Captain Scott and the Terra Nova expedition

If you’re into happy endings, you better look elsewhere. This story does not end well. This is a story where men die and their dreams of greatness die with them. But it is a fine story and one that is worth telling from heroic beginning to tragic end. 

Scott's story is often abbreviated to the point where failure and death are the only points of discussion and yet so much of what makes the story truly compelling are those aspects most relevant today – the need for curiosity, perseverance and resilience, as well as the importance of teamwork and collaboration. 

Without risk there can be no discovery

The idea for writing this book came about when I tried to find an abridged version of Scott’s diaries that would be suitable for my sons (then aged 12 and 14) to read. Having read the diaries myself, I was struck by the gripping nature of the story. This was no dismal tragedy. Scott’s diaries were pure adventure.    

In searching for an appropriate book, I found that much of what has been written about Scott for this age group lacks any meaningful detail about the expedition itself, how it was planned and the many colourful characters who worked towards achieving a successful outcome. As a consequence, many readers tend to remember only the missteps, the errors of judgement and the final tragedy and ultimately Scott’s story fails to move beyond the tent where he and his men await death.  

Framed by tragedy, the danger, excitement and accomplishments of the Terra Nova expedition fade into insignificance. My aim was to retell the Terra Nova story in all its richness.

So much can be achieved through team work and a sense of shared purpose. It is a real triumph of human spirit that Scott and his men were able to reach the pole with such rudimentary equipment and rations and survive in the midst of such hostile environmental conditions. The extent of their physical endurance is awe inspiring but the fact that the men of the Terra Nova expedition were able to cope with the significant mental strain of venturing into the unknown day after day is testament to Scott’s strong leadership style and the unifying power of camaraderie among men who share a common goal.

Rather than becoming a source of conflict, adversity drew the men closer together. Even as their health deteriorated and their rations dwindled, the men found the strength to help each other.  When Taff was unable to perform his camp duties, the others shouldered more of the burden to spare him further suffering. Whenever the outlook appeared grim, the men supported each other emotionally with humour and reassurances despite having their own grave concerns about their survival. Oates made the ultimate sacrifice by walking out into the blizzard to avoid waylaying his team more than necessary.     

Scott carried a heavy burden in terms of his responsibility for the polar team’s safe return to Cape Evans and as the leader of the expedition. He must have known that their safe return was unlikely and still he pressed on, never giving up hope and never giving up on his men. When death seemed inevitable, Scott wrote many letters, to explain their predicament and to thank people for their support. The act of writing must have been pure agony but he saw it as his final duty to the men who had given their lives in the pursuit of greatness.

Roald Amundsen – hero or villain?

In late 2016 I travelled to Norway to research Roald Amundsen. In the English-speaking world he is somewhat of a mystery and his exceptional feats are more often than not, represented as a footnote, passed over swiftly or worse, attributed to others.   

In the case of his singular Antarctic achievement, Amundsen has largely been consigned to the shadows with the glory and sacrifice of Captain Scott and his four companions shining ever brighter.  

Amundsen’s South Polar conquest is an extraordinary tale which combines risk, intrigue and personal conflict. There are aspects of his story that are unpalatable in the extreme. His use and abuse of sledging dogs appear unacceptable to a modern reader as do the lies and deception he deemed a necessary evil in mounting a successful polar campaign. The harsh treatment meted out to certain members of his team during his assault on the South Pole would result in legal action nowadays.   

Those who prefer heroes with a spotless character will be soundly disappointed with Amundsen.  But Roald Amundsen offers too many compelling character qualities to simply be able to write him off as an egocentric bully. Here is a man of striking intelligence whose brilliance in planning and anticipating the moves of his opponent have propelled him into first place. His single-minded thirst for world records in the most unforgiving environments betrays a distinctly 20th century mindset.  In this respect he is the undisputed forerunner of the many modern day explorers who must tackle increasingly perilous exploits in order to secure sponsors who are only too happy to fuel an adventurer’s adrenalin addiction.  

The men that join Amundsen in his polar quest are as interesting a collection of men as ever sailed to the other side of the world seeking adventure. From the superstitious cook Adolf Lindstrom, who was the first man to circumnavigate the Americas, to the hardy Helmer Hansen who spent several years living among the Inuit with Amundsen during his Northwest passage journey, to the troubled former army captain Hjalmar Johansen whose struggles with alcohol and inability to hold his tongue sets him on a collision course with Amundsen – colorful characters guarantee that is never a dull moment during the wintertime spent in close confinement. Petty rivalries and shifting alliances ensure that the 10 months the men spend cooped up in their hut in the Bay of Whales are eventful, and culminate in the very real possibility of mutiny. 

Of course the extreme antagonism of the Antarctic environment to both men and dogs offers a constant source of tension in Amundsen’s story. The ice shelf where the men have based themselves could float away at any time. High winds assail their jerry built hut threatening to turn the temporary structure to matchsticks until it is ultimately buried under metres of snow, with the smoke issuing from its chimney the only evidence of its existence. Survival in such an inhospitable place is not a given but the men draw on their experiences of living and working with the Inuit to great advantage with their unconventional clothing and ground-breaking work practices offering a radical departure from accepted norms. 

Viewed as the complement to Into the White – Scott’s Antarctic Odyssey, my Amundsen book  highlights two great men’s wildly differing approaches to achieving the same outcome. Fate plays its hand and ultimately favours the bold. In many ways, Amundsen risks more than Captain Scott. The ignominy of leaving Norway with a secret agenda would have laid waste to his public reputation had he not returned victorious. Such a man, with everything to lose will stop at nothing to secure his goal and consequently his story is a testament to utter brilliance and ruthlessness.