Scott’s Last Expedition – The Journals of Captain R. F. Scott (Folio, 2009)

This was one of my selections for my 2009-10 membership of the Folio Society.  It is Volume 1 of the original publication of the account of the Ill-fated 1910-13 Terra Nova expedition to reach the South Pole.  Ultimately of course, the Polar expedition itself came to grief, with the three remaining men dying in their tent trapped by unusually severe weather only a few miles from their next depot of fuel and food (famously, Lt Oates had sacrificed himself a few days earlier in an effort to save the others, while Evans had died earlier, partly as a result of injuries sustained on the return march).

 

Apparently the degree to which Scott was culpable in the disaster has been the subject of considerable debate, particularly once the last expedition member had died.  What’s clear from Scott’s journals is the extent to which he thought about the resourcing of the expedition, and planned carefully for the final push to the pole.  Also coming through is huge loyalty to and affection for the members of the expedition, particularly in the phase of the expedition where they are building the main headquarters hut, conducting scientific enquiry, and preparing for the final push to the pole.  During the polar winter of 1911, the community pulled together, with work aimed at fitness (of humans, ponies and dogs), and at keeping the men occupied (for example, a surprising range of evening lectures).

It’s also startling to recall what they didn’t know: while it was known that fresh fruit and vegetables were the answer to scurvy, vitamins weren’t well known if at all: the diet by my standards would be seriously lacking, and indeed scurvy is probably the root of the loss of “condition” experienced by the polar party.  The rations had been devised carefully, with regard to caloric content: unfortunately the best information available at the time wasn’t accurate, and the men were under-nourished in the polar push.

The final chapter covers the return from the pole, having discovered Amundsen’s flag there, describing an increasingly desperate struggle to each supply depot.  Evans died quite quickly and peacefully one night from (it seems) a combination of lost fitness due to lack of food, scurvy and an unfortunate fall.  Oates carried on with increasingly frost-bitten hands and feet, until sacrificing himself one night.  Both these deaths are quite movingly written about in Scott’s journals.  In particular, Scott, Bowers and Wilson knew he was deliberately leaving to die, and allowed him to.  The final days are described in short entries – Scott apparently outliving Bowers and Wilson, and writing the final entry I presume after a series of letters to the families, and to other expedition supporters.  These are particularly poignant.

Finally, there’s a brief account of the expedition that found their bodies 8 months later: not trace was found of Oates.   The narrative as a whole works very well, and is amply illustrated by photographs taken by Herbert Ponting during the expedition – many of the photos are very evocative of landscape and people.  Ponting was also an innovator, being the first to take moving pictures in Antarctica.  The narrative would have benefited from a map showing the various movements around the main expedition base – the only map in the volume is one showing the route to the pole and the return, including camping stops and supply depots (from the original publication, it would seem).