The Falcon and the snowman

It is exciting to see the octogenarian Roland Huntford fighting back against the three decades of revisionism and carping that followed upon the publication of his 1979 book Scott and Amundsen. The book may be more familiar as The Last Place on Earth, which is the title it was given after a mini-series by that name was produced from it. When Scott and Amundsen was published, in the face of threats from imperial nostalgiacs and family members of Robert Falcon Scott, it was seen as the final nail in the coffin of Scott’s reputation.

It had long been obvious to students of polar-expedition lore that Scott had been, as Huntford was to put it, a “heroic bungler”. The Worst Journey in the World, published in 1922 by Scott expedition officer Apsley Cherry-Garrard, scattered cautious hints about Scott’s quality as a commander—and more or less gave the game away with its title. (It is generally thought to be the best single account written by any member of the Shackleton-Scott-Amundsen South Pole race.) But when Huntford was finished with Scott, even the “heroic” part of his reputation was really no longer tenable.

Huntford’s book was followed by a concerted effort to pry loose that coffin nail he had hammered in so firmly. Scott supporters tried to revive the argument, made in Leonard Huxley’s coyly sanitized 1913 edition of Scott’s diaries, that Scott and his South Pole party had run into unforeseeably horrible weather conditions—conditions confined only to Scott’s route; conditions which, by some terrible magic, failed to impede the nearly contemporaneous, geographically parallel Amundsen journey. Huntford has sometimes been derided in Britain as a vaguely treasonable Norwegian partisan—he speaks and reads the language, which is the sort of intellectual attainment that tends to invite suspicion amongst superpatriots—but if Huntford is a psychic traitor, how fortunate for him that the case against Scott was so easy to make.

Scott made dozens of inexcusable, baffling errors and openly irrational judgments in expedition planning, and much of the time, energy, and expenditure involved was consumed with what can only be called screwing around. The commander messed about with motor sledges and ponies when he should have been seeing to the integrity of his fuel tins and the ski education of his men. Later, when both fared poorly on the trail, he blamed everyone but himself.

Weather may have pushed Scott further and further behind Amundsen, extending the Norwegian’s 11-day head start to 34 days by the time Scott reached the pole. But it can’t really explain why Amundsen’s team, with its efficient “eat the dog teams and dash to the Pole” approach, suffered no casualties while Scott’s sledge-hauling wretches suffered falls, snow blindness, scurvy, and delirium. Cherry-Garrard was aware in the ’20s that Scott’s energy budgeting had been Enron-esque, and came as close to success as it did only through inhuman prodigies of effort. In a time before the discovery of Vitamin C, Amundsen took the possibility of scurvy seriously and used knowledge of Inuit and Viking dietary practices to formulate a completely effective prevention plan. Scott, forced by his financial backers to bring a doctor with Arctic experience along on the expedition, stubbornly ignored evidence-based advice to hunt for and consume as much fresh meat as possible.

When the time came to choose a three-man party to accompany him on the run to the Pole, Scott improvised a new supply arrangement and took four instead. These included the jovial, enormous petty officer Edgar Evans, who felt the effects of poor nutrition most and died first, and the famous Captain Oates, whose Boer War wound left him especially vulnerable to scurvy and fatigue. Oates, as every good Anglo-Saxon child knows, had to commit suicide to give the last three survivors even a miserably slender chance at making it back to camp.

It is hard to see Scott as anything but criminally negligent unless one possesses some prior, arbitrary emotional commitment to his legend. He wrote the story of his own last days, and it is hard to find any reason to admire him that doesn’t depend on blind faith in that account, which was written with reputation foremost in mind. He was a great believer in morale and élan, an inexhaustible lugger of grudges, and a self-promoter unto the last strokes of his pen. It is difficult to imagine that he could have been of much comfort to his disillusioned charges in their final frigid days. Long may his self-appointed vindicators continue to feel Huntford’s coolly apportioned wrath.

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