After this, I’ll be quiet about Antarctica for awhile

They did it.

They walked 1800 miles in 105 days, following Scott’s footsteps, and made it back to safety at Scott Base, Antarctica. And made history.

The band of armchair explorers followed on the blog, Google Earth, and Twitter yesterday evening as Ben and Tarka walked the final miles. The online community was buzzing. I can only imagine what the reception was like at Scott Base. And their relief. And how overwhelming people and buildings and furniture and everything else must have seemed.

There’s a webcam at Scott Base, with a bleak view of some storage containers, vans, and the choppy ocean. Last night, some online followers were begging the expedition support team to ask Ben and Tarka to step out in front of the camera.

At one point after their arrival, briefly, someone (or two) stepped into the lower right corner of the frame, and I took a screen capture. Was it B&T? I’ve no clue. But let’s just say it was.

Ben and Tarks at Scott Base?

I don’t know exactly why I’m so obsessed with Scott’s story, but I just plain am. And thank you for bearing with me.

I’ll wrap this all up by leaving you in the words of others: of the Irish poet Derek Mahon, who writes about the terrible last words and moments of Captain Lawrence Oates, who walked out into the white and never returned; of Herbert Ponting, expedition photographer, who survived; and of Edward Wilson, some say Scott’s closest friend, who perished with him in the tent, 11 miles short of One Ton depot.

Antarctica

‘I am just going outside and may be some time.’
The others nod, pretending not to know.
At the heart of the ridiculous, the sublime.
He leaves them reading and begins to climb,
Goading his ghost into the howling snow;
He is just going outside and may be some time.
The tent recedes beneath its crust of rime
And frostbite is replaced by vertigo:
At the heart of the ridiculous, the sublime.
Need we consider it some sort of crime,
This numb self-sacrifice of the weakest? No,
He is just going outside and may be some time
In fact, for ever. Solitary enzyme,
Though the night yield no glimmer there will glow,
At the heart of the ridiculous, the sublime.
He takes leave of the earthly pantomime
Quietly, knowing it is time to go.
‘I am just going outside and may be some time.’
At the heart of the ridiculous, the sublime.

–Derek Mahon, Gallery Press, 1985

The Sleeping Bag

On the outside grows the furside. On the inside grows the skinside.
So the furside is the outside and the skinside is the inside.
As the skinside is the inside (and the furside is the outside)
One ‘side’ likes the skinside inside and the furside on the outside.
Others like the skinside outside and the furside on the inside
As the skinside is the hard side and the furside is the soft side.
If you turn the skinside outside, thinking you will side with that ‘side’,
Then the soft side furside’s inside, which some argue is the wrong side.
If you turn the furside outside – as you say, it grows on that side,
Then your outside’s next the skinside, which for comfort’s not the right side.
For the skinside is the cold side and your outside’s not your warm side
And the two cold sides coming side-by-side are not the right sides one ‘side’ decides.
If you decide to side with that ‘side’, turn the outside furside inside
Then the hard side, cold side, skinside’s, beyond all question, inside outside.

–Herbert George Ponting
from South Polar Times, Vol. 1, 1911

The Barrier Silence

The silence was deep with a breathe like sleep
As our sledge runners slid on the snow,
the fate-full fall of our fur-clad feet
Struck mute like a silent blow
On a questioning “hush” as the settling crust
Shrank shivering over the floe;
And the sledge in its track sent a whisper back
Which was lost in a white fog-bow.
And this was the thought that the Silence wrought
As it scorched and froze us through,
Though secrets hidden are all forbidden
Till God means man to know,
We might be the men God meant to know
The heart of the Barrier snow,
In the heat of the sun, and the glow
And the glare from the glistening floe,
As it scorched and froze us through and through
With the bite of the drifting snow.

–Edward Adrian Wilson from South Polar Times, Vol. 3, 1911

The real goal is coming home

For the two or three of you not following the Scott Expedition blog on Boxing Day, refreshing your screen every hour through the evening, I’m happy to report that Ben and Tarka made it to the South Pole on December 26, 2013.

As Ben puts it, the scene was nothing like Scott’s arrival in that cold, desolate spot 101 years ago, yet entirely similar:

In short, I’m afraid to say -though it’s probably quite apt- that I concur with Captain Scott himself when he said of the South Pole “Great God this is an awful place”. For him, of course, there was nothing there at all. A patch of snow at the heart of a barren, deeply inhospitable continent. For us, it felt like walking into a cross between an airport, a junkyard and a military base. Or perhaps a scene that was omitted from a Star Wars film: skiing along with sacks swinging from our backs, futuristic mirrored goggles and hoods framed by coyote fur, we looked like two bounty hunters approaching some sort of outpost on a frozen planet.

In both cases, they were just happy to turn away from the long-aimed for spot and head for home.

And that, of course, is the tricky part. After 60+ days of pulling hard, laying depots, walking through whiteouts, and expending everything, they now have to retrace their steps, find the cached depots, and hope they planned well enough and travel quickly enough to make it back to safety.

There’s a sense that, in this Internet age, Ben and Tarka are not so alone as Scott, Bowers, Wilson, Evans, and Oates because we are watching. They’re in satellite communication with their base team and us, uploading blog posts, videos, and photos. But that really doesn’t lessen the hard work ahead that only they can do, one step at a time. They are most definitely out there on their own, walking another 900 miles across Antarctica to safety.

That they’ve chosen to make this journey of their own free will, just to see if they can do it, doesn’t mean it isn’t devilishly difficult to do. Many before, who had no more reason to go than the desire to do it, have tried and failed.

This armchair explorer, warm by her fire, will be watching with bated breath.

~~~~~~~~
p.s. In a semi-related story, Conservators of the New Zealand Antarctic Trust have recently discovered a box of 22 negatives left by Shackleton’s Ross Sea Party. The negatives were found in a block of ice in Scott’s hut. Shackleton didn’t make it to the South Pole, but he made it home. And now so have these amazing photos.

All this and a mystery, too

Phoebe's Field

Rainy day.

I’ve been quite inclined to do very little. But the dog will have none of that.

We walked in the rain, which is actually very fun, assuming 1) you abandon yourself to getting wet, and, 2) you can come home to dry, clean clothes.

The walking gave me time to think about words and things I ought to be doing and people I miss. It also gave me time to watch the river, in a big ol’ hurry to get over the rocks and under the bridge, where it settles into a slower flow.

Columbine

High water

After we got home, I dried the dog with a towel, then went to make tea. The dog disappeared. I don’t know where he went. I looked upstairs to make sure that I wouldn’t find a soggy dog on the guest bed. Nope. No dog.

I looked on our bed, but all I found was a napping cat. I didn’t find the dog anywhere. After awhile, he reappeared and curled up on his bed next to my desk. I’m trying not to pry, but am very curious where he was.

A Wednesday mystery.

I think that’s kind of great.

And all this is mine.

Bouquet

This afternoon, I’m turning that rhubarb into jam by roasting it with brown sugar, ginger, and cinnamon.

Oh, and I enjoyed reading this article about R.F. Scott’s Antarctic medicine chest.

And this? Well this just made me smile.

How the story ends

If you were reading this blog last year this time, you’ll remember that we followed Robert Falcon Scott in his journey to the South Pole and back (or nearly).

100 years ago today, eight months after Scott and the polar party perished, just 11 miles from One Ton Depot, where extra fuel and food was cached, the bodies of the polar party were found.

The polar party had never returned to Hut Point from their attempt on the pole the previous year. Those remaining at Hut Point waited, not knowing if Scott and his party had reached the pole or not. As winter came on, they began to worry, but continued under order to resupply One Ton, hoping to meet Scott there (perhaps delayed by storms or illness). They made at least two other attempts that winter to find Scott’s party before determining that the pole party likely had perished.

On October 29, 1912, a search party set out with a team of mules. On November 12, they came upon the snow-covered tent that contained the frozen bodies of Scott, Wilson, and Bowers. In the tent, they also found letters and journals that detailed the horrible journey, up until the expedition’s last hours.

In addition to the letters Scott wrote to the public, there was this heartbreaking letter of farewell to his wife, Kathleen.

You can read the transcript of this letter here, at the wonderful blog, Letters of Note.

Equally moving is Apsley Cherry-Garrard’s account of the discovery of the bodies. Cherry-Garrard, as a member of the Antarctic expedition and search party, recorded the events in his book, The Worst Journey in the World:

November 12 [1912]… Nearly mid-day. 11-12 miles south of One Ton. We have found them—to say it has been a ghastly day cannot express it—it is too bad for words. The tent was there, about half-a-mile to the west of our course, and close to a drifted-up cairn of last year. It was covered with snow and looked just like a cairn, only an extra gathering of snow showing where the ventilator was, and so we found the door.

It was drifted up some 2-3 feet to windward. Just by the side two pairs of ski sticks, or the topmost half of them, appeared over the snow, and a bamboo which proved to be the mast of the sledge.

Their story I am not going to try and put down. They got to this point on March 21, and on the 29th all was over.

Nor will I try and put down what there was in that tent. Scott lay in the centre, Bill on his left, with his head towards the door, and Birdie on his right, lying with his feet towards the door.

Bill especially had died very quietly with his hands folded over his chest. Birdie also quietly.

Oates’ death was a very fine one. We go on to-morrow to try and find his body. He was glad that his regiment would be proud of him.

They reached the Pole a month after Amundsen.

We have everything—records, diaries, etc. They have among other things several rolls of photographs, a meteorological log kept up to March 13, and, considering all things, a great many geological specimens. And they have stuck to everything. It is magnificent that men in such case should go on pulling everything that they have died to gain. I think they realized their coming end a long time before. By Scott’s head was tobacco: there is also a bag of tea.

Atkinson gathered every one together and read to them the account of Oates’ death given in Scott’s Diary: Scott expressly states that he wished it known. His (Scott’s) last words are:

“For God’s sake take care of our people.”

Then Atkinson read the lesson from the Burial Service from Corinthians. Perhaps it has never been read in a more magnificent cathedral and under more impressive circumstances—for it is a grave which kings must envy. Then some prayers from the Burial Service: and there with the floor-cloth under them and the tent above we buried them in their sleeping-bags—and surely their work has not been in vain.[291]

That scene can never leave my memory. We with the dogs had seen Wright turn away from the course by himself and the mule party swerve right-handed ahead of us. He had seen what he thought was a cairn, and then something looking black by its side. A vague kind of wonder gradually gave way to a real alarm. We came up to them all halted. Wright came across to us. ‘It is the tent.’ I do not know how he knew. Just a waste of snow: to our right the remains of one of last year’s cairns, a mere mound: and then three feet of bamboo sticking quite alone out of the snow: and then another mound, of snow, perhaps a trifle more pointed. We walked up to it. I do not think we quite realized—not for very long—but some one reached up to a projection of snow, and brushed it away. The green flap of the ventilator of the tent appeared, and we knew that the door was below.

Two of us entered, through the funnel of the outer tent, and through the bamboos on which was stretched the lining of the inner tent. There was some snow—not much—between the two linings. But inside we could see nothing—the snow had drifted out the light. There was nothing to do but to dig the tent out. Soon we could see the outlines. There were three men here.

Bowers and Wilson were sleeping in their bags. Scott had thrown back the flaps of his bag at the end. His left hand was stretched over Wilson, his lifelong friend. Beneath the head of his bag, between the bag and the floor-cloth, was the green wallet in which he carried his diary. The brown books of diary were inside: and on the floor-cloth were some letters.

Everything was tidy. The tent had been pitched as well as ever, with the door facing down the sastrugi, the bamboos with a good spread, the tent itself taut and shipshape. There was no snow inside the inner lining. There were some loose pannikins from the cooker, the ordinary tent gear, the personal belongings and a few more letters and records—personal and scientific. Near Scott was a lamp formed from a tin and some lamp wick off a finnesko. It had been used to burn the little methylated spirit which remained. I think that Scott had used it to help him to write up to the end. I feel sure that he had died last—and once I had thought that he would not go so far as some of the others. We never realized how strong that man was, mentally and physically, until now.

We sorted out the gear, records, papers, diaries, spare clothing, letters, chronometers, finnesko, socks, a flag. There was even a book which I had lent Bill for the journey—and he had brought it back. Somehow we learnt that Amundsen had been to the Pole, and that they too had been to the Pole, and both items of news seemed to be of no importance whatever. There was a letter there from Amundsen to King Haakon. There were the personal chatty little notes we had left for them on the Beardmore—how much more important to us than all the royal letters in the world.

We dug down the bamboo which had brought us to this place. It led to the sledge, many feet down, and had been rigged there as a mast. And on the sledge were some more odds and ends—a piece of paper from the biscuit box: Bowers’ meteorological log: and the geological specimens, thirty pounds of them, all of the first importance. Drifted over also were the harnesses, ski and ski-sticks.

Hour after hour, so it seemed to me, Atkinson sat in our tent and read. The finder was to read the diary and then it was to be brought home—these were Scott’s instructions written on the cover. But Atkinson said he was only going to read sufficient to know what had happened—and after that they were brought home unopened and unread. When he had the outline we all gathered together and he read to us the Message to the Public, and the account of Oates’ death, which Scott had expressly wished to be known.

We never moved them. We took the bamboos of the tent away, and the tent itself covered them. And over them we built the cairn.

I do not know how long we were there, but when all was finished, and the chapter of Corinthians had been read, it was midnight of some day. The sun was dipping low above the Pole, the Barrier was almost in shadow. And the sky was blazing—sheets and sheets of iridescent clouds. The cairn and Cross stood dark against a glory of burnished gold.

March 29, 1912 – Last Entry

Since the 21st we have had a continuous gale from W.S.W. and S.W. We had fuel to make two cups of tea apiece and bare food for two days on the 20th. Every day we have been ready to start for our depot 11 miles away, but outside the door of the tent it remains a scene of whirling drift. I do not think we can hope for any better things now. We shall stick it out to the end, but we are getting weaker, of course, and the end cannot be far.

It seems a pity, but I do not think I can write more.
R. SCOTT.

For God’s sake look after our people.

An awful place

January 16, 1912, at a latitude somewhere beyond 89° 42′:

Bowers’ sharp eyes detected what he thought was a cairn; he was uneasy about it, but argued that it must be a sastrugus. Half an hour later he detected a black speck ahead. Soon we knew that this could not be a natural snow feature. We marched on, found that it was a black flag tied to a sledge bearer; near by the remains of a camp; sledge tracks and ski tracks going and coming and the clear trace of dogs’ paws—many dogs. This told us the whole story. The Norwegians have forestalled us and are first at the Pole. It is a terrible disappointment, and I am very sorry for my loyal companions. Many thoughts come and much discussion have we had. To-morrow we must march on to the Pole and then hasten home with all the speed we can compass. All the day dreams must go; it will be a wearisome return. We are descending in altitude—certainly also the Norwegians found an easy way up.

And the next day:

Wednesday, January 17.—Camp 69. T. -22° at start. Night -21°. The Pole. Yes, but under very different circumstances from those expected. We have had a horrible day—add to our disappointment a head wind 4 to 5, with a temperature -22°, and companions labouring on with cold feet and hands.

We started at 7.30, none of us having slept much after the shock of our discovery. We followed the Norwegian sledge tracks for some way; as far as we make out there are only two men. In about three miles we passed two small cairns. Then the weather overcast, and the tracks being increasingly drifted up and obviously going too far to the west, we decided to make straight for the Pole according to our calculations. At 12.30 Evans had such cold hands we camped for lunch—an excellent ‘week-end one.’ We had marched 7.4 miles. Lat. sight gave 89° 53′ 37”. We started out and did 6 1/2 miles due south. To-night little Bowers is laying himself out to get sights in terrible difficult circumstances; the wind is blowing hard, T. -21°, and there is that curious damp, cold feeling in the air which chills one to the bone in no time. We have been descending again, I think, but there looks to be a rise ahead; otherwise there is very little that is different from the awful monotony of past days. Great God! this is an awful place and terrible enough for us to have laboured to it without the reward of priority. Well, it is something to have got here, and the wind may be our friend to-morrow. We have had a fat Polar hoosh in spite of our chagrin, and feel comfortable inside—added a small stick of chocolate and the queer taste of a cigarette brought by Wilson. Now for the run home and a desperate struggle. I wonder if we can do it.

Sometimes it just doesn’t matter how much you want something, how much work you put into it, what you’ve given up, or what you’ve suffered. The universe doesn’t owe you a thing. A blank, white, untouched field of snow doesn’t always mean that the promise offered will be fulfilled. Sometimes it means an awful soul-wearing trudge and the discovery that someone else has beat you to the punch.

Still, you march on. You do the thing you set out to do. You’ve come this far, after all. And when you’ve reached the bottom of the world, you have no other choice than to head back the way you came.

December 14, 1911, 90º S

Amunden's party and Polheim at the South Pole

Since November 1, while we’ve been going about our lives, working, eating, sleeping, writing, fighting, protesting, shopping, laughing, and singing, Scott and Amundsen marched south. And 100 years ago today, Amundsen and four other members of the Norwegian expedition became the first human beings to reach the South pole.

They established a camp, named it Polheim (“Home at the Pole”) and set about making certain they had claim to the pole by taking hourly observations over the next couple of days and performing endless calculations to determine their actual position. Three members of the team set out on a 25-mile round-trip hike in three different directions radiating out from Polheim to ensure that they had “encircled the pole”.

After those men returned, and the calculations were complete, they determined they were still about five-and-a-half miles from standing on the exact pole. They packed two sledges with what they needed for the remaining, brief journey, and, by Amudensen’s account, had a pleasant little ski in a direct line from their first pole camp to the new one.

They set up Polheim again, and spent a day there, taking observations hourly for a further 24 hours, until they determined the pole even more precisely, and then sent two of the party the remaining four miles to be entirely sure of their claim.

Then, finally, on December 17, after they had “thus taken observations as near to the Pole as was humanly possible with the instruments at [their] disposal”, they turned north to head home.

You cannot help but be moved by Amundsen’s own description of leaving the pole and Polheim:

First we set up the little tent we had brought with us in case we should be compelled to divide into two parties. It had been made by our able sailmaker, Rionne, and was of very thin windproof gabardine. Its drab colour made it easily visible against the white surface. Another pole was lashed to the tent-pole, making its total height about 13 feet. On the top of this a little Norwegian flag was lashed fast, and underneath it a pennant, on which “Fram” was painted. The tent was well secured with guy-ropes on all sides. Inside the tent, in a little bag, I left a letter, addressed to H.M. the King, giving information of what we had accomplished. The way home was a long one, and so many things might happen to make it impossible for us to give an account of our expedition. Besides this letter, I wrote a short epistle to Captain Scott, who, I assumed, would be the first to find the tent. Other things we left there were a sextant with a glass horizon, a hypsometer case, three reindeer-skin foot-bags, some kamiks and mits.

When everything had been laid inside, we went into the tent, one by one, to write our names on a tablet we had fastened to the tent-pole. On this occasion we received the congratulations of our companions on the successful result, for the following messages were written on a couple of strips of leather, sewed to the tent

“Good luck,” and “Welcome to 90º.” These good wishes, which we suddenly discovered, put us in very good spirits. They were signed by Beck and Rönne. They had good faith in us. When we had finished this we came out, and the tent-door was securely laced together, so that there was no danger of the wind getting a hold on that side.

And so good-bye to Polheim. It was a solemn moment when we bared our heads and bade farewell to our home and our flag. And then the travelling tent was taken down and the sledges packed. Now the homeward journey was to begin — homeward, step by step, mile after mile, until the whole distance was accomplished. We drove at once into our old tracks and followed them. Many were the times we turned to send a last look to Polheim. The vaporous, white air set in again, and it was not long before the last of Polheim, our little flag, disappeared from view.

Meanwhile, Scott and his men, unaware of Amundsen’s success, trudged on, suffering from bad weather. By December 9, “the ponies were quite done, one and all,” and Scott ordered them shot to put them out of their misery.

They encountered deep drifts of snow that made man-hauling the sledges all the more difficult, frost bite, snow blindness, and many other miseries. On December 13, Scott writes, “A most damnably dismal day.” And on the 14th, the day that Amundsen reached the pole: “Indigestion and the soggy condition of my clothes kept me awake for some time last night, and the exceptional exercise gives bad attacks of cramp. Our lips are getting raw and blistered. The eyes of the party are improving, I am glad to say. We are just starting our march with no very hopeful outlook.”

On the 17th, the day that Amundsen begins his return journey, Scott is still a month from the pole. And that is not nearly the worst of it.

The Pole Journey ~ November 6 – 10, 1911

After reaching the depot at 82º S on the fifth, it appears that Amundsen’s party tarried for two days to rest and resupply before continuing their journey on the 8th. Amundsen’s brief account of the next several days describes the daily trek of thirty-some miles as if it were a leisurely stroll through the Tuscan hills. Not a care in the world.

On the 8th we started southward again, and now made a daily march of about thirty miles. In order to relieve the heavily laden sledges, we formed a depot at every parallel we reached. The journey from lat. 82º to 83º was a pure pleasure trip, on account of the surface and the temperature, which were as favourable as one could wish. Everything went swimmingly until the 9th, when we sighted South Victoria Land and the continuation of the mountain chain, which Shackleton gives on his map, running southeast from Beardmore Glacier. On the same day we reached lat. 83º, and established here Depot No. 4.

In contrast, during those same days, Scott’s party is enduring blizzard conditions and the motor sledges have broken down for good. He writes of his worries about the ponies, who are made miserable by the fine, driving snow. Although there are some bright spots and he keeps his spirits high in most of what he writes, his tone, even at this early stage, is beginning to reveal some despair.

Monday, November 6.—Camp 4. We started in the usual order, arranging so that full loads should be carried if the black dots to the south prove to be the motor. On arrival at these we found our fears confirmed. A note from Evans stated a recurrence of the old trouble. The big end of No. 1 cylinder had cracked, the machine otherwise in good order. Evidently the engines are not fitted for working in this climate, a fact that should be certainly capable of correction. One thing is proved; the system of propulsion is altogether satisfactory. The motor party has proceeded as a man-hauling party as arranged.

With their full loads the ponies did splendidly, even Jehu and Chinaman with loads over 450 lbs. stepped out well and have finished as fit as when they started. Atkinson and Wright both think that these animals are improving…

Tuesday, November 7.—Camp 4. The blizzard has continued throughout last night and up to this time of writing, late in the afternoon. Starting mildly, with broken clouds, little snow, and gleams of sunshine, it grew in intensity until this forenoon, when there was heavy snowfall and the sky overspread with low nimbus cloud. In the early afternoon the snow and wind took off, and the wind is dropping now, but the sky looks very lowering and unsettled.

Last night the sky was so broken that I made certain the end of the blow had come. Towards morning the sky overhead and far to the north was quite clear. More cloud obscured the sun to the south and low heavy banks hung over Ross Island. All seemed hopeful, except that I noted with misgiving that the mantle on the Bluff was beginning to form. Two hours later the whole sky was overcast and the blizzard had fully developed…

The ponies, which had been so comparatively comfortable in the earlier stages, were hit as usual when the snow began to fall.

We have done everything possible to shelter and protect them, but there seems no way of keeping them comfortable when the snow is thick and driving fast. We men are snug and comfortable enough, but it is very evil to lie here and know that the weather is steadily sapping the strength of the beasts on which so much depends. It requires much philosophy to be cheerful on such occasions…

The tents and sledges are badly drifted up, and the drifts behind the pony walls have been dug out several times. I shall be glad indeed to be on the march again, and oh! for a little sun. The ponies are all quite warm when covered by their rugs. Some of the fine drift snow finds its way under the rugs, and especially under the broad belly straps; this melts and makes the coat wet if allowed to remain. It is not easy to understand at first why the blizzard should have such a withering effect on the poor beasts. I think it is mainly due to the exceeding fineness of the snow particles, which, like finely divided powder, penetrate the hair of the coat and lodge in the inner warmths. Here it melts, and as water carries off the animal heat. Also, no doubt, it harasses the animals by the bombardment of the fine flying particles on tender places such as nostrils, eyes, and to lesser extent ears. In this way it continually bothers them, preventing rest. Of all things the most important for horses is that conditions should be placid whilst they stand tethered.

Wednesday, November 8.—Camp 5. Wind with overcast threatening sky continued to a late hour last night. The question of starting was open for a long time, and many were unfavourable. I decided we must go, and soon after midnight the advance guard got away. To my surprise, when the rugs were stripped from the ‘crocks’ they appeared quite fresh and fit….

We are picking up last year’s cairns with great ease, and all show up very distinctly. This is extremely satisfactory for the homeward march. What with pony walls, camp sites and cairns, our track should be easily followed the whole way. Everyone is as fit as can be. It was wonderfully warm as we camped this morning at 11 o’clock; the wind has dropped completely and the sun shines gloriously. Men and ponies revel in such weather. One devoutly hopes for a good spell of it as we recede from the windy northern region. The dogs came up soon after we had camped, travelling easily.

Thursday, November 9.—Camp 6. Sticking to programme, we are going a little over the 10 miles (geo.) nightly…

Things look hopeful. The weather is beautiful—temp. -12°, with a bright sun. Some stratus cloud about Discovery and over White Island. The sastrugi about here are very various in direction and the surface a good deal ploughed up, showing that the Bluff influences the wind direction even out as far as this camp. The surface is hard; I take it about as good as we shall get.

There is an annoying little southerly wind blowing now, and this serves to show the beauty of our snow walls. The ponies are standing under their lee in the bright sun as comfortable as can possibly be.

Friday, November 10.—Camp 7. A very horrid march. A strong head wind during the first part—5 miles (geo.)—then a snowstorm. Wright leading found steering so difficult after three miles (geo.) that the party decided to camp. Luckily just before camping he rediscovered Evans’ track (motor party) so that, given decent weather, we shall be able to follow this. The ponies did excellently as usual, but the surface is good distinctly. The wind has dropped and the weather is clearing now that we have camped. It is disappointing to miss even 1 1/2 miles.

It sounds bad already, doesn’t it? If you didn’t know how the story ends, who would you be rooting for?

I feel gloomy for Scott, that the whole enterprise is doomed even at this early stage in the march, but maybe that’s only because I know how it ends.

I like to imagine that it could have turned out differently, with just a little bit of luck. With more dogs and fewer ponies, with an earlier start or with slightly kinder weather, even for a few critical days, there could have been a happier ending for Scott. In one of the “possible worlds” posited by my semantics professor, Scott reached the pole first, and lived to tell the tale to his grandchildren. And in another, he never went to Antarctica at all. Instead, he opened a gelato shop in Italy, rode his bicycle to work every day, and wrote romance novels in the evenings.

Everything’s possible in the multiverse.

The Pole Journey ~ November 1 – 5, 1911

For those of you wondering how the polar explorers have been faring, below are excerpts from their accounts of the last few days.

As of the 5th, Amundsen has reached a latitude of 82º S., where his last supply depot had been laid, 893 kilometers from the Pole. Scott has not yet reached his One Ton depot, at a latitude of 80º S. Though both parties are at different points on their journeys, the thoughts of both men are, rightly, occupied by the condition and care of the support animals (dogs and ponies) they are relying on at this stage.

From Amundsen:

There was a thick fog next morning, and very disagreeable weather; perhaps we felt it more after the previous fine day. When we passed this way for the first time going south, Hanssen’s dogs had fallen into a crevasse, but it was nothing to speak of; otherwise we had no trouble.

From 81º S. we began to erect beacons at every nine kilometres. The next day we observed the lowest temperature of the whole of this journey: -30.1º F The wind was south-south-east, but not very strong. It did not feel like summer, all the same. We now adopted the habit which we kept up all the way to the south — of taking our lunch while building the beacon that lay half-way in our day’s march. It was nothing very luxurious — three or four dry oatmeal biscuits, that was all. If one wanted a drink, one could mix snow with the biscuit — “bread and water.” It is a diet that is not much sought after in our native latitudes, but latitude makes a very great difference in this world. It anybody had offered us more “bread and water,” we should gladly have accepted it.

That day we crossed the last crevasse for a long time to come, and it was only a few inches wide. The surface looked grand ahead of us; it went in very long, almost imperceptible undulations. We could only notice them by the way in which the beacons we put up often disappeared rather rapidly.

On November 2 we had a gale from the south, with heavy snow. The going was very stiff, but the dogs got the sledges along better than we expected. The temperature rose, as usual, with a wind from this quarter: +14º F. It was a pleasure to be out in such a temperature, although it did blow a little. The day after we had a light breeze from the north. The heavy going of the day before had completely disappeared; instead of it we had the best surface one could desire, and it made our dogs break into a brisk gallop. That was the day we were to reach the depot in 82º S., but as it was extremely thick, our chances of doing so were small. In the course of the afternoon the distance was accomplished, but no depot was visible. However, our range of vision was nothing to boast of — ten sledge-lengths; not more. The most sensible thing to do, under the circumstances, was to camp and wait till it cleared.

At four o’clock next morning the sun broke through. We let it get warm and disperse the fog, and then went out. What a morning it was — radiantly clear and mild. So still, so still lay the mighty desert before us, level and white on every side. But, no; there in the distance the level was broken: there was a touch of colour on the white. The third important point was reached, the extreme outpost of civilization. Our last depot lay before us; that was an unspeakable relief. The victory now seemed half won… The depot stood as we had made it, and the sledge as we had left it. Falling snow and drift had not been sufficient to cover even this. The little drift that there was offered an excellent place for the tent, being hard and firm. We at once set about the work that had to be done. First, Uranus was sent into the next world, and although he had always given us the impression of being thin and bony, it was now seen that there were masses of fat along his back; he would be much appreciated when we reached here on the return. Jaala did not look as if she would fulfil the conditions, but we gave her another night. The dogs’ pemmican in the depot was just enough to give the dogs a good feed and load up the sledges again. We were so well supplied with all other provisions that we were able to leave a considerable quantity behind for the return journey.

Next day we stayed here to give the dogs a thorough rest for the last time. We took advantage of the fine weather to dry our outfit and check our instruments. When evening came we were all ready, and now we could look back with satisfaction to the good work of the autumn; we had fully accomplished what we aimed at — namely, transferring our base from 78º 38′ to 82º S. Jaala had to follow Uranus; they were both laid on the top of the depot, beside eight little ones that never saw the light of day. During our stay here we decided to build beacons at every fifth kilometre, and to lay down depots at every degree of latitude. Although the dogs were drawing the sledges easily at present, we knew well enough that in the long-run they would find it hard work if they were always to have heavy weights to pull. The more we could get rid of, and the sooner we could begin to do so, the better.

From Scott (note that Jehu, Michael, Nobby, Chinaman, Christopher, Bones, and Snippets are the ponies):

November 1.—Last night we heard that Jehu had reached Hut Point in about 5 1/2 hours. This morning we got away in detachments—Michael, Nobby, Chinaman were first to get away about 11 A.M. The little devil Christopher was harnessed with the usual difficulty and started in kicking mood, Oates holding on for all he was worth.

Bones ambled off gently with Crean, and I led Snippets in his wake. Ten minutes after Evans and Snatcher passed at the usual full speed.

The wind blew very strong at the Razor Back and the sky was threatening—the ponies hate the wind. A mile south of this island Bowers and Victor passed me, leaving me where I best wished to be—at the tail of the line.

About this place I saw that one of the animals ahead had stopped and was obstinately refusing to go forward again. I had a great fear it was Chinaman, the unknown quantity, but to my relief found it was my old friend ‘Nobby’ in obstinate mood. As he is very strong and fit the matter was soon adjusted with a little persuasion from Anton behind. Poor little Anton found it difficult to keep the pace with short legs.

Snatcher soon led the party and covered the distance in four hours. Evans said he could see no difference at the end from the start—the little animal simply romped in. Bones and Christopher arrived almost equally fresh, in fact the latter had been bucking and kicking the whole way. For the present there is no end to his devilment, and the great consideration is how to safeguard Oates. Some quiet ponies should always be near him, a difficult matter to arrange with such varying rates of walking. A little later I came up to a batch, Bowers, Wilson, Cherry, and Wright, and was happy to see Chinaman going very strong. He is not fast, but very steady, and I think should go a long way.

Victor and Michael forged ahead again, and the remaining three of us came in after taking a little under five hours to cover the distance.

We were none too soon, as the weather had been steadily getting worse, and soon after our arrival it was blowing a gale.

Thursday, November 2.—Hut Point. The march teaches a good deal as to the paces of the ponies. It reminded me of a regatta or a somewhat disorganised fleet with ships of very unequal speed. The plan of further advance has now been evolved. We shall start in three parties—the very slow ponies, the medium paced, and the fliers. Snatcher starting last will probably overtake the leading unit. All this requires a good deal of arranging. We have decided to begin night marching, and shall get away after supper, I hope. The weather is hourly improving, but at this season that does not count for much. At present our ponies are very comfortably stabled. Michael, Chinaman and James Pigg are actually in the hut. Chinaman kept us alive last night by stamping on the floor. Meares and Demetri are here with the dog team, and Ponting with a great photographic outfit. I fear he won’t get much chance to get results.

Friday, November 3.—Camp 1. A keen wind with some drift at Hut Point, but we sailed away in detachments. Atkinson’s party, Jehu, Chinaman and Jimmy Pigg led off at eight. Just before ten Wilson, Cherry-Garrard and I left. Our ponies marched steadily and well together over the sea ice. The wind dropped a good deal, but the temperature with it, so that the little remaining was very cutting. We found Atkinson at Safety Camp. He had lunched and was just ready to march out again; he reports Chinaman and Jehu tired. Ponting arrived soon after we had camped with Demetri and a small dog team. The cinematograph was up in time to catch the flying rearguard which came along in fine form, Snatcher leading and being stopped every now and again—a wonderful little beast. Christopher had given the usual trouble when harnessed, but was evidently subdued by the Barrier Surface. However, it was not thought advisable to halt him, and so the party fled through in the wake of the advance guard.

After lunch we packed up and marched on steadily as before. I don’t like these midnight lunches, but for man the march that follows is pleasant when, as to-day, the wind falls and the sun steadily increases its heat. The two parties in front of us camped 5 miles beyond Safety Camp, and we reached their camp some half or three-quarters of an hour later. All the ponies are tethered in good order, but most of them are tired—Chinaman and Jehu very tired. Nearly all are inclined to be off feed, but this is very temporary, I think. We have built walls, but there is no wind and the sun gets warmer every minute.

Mirage.—Very marked waving effect to east. Small objects greatly exaggerated and showing as dark vertical lines.

1 P.M.—Feeding time. Woke the party, and Oates served out the rations—all ponies feeding well. It is a sweltering day, the air breathless, the glare intense—one loses sight of the fact that the temperature is low (-22°)—one’s mind seeks comparison in hot sunlit streets and scorching pavements, yet six hours ago my thumb was frostbitten. All the inconveniences of frozen footwear and damp clothes and sleeping-bags have vanished entirely.

A petrol tin is near the camp and a note stating that the motor passed at 9 P.M. 28th, going strong—they have 4 to 5 days’ lead and should surely keep it.

‘Bones has eaten Christopher’s goggles.’

This announcement by Crean, meaning that Bones had demolished the protecting fringe on Christopher’s bridle. These fringes promise very well—Christopher without his is blinking in the hot sun.

Saturday, November 4.—Camp 2. Led march—started in what I think will now become the settled order. Atkinson went at 8, ours at 10, Bowers, Oates and Co. at 11.15. Just after starting picked up cheerful note and saw cheerful notices saying all well with motors, both going excellently. Day wrote ‘Hope to meet in 80° 30′ (Lat.).’ Poor chap, within 2 miles he must have had to sing a different tale. It appears they had a bad ground on the morning of the 29th. I suppose the surface was bad and everything seemed to be going wrong. They ‘dumped’ a good deal of petrol and lubricant. Worse was to follow. Some 4 miles out we met a tin pathetically inscribed, ‘Big end Day’s motor No. 2 cylinder broken.’ Half a mile beyond, as I expected, we found the motor, its tracking sledges and all. Notes from Evans and Day told the tale. The only spare had been used for Lashly’s machine, and it would have taken a long time to strip Day’s engine so that it could run on three cylinders. They had decided to abandon it and push on with the other alone. They had taken the six bags of forage and some odds and ends, besides their petrol and lubricant. So the dream of great help from the machines is at an end! The track of the remaining motor goes steadily forward, but now, of course, I shall expect to see it every hour of the march.

The ponies did pretty well—a cruel soft surface most of the time, but light loads, of course. Jehu is better than I expected to find him, Chinaman not so well. They are bad crocks both of them.

It was pretty cold during the night, -7° when we camped, with a crisp breeze blowing. The ponies don’t like it, but now, as I write, the sun is shining through a white haze, the wind has dropped, and the picketing line is comfortable for the poor beasts.

This, 1 P.M., is the feeding hour—the animals are not yet on feed, but they are coming on.

The wind vane left here in the spring shows a predominance of wind from the S.W. quarter. Maximum scratching, about S.W. by W.

Sunday, November 5.—Camp 3. ‘Corner Camp.’ We came over the last lap of the first journey in good order—ponies doing well in soft surface, but, of course, lightly loaded. To-night will show what we can do with the heavier weights. A very troubled note from Evans (with motor) written on morning of 2nd, saying maximum speed was about 7 miles per day. They have taken on nine bags of forage, but there are three black dots to the south which we can only imagine are the deserted motor with its loaded sledges. The men have gone on as a supporting party, as directed. It is a disappointment. I had hoped better of the machines once they got away on the Barrier Surface.

The appetites of the ponies are very fanciful. They do not like the oil cake, but for the moment seem to take to some fodder left here. However, they are off that again to-day. It is a sad pity they won’t eat well now, because later on one can imagine how ravenous they will become. Chinaman and Jehu will not go far I fear.

Five cool things on Friday

  • While doing a little Scott research last night, I came across the British Library’s online collection of books and manuscripts, where you can view extracts of Scott’s actual journal, written in his own hand, including the final, heartbreaking entries.
  • We’ve had a minor-but-to-us-undecipherable electrical problem since spring. This morning, I got in touch with an electrician who’s done some work for us before to see if he had some time soon to stop by and troubleshoot the problem. Turns out he was coming past our house on his way to another job today, so he said he’d stop in. He did. He let the dog jump on him and kiss him. Then he fixed the electrical problem in about two minutes. Then he refused payment. I think that electrician deserves some cookies, don’t you?
  • I’m a bit late on posting this, but if you’re a baker and are thinking of placing an order from King Arthur Flour in the next couple of days, you can use this link to get a 20% discount on your order of $90 or more. King Arthur is extending this offer to readers of this blog through November 6, 2011. If you use it to buy ingredients for cookies, I can give you the address of our amazing electrician.
  • Curious about this whole NaBloPoMo thing and who else is doing it and what they’re writing about? You can read all about it here, and you can browse participants’ daily entries by looking at the comments list here. The blogroll says there are 2106 of us, to date!
  • You really should see this:

    Murmuration from Sophie Windsor Clive on Vimeo.