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Terra Nova, formerly Incognito
August 20, 2012 12:28 AM   Subscribe

In a twist worthy of a bestseller or blockbuster, the remains of the shipwrecked Terra Nova have been identified just off the coast of Greenland, just in time to celebrate the 100th anniversary of Scott's ill-fated attempt to become the first man to reach the south pole. On 6 June 1911 Robert Falcon Scott, who was born in Plymouth, celebrated his 43rd birthday at the south pole expedition base camp at Cape Evans. On 29 March 1912 he and his companions finally starved and froze to death in their tent, 11 miles from a supply cache, on the march back from discovering that the Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen had beaten them to the pole.
posted by infini (24 comments total) 19 users marked this as a favorite

Moral of the story: don't fuck with Norwegians.
posted by msalt at 1:47 AM on August 20, 2012

celebrate the 100th anniversary of Scott's ill-fated attempt to become the first man to reach the south pole.

It has always amazed me how the English have been able to glorify such a rank failure. Scott's journey was not only "ill-fated" it was ill-conceived, ill-planned, and ill-executed.

Rejecting three decades of polar experience (beginning with Nansen who crossed Greenland on skis in 1888), Scott eschewed skis. He refused to wear the Sami clothing that the Nansen wore. He did not understand the concept of speed as an essential part of travel in polar conditions. (Hallmarks of Amundsen's assault on the pole.) He took on the South Pole in the fashion of the British Army and he and his men paid the price for his ignorance and hubris.

That's sort of hard to get onto the cake, I guess, but still no cause for celebration.

Moral of the story: don't f--- with Norwegians.

BTW, you can see Nansen's ship The Fram in the maritime musem in Oslo and not at the bottom of the Arctic sea.
posted by three blind mice at 2:08 AM on August 20, 2012 [10 favorites]

Wikipedia says:
Their final camp became their tomb; a high cairn of snow was erected over it, topped by a roughly fashioned cross. [...] A century of storms and snow have covered the cairn and tent, which are now encased in the Ross Ice Shelf as it inches towards the Ross Sea. In 2001 glaciologist Charles R. Bentley estimated that the tent with the bodies was under about 75 feet (23 m) of ice and about 30 miles (48 km) from the point where they died; he speculated that in about 275 years the bodies would reach the Ross Sea, and perhaps float away inside an iceberg.
And then, perhaps after some time, Lawrence Oates might join them.

This venture would of course have fared better if the team had been an international scientific expedition to the South Pole and not the British entry in a race to be the first nation to the South Pole.
posted by pracowity at 3:09 AM on August 20, 2012

Scott was only raised to hero status in Britain as part of WW1 propaganda to encourage young British soldiers to throw their lives away similarly fruitlessly, for King and country, on the killing fields of Flanders.
posted by brilliantmistake at 4:07 AM on August 20, 2012

Just like the contemptible poem "In Flanders Fields"
posted by thelonius at 4:53 AM on August 20, 2012 [1 favorite]

An excerpt from The Worst Journey in the World a fascinating account of the Terra Nova Expedition by expedition member Apsley Cherry-Garrard.
It was not until I got out of the tent one morning fully ready to pack the sledge that I realized the possibilities ahead. We had had our breakfast, struggled into our foot-gear, and squared up inside the tent, which was comparatively warm. Once outside, I raised my head to look round and found I could not move it back. My clothing had frozen hard as I stood—perhaps fifteen seconds. For four hours I had to pull with my head stuck up, and from that time we all took care to bend down into a pulling position before being frozen in.
posted by zinon at 5:29 AM on August 20, 2012 [1 favorite]

From Scott vs. Amundsen — A day-by-day account of the race to the South Pole, the first post:
Robert Falcon Scott

In June of 1899, Scott volunteered to lead the expedition to the Antarctic then being put together under the auspices of Sir Clements Markham, then President of the Royal Geographical Society. The ambitious Scott regarded this as an excellent opportunity to both obtain an early command and to distinguish himself, not only advancing his career but providing support for his nearly-penniless family. Through the influence of Sir Clements, Scott was made leader of the expedition and promoted to the rank of commander. The Discovery sailed for the Antarctic on 31st July, 1901.
And the last:
Tuesday, 2 July 1912

Bjaaland and the others arrived in Bergen. Asked by the press about Scott, "[they] had little wish to make any comments, but they were all agreed that Scott had reached the Pole. On the other hand, they could not avoid the fear that he had not reached his main depot on the way back. In their view, winter had stopped him." [1]

"Scurvy, in their view," it was reported, "could also be a dangerous enemy. They would be extremely sorry if anything were to happen to him."
Pride can have a very high price.
posted by cenoxo at 5:31 AM on August 20, 2012

It's pretty amazing that the boat made it to the opposite pole!
posted by eviemath at 6:05 AM on August 20, 2012

Ah, should have read the article before posting. It didn't float there merely directed by ocean currents:P
posted by eviemath at 6:06 AM on August 20, 2012

Hell of a boat to keep sailing until 1943.

I'm not quite willing to outright blame Scott for being an idiot; there was a lot of bad luck there too. But from what I've read, what really strikes me is how many of the expeditioners were poorly prepared. Rank amateurism all around. But it was a time when men were men and amateurs were all you had.

My favorite polar story is S. A. Andrée's Arctic Balloon Expedition of 1897. Read the article for the tragedy, stay for the photograph of despair. Long story short three guys took off from Svalbard in a leaky, unsteerable hydrogen balloon and expected to just sort of sail over the North Pole while sipping champagne in their wicker basket. It didn't end well.
posted by Nelson at 6:37 AM on August 20, 2012 [3 favorites]

Last summer, I traveled to the UK, and among other things, we stopped by the British Library to view the Magna Carta and the newly-opened SF exhibit.

The viewing area features a very large number of vitrines with a rotating set if artifacts, spread out over a big room. We wandered around peering at this case and that without a specific plan.

I stopped and looked down at a little notebook, similar to a Moleskine, with pencil notes on it that were easily legible. The notebook was labeled but I did not see it at first; my gaze fell entirely on the notebook.

It read,

"He was a brave soul. This was the end. He slept through the night before last, hoping not to wake; but he woke in the morning – yesterday. It was blowing a blizzard. He said, ‘I am just going outside and may be some time.’ He went out into the blizzard and we have not seen him since."

I leapt back from the display and let out an involuntary shout, attracting attention in the hushed room. It was Scott's notebook, opened (of course) to that famous passage. Lesson learned! I looked at the labels from then on before reading the documents.
posted by mwhybark at 6:42 AM on August 20, 2012 [3 favorites]

how the English have been able to glorify such a rank failure

Well, I don't think they regard it as a glorious national triumph exactly, though I know what you mean. It's a poignant story which has depths and resonance and possibly offers some insights and lessons (if you insist on being pragmatic about it).

It could be argued that a tendency to pay special attention to national failures (Light Brigade? Titanic?) is a rather amiable quality. If it's a kind of jingoism at least it's a nuanced kind.
posted by Segundus at 6:46 AM on August 20, 2012

It could be argued that a tendency to pay special attention to national failures (Light Brigade? Titanic?) is a rather amiable quality.

Only if you learn from them. England just drinks them up alongside a morning pint and fag and then scowls at anyone who strives.
posted by srboisvert at 7:17 AM on August 20, 2012

Falcon. His middle name was Falcon. I have no point. Just Falcon.
posted by Splunge at 7:30 AM on August 20, 2012

IIRC, the Huntford biography states that Scott, not Amundsen, became the hero because he was the better writer of the two: his letters he wrote while dying yanked on the heartstrings, while Amundsen's dry, scientific prose wasn't all that inspiring.

The biography is pretty good, though recent critics have said that he comes down too hard on Scott. He wrote an excellent one of Ernest Shackleton as well.
posted by Melismata at 8:18 AM on August 20, 2012

Thanks for making this post. I fell down the rabbit hole last week reading about not only the expedition, but the path of this ship through the years and imagining how all the changes of ownership occurred. I pictured some gruff sailor/businessman/adventurer (ala Quint from Jaws) standing on a dock, overlooking the mighty Terra Nova, and negotiating the removal of a hull full of seal hides so he could take her to the South Pole.
posted by Big_B at 8:48 AM on August 20, 2012

But it was a time when men were men and amateurs were all you had.

The Nordic country explorers had been doing professional stuff for a generation or more, adopting the techniques of the Eskimos (as they were called then) and so on, they were successful. This was in part because the cultures were mixed in Greenland with Danish fathers and Inuit mothers their children could navigate both worlds, there was no stigma about 'going native' like the English had. Knud Rasmussen for example.

I've read Amundsen's account of the South Pole expedition and enjoyed it more than Scott's account. It's freely available online in PDF and LibriVox audiobook. It's not as literary as Scott but keeping in mind how important historically and contrasting how smoothly the trip goes by comparison it's interesting and well written. It's always amazed me that the book by the first person to reach the South Pole is hardly read, and it's quite readable and interesting. Amundsen understood as soon as heard of Scott's death that his accomplishment would be overshadowed, the British would turn Scott into a heroic legend.
posted by stbalbach at 8:57 AM on August 20, 2012

This reminds me; the Fram Museum in Norway has an exhibition called Cold Recall which presents Amundsen's lecture notes from his speaking tour after his South Pole expedition. The best thing is he brought a lot of photographs from the trip. Amazing stuff, both the story and the images. Here's a photo of the Terra Nova alongside Amundsen's ship, the Fram.

The exhibition catalog is in this 10MB PDF, including high res color photos like the one I linked above. The printed book is not readily available in the US but Top of the World Books has it. It looks like the museum is working on a blog publication, too.
posted by Nelson at 9:45 AM on August 20, 2012

Rejecting three decades of polar experience (beginning with Nansen who crossed Greenland on skis in 1888), Scott eschewed skis. He refused to wear the Sami clothing that the Nansen wore. He did not understand the concept of speed as an essential part of travel in polar conditions. (Hallmarks of Amundsen's assault on the pole.) He took on the South Pole in the fashion of the British Army and he and his men paid the price for his ignorance and hubris.

The stupidity of Scott and his team has been badly overstated over the years. In fact the only really bad mistake they made was in taking an extra man above what they'd calculated for on the last leg to the pole; and even that wouldn't have sunk the expedition if they hadn't had both bad luck with injuries and struck once-in-a-century poor weather conditions. They died a day's march from the food depot that would have saved them--snowed in for nine days by a truly exceptional blizzard. In other words, they prepared perfectly well for the expected conditions--and they came within a whisker of making it despite encountering truly horrendously unlucky conditions. That doesn't sound like hapless amateurism to me.

By contrast Amundsen's party had extraordinary good luck. Scott's party chose to follow a route which had been mapped out by an earlier party (Shackleton's) most of the way to the Pole. He knew that the route was manageable (if daunting) and knew that beyond the point that Shackleton had reached there appeared to be no major challenges in the terrain on the way to the Pole. Amundsen chose to depart from a point closer to the pole, but going by a route no one had ever tried before. It was sheer luck that Amundsen didn't encounter completely impassable terrain on that utterly uncharted route.

It is also the case that Scott was deeply serious about the scientific purpose of his mission (which was, of course, much longer than just the push to the pole--see e.g. Apsley Cherry-Garrard's marvelous account of the midwinter journey to observe the Emperor penguin rookery--a far more daunting trip, in fact, than the one to the Pole should have been, and one which A C-G's whole party survived). Scott took far more material on his journey to the pole than Amundsen because he wanted to do scientific observation along the way--something that Amundsen, who was interested only in being "first" to the pole--did not do.

Apsley Cherry-Garrard's book is something everyone should read (the whole Scott party seem to have been fabulous prose stylists--the letters that Cherry-Garrard quotes from other members of the party are extraordinary). One of the things he makes clear is that Scott's party were well aware of the different options that were available to them in terms of equipment, animals, clothing etc. and considered all the options thoroughly. The image of Scott as some sort of upper-class twit who just woke up one day and said "Oh, I say, let's have a dash at the pole, shall we?" is just horribly incorrect.
posted by yoink at 9:54 AM on August 20, 2012 [7 favorites]

A few years ago, Robert Poppe wrote a role-playing game about Scott. I've never played, but I thought it was a brilliant concept.
posted by novalis_dt at 10:41 AM on August 20, 2012

1912 was the year of the Antarctic. Less well known (and as unsuccessful) expeditions came from Japan and from Germany. (Germany's Filchner actually had met with and planned to work more or less in tandem with Scott down south. Didn't pan out, of course.)
posted by BWA at 12:35 PM on August 20, 2012

Neat stuff. I just finished reading "The Last Imaginary Place: A Human History of the Arctic World" by Robert McGhee, who is curator of arctic archeology at the Canadian Museum of Civilization. Very readable and highly recommended. It gives a history of humans in the arctic from prehistory to today. He covers quite a bit on arctic exploration and the rather ignominious ends that the many arctic explorers and expeditions that were unprepared and completely underestimated the hardships of of polar exploration came into. The chapters on medieval and early exploration were really fascinating. At any rate, after reading that I came away with an understanding that the British preferred a brute-force military method of exploring, and that their expeditions were as a rule heavily burdened with gear which was man-hauled with very heavy sledges much to the detriment of many expeditions.
posted by fimbulvetr at 12:35 PM on August 20, 2012

Talking about luck: Amundsen almost completely screwed the pooch right at the outset of his dash to the pole. He was so eager to be first to the pole that he set off too early, the dogs feet started to get frostbite and several died from the severe cold; the sleds weren't running properly in the super-cold snow and he had to abandon the attempt and limp back to the base camp. Oh, and to do that he leapt on board one of the lighter, faster sleds and abandoned most of his men behind him, leaving them to make their way back to camp as best they could. One team's dogs died and they barely made it in, leading to a near mutiny (that party had included Amundsen's second in command who was dropped from the Pole party as a punishment for being justifiably angry with Amundsen)--it is truly impossible to imagine Scott doing this kind of thing. Oh, and Amundsen's sled almost disappeared down a crevasse on the next attempt.

Don't get me wrong. Amundsen was a great explorer and his achievements are extraordinary; Scott unquestionably made some mistakes that cost himself and his men their lives. But for decades now there has been a kind of antimyth to the original Scott canonization myth. The simple fact is that both Scott and Amundsen were trying to do something inherently difficult and dangerous with a high probability of failure. Amundsen needed plenty of good luck to avoid being every bit as much of a cautionary tale as Scott--and there was a heavy helping of bad luck in Scott's failure.
posted by yoink at 9:08 PM on August 20, 2012


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