31 August 2011 - Taking stock
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Antarctica is not only the continent with the highest average elevation, thanks to the ice, but it is also the windiest. Cold air, collecting over days or weeks in depressions and pockets on the plateau and its lateral spine of mountains, can suddenly start spilling down toward the distant sea. Mighty streams of air braid together, gathering speed as they go, as fast as 320 km per hour. By the time these katabatic winds reach the edges of Antarctica their energy has begun to dissipate, but they can still be extremely dangerous to those who are ill-prepared.


At Cape Evans in the early winter of 1911, Scott puzzled over extraordinary winds and accompanying whiteouts that prevented the men, for days at a time, from going outside for more than brief periods for the purpose of checking instruments and animals. Along with violent storms and waning hours of sunlight, dropping temperatures ushered in a long season of waiting. To pass the time, as well as to prevent the depression that living through long periods of polar darkness may engender, the men played football and chess, took the dogs on runs, celebrated birthdays and national days, repaired their equipment and even wrote and printed a sort of newspaper-cum-magazine, The South Polar Times. Cherry was appointed its editor. They also had lectures on all kinds of subjects which could involve much robust questioning and jousting for hours at a time.


On 8 May, Scott rose to address the men on “The future plans of the expedition.” As Cherry duly reported for The South Polar Times, Scott’s object was not “to lay down a definite plan for the future, but rather to discuss the details of the problem with a view to giving complete consideration of them before the plan is made.” “Everyone was interested, naturally,” Scott noted somewhat smugly in his journal. He began by unfurling a large map of Antarctica. He had marked key points along the way, and pointed out distances and times between stations. He also presented an evaluation of how much food needed to be taken for men and animals. As a starting point for his calculations he used some of Shackleton’s experiences in travelling over the ice three years before, drawn not from detailed discussions with his rival but instead directly from Shackleton’s book, The Heart of the Antarctic.


Scott’s lack of sources and his attitude toward Shackleton aside, he had prepared; the trouble is that all of the needed discussions about strategy on the ground, about the pros and cons of doing something this way as opposed to that, had taken place in his mind alone, with occasional requests for information from others. “I have asked everyone to give thought to the problem of reaching the pole, to freely discuss it, and bring suggestions to my notice,” he wrote in his diary after his lecture. If this is how he actually presented such requests to his men, as though it was their job to come to him rather than vice versa, it is unsurprising that they regarded him as rather remote. Debenham, for example, later recorded in his diary that “Amundsen’s chances…..are rather better than ours. To begin with they are 60 miles further South than we are and can make due south at once, whereas we have to dodge round islands.” Debenham had concluded that for Scott to succeed, he would “need very careful organisation….If Scott will consult the senior men I think it can be done but if he keeps them in the dark as they were on this depot trip things are likely to go wrong.” Many months later, on 14 September, Scott presented his final lecture on his “Southern Plans.” Once again, “everyone was enthusiastic,” but “although people have given a good deal of thought to various branches of the subject, there was not a suggestion offered for improvement.


If Scott is to be faulted at this stage, the most obvious sign of his lack of sufficient appreciation of the situation is revealed by his intended departure and return dates. At this time Scott’s plan was for departure on 3 November, which, providing that the pole party made it to 90 degrees S and returned on schedule at so many miles per day, would bring them back to the waiting ship 144 days later, by 27 March. Setting so late a date bordered on recklessness: Shackleton was courting death in 1909 when he returned late in February, and Amundsen had long since decided that returning to Framheim any later than the end of January would be needlessly risky. George Simpson, the British expedition’s meteorologist, believed that Scott’s plan left no room for error or bad weather, which “would not only bring failure but very likely disaster.” In this regard Scott seems to have known what he didn’t know – time and again in his journal he characterised the Antarctic climate and weather as “mysterious,” “bewildering,” “puzzling.” But even though he acknowledged the possible outright catastrophe due to weather, he refused – there is no other word for it – to contemplate it as a problem for which he had to find a solution. If Antarctic weather was inherently capricious, well then, it was just something that he and the men would have to endure. Scott intended to carry on “as if Amundsen did not exist”; he might equally have said “as if Shackleton’s record was meaningless,” because he was determined to prove that he could endure far harsher conditions than his countryman.


The motor sledges that Amundsen had feared all winter were, in Scott’s estimation, not reliable enough to be counted on. And despite the fact that Scott was getting nearly 48 km a day from the dogs on his return from the February depot run, he considered their endurance over long distances to be suspect, and was “inclined to chuck them for the last part of the journey.” The ponies, he explained, would lead the way to the Beardmore Glacier, but only that far and no farther. This pleased Bowers immensely: “I for one am delighted at the decision. After all, it will be a fine thing to do that plateau with man-haulage in these days of supposed decadence of the British race.” In all, Scott and his men would spend an estimated eight weeks in the most extreme conditions, much of it at high altitude. “I don’t know whether it is possible for men to last out that time,” he told the men in closing. “I almost doubt it.”