Back from a cold place

The Coldest March – A review of the book by Susan Solomon

There is something at once compelling and horrifying about the stories from the heroic age of polar exploration. Perhaps the compulsion is the horror. A few absurdly hardy men, an indifferent, hazardous environment, a minimum three year stay at a tiny outpost of civilisation built on the shores of a frozen sea, and all to get the opportunity to spend three or four months hiking across the un-mapped interior, fighting every day against starvation and the cold, to see who will be the first to reach a point on the globe that looks no different from any other.

The mindset of explorers is hard to explain or to justify – the huge imbalance between apparent risks and reward, and the enormous effort required to undertake an expedition with deeply uncertain outcomes seem near assured to induce a bout of head-shaking amongst the mums of the world. Climbing mountains, visiting space, or plumbing the depths of the world’s oceans have similar characteristics. One gets the impression that the scientific goals, while worthy and important and looming large in the story of Antarctic especially, are a justification after the fact. Really the reason why is just because we want to see if we can do it, and in particular to see who can do it first.

There are many excellent accounts of and books on Antarctic exploration in the early years of the twentieth century. Amongst them are Scott’s diaries, Shackleton’s “South”, Roland Huntford’s biography of Shackleton and his account of the race between Scott and Amundsen,¬†Apsley Cherry-Gerard’s “The Worst Journey in the World”, Douglas Mawson’s “The Home of the Blizzard”, and (from a little later on) Admiral Richard Byrd’s “Alone”.

One could be forgiven for thinking that there wouldn’t be much to add to this impressive record, particularly in the case of Scott’s last expedition, whose arc is so well known: the first expedition with Shackleton – later his rival, the long preparations for the second, the hard trudge to the South Pole only to find that Amundsen had beaten them there by a month, and then the walk back towards safety, fatal to all hands, with the bodies of Scott, Wilson and Bowers found in the tent that was their final camp, and the bodies of Evans and Oates never found where they fell earlier on the trek.

The competing hypotheses for what went wrong are also well-known, chief among them incompetence (especially by Scott – the competing views of history have him as either a true hero in the classic British mold, or a noted bumbler whose hopelessness determined his fate), disease (scurvy), poor preparation (wrong equipment, not enough dogs, poor rations), poor execution (too much walking, too much time spent on science), or bald misfortune.

Like authors before her, Ms Solomon reviews the main elements of Scott’s polar story, and wants to put forward her view of what went wrong. But, as an Antarctic weather expert, she has another hypothesis to test. She says that, while in Antarctica for her research on the ozone layer, she grew interested in the question of whether unseasonably cold weather in the March of Scott’s return trek could provide another explanation for some of his miseries and ultimately his demise.

Armed with new weather data from automatic stations placed in the 1980s along the path Scott took, and with all the data from Scott’s expedition carefully analysed by Dr George Simpson, Scott’s meteorologist, in his report of 1919, she finds support for her view: an unpredictably cold March was a major contribution to the untimely death of Captain Scott and his party. This is a clear-eyed reassessment of Scott’s story, not a hagiography. Ms Solomon does not shirk from pointing out Scott’s mistakes and failures – indeed, Scott himself was forthright about his errors – but Ms Solomon’s argument that weather played a fatal role is calmly argued and carefully supported through the text.

Along the way, Ms Solomon provides an education into important aspects of the Antarctic environment, and unearths some genuinely new insights and ideas about what might have happened down at the bottom of the world nearly a hundred years ago. I will leave you to read the book for yourself but the ending struck me as particularly inspired – a genuinely new take on a well-known story: a twist in the tail, if you will, informed by the new information from the weather record.

As well as a lot of new data, Ms Solomon brings one clever approach to the narrative. At the start of each chapter she presents a scene of a mythical, modern-day Antarctic visitor that demonstrates key information on Antartica and the main challenges facing a traveller walking to the South Pole pulling a heavy sledge, e.g., the basic geography, the impact of different temperatures on the ease of travelling across the surface, what counts as appropriate clothing, the effects of blizzards, or the dangers of frostbite. These scenes at the start of every chapter could easily come across as superficial or trite, but actually they really work to bring home the reality of the difficulties faced by Scott in getting through, and the unfairness of many criticisms levelled at him after his death (one expects mostly by those who had never experienced the environment themselves). These vignettes make it clear how tenuous the continuation of human life is in Antarctica. Even very tiny mis-steps lead inexorably to catastrophe.

Overall this book is an excellent addition to the stories of Antarctica. A compelling reminder of Scott’s herioc journeys, and the fine line between success and failure in any great endeavour, but also a genuinely new take on a very well-rehearsed historical issue, complementing the first-hand accounts of the explorers with analysis that has only become possible with modern weather data.

Ms Solomon’s book perhaps contributes to a reassessment of Scott, who was lionised in the first years after his death, and then came to be seen as an amateur who essentially killed himself and his party through his ineptitude and poor decision-making. These two views of the man still compete for attention today. No one element can be said to be the cause of the tragedy. There are many things that could have, should have or would have been done but for. Yes, if Scott had moved more quickly and started earlier on the polar hike (like Amundsen with more dogs and no ponies, which prevented a start in October), or yes if the diet of the party and its equipping and preparation had been better (more time on skis, better sleeping bags), or if Scott had consistently made choices with higher margins for error rather than choices that should have been okay but were not, then the outcomes could have been different.

But the polar party did keep generally to their planned timeframe. They expected to be returning across the last few hundred miles of the barrier in March as the winter came quickly on. And so they made very careful scientific assessment of what weather they should expect. As Ms Solomon shows, nothing in that assessment was seriously awry, and nothing could have led them to expect the weather that they ultimately encountered. As Ms Solomon concludes, the weather took their lives.

This book also inspired me to look more closely at the details of Cherry-Gerard’s wait at One Ton Camp at 80D South depot for Scott’s polar party, who were then struggling to what would be their deaths a mere 100 miles further south. To my mind this episode goes down in history as amongst the greatest moments in polar exploration. My personal list also includes Shackleton’s decision to turn around less than 100 miles from the Pole in 1909 when it was clear that he could be the first to the Pole but only at the price of his life and those of his party, Oates walking out of the tent to his death on the return journey with Scott, in a indescribably noble attempt (on his own birthday, no less) to save the lives of those he was travelling with, on the basis that he thought was slowing them down through his sickness, and Douglas Mawson’s nightmarish sledging expedition with two comrades in 1912 when one fell into a crevasse with much of the expedition’s food and equipment, and the other comrade died from what is now suspected to have been vitamin poisoning from eating dog liver, leaving Mawson, terribly unwell himself, to struggle back the last 100 miles alone.

Apsley Cherry-Gerard questioned many times in the course of his post-polar life whether, had he broken his orders and headed further south, he might have saved Scott and the then three remaining members of his polar party. Surely the physical challenges associated with such a mercy dash were enormous – Cherry-Gerard had no idea where Scott was, strictly limited cooking fuel and food for himself, his companion Dimitri Gerof the dog wrangler, and the dogs they travelled with, and unique difficulties with the cold environment (his glasses were not the ideal equipment in freezing conditions since they soon frosted up from condensation, rendering him effectively blind). In addition, by the time they reached One Ton Camp Dmitri was ill and the dogs were in a poor way. So even if he had gone further south in direct contravention of his orders, getting back could have been a very dicey proposition. In addition, the polar party were not expected at One Ton camp until March 10 at the earliest, and so, at the time when he had to consider the issue, there were no concerns at all for the welfare of Scott and his group.

As far as I can figure it, the distances are as set out below. You can see how achingly close the two groups were – from my reading a decent day’s marching was 12-15 miles, and in a good day with dogs pulling the sledges a party could cover as much as 30 miles. One degree of latitude is 69 miles.

Date Cherry-Gerard location Scott’s party location Distance between
Feb 26 77D52′ (Hut Point)
March 3 79D29′ (One Ton Depot)
March 5 79D29′ Near 81D S ~ 105 miles
March 8 79D29′ 80D45′ S ~ 87 miles
March 10 Left for Hut Point 80D31′ S ~ 71 miles

Scott, Wilson and Bowers died around 29 March 1912 at about 79D40 – around 11 miles from the supplies at One Ton camp, and only a few days good marching for healthy men from the safety of Hut Point.