate history books.
  • Weather Cause (Score:4, Interesting)

    by JJ ( 29711 ) on Monday February 04, 2002 @01:37PM (#2951064) Homepage Journal
    In 1908 the Tunguska event threw so much debris and ash into the atmosphere it caused the Northern hemisphere winters to be colder than average until 1914, but effect peaking in 1909-10. The dust from this event took years to reach the southern hemisphere, where the peak of the effect would roughly be March 1912. The cold weather was not solely cause by this, but certainly was effected by it.
  • Anybody who picks up this book should also read "The Last Place on Earth". You will learn there, in detail, why Scott's expedition was doomed from the start. They would have died even in perfect weather.

    Scott killed his crew in the worst way: he starved them to death. More particularly, he killed them with scurvy. Scurvy had been understood for a century at the time of his expedition, so there could be no excuse.

    Even if he had brought fruit, they still would have died, frozen. He didn't bother sealing his fuel cans properly, so when he came back to them, three quarters of the fuel was gone. The method of sealing fuel cans for arctic conditions was also well-known at the time, to anyone who cared to know.

    He brought horses to haul supply caches because he couldn't be bothered to learn to handle dogs. (They froze.) He brought the first three snow tractors ever built, and left behind the mechanic who could have kept them working. He dropped one of them through the ice just from impatience. He marked his supply caches poorly, so missed them on the way back. He brought skis, but didn't even try them until after he got there, and discarded them barely tried. (Skis might have make it look too easy.) That they died of scurvy was an accidental choice; they might have died from any number of idiocies.

    Scott's failure was as much a British failure as a personal one. British society at the time valued pluck and endurance over everything, including intelligence and care. Thorough preparation was considered cheating; you had to plan on suffering if you expected to be hailed as a hero. Your men had to die to demonstrate suffering. The British thought they were great because they were good at suffering.

    Scott remains a national disgrace; his failure was an essentially British failure. No mere weather report can change that. It took Shackleton to teach the British a lesson in true heroism. None of his men died for his reputation.

  • The documentary by the same name is playing around the country. Featuring the motion picture film shot on the voyage, and some stunning new photography, you get a vivid feel for the conditions the crew had to endure and the heroic feat of leadership Shackleton displayed by saving his entire crew. When it would have been possible to despair he found a way.

    I saw this film on Saturday. Almost needed a parka when it was over - damn it was cold.

    Coupled with The American Experience: Return with Honor about the American Vietnam POWs the two films provide ample evidence of what resources human beings have at their disposal with which to survive.
  • One of my favorite SF writers, Kim Stanley Robinson, has written a great novel about Antarctica. Called, reasonably enough, _Antarctica_, it covers a little of the same sort of political ground that he uses in his _Mars_ trilogy, but in a more, um, terrestrial setting.

    He also goes over the history of some of the early South Pole expeditions; while all opinions are expressed by the characters, not the author, it's clear he has considerable sympathy for the "Scott wasn't a *complete* screwup" point of view.

    Check it out.
  • Some readers started comparing the three most famous Antartic explorers: Amundsen, Scott and Shackleton.
    While reading another comment [] that highly recommended a book about Shackletons famous Endurance journey, I remembered a comparison of the three explorers which I found in the book: Shackleton's Way - Leadership Lessons [].
    The first page of chapter eight contains the following quote from Frank Wild, crew member on three of Shackleton's expeditions.

    "I have served with Scott, Shackleton and Mawson, and have met Nansen, Amundsen, Peary, Cook, and other explorers, an in may considered opinion, for all the best points in leadership, coolness in the face of danger, resource under difficulties, quickness in decision, never failing-optimism, and the faculty of instilling the same into others, remarkable genius for organization, consideration for those under him, and obliteration of self, the palm must be given to Shackleton, a here and gentlemen in very truth."

    Actually, if the subtitle might turn you off, don't worry. The book is really worthwile reading. It's not literature just for simpleminded MBA's. NB: I just earned such a degree too, but I'm more proud about an earlier M.Sc. in physics).
    • For those interested in the different leadership styles, here are some more quotes from the book. I belief the first quote by British explorer Apsley Cherry-Garrard, is the most famous one:

      (page 6) "For a joint scientific and geographical piece of organization, give me Scott; for a winter journey, give me Wilson, for a dash to the Pole and nothing else, Amundsen; and if I am in the devil of a hole and want to get out, give me Shackleton every time".

      (page 35) In Scott, Shackleton had a portrait of exactly the kind of leader he didn't want to be. Scott, trained in the British Royal Navy, was rigid and formal. For him, the prize was always paramount, and his military training would have dictated that some loss of live was inevitable. He preferred to hire men of like discipline for his expeditions, sometimes with unfortunate results. ... Scott was dour, bullying, and controlling; Shackleton was warm, humorous, and egalitarian, Scott was known to torment his underlings; Shackleton would tease but never humiliate. Scott tried to orchestrate every movement of his men; Shackleton gave his men responsility and some measure of independence. Scott was secretive and untrusting; Shackleton talked openly and frankly with the men about all aspects of the work. Scott put his team at rish to achieve his goals; Shackleton valued his men's lives above all else.

      (page 42) In fact, his biggest rival was his countryman Scott, but Shackleton kept his fealings about his old nemesis to himself ... "Heartiest congratulations. Magnificient achievement" was the cable Shackleton sent to Amundsen. He refused to play down the achievement as the British establishment was doing, writing in the press that he believed the Norwegians would have paid tribute to Scott had he been the first.

To do two things at once is to do neither. -- Publilius Syrus