We Struggled On ...

The Depot Laying Expedition pushed towards its farthest point south, which would be reached on 17 February 1911. The days from 12 February up to that date were filled with cold, cold routine. And the ever more perilous state of affairs for the ponies. Soft surface conditions caused by too warm weather caused them to fall-in up to the "hocks". Or too cold weather eroded their health. They could get some comfort with large, improptu snow-walls. But these are built at great cost to the men of the expedition. On 12 February 1911, Scott ordered some of the crew to turn back with the three weakest ponies. On 14 February 1911, one of the ponies, slowed and weakened, was set upon by the expedition's dog team. Throughout it all, Scott continues to believe that pony snow-shoes will make all the difference in the coming year's assault on the pole.

Scott marvels in the journal entries of these days at Henry Bowers' ability to withstand the cold. Cherry-Garrard supplies the rest that we might know about this barrell-chested seaman:

He lived a rough life . . . sailing five times around the world in the Loch
. Thence he passed into the service of the Royal Indian Marine,
commanded a river gunboat on the Irrawaddy, and afterwards served on H.M.S. Fox, where he had considerable experience, often in open boats, preventing the
gun-running which was carried on by the Afghans in the Persian Gulf.

Thence he came to us.

It is at any rate a curious fact, . . . that Bowers, who enjoyed a
greater resistance to cold than any man on this expedition, joined it direct
from one of the hottest places on the globe. (Apsley Cherry-Garrard,
The Worst Journey in the World, p. 212, Carroll & Graf [1989]).


One Feels Resentful

Scott's short journal entries from 9-11 February 1911 reveal much and at last introduce one of the expedition's steady companions.

The revelations are rich. The Depot Laying Journey is now logging about 11 miles for each night's cold, dark march. Scott seems pleased with the effort, though he attributes their success as much to light loads as to the company's effectiveness. There also is the usual, details assessment of the comparative success of the ponies and dogs. The ponies are getting the worst of the comparison. They need "some form of snow-shoe," Scott remarks, but "the questions is what form?" (Journals, p. 125, Carroll & Graf [1996]). It is hard not to think of the entire equine arrangement in ill-fated terms, even at this early stage. Scott describes the glorious views of the Western Mountains.

Above all, the entry for 10 February 1911 is a carefully detailed and incredibly honest accounting of each day's routine, including the strain and resentment that surfaces within the troop if some members are made to wait for long in the bitter cold for others who are slow to close up their corner of the camp and prepare for the march. It is easy to imagine the tightly-woven interdependence of men working together so closely, in such brutal conditions - the fate of each hanging from the decisions, fitness, and luck of every other member of the team. "With numbed fingers on our horse's bridle and the animal striving to turn his head from the wind one feels resentful [of the laggards]." (Journals, p. 124, Carroll & Graf [1996]). The routine can be put succinctly: 9:00 pm strike camp; 11:30 pm begin the march; each half-day's march includes a brief, cold, uncomfortable recess; mid-march pause of about an hour and a half for a meal; and a return to the day's second-half march; the day's final camp is made at about 8:00 am. Repeat.

It was a balmy 5 degrees below zero on these days. On 11 February 1911 the Depot Laying Expedition reached its Camp 10.

And at last Scott makes reference to the sastrugi, the icy waves of drift blown across the desolate continent by a ceaseless wind. Scott described the difficulty this "corrugated surface of frozen snow"(Reginald Pound, Scott of the Antarctic, p. 101, Coward-McCann [1966]) imposed on the 1903 Discovery expedition: "It shakes us up dreadfully; falls are constant, and the [man-haul] harness frequently brings us up with a heavy jerk, exasperating to a tired man." (Reginald Pound, Scott of the Antarctic, p. 101, Coward-McCann [1966]).
[Photo: Herbert Ponting, "Sastrugi on Barne Glacier," from the Royal Geographic Society - Antarctica: Exteme Wilderness]


The Wind Was Coming Upon Again ...

Scott ended his journal entry on 4 February 1911 with the ominous report: "8 p.m. It is blowing a blizzard - wind moderate - temperature mild." (Journals, p. 120, Carroll & Graf [1996]). The opening lines of his entries from 5 - 7 February tell the rest of the tale:

  • "The blizzard descended on us at 4 p.m. yesterday; for twenty-four hours it continued . . ."
  • "The wind increased in the night. It has been blowing hard all day. . ."
  • "The wind kept on through the night . . ."

Cherry-Garrard summed it up best: "This blizzard lasted three days." He explained

. . . outside there is raging chaos. It is blowing a full gale:
the air is full of falling snow, and the wind drives this along and adds to it
the loose snow which is lying on the surface of the Barrier. Fight your
way a few steps away from the tent, and it will be gone. Lose your sense
of direction and there is nothing to guide you back. Expose your face and
hands to the wind, and they will soon be frostbitten. (Apsley
Cherry-Garrard, The Worst Journey in the World, p. 116, Carroll &
Graf [1989]).

By late evening on 7 February 1911 the storm had abated enough to permit the company to undertake a night's sledging. But Scott surely knew that, as hard as the blizzard had been on the company's men, it had been infinitely worse for the ponies.


The Dog Lives for the Day . . .

On 4 February 1911 Scott and company were locked into the Depot Laying Expedition's routine: night-time marches under the Antarctic moon across somewhat firmer surfaces on the Great Barrier; midnight lunch after five miles; laying camp six at sunrise for a "satisfying supper"; and "dreamless sleep". (Journals, p. 120, Carroll & Graf [1996]). Repeat the next day. In 1911 this is how you get tons of provisions and supplies onto the course you'll take in a polar dash planned to take place a year later.

Scott's campaign against the dogs continues in the day's journal entry. "The dog is almost human in its demand for living interest," Scott remarked. "Yet fatally less than human in its ability to foresee." (Journals, p. 120, Carroll & Graf [1996]). Knowing what we all now know about the successful use others made of dogs in the south, its is getting hard to read all of this antagonism towards dogs with the kind of objectivity Scott meant to give it. He protests too much.

Camp Six came to be called "Corner Camp" and it lies only 30 miles from Hut Point, a little more than 40 miles from the expedition's hut out on Ross Island's Cape Evans.

Scott ended the day's journal entry with the suggestion that a blizzard was coming in. Apsley Cherry-Garrard said that "one summer blizzard is much like another. The temperature, never very low, rises, and you are not cold in the tent. Sometimes a blizzard is a very welcome rest . . . you may sleep dreamlessly nearly all of the time, rousing out for meals." (Apsely Cherry-Garrard, The Worst Journey in the World, p. 115 [1989]).


The Seductive Folds of the Sleeping-Bag

2 February 1911 and 3 February 1911 proved to be incredibly significant for the British Antarctic Expedition. Not because the Depot Laying Journey made more than its expected progress. Indeed, the company put in a respectable nine miles on the days' hauling behind ponies wallowing in soft snow. They laid and then broke camps 4 and 5. Rather, the amazing development is a sudden and breathtaking poetic turn in Scott's journal entries. To the recounting of the daily events, which stray only a little of the necessity imposed on the company by their mission and the harsh climate, Scott began to jot down his "impressions." They are evocative and earnest, if a little saccharine. The title to today's blog is the first line in the impressions Scott recorded on 2 February. From the intimacy and attentiveness these "impressions contain," it is clear that Scott is romantically attuned to this place, what he calls a "great white dessert." (Journals, p. 115, Carroll & Graf [1996]). That other bloke will win this mad, mad race. And Shackleton may be better remembered as a triumphing hero. But they were only visitors to the southern continent. This is Scott's land, home of "wind-blown furrows" and "drift snow like finest flour. . ." (Journals, p. 115, Carroll & Graf [1996]).

Scott ordered the company to march at night when the cooler temperatures would hold the snowy surface better for the ponies. Even the single of pair of pony show-shoes in the company's possession - when put to their intended use - was enough to stir Scott's ecstasy: "the triumph of the snow-shoe again." (Journals, p. 116, Carroll & Graf [1996]).

As for the absurd debate over the advantages of ponies or dogs, Scott is already showing himself to be stubbornly inflexible. On 3 February 1911 he devoted his "impressions" to agonizing over the "pathetic" sight of the ponies in the deep snow, plunging "gamely until exhausted." (Journals, p. 116-117, Carroll & Graf [1996]). Nevertheless, the last entry of the day is devoted to a disturbed recounting of the dogs' "alarming" ferocity, which turns them from tame creatures to "blind, unreasoning" beasts. (Journals, p. 118-119, Carroll & Graf [1996]). Scott was never going to be the man to conquer this continent with dogs.


No Pony Snow-Shoes ... Alas!

Scott and company spent the night of 31 January 1911 - and the morning of 1 February 1911 - at the Depot Laying Expedition's third camp. They were waiting for the return of the team that had been dispatched in haste to retrieve pony snow-shoes from the hut. When the team returned at noon on 1 February they had bad news. The summer climate had driven away the Ross Sea ice that bridged the Barrier to the expedition's winter hut at Ross Island's Cape Evans. They couldn't get back to the hut, they reported, causing Scott to pen what must be one of polar exploration's most ridiculous journal entries: "no pony snow-shoes - alas!" (Journals, p. 114, Carrol & Graf [1996]). Only days earlier Scott had been exclaiming the virtues of the ponies. Now, with them sinking spindly legs into summer's soft surfaces atop the Barrier, Scott could only lament: "How the ponies are to be led is very doubtful." (Journals, p. 114, Carrol & Graf [1996]). The Depot Laying Expedition's last mail went out that day.


Snow-shoes ... For Ponies ...

While still at the Depot Laying Expedition's third camp on 31 January 1911, Scott and company make the ridiculous discovery that snow-shoes for the ponies mitigate ... even resolve ... the difficulties brought on by the softening surface conditions on the Barrier. "The effect," Scott declared, "was magical." (Journals, p. 113, Carroll & Graf [1996]). Scott was so impressed that he immediately dispatched a team back to the hut (over 40 miles round trip) to collect the rest of the snow-shoes, costing the depot expedition precious time. It is hard to believe that the fate of the Empire's south polar ambitions rested with something so small and absurd. But it did. Scott thought that with the snow-shoes they might double their daily distances on the Depot Laying Expedition thereby extending the range of supplies they would leave in cache of the coming assault on the pole. Cherry-Garrard described the little things as a "circle of wire as a foundation, hooped round with bamboo, and with beckets of the same material." (Apsely Cherry-Garrard, The Worst Journey in the World, p. 113, Carroll & Graf [1989]).