Choosing to spend 18 months of my life in an Antarctica was one of the easiest decisions I ever made. For years before I arrived down here the Antarctic bug was growing in me, and what started as a mild obsession gradually built into a passion for all things polar. This included reading every book I could find about Antarctica, from the ‘Lonely Planet’ for the continent, through to the journals from the Golden Age of Antarctic exploration.
For me, there were always two names that stood out from the crowd of explorers, scientists and journalists who penned their polar exploits. Ranulph Fiennes was the first – his unwavering grit, determination and mental toughness were a source of inspiration for me, and his prose spoke of the brutality and beauty of Antarctic travel in cold, calculated terms that, far from killing the romance of it, made it seem all the more real.
However, even Fiennes had his own Polar heroes, and his books describe the Southern journeys of Robert Falcon Scott with a hallowed respect that carries the weight of all of Fiennes’ wealth of experience. This was amply demonstrated in Fiennes’ impassioned literary defence of the Scott expeditions, titled simply ‘Captain Scott’, in which he assembled well-reasoned, carefully researched arguments against the vitriol of the Scott detractors. It was reading this book that propelled Scott into my consciousness – not as the popular myth of the bumbling English gentleman, but as a polar pioneer, scientist and leader of men. In short, he was catapulted to the giddy heights of ‘hero status’ in my mind.
There is no shortage of Scott literature out there, and once I’d developed a fixation for his exploits, there was enough reading material to keep me going for months. However, with so much of it focussing on opinion and rumour surrounding the circumstances of his expeditions it quickly became clear to me that the only real way to build a clear picture of the man was from the transcriptions of his own journals. It is only on reading these that you make the final discovery – that amongst all of Scott’s other remarkable achievements, he is also a genuinely gifted writer, able to describe the sore trials of his men in rich, detailed and remarkably accessible prose.
Before I left the UK it passed me by completely that my stint in Antarctica in 2012 would coincide with the centenary of Scott’s final expedition, but I hadn’t been down here for long before the penny dropped. At the height of the summer season, the polar press was buzzing with stories of the largest number of people ever to assemble at the South Pole station, in celebration of the anniversaries of Scott and Amundsen reaching the Pole. Here at Rothera, Scott, the eponymous English hero, still seems to hover at the edge of our consciousness – all around us are stunning photos of ancient sledge-dog and manhauling expeditions from the early days of BAS, when the memory of Scott was still fresh in the minds of the old-guard. It therefore seemed appropriate for us to have our own reminder of the final stage of his polar journey.
In recognition of this, day by day and week by week throughout our season, extracts from Scott’s daily journal entries were displayed in the Rothera dining room, there for everybody’s digestion at mealtimes. To start with, we chatted and laughed about the diary entries – they were full of hope and interest, with talk of science and the comedy of trial and error for the polar novices. However, as the days ticked by into February and March, the mood of the journals grew blacker, as Scott described the grimness of their plight, and the brutality of the daily grind of manhauling. As the inevitable finality of their journey ticked ever closer, our eyes would flick to the journals before we touched our food, anxious as we were to hear of the next body blow, or the faintest glimmer of hope that he might have recorded that day. We looked on impotently as the party fell one by one – Evans first, then Oates, with his immortal final words leaving us behind with a palpable sense of sorrow.
On the 29th March 2012, Scott’s final diary entry went up in the usual place in the dining room. Of course, we knew it was coming, but actually seeing it there in black and white brought the reality home and it was with a lump in my throat that I read the lines. Having spent so much time researching the man, to me he was more than just a historical figure – I kidded myself that I knew something of his personality, of his strengths and weaknesses, of what drove him to this desperate place. It therefore made it all the easier to visualise that day, one hundred years ago, when the three friends lay dying in their lonely tent, the thin canvas battered by the brutal storms that had brought them to this premature halt, only 11 miles away from the salvation of the next food and fuel depot. Scott alone managed to muster the strength to pen a last few words, to me, some of the most poignant ever written.
Yesterday, those of us remaining on base assembled around the Union Jack that sits atop Rothera Point, in tribute to Scott and his men. The Base Commander spoke briefly and then we stood for a minute’s thoughtful silence. Amidst the snow, and the glaciers, and the sun shining brightly over the icebergs in the bay, those final words replayed themselves over and over again in my mind:
“Had we lived I should have had a tale to tell of the hardihood, endurance and courage of my companions which would have stirred the heart of every Englishman. These rough notes and our dead bodies must tell the tale.”
He finished his final diary entry with the following line which, even as I write this, moves me deeply:
“For God’s sake, look after our people.”