The volunteer docent was a guy from housing who was, like most of us, an afficionado of antarctic history. Very few people get to the ice haphazardly, and very few are not familiar with the names Amundsen, Byrd, Shackleton, and Scott. We'd all passed the bust of Admiral Byrd during our "in brief" when we'd first deplaned. Any of us could tell you the official name of Pole Station was the "Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station". Byrd camp still existed and was flown to regularly. Shackelton's hut at Cape Royds was a favorite attraction.
The evidence of Robert Falcon Scott was everywhere at McMurdo, from the wooden cross at the top of Ob Hill honoring the passing of the southern party to the Discovery hut on Hut Point, visible from most eastward looking windows on station.
While any of us could go to the rec office and request the key to the hut, we'd requested a guided tour and so this Sunday afternoon, Vic was going to provide the dialog for the ten of us who stood patiently beside Vince's cross in our thick red parkas.
A strong wind was coming in from the south and Vic had to decide whether to call off the tour for a herbie. While we waited for stragglers the sky cleared over Cape Armitage and he decided to go on.
"We start here at Vince's cross because it's an important waypoint in the history of Robert Scott's career," Vic said, shouting against the wind. A couple people took Vic's picture, the Discovery Hut and McMurdo Sound in the background. "Vince was on a training run and got caught in a herbie, just like the one we see coming up this way. He was wearing the typical boots of the day, finnesko filled fur soled leather things, and he had no traction. The sound had thawed and Vince fell and slid down this slope into the water, under the ice, and was never seen again. Con was so traumatized by Vince's death it stunted his decision making process. That's a problem for a leader, when he allows emotion into his decisions. It compounds. And that's the story of Scott's failure. One bad decision after another. They built up upon each other until there was no hope of success. Follow me."
We walked the path down the mound at hut point to the hut itself. Vic opened the padlock on the door and held the handle.
"What's the first thing you notice about this place?" he asked.
The ten of us shrugged.
"What kind of hut is this?" he asked. "Anybody know?"
Someone did. A guy from the galley. "An austrailian outback shelter."
"Exactly," Vic said. "This building was prefabricated in Australia. They didn't want to have to carry one all the way from England, so they bought it in Australia. Notice how it's built. Great construction. It's lasted all these years. All the original parts. But what's the main purpose of this building? Why is it such a uniquely poor choice for polar exploration? Anyone know?"
Vic didn't wait more than a second for an answer. He said, "Because it's designed to shed heat. It's made to be outside in one-hundred twenty degree weather. One thing you'll notice--feel how cold it is right now out here? It's going to be colder inside. Contrast it to Shackelton's hut at Cape Royds if you can swing a boondoggle to the penguin colony over there--it's night and day. Shackelton's hut is bright. It's warm inside. It feels good in there. Like home. This place, you'll see, is dark. It's always colder inside than outside. In fact, this building was so cold they stopped trying to sleep in it and used it for storage instead. This kind of error typified Scott's decision making. It's what got him and four others killed on the plateau in 1914."
Inside the Discovery hut, it was just as Vic had said. There were few windows, and a couple of skylights on the edge of the roof that hardly conducted sunlight inward. The interior smelled musty, slightly fishy--salty like the sea. Like an old blanket left on a ship. We used flashlights to get around. The decking seemed sound, but creaked under our feet.
I stopped in front of one of the blubber stoves, still oozing. The oily film was still sticky and smelled like something between an old piece of beef and rotting fish.
Historians had piled some century-old hand tools on a crate that said, "Homelight Oil--Terra Nova Expedition, Captain Scott, 1912" I hefted an axe that was once swung by Teddy Evans or Tom Crean, or Shackleton, or Scott himself. Put it back down as I found it. Touched the leg of a set of torn trousers that hung from the ceiling on a bit of brown-green rope.
"Could you imagine living here?" I heard Vic say as I separated from the group and peered out the window across Winter Quarters Bay imagining the crew from the Aurora watching Macintosh and Hayward disappear into a storm from this spot, through this glass.
No, I couldn't imagine living there for two years, or even staying inside there for another hour. The cold and dark seeped into the bones and the mind. What the hell was he thinking?
Vic went on disparaging Scott for his failings. In fact, Vic felt, Scott's derived his posthumous fame from his ignominious death. Had he not perished on the ice, his story might soon be forgotten. For one day in history newspapers would read: "An incompetent low-ranking naval officer destined for failure, fails." Scott would exist as a comma in history books.
After all, Shackelton was possibly an even greater failure--achieving exactly zero of his geographic goals on three tries and almost dying (and sometimes actually killing others) each time. Yet, he is remembered as a great leader.
Why the dichotomy? Why is Scott remembered with such disdain by historians while Shackelton remembered with reverence? Are we misreading his legacy?
Scott's story is well documented. His diaries are written in clear, twentieth-century English. There are photographs of his expeditions. We do not have to decode hieroglyphics to understand the man, and perhaps it is that familiarity that breeds the contempt one encounters when discussing Scott. Perhaps it is an even greater understanding of the environment that drives the unconscious contempt of the man when walking in his footsteps in Antarctica.
To hear it told on the seventh continent: Scott was a particularly undistinguished junior British naval officer. His major claim to fame at the time of his appointment was the cleanliness of the torpedo room for which he was responsible on the frigate Majestic. Sir Clement Markham had met him twice before on ship, and then one fateful afternoon, happened to see the good-looking Scott strolling in uniform in front of Buckingham Palace.
It is not lost upon modern polar adventurers that Scott was indeed, a pretty good-looking guy in his time, and was probably a dashing figure in full uniform. It is not lost on modern polar explorers that the sexual preference of nineteenth century naval figures is historically recorded in terms of wives left with children for years on end. The sexual proclivities of the men locked in close quarters for months in hazardous conditions is felt to be irrelevant to the historical record--but cannot be factored out in the terms the men used. A civilian crew's love for each other was, indeed, a undeniable motivating force that many, even in our modern times, would prefer to ignore.
But ice people do not ignore it.
The official record states that Markham and Scott met by chance on Buckingham Palace Road. That gave Scott the idea to volunteer for the mission for which he knew Markham was fielding a crew. More than one historian will suggest, though, that Clement Markham chose Scott to lead the British polar expedition because he was cute.
The fact that Scott's military record was reasonable in the area of seamanship but light in the area of leadership calls Markham's decision into question, and has for the past hundred years. Of Scott this is known--he was constantly wracked with self-doubt and bouts of excessive self-pity. In her biography of Scott, Elspeth Huxley suggests this stemmed from the untimely passing of Scott's father and his overbearing mother.
Whatever the cause, Scott's polar career is littered with ill-conceived, emotional decisions for which he earned the quiet disdain of many of his charges. He opened himself to suggestions infrequently, and then, apparently, only to find an outlet upon which to blame a bad choice.
He sent an underfunded Titus Oates to purchase ponies from breeders in Vladivostok, Russia, and then blamed him for their failure as hearty pack animals on the ice. He disdained the use of dogs, which he felt were "ungentlemanly" in their manner and blamed the handler Meares for the fact that the dogsleds frequently outpaced men hauling 200 pounds each, which caused scheduling issues because the dogs arrived at camp positions before the men. (So Scott made the dog sled teams wait in camp for several hours after the manhauling teams left before striking out. Thus, the dogs would arrive at a new camp at the same time as the manhauling teams.)
Only his best friend, Edward A. Wilson dared approach Scott with criticism, and then he was apt to accept it in light of blistering failures which would endanger his men.
This is a key point, I think. For all his failings as a leader and manager, Scott was not an inherently ill-meaning, selfish man. He loved his charges and in the end, I believe, gave his life for them. The root cause of Scott's failure lay not in incompetence, I believe, but rather, in a combination of his own self-doubt which fouled his decision making, and his adherence to a rigid social structure even in the face of certain death.
He did not have the experience or the mental "equipment" to adapt the structure of his thinking for changing situations. It wasn't good enough for him to simply "win". He had to win in a particular manner that made sense back home, irrespective of its relevance to polar exploration or he would suffer inescapable criticism. Nobody had been to the places he was going, so there wasn't anyone besides the polar icon, Nansen, who could give him advice. (Nansen was fooling around with Scott's wife, which Scott may or may not have suspected).
The society that created Scott taught him right from wrong. It taught him to be a gentleman and a military officer. Clearly, barbarians slept with dogs and gentlemen rode on horseback. One treated horses as team members. So when one became ill, it was only right to try to nurse it to health, even if it meant jeopardizing the lives of men--because on a battlefield one might have to depend on horses to save a greater number.
In the military, the officers didn't socialize with the "men" unless there was a specific reason for it. Authority was asserted through that separation. Scott's men were frequently more experienced in aspects of science or travel than he was--and Scott didn't have the leadership skills to understand how to incorporate their input without feeling he was jeopardizing his authority by not being the one with all the answers. (A typical mistake of a new leader.)
It led him to do things that were downright foolish and costly. When the ponies began to falter, instead of putting them down as Oates suggested on that last, fatal run, he pressed onward feeling they could somehow recover from their ailments. Thus, they wound up nearly dragging the horses for miles before having to shoot them and caching their carcasses for meat.
He was so revulsed by the sled dogs (which were nearly wolves by breeding) attacking the sick horses, that he refused to allow them to pull anymore. Instead, he put his men in harness and had them pull the sleds while the dogs went along side to be used later only for food.
Finally, he chose team members for the final push for the pole by making emotional value judgements that deprived him of more experienced help. In that decision--he overturned a year of his own meticulous planning. They'd brought enough supplies for four to make it to pole, and he would turn back the rest of the team with one-hundred fifty miles to go. But instead, he kept a fifth member, Titus Oates, a man of means who'd "bought" himself onto the expedition, whose feet were frostbitten and who had questioned nearly every decision Scott had made to that point. (As if Scott was hoping to curry favor with Oates' well-to-do family upon return home.)
We can say now in this year of 2004 that the weather during Scott's last march was the harshest in the historical record. There is no doubt he faced meterological hardship. But that fifth mouth to feed, in the end, would have contributed to their suffering irrespective of the weather.
Now imagine this man, with all his self-inflicted pain clear to him and his team, his pitiously brusable ego and his nagging self-doubt, the natural hardships that befell them to this point, an eight hundred mile walk back home ahead of him--he arrives with his raggy team of four to the south pole and finds Roald Amundsen's tent and a flag with a letter to him saying, basically: "Hi Captain Scott--In the event my team dies on the way home, could you give this letter to the King of Norway to let him know we got to the south pole before you?"
I believe it was over at that moment. The minute Scott finishes reading the letter, he knows he can never go home. It's his death sentence.
Geographic expeditions were (and still are) funded largely by private donors and sponsors looking for advertisement. Nobody wants to fund a lecture tour for the second man to reach the pole. There go the royalties going from Pointing's photography. There go the endorsements for the biscuits and Burberry jackets and writing instruments and dried beef and canned fruits. The book deal goes south because who cares about the adventures of the second man to the pole?
Now the investors who expected a return lose their enthusiasm and he knows he's going to have trouble collecting the last of the pledged funds. His military career is shot because instead of developing his fighting skills he's been traipsing around the antarctic for the past three years, and he has no source of income and no way to pay his men.
His last words, "For God's sake, look after our people..." indicates his state of mind. If he returned, they'd all be destitute, and he a national failure. If he died, there was some hope of resurrecting himself in the image of a national hero of the times. Shackelton had previously advertised for polar team members with a newspaper ad that proclaimed, "Safe Return Doubtful". It was nearly a joke--but now it was Scott. It was what his society expected. They would have to think (despite Amundsen's proof of the opposite): "He wasn't first to the pole, but nobody could have been first under those circumstances." There was no alternative to a glorious death. He was worth nothing alive. But in death, their families could beg for funds as the survivors of national heroes.
Titus Oates knew it. With his feet and eyesight failing, he walks out into a storm eleven miles from a huge depot of supplies. Two days march. He knew he was the fifth man. He'd slowed them down. He'd contributed to their starvation. What does an English gentleman do in that situation?
He issues the now infamous line--"I may be some time..." and we revere his sacrifice. (And we only have Scott's recounting.)
They were not lost. Bowers was a genius at navigation. They knew where they were.
Was the weather really that bad? They were horribly ill, but couldn't one of them make it the eleven miles? If the weather cleared, they'd be able to see the huge cairn with their own eyes.
But this was in their minds--in comparison to Scott, Amundsen had simply bolted to the pole and back on skis with dogs pulling the sleds, braving the same record rotten weather Scott faced. They knew the Norseman would make it. There would be no need for their delivering that disgraceful letter.
And so, there was no possibility of their return to England.
I realized this as I stood in Scott's Discovery hut. The strong wind that we'd felt before was beginning to pick up again. Vic herded us out of the hut and locked the door behind us as the herbie lifted bits of snow and ice and drove them into us at sixty miles per hour.
The door of the hut faces south, and so directly into the maw of any oncoming Antarctic storm. Of course, Scott and his men would have no way to know that when they built the hut, but we do now. Standing under the eaves I saw Black Island disappear into a white cloud. The true strength of the storm would be upon us in twenty minutes or so.
Even though I was dressed in five layers of poly pro and a thick down parka, I was cold. My feet were cold. My hands. My neck stung where bits of wind-borne ice found their way into my clothes.
How would Scott have felt standing here? I wondered. He'd be dressed in woolens and furs. When he walked, he'd sweat and his clothes would freeze stiff to his body. He wouldn't have the telemetry and satellite weather imagery we had. There would be no way for him to know if this storm would last for days or minutes.
I pulled my fur-lined hood over my head and leaned forward to present less of a target to the wind.
My walk back to the coffee house at McMurdo would take fifteen minutes and when I got there I'd have a latte with a shot of Bushmills added. Scott would need to walk sixteen hundred miles just to get back here again, and he'd be eating the same pemmican and drinking the same cocoa every day. Then he'd wait a year and sail for months back home. He was riddled with self-doubt and wracked by intense emotion, but somehow, he'd impress himself upon that nothingness. The day he started walking toward the south pole there was not one thing made by mankind on the planet Earth that could reach him. He was so far away, he might as well have been on the moon.
And then I realized what it would take--what I would have to do to get myself to do it and I knew I couldn't take that first step south--but in an incredible feat of mortal courage, he did.
Readings on Scott & his polar expeditions I recommend:
"Scott of the Antarctic" by Elspeth Huxley
"The Last Place on Earth" by Roland Huntsford
"Tragedy and Triumph: The Journals of Captain R.F. Scott's Last Polar Expedition" by Robert Falcon Scott
"Diary of the Discovery Expedition to the Antarctic 1901-1904" by Edward A. Wilson
"The Voyage of the Discovery" by Captain Robert Falcon Scott R.N.
"South With Scott" by Admiral B.R.G.R. Evans R.N.
"The Worst Journey in the World" by Apsley Cherry-Garrard
I have not yet read this one, but I intend to:
"Cherry: A Life of Apsley Cherry-Garrard" by Sara Wheeler