I am just going outside and may be some time

by Harry on July 24, 2009

Horrible Histories (the best thing currently on television in Britain?) takes a less jingoistic view of Britain than the Ladybird Books—the 3 minutes history of the British Empire is, alas, not yet up on youtube, but there’s plenty else there: Witchfinders Direct; Christians versus Lions; Born 2 Rule; etc.

Btw, according to wikipedia, not only was Titus Oates not really called Titus (I always thought it was odd that there were two of them), but he disliked Scott intensely, which makes the whole thing seem even more tragic.

{ 49 comments }

1

belle le triste 07.24.09 at 10:26 pm

Oates wasn’t christened Titus Oates but — according to Apsley Cherry Garrard’s and Herbert Ponting’s accounts — everyone on the expedition did in fact call him Titus because that’s what you called someone whose surname is Oates

Roland Huntford’s version of the debacle is probably overdrawn — Huntford’s obsessive contempt for Scott is a marvel to behold — but if you want an idea of how more horrible the last days were than you want to imagine, his is the book to read (Oates had had the option to turn back before the Pole, with Lt Evans’s party — but declined it out of a mixture of pride, stubbornness, and obscurely wanting to punish Scott for his lack of judgment in picking Oates, who was by then a lot less fit than he was able to make out: this is basically Huntford’s contorted but fascinating reading… )

2

Phil 07.24.09 at 11:05 pm

everyone on the expedition did in fact call him Titus because that’s what you called someone whose surname is Oates

As in Nobby Clark, Dusty Miller etc. Near-universal nicknames went along with the universal use of surnames, e.g. at boys’ schools, and over time many of them got standardised.

3

belle le triste 07.24.09 at 11:12 pm

Oates’s non-nickname initials were L. E. G., which amused me as a kid because they spelled LEGO.

4

John Quiggin 07.24.09 at 11:35 pm

Australia pioneered this genre with Burke and Wills.

5

Matt 07.25.09 at 12:19 am

How nice- I didn’t know there were videos. My wife claims that most of what she knows of British history she learned from the books. They are surprisingly hard to get in the US but we bought a few more when we were in England recently.

6

Alex 07.25.09 at 12:56 am

Rather than an idiot romantic classicist hero, Oates was a logistics specialist, which makes it that much more depressing. As he said, Scott “needed to read a shilling book on transport”.

7

Richard Cownie 07.25.09 at 1:25 am

Scott was a damn fool. All the rations and depots were calculated to support a 4-man
polar party, and at the last minute, when it was way too late to increase the supplies,
he changed the plan and took 5 men to the Pole. That would have made them totally
vulnerable to any mishap or delay – even if the planned rations hadn’t been inadequate
for the heavy work of man-hauling sledges, so that they were all slowly starving to
start with.

At exactly the same time, Amundsen’s party reached the Pole faster and with far
less hardship, using dogs all the way there and back.

I highly recommend Apsley Cherry-Garrard’s “The Worst Journey In The World” for a
first-hand account of the Scott expedition.

8

alex 07.25.09 at 7:52 am

He was a damned fool, but he was a magnificent damned fool, which was all that mattered… Pre-WW1 Antarctic exploration was a fool’s errand on an absurdly large scale, but an entirely predictable outcome of the soldier-hero mentality, which had reached its end-point in the idea that it was better to die doing something extraordinary than to live. Some people do still think like that, of course, but we are rather less likely to make national heroes of them – or are we?

9

ejh 07.25.09 at 8:12 am

everyone on the expedition did in fact call him Titus because that’s what you called someone whose surname is Oates

They wouldn’t if he was a footballer. They’d probably call him “Porridge”.

(Or “Oatsey”, of course.)

10

ejh 07.25.09 at 8:14 am

By the way, you can get the books in Spanish, though for some reason they retain the largely English topics which not surprisingly makes them hard to sell.

11

belle le triste 07.25.09 at 11:08 am

Richard’s right that the five-for-four decision was the signal catastrophe.

Not quite right though about the depoted food: the return depots (by then) contained food for eight, bagged up in sets of four. So if the parties came back split three-five, it was a matter of ensuring that a quarter of the opened provision was not touched: stupidly fiddly — and in stressed circumstances an unfair imposition on the three — but not actually impossible. In the event, from the point the returning Polar Party lost Seaman Evans, they were sharing five men’s among four.

But yes, it’s quite true — and a mark of the expedition’s poor organisation — that the rations had been calculated in respect of good-weather marches by well men in favourable conditions, with no margin for error; they also entirely lacked vitamin C (which is why Lt Evans came down with scurvy; the dying polar party was certainly also scurvied, though Dr Atkinson, who saw three of the bodies, never made this public); vitamins had not yet been discovered, but the problem of scurvy was well-known to the British Navy — as were its preventatives, it’s why Brits are called Limeys…

(Amundsen’s rations were rich in vitamin C. Amundsen — a more tragic figure, in the end, than Scott — was a genius, who found only ashes and hollowness in the aftermath of his brilliantly planned and executed triumph.)

Would all have lived if Scott had chosen four — the fittest, most able four* — to go on with him, and sent four back? Lt Evans would (presumably) have come down with scurvy exactly when and where he did; if his companions had been an underfed but presumably not heartbroken** Seaman Evans and a very lame Oates, as well as Crean or Lashly? I think it would still have been squeaky, to be honest: the Polar Party’s lifeline was incredibly slender.

*Himself, Wilson, Bowers and one of Lashly or Crean. He picked Oates and Seaman Evans largely for sentimental and symbolic reasons (to represent the army and “below-decks” at the pole); and improvised the fifth, Bowers, for much foggier reasons. Because he wanted the quartermaster to share the glory? Because he was half-aware that his team was not as fit as it might be (though Oates kept his increasing unfitness to himself; and Evans’s horrible gashed hand only happened, iirc, as a result of the changing plans — he had to shorten a sledge in sub-zero temperatures…)? Scott had — for reasons no one has ever explained — earlier ordered Bowers to depot his skiis; so Bowers had to footmarch and man-haul some 900 miles when all the others were on skiis, until they returned to the spot the skiis were depoted.
**Seaman Evans was a large man, so more affected than the others by inadequate rations. He had badly injured his hand, which in the cold and absence of vitamin C entirely failed to heal. And he was (apparently) emotionally shattered by the discovery that they were not first at the Pole; this disappointment he would have dodged if he’d been sent back with Lt Evans, at least till he was safe back at camp.

12

gbh 07.25.09 at 2:46 pm

Huntford’s contempt is a marvel and led me to think I might have to read a few more books on the subject to cover my bases.

13

r gould-saltman 07.25.09 at 7:40 pm

“He was a damned fool, but he was a magnificent damned fool, which was all that mattered… Pre-WW1 Antarctic exploration was a fool’s errand on an absurdly large scale, but an entirely predictable outcome of the soldier-hero mentality, which had reached its end-point in the idea that it was better to die doing something extraordinary than to live.”

Consider the similar world-view, post-WW2, which enabled the U.S. (and Russian) space program, and the absence of which, for better or worse, now slows its resumption.

Go back and take a look at how much the early manned space shots basically consisted of putting one or more guys in the smallest tin can consistent with keeping them alive (and btw, filling the rest of the can with straight oxygen and a bunch of hot, and flammable, electronic gear) strapping the whole gizmo to the top of one or more large rocket-boosters (almost none of the varieties of which had a record unblemished by at least one catastrophic failure) and lighting the thing off.

14

evil is evil 07.25.09 at 11:21 pm

If you get off on tragic journeys, you might want to check out the fate of the trip wire squad which was dropped of on one of the forward Aleutian Islands sometime immediately after the attack on Pearl Harbor to call in to Dutch Harbor and warn them the Japanese were coming. I heard this story when my father was very drunk and I was very young, but apparently a squad from the Arkansas National Guard who were sent to Alaska in 1940 (Look up Simon Bolivar Buchner in wikipedia) were sent out to be a listening outpost and my father was promoted to lead the squad because he was the oldest. He never even had basic training, just activated and shipped to Alaska. They were dropped off with insufficient food, every thing was wet, they either had three radios and a machine gun or three machine guns and one radio. Anyway they never made contact with Dutch Harbor and they were forgotten. Finally when they were rescued there were serious questions, one of my sisters who was at his death bed in a VA hospital because a stomach cancer was diagnosed as Cirrhosis

15

evil is evil 07.26.09 at 12:04 am

If you get off on tragic journeys, you might want to check out the fate of the trip wire squad which was dropped off on one of the forward Aleutian Islands sometime immediately after the attack on Pearl Harbor to call in to Dutch Harbor by radio and warn them the Japanese were coming. I heard this story when my father was very drunk and I was very young, but apparently a squad from the Arkansas National Guard who were sent to Alaska in early 1941 (Look up Simon Bolivar Buchner in wikipedia, there was an army in Alaska long before Pearl Harbor) were sent out to be a listening outpost and my father was promoted to lead the squad because he was the oldest. He never even had basic training, just activated and shipped to Alaska. They were dropped off with insufficient food, every thing was wet, they either had three radios and a machine gun or three machine guns and one radio. Anyway they never made contact with Dutch Harbor and they were forgotten. Men died from drinking the antifreeze from the water cooled machine gun(s). Finally when they were rescued there were serious questions. One of my sisters was at his death bed in a VA hospital. She told me that he was held on an island in Dutch Harbor while the army and navy fought out who was technically the commander of the troops. She said, he said, “The only reason I lived was the Army won the argument and they didn’t have a charge for cannibalism. The Navy did, the punishment was death and we were guilty, we drew straws for died next.”

16

Richard Cownie 07.26.09 at 1:41 am

“He was a damned fool, but he was a magnificent damned fool, which was all that mattered… “

Not really. Now Shackleton *was* magnificent – his expedition got within 100 miles of
the Pole and he had the good sense to turn back. He never lost a man – the way he led his
entire party to rescue – a long voyage across antarctic seas in an open boat, and then a trek
over the unexplored mountains of South Georgia Island (?) to a whaling station – is just
astonishing. Scott wanted to outdo Shackleton, but he had no noticeable talent either for
logistics or leadership, and got all the details wrong. And the result was an epic fail.

“Not quite right though about the depoted food: the return depots (by then) contained food for eight, bagged up in sets of four. So if the parties came back split three-five, it was a matter of ensuring that a quarter of the opened provision was not touched”

No. Sending another man all the way to the Pole meant a significant increase in the total
number of man-days of travel (one man travelling a considerable extra distance), which would
imply that someone sometime would be on rations even lower than planned (or that someone
would die along the way, as also happened).

The expedition was poorly planned in just about every way: man-hauling was slow and
inefficient; the motorized sledges couldn’t handle the cold; the ponies were not much use.
The planned rations were inadequate; the lack of vitamin C was just stupid. And the
fuel containers allowed precious fuel to evaporate. It wasn’t magnificent, it was just a
total screwup.

17

Alex 07.26.09 at 7:11 pm

It still amazes me, all these years after being given Scott of the Antarctic as a little boy (who says childhood in Britain isn’t an Edwardian invention? even with computers), that they took ponies to the Antarctic. Ponies! Of course, at the time they used hordes of them down collieries, but even so…

18

ajay 07.27.09 at 10:07 am

Amundsen—a more tragic figure, in the end, than Scott—was a genius, who found only ashes and hollowness in the aftermath of his brilliantly planned and executed triumph.

Well, yes and no. Amundsen’s trip through the Passage on Gjoa was incredibly foolhardy – he didn’t take a doctor because he thought having one would only encourage his men to get sick. And Scott’s planning was poor, but he would have made it if not for the worst Antarctic winter in years – the snow was so cold that it stuck to the sledge runners, slowing their progress massively. (And shrunk the leather washers around their fuel flasks, allowing the fuel to leak out.)
But success excuses everything. Look at Nansen. If he hadn’t been incredibly lucky and encountered the Jackson-Harmsworth Expedition on Franz Josef Land, he would be remembered as the strange nutter Norwegian, who came up with the brilliant design of a ship that could survive the polar ice, and then, halfway across the top of the world, went mad, abandoned his ship and the rest of his crew, skied off into the mist and was never seen again – a sort of polar Donald Crowhurst.

19

belle le triste 07.27.09 at 11:15 am

“his brilliantly planned and executed triumph” means “his single brilliantly planned and executed triumph” — his entire life’s achievement is focused in one event, and that’s overshadowed by someone else’s catastrophe; this is why i think he’s as more tragic figure than scott

“unlucky with the weather” in the antarctic is a bit of a rubbish excuse

the fram journey is indeed insane: though not quite as insane as those french guys who tried to balloon to the pole, crash landed nowhere near it, and poisoned themselves by eating a polar bear’s liver

20

ejh 07.27.09 at 11:24 am

I need to share the fantastic fact that “Bob Dylan’s Dream” takes its melody from Lady Franklin’s Lament. Ta.

21

Richard Cownie 07.27.09 at 11:58 am

“And Scott’s planning was poor, but he would have made it if not for the worst Antarctic winter in years”

Fooey. Amundsen had the exact same weather to deal with, and got there and back with
no great hardship. Of Scott’s five-man polar party, Evans died on the Beardmore descent,
Oates, crippled by frostbite, had to sacrifice himself, and the remaining three were in
terrible shape. Scott’s sledging ration provided about 4500 calories, when the work of
man-hauling burnt 6000. Reading the accounts, it’s evident that every lengthy man-hauling
journey on Scott’s expeditions ended up with about half the participants sick and/or too weak
to work. Over and over again, it was evident that the sledging ration was not enough to
keep people healthy and effective. But for Scott, the suffering seemed to be the point: it
wasn’t enough just to achieve the goal, you had to achieve the goal the hard way with
aching muscles and frostbite and malnutrition. And then when you got back, you had a big
pissing match over who had held up best and who had broken down. It was insane.

Now Shackleton was in the same tradition (and was motivated in large part by just that
kind of pissing match with Scott) – but he didn’t take it to the point where people died.
The only person who died under Shackleton’s leadership was Shackleton himself (of a
heart attack). And his brilliant improvisation and inspiring leadership to rescue his
whole expedition after the loss of the Endurance was astonishing.

22

Phil 07.27.09 at 1:12 pm

“Bob Dylan’s Dream” takes its melody from Lady Franklin’s Lament

And its framing – the first and last verses are very similar. I actually learnt it for a recent folk club Dylan night (reported here), but the words irritated me too much in the end.

The tune is known as The Croppy Boy and gets used a lot. See also McCaffery (a true story, surprisingly enough).

23

ajay 07.27.09 at 4:05 pm

Fooey. Amundsen had the exact same weather to deal with, and got there and back with
no great hardship.

No, he didn’t, he was doing the journey a month before Scott. Having (SPOILERS) got to the pole first.

As noted above, it wasn’t Amundsen’s only achievement – he was also the first man to traverse the North-West Passage.

Don’t forget, too, that Scott very nearly made it. If not for an eleven-day blizzard (unheard of at that time of year) he would probably have made it to One Ton Camp, which would have given him, Bowers and Wilson a fighting chance of travelling the rest of the way back. (Admittedly if Scott had laid One Ton Camp where he planned, instead of much further north, he’d have reached it much earlier). Given how close he came, it’s difficult to say that the journey was entirely ill-planned.

As for Nansen, belle, the Fram expedition was daring but entirely sensible – the insane part was deciding, apparently on the spur of the moment, to leave the ship halfway across and ski towards the pole, trusting to luck for recovery.

24

belle le triste 07.27.09 at 4:43 pm

Interestingly, David Crane’s recent Scott book — which has the family’s imprimatur and generally bends over backwards to be nice to RFS — doesn’t believe in the 11-day blizzard, which he claims is a meteorological impossibility on the barrier (they’re katabatic storms, which sweep down off the polar plateau, but dwindle as soon the cold air up there is depleted): Crane says the impassable 11-day blizzard was four days max, and then in the milder weather Bowers and Wilson stayed, and died, with the now-crippled Scott, out of a sense of loyalty. (Obviously this implies that two of the party were able to get to One-Ton even in the conditions they actually encountered, but elected not to.)

Again, this “oh noez the antarctic is supercold in winter, who knew?” is a pretty lame excuse: Scott was fatally exposed to the terrible season by dint of his own decisions; they simply didn’t know enough about average winters at that stage to justify the gamble they lost; the fact that we know more now doesn’t give Scott a retroactive pass on this.

25

Richard Cownie 07.27.09 at 4:45 pm

“No, he didn’t, he was doing the journey a month before Scott. Having (SPOILERS) got to the pole first.”

By using hardier dogs instead of (rotten) ponies, Amundsen was able to start earlier in the
Antarctic spring, on October 19th, whereas Scott started on November 1st. That was a lead
of 13 days. Amundsen reached the Pole on December 14th, 35 days ahead of Scott. And
they were back to their base at the Bay of Whales on Jan 25th. Scott’s remnant reached their
last position, still about 140 miles from base, on March 19th.

So yeah, he ran into worse weather. But he ran into worse weather because his whole
plan sucked. Dogs were hardier and more effective than ponies; dogs were faster than
man-hauling. Scott had to start later, and he had to go slower, because he preferred
ponies and man-hauling over dogs for stupid pointless reasons. And his whole polar
party died horribly as a result.

In Scott’s own words: “No journey ever made with dogs can approach the height of that fine conception which is realized when a party of men go forth to face hardship, dangers and difficulties with their own unaided efforts… and succeed in solving some problem of the great unknown… Surely in this case the conquest is more nobly and splendidly won.”

26

Richard Cownie 07.27.09 at 4:57 pm

“Again, this “oh noez the antarctic is supercold in winter, who knew?” is a pretty lame excuse:”

http://www.southernexplorations.com/antarctica-tours-cruises/antarctica-Travel-Seasons.htm

Even with his delays, Scott wasn’t really in winter. Spring starts in November, summer is
Jan and Feb, March is autumn. So Amundsen finished his journey in midsummer: Scott’s
party was in deep trouble by the end of summer, and was dead before it was really winter.

Interesting to hear the latest interpretation. It always struck me as weird that none of
Scott, Wilson, and Bowers made any serious effort to make a dash to One Ton Depot and
return with supplies. Surely with an unloaded sled they could have got there in just a few
hours if there were any break in the weather ?

27

ajay 07.27.09 at 5:12 pm

It always struck me as weird that none of
Scott, Wilson, and Bowers made any serious effort to make a dash to One Ton Depot and
return with supplies. Surely with an unloaded sled they could have got there in just a few
hours if there were any break in the weather ?

Yes! Or they could have built hang gliders! Out of their tents! It would have been awesome!

28

Richard Cownie 07.27.09 at 5:39 pm

“Yes! Or they could have built hang gliders! Out of their tents! It would have been awesome!”

They were only 11 miles away. That’s six hours of slow walking. Now obviously they were
malnourished and exhausted, and walking in -40 weather isn’t a picnic. But if you compare the
apparent passivity with which Scott, Bowers, and Wilson lay in their tent starving for 11 days,
against the can-do spirit of Shackleton, who saved his whole expedition after the loss of their
ship by making a journey of hundred of miles in an open boat, and then crossing an unmapped
mountain range to reach a whaling station, the comparison is striking. If Shackleton had
been in that tent, he would have *done* something.

The idea that Scott talked (or even ordered) the others out of making the attempt fits
pretty nicely with my view of his psychology: he *liked* to have a big pissing contest
about who did best on a tough sledging journey; and at the end, maybe he’d settle for a
draw with everyone dying rather than lose the pissing match.

29

belle le triste 07.27.09 at 6:15 pm

Unless I’m being dim, Scott (and indeed Amundsen) had NO datapoints for weather on the barrier as late as mid-March: the first Scott polar party got back to the ship on 3 Feb; the Shackleton polar party got back to the ship on 1 March — and Scott was sceptical of Shackleton’s readings, which he felt were exaggerated.

30

Harry 07.27.09 at 6:33 pm

The only thing that could have made the sketch better would have been to end it with a scroll of that quote RC gives in #25.

31

roac 07.27.09 at 7:18 pm

“Bob Dylan’s Dream” takes its melody from Lady Franklin’s Lament

And “Restless Farewell” is an adaptation of “The Parting Glass.”

32

Phil 07.27.09 at 8:38 pm

“Percy’s Song” is a rewrite of “the Wind and the Rain” (Kilby Snow’s half-remembered rewrite of Two Sisters) – and if you don’t know “Percy’s Song” it’s well worth tracking down.

33

Richard Cownie 07.28.09 at 3:54 am

“But success excuses everything. Look at Nansen. If he hadn’t been incredibly lucky and encountered the Jackson-Harmsworth Expedition on Franz Josef Land,”

Given that Nansen had already survived one Arctic winter by building a hut and hunting
walrus and seal, I think it’s a fair bet that he could have survived and kept heading south
indefinitely until he reached some inhabited land. All these explorers took risks:
the good ones like Nansen and Amundsen calculated their risks carefully and did a lot of
experimentation and practice and preparation. Scott, on the other hand, favored
man-hauling for reasons of its nobility, rather than putting in the effort to learn how to
use dogs well and making a rational judgment about which mode of travel was more
effective. And all the British expeditions tended to be chosen in haphazard ways: hence,
in a period when England was full of expert horsemen, both civilian and military, Scott
ended up sending someone with no knowledge of horses to buy his ponies. And later on,
Scott got his dog-handling expert Meares so fed up that he left the expedition early.

Anyhow, study the rest of Nansen’s career and you’ll see that he was a massive over-achiever
in many fields: a professor of zoology, a pioneer in neuroscience, fluid dynamics, and
oceanography, a statesman and diplomat, and winner of the Nobel Peace Prize for his work
with refugees. I reckon he knew just what he was doing.

34

ejh 07.28.09 at 8:27 am

All these explorers took risks: the good ones like Nansen and Amundsen calculated their risks carefully and did a lot of experimentation and practice and preparation

While I’m mostly sympathetic to that case, it’s worth recalling that Amundsen’s Northwest Passage expedition was forced to set off in a hurry because the bailiffs were about to seize the Gjøa.

35

ajay 07.28.09 at 9:26 am

Give it up, Richard, you’re only embarrassing yourself.

36

belle le triste 07.28.09 at 9:33 am

Cecil Meares is easily the most fascinating figure in the whole Scott story — he steps straight out of Kipling, and, after falling out with Scott, straight back in; almost nothing seems to be known about his life; there’s speculation that he was active in the Great Game in backlands China.

37

Alex 07.28.09 at 10:12 am

Markham was incredibly weird.

38

Gareth Rees 07.28.09 at 11:47 am

They were only 11 miles away. That’s six hours of slow walking.

I concur with ajay.

In The Worst Journey in the World Cherry-Garrard quotes Levick”s account of shifting camp on Inexpressible Island (a journey of no more than a mile) in March 1912: “our journey [...] lay, first of all, across half a mile of clear blue ice, swept by the unbroken wind, which met us almost straight in the face. We could never stand up, so had to scramble the whole distance on ‘all fours,’ lying flat on our bellies in the gusts. By the time we had reached the other side we had had enough. Our faces had been rather badly bitten, and I have a very strong recollection of the men’s countenances, which were a leaden blue, streaked with white patches of frost-bite. Once across, however, we reached the shelter of some large boulders on the shore of the island, and waited here long enough to thaw out our noses, ears, and cheeks.”

39

Richard Cownie 07.28.09 at 2:29 pm

But really, isn’t it weird that they never even *tried* to get to One Ton Depot ? To stay in the
tent once the fuel ran out meant 100% certain death from dehydration. If one or more had
tried to go on it would have given them a chance, no matter how slim.

As for the bad weather, Bowers and Wilson (together with Cherry-Garrard) had been on the
winter sledging trip: they knew travel even in winter conditions was *possible*, even if
painfully slow.

I don’t think the decision to stay in the tent was rational: of course people suffering from
dehydration and hypothermia tend to take bad decisions – but then Scott was still
able to write well, his mental function wasn’t that bad.

40

Richard Cownie 07.28.09 at 2:43 pm

“Markham was incredibly weird.”

Yes. And to modern eyes, isn’t there even an undercurrent of homoeroticism and even
S&M in the emphasis on physique, endurance of pain and suffering, and men wearing
harnesses ? Nansen and Amundsen just wanted to achieve the goal in the most efficient
and least risky way (though “risky” is a relative term in these exploits); Markham and Scott
got some kind of kick out of doing it with pain and suffering.

41

Warren Terra 07.28.09 at 8:32 pm

I realize it’s a bit grisly, but in addition to Amundsen’s dogs simply working better than the ponies Scott brought (to say nothing of the crude motorized vehicles Scott brought), there was a huge logistical advantage to Amundsen’s decision to use dogs: while the ponies had to haul their own feed, at enormous expense, dogs could be fed using other dogs. As I said in my first phrase, decidedly unpretty – but extremely efficient in cutting down on the supplies needed to support them.

RE the upthread notion that because Scott was only a dozen miles from One-Ton Camp he should have toughed it out: I thought the issues were (1) he didn’t know exactly how close he was and (2) in a blizzard he could easily walk right past the Camp.

42

Richard Cownie 07.28.09 at 8:57 pm

“(1) he didn’t know exactly how close he was and (2) in a blizzard he could easily walk right past the Camp”

They didn’t know exactly, but they had a pretty good idea, since they had a fix from the
previous depot, and the sledgemeter (a wheel on the back of the sled) would give them a
dead-reckoning estimate of how far they had travelled since then. The second objection I
think is more serious, in low visibility it would be a risk: though AFAIK they had found
all their other depots ok, in varying weather.

43

Gareth Rees 07.28.09 at 9:41 pm

To stay in the tent once the fuel ran out meant 100% certain death from dehydration. If one or more had tried to go on it would have given them a chance, no matter how slim.

Alternatively, leaving the tent mean certain death from cold, whereas if they stayed in the tent they had a chance, no matter how slim, of surviving until the weather improved enough for them to reach the depot.

44

Richard Cownie 07.28.09 at 11:56 pm

“Alternatively, leaving the tent mean certain death from cold, whereas if they stayed in the tent they had a chance”

Whatever. If you choose to believe Scott was a consistently good decision-maker and judge
of risks, then I suppose you’ll also choose to believe that his final decisions were good.
Personally, I think he was a consistently lousy decision-maker, so I’m inclined to see the
final inertia as the last in a long sequence of questionable choices – starting with the preference
for man-hauling over dogs, the purchase of particularly weak ponies, and the decision to
site One Ton Depot 35 miles further north than originally planned.

45

Gareth Rees 07.29.09 at 11:23 am

Whatever

No, not “whatever”. If you’re going to attempt to micro-manage Scott’s decision-making in March 1912, then you owe him a bit more attention to the conditions he was facing.

In your view, Scott was stupid for not making “a dash to One Ton Depot” and had maybe even “talked (or even ordered) the others out of making the attempt”. But what he wrote in his diary was “[March 21, 1912] To-day forlorn hope, Wilson and Bowers going to depot for fuel.” … “[March 22] Blizzard bad as ever—Wilson and Bowers unable to start—to-morrow last chance” … “[March 29] 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.” So maybe the “dash” to the depot was substantially more difficult and dangerous than you make out.

46

Richard Cownie 07.29.09 at 2:37 pm

“If you’re going to attempt to micro-manage Scott’s decision-making in March 1912, then you owe him a bit more attention to the conditions he was facing”

Which we can never know, because we only have Scott’s word for what the conditions
were in that place at that time. He writes “scene of whirling drift”, but he doesn’t give
any wind or temperature measurements. And recent research suggests that while a 4-day
blizzard is very possible, an 11-day blizzard is highly implausible.

I think Scott was a good writer and evidently a very persuasive fellow. I also think he
was a damn fool and a lousy planner and decision-maker, and not to be trusted on any
matter of consequence – most especially on anything related to the reasons for the failure
of his expedition.

Anyhow, I guess it doesn’t matter: after 140+ days of Scott’s favored man-hauling on
Scott’s inadequate sledging rations, Evans and Oates were dead before the final camp,
Scott was crippled by frostbite and gangrene, and Wilson and Bowers were greatly
weakened. I see a lot more incompetence than heroism, YMMV.

47

ejh 07.29.09 at 5:38 pm

I think it’s also plausible that in conditions of near-starvation and near-impossible odds, the decision-making process, whether good or bad at other times, may not be at its best.

48

Richard Cownie 07.29.09 at 6:07 pm

“I think it’s also plausible that in conditions of near-starvation and near-impossible odds, the decision-making process, whether good or bad at other times, may not be at its best”

True, but the eloquence and clarity of Scott’s letters, written in that final camp, show that
his mental function was as good as ever. Freezing to death in that tent, he wrote himself
a myth that lasted about 60 years. That’s an impressive achievement of literature and
propaganda. But as a planner and leader, I’d take the efficient Amundsen, the brilliant
Nansen, or the indomitable Shackleton every time.

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Gareth Rees 07.30.09 at 10:02 pm

the indomitable Shackleton

I have a lot of respect for Shackleton too. Nonetheless, we form our judgements with the benefit of hindsight: had Shackleton, Worsley & Crean glissaded over a cliff on South Georgia, and Scott, Wilson & Bowers survived, we might be lauding the “indomitable Scott” and criticizing the poor planning of Shackleton that led to the deaths of his entire expedition. Antarctic exploration in the “heroic” age was a gamble even for the most skillful.

From another sporting context, Harold Drasco, Margins of Safety. “By a sequential accident I mean the end point in a chain of events, an accident which happens under pressure and which is any one of a random range of accidents available in the situation the climber has constructed, or which follows the only choice of action he has left himself. The chain of events may appear to have last five minutes or five hours; but it may also be seen to have extended for five years or longer, and this extreme case is worth thinking about.

“Climbers in this category may be described as being too committed to survive. One has to avoid direct illustration here, but from observation and reading it is perfectly clear that the literature and folklore or disaster exert a powerful influence on some climbers. Psychologists have described a characteristic type of fantasy in which a child invents a catastrophe—a bus crash, for example—from which it is the only survivor. It is possible to see the survivor-stories with which mountaineering is so well provided—Cassin on the Badile, Bonatti on the Frêney Pillar, and countless others—as offering real-life archetypes of these fantasies. The charge of feeling in such tragedies is so strong that, however painfully it is expressed, the reader or listener cannot avoid a response. The drama is almost always accompanied by all the atmospherics at Nature’s disposal. And, in contrast to this backcloth, the onward drive and inflexibility of purpose which carries the protagonist safely through appears as the essential quality which distinguishes the great mountaineer from the good mountaineer and which tilts the scales in favour of survival.

“This is an utterly false conclusion, but the voices of survivors impress us more than inscriptions on tombstones.”

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