End of a polar pantomime

January 18, 2002

Max Jones reconsiders the roles of the Antarctic/Arctic adventurers.

The extension of the National Maritime Museum's exhibition on the race to the South Pole testifies to a contemporary fascination with polar exploration. Attention has focused on Ernest Shackleton, with a recent television drama starring Kenneth Branagh, and the documentary film, Shackleton's Antarctic Adventure , at the British Film Institute's Imax cinema in London.

Three recent books, though, illuminate ice fields beyond Shackleton's lengthy shadow. Susan Solomon and Sara Wheeler make the most significant contributions to the literature on Captain Scott for a number of years, while Fergus Fleming distils the escapades of a fevered period of Arctic exploration. These books exemplify the different impulses behind the current polar obsession: intellectual curiosity, disenchantment with modern-ity and the lure of adventure.

Solomon is a senior scientist at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration in Boulder, Colorado. Her academic credentials are impeccable: she won the US National Medal of Science for her insights into the causes of the Antarctic ozone hole. Her Antarctic is an intellectual gymnasium, with the peculiar natural phenomena of the continent offering a series of conundrums to challenge the curious.

The familiar story of Scott's last expedition in 1910-12 is retold by her in clear prose, with an eye for the practicalities of polar exploration. She challenges the new legend of Scott as "ineffective, amateurish and bumbling" - the incompetent fool depicted by Roland Huntford - and offers an assessment of his achievements and failings informed by modern scientific research. The principal delight of Ilies in Solomon's deployment of the latest research on diet, equipment and, most significantly, the Antarctic climate, to explain the challenges Scott faced. She intersperses her narrative with discussions of scurvy, the debilitating effects of dehydration at high altitude and the duration of Antarctic blizzards, communicating complex ideas with admirable clarity.

The prevailing interpretation is that the polar party, fatally hindered by Scott's blunders, ran out of food and fuel on their return from the pole, their deaths hastened by the onset of scurvy. But in modern tests, subjects develop scurvy only when deprived of vitamin C for between 19 and 30 weeks. Scott's party had consumed a large quantity of pony meat after 17 weeks on sledging rations, which would have greatly reduced the likelihood of scurvy. Furthermore, the death of Edgar Evans (because of a cerebral oedema, suggests Solomon) would have raised the rations to an adequate level.

Solomon argues instead that unseasonably adverse weather conditions were the primary cause of the deaths of Scott, Bowers, Oates and Wilson. Meteorological data gathered on the Great Ice Barrier since 1983 suggests that Scott's assault was fatally hampered by atypical weather conditions on two occasions. First, on the outward march, when an unusually wet blizzard kept Scott tent-bound for four days. And, second, in the critical period from late-February to mid-March, when temperatures on the barrier were 38F lower than temperatures at the expedition's coastal base at Cape Evans, double the usual differential. Below - 20F, sledging becomes increasingly difficult, as ice takes on the characteristics of sandpaper. Also, below - 20F, frostbite is more likely; frost-bitten feet crippled first Oates and then Scott in this critical period. The low temperatures of 1912 have been recorded only once on the barrier since 1965.

The forgotten hero brought to life by Solomon is the expedition's meteorologist George Simpson, who later became director of the British Meteorological Office. He made strenuous efforts to ensure the accuracy of measurements taken on the expedition. Time and again his insights into the Antarctic climate have been proved correct.

Solomon acknowledges Scott's failings over the choice of transport and equipment, in contrast to the meticulous and single-minded Roald Amundsen, who beat Scott to the pole. But she concludes that, but for the freak weather conditions, Scott's party would have survived. Her timely contribution does much to rescue Scott from the pantomime villainy of many recent accounts. There is a sting in her tale, however, as the final chapter dismisses the possibility of the nine-day blizzard, which Scott's journal claimed had kept the explorers tent-bound before their deaths. Antarctic blizzards, caused by cold air rushing from the pole down to the coast, never last that long. So, while the meteorological evidence does much to resuscitate Scott's battered reputation, the data may also support one of Huntford's most controversial claims: that Scott prevented Wilson and Bowers from making a final bid to reach fresh supplies. "Their deaths," Solomon concludes, "may have been a matter of choice rather than chance."

One of the youngest members of Scott's expedition, Apsley Cherry-Garrard, regarded polar exploration as an escape from the pressures of modern life, as well as a chance for scientific research. According to Wheeler's biography of him, "Cherry" was "a boy in the background", with an undistinguished school career at Winchester. He went up to Oxford to study classics at Christ Church in 1904, but switched to the less demanding pastures of modern history.

In 1907, Cherry, aged 22, inherited an estate valued at £102,000 gross (£5 million today), including Lamer mansion and park near Wheathampstead in Hertfordshire. Disillusioned with the prospect of a legal career, he joined the 8,000 men who applied to join Scott's expedition in 1909. Despite his lack of specialised training, he secured a place (like Oates) by contributing £1,000. Antarctic exploration offered him a sense of purpose and a refuge from the social disquiet of Edwardian England.

Cherry flourished in the first year of the expedition, revelling in the comradeship engendered by hard work, and impressing his companions with his optimistic enthusiasm. On June 1911, he joined Wilson and Bowers on the first sledging journey attempted during an Antarctic winter, to obtain the eggs of the emperor penguin from a colony at Cape Crozier. The emperor penguin was then believed to be the most primitive bird on earth and Wilson hoped its embryology would reveal the relationship of birds to other vertebrates. The trio experienced appalling conditions on their 35-day trek, with temperatures dropping to - 77F, but survived to bring three eggs back to Cape Evans. Cherry was overwhelmed by the selfless devotion of Bowers and Wilson, writing that "words cannot express how good their companionship was".

Scott did not choose Cherry for the final polar party, but he led a dog team to One-Ton Depot in early March 1912, hoping to meet the party on its return. With his supplies almost exhausted, and his companion, Dimitri Gerof, complaining of illness, Cherry turned for home. After he reached base, the exertions of the previous year caused a breakdown; mental and physical collapse would punctuate the rest of his life. Although he could have done nothing to save Scott and his companions, Cherry was tormented by the belief that he should have pressed on from the depot to try to save them.

During the first world war, Cherry saw action on the western front in an armoured car division, before ulcerative colitis curtailed his service. After the war he lived the life of a leisured gentleman, managing his estates with little enthusiasm, travelling widely and enjoying the social circle of his close friend and neighbour George Bernard Shaw. Shaw encouraged him to complete his account of Scott's last expedition, The Worst Journey in the World (a description of the winter journey to Cape Crozier), which, with its combination of psychological insight, honest assessment and vivid description, remains a classic work of polar literature. Wheeler's well-researched biography, written with the cooperation of his widow, presents Cherry as an emblem of the hierarchical world of duty and deference that, it is argued, perished amid the corpses of the great war. As the tentacles of the modern world reached into his rural idyll at Lamer, Cherry retreated to his memories of Scott's last expedition. "Antarctica, like the past, was a place where the anxieties of the 20th century did not intrude." Weary of mundane administration, and disillusioned with the "tawdry materialism of the modern world", he sold off his land estate by estate.

The narrative is full of anecdotal colour: Shaw discovering a barber in Welwyn who wielded the "new electric automatic hair mower with extraordinary dexterity"; T. E. Lawrence confiding (somewhat disturbingly) to Cherry that: "If our sexes had been different (one of us, I mean) we could have pulled off a eugenicist's dream." Wheeler dismisses Beatrice Webb's description of Cherry as "a victim of his evil environment of impossible wealth and unmerited social prestige". But the paradox of this frequently selfish man obsessed with the selflessness of his fallen comrades deserves deeper consideration.

Fergus Fleming's book exemplifies the third ingredient of the contemporary polar obsession, the appeal of a cracking good yarn. Fleming pulls off an impressive feat of synthesis, telling the story of the quest for the North Pole from the search for Sir John Franklin in the late 1840s to the flights of Amundsen and Richard E. Byrd in the 1920s. His fast-paced narrative recounts the adventures of the polar pioneers and retrieves many of the less well-known expeditions from obscurity. Ninety Degrees North shows how the Arctic loomed large in the imaginative landscape of Europe and America, indeed far larger than its southern counterpart for most of the 19th century.

One chapter is devoted to Fridtjof Nansen's audacious drift on board the Fram in the mid-1890s, arguably the most sensational expedition of the period, which finally proved that the North Pole was located neither on land nor on an open sea, but on a shifting ice pack. Nansen achieved fame in 1888 when he led the first unsupported expedition to cross Greenland. The reissue of Nansen's classic, The First Crossing of Greenland , including for the first time the author's photographs, is an important addition to the expeditionary canon and a further sign of the current taste for polar stories.

Max Jones is director of studies in history, Christ's College, Cambridge.

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