Monday, March 05, 2007

Desperate Heroism

Race to the Pole: Tragedy, Heroism, and Scott’s Antarctic Quest, by Sir Ranulph Fiennes, Read by David Povall, BBC Audiobooks America, 2004

After the first few chapters, what seems to be no more than reactionary grumbling in defense of one of the author’s heroes turns out to be much more interesting. By any measure a heroic accounting of Captain Robert Falcon Scott’s doomed quest to the South Pole, Sir Ranulph Fiennes’ Race to the Pole is actually a holding movement, a hand held up to the debunking exercises in biography so popular in England and elsewhere.

Once a figure of profound reverence, called upon in memory in the fading hours of the British Empire for one last stiff upper lipped try at the brass ring, Captain Scott’s luster has dimmed much since the publication in 1979 of Roland Huntsford’s Scott and Amundsen. This book in particular trashed the Captain’s reputation, tearing him down and “reappraising” him in a negative light. The ensuing vacuum in Britain raised the stock of Ernest Shackleton, though Shackleton survived a failed expedition while Scott died in a success.

We begin the book after its quite brief introduction with a thumbnail early biography of Scott, of his sickly childhood, his pigeon chest, his tendency toward gloominess, his quick, impatient temper, and his natural scientific curiosity. Once again we are introduced to the intelligent child who rises from his sickbed to push himself harder, faster, to do more than his compatriots as an exorcism of the early unhealthiness.

We are grateful to Fiennes for skipping much of the business of outfitting and raising the funds for Scott’s expedition, getting us as quickly as possible, while not sparing any necessary legwork, to the hardscrabble beauty of the Antarctic. While the politicking and the scheming and the scramble for money is in and of itself interesting enough, the book truly comes alive once we are on the ice with the explorers.

And part of what makes this book different from so many other biographies and histories of polar explorers was that Fiennes has actually walked the walk. Having something of a taste for extreme endurance tests, his jacket biography lists him as having recently “set a world record by running seven marathons in seven days on seven continents,” and lists him as the first man to reach both Poles on land. Which is to say, when Fiennes tells you how Polar expedition goes, he knows of where he speaks.

Which is more or less the gist of the book. Dedicated to “the families of the defamed dead,” it’s crystal clear early on that Fiennes has an ax to grind and a score to settle. He tells us in no uncertain terms throughout the book that part of what motivated him to write was what he perceived as the slanderous nature of Huntsford’s book. He hits hard on Huntsford’s obvious weakness — that the man has never in his life been to the Pole, has never been on a dogsled or manhauled packs across frozen tundras, is unfamiliar with even the basic knowledge for survival on such an expedition. Such first hand experience isn’t strictly speaking necessary, but lacking it can prove fatal to your book’s accuracy.

But Fiennes doesn’t merely stop at stating chapter and verse where Huntsford got it wrong out of ignorance, he breaks down the man’s book and tracks down his interviews, even researches Huntsford’s biographical details to uncover a shady, petty man, distrusted by nearly every Polar family who’ve dealt with him. A court action against Huntsford by Peter Scott, Captain Scott’s son, for the scope of his misstatements was settled in Scott’s favor. Yet, due to marketing and the scope and early publication of Huntsford’s book (and due to no previous discrediting exercise along these lines), it continues to reside as the general reader’s number one source.

Fiennes’ book, for all the time he spends on the unworthy Huntsford, keeps his greatest focus on Scott and his trials. One harrowing incident, documented by one of Scott’s party in his diary, details how three men camped near sea ice, thinking they were on barrier ice (the latter being more land-based), and woke to discover themselves floating away from land in the dark.

As day came, the men made a break for it across the pack of broken-up ice, moving from floe to floe, urging their pack ponies to cross gaps in the ice where frigid water splashed between. As they rested at points, killer whales approached, bobbing up and down to look on the ice’s surface for resting seals or penguins. On the second day, after being rescued by Scott, the men tried to likewise save the ponies who hadn’t drifted too far away from shore. The attempt was doomed and one horse, falling into the water and unable to make it to the shore, had to be killed with a pickaxe.

Such is the kind of bad luck Scott has on both his first and his second expedition, though it is the second which proves fatal. While many seek to point fingers at Scott, Monday morning quarterbacking even decades after the fact, Fiennes sets things up to demonstrate how exceptional bad luck helped crush rations and morale. A six-day wet blizzard unusual for that time of year hurt the expedition in ways hard to fully measure (the longest storm on record outside of Scott’s was two days long, so the idea that Scott could have planned for storms of such duration is simply nonsense). Dishonesty among his crew — hiding their various injuries which may have counted them out for the final push — also played a factor. Equipment failures and food cache shortages also helped deliver the death blow. What seems unlikely to have been much of a determinant was Scott’s leadership.

After his first expedition failed to make it to the Pole before the coming of the winter storms and was forced back, one of his original party, Ernest Shackleton, not thinking Scott meant to make another try, began outfitting his own crew. Shackleton’s first expedition ended in failure, as did his second, though that second trip marked the farthest south anyone had yet come.

Part of the general conception of bad blood between Shackleton and Scott arose out of the common belief that competitors should be filled with animosities toward each other, but part of it arose from the junior man’s setting out on his own. The genesis of the supposed feud in documents rests on a single person’s account, in a book published long after the expedition by Albert Armitage, Scott’s navigator and second-in-command, who chafed under his Captain’s leadership. Armitage was likewise reported unreliable by a third party, especially for his taking too much credit for that in which he was involved, and no account of any bad blood turned up in either Scott’s or Shackleton’s diaries, letters, or subsequent histories.

Nevertheless, Fiennes notes, despite the lack of evidence from either of the primary parties, Huntsford (and others) seized upon Armitage’s book to unfairly attack Scott for not only the command of his first expedition but for the second one as well. And in the face of many crew members declaring Scott to be mild-mannered if taciturn at times, self-sacrificing and unwilling to ask anyone to do what he himself would not, and nearly a prude in terms of language, the portrait of Scott that has arisen is more Captain Ahab than the real man.

But the Race to the Pole was officially on. Having seen how close Shackleton came, Scott’s second expedition was organized in a rushed fashion, hurrying as Robert Peary, the American who made it first to the North Pole, formally announced his goal of taking the South Pole as well. Likewise, the second to none the Norwegians began to nose about. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, one of Scott’s backers, announced to the public that Britain should put her money and her muscle behind taking the Pole for Britannia. When the Norwegian Roald Amundson’s deceitful plots for his own voyage were discovered, a dealing that was considered low and filled with nasty cunning, Scott wrote in his diary:

Amundsen’s proceedings have been very deliberate, and success alone can justify them. That this action is outside one’s own code of honour is not necessarily to condemn it. And under no condition will I be betrayed into a public expression of opinion.

Yet despite his public reserve, Scott has of late been painted with a kind of dangerous instability. And this self-destructive madness is nowhere more slanderously applied in Huntsford’s book than in the last few days of Scott’s doomed expedition. A good example might be the scene where he describes Captain Scott as staring at wounded party member Lawrence “Titus” Oates until the man left the shelter of the tent to go out to his death, rather than slow the group any further. Huntsford describes this scene as an example of his “intuitive” writing, putting such murderous designs on Scott with no evidence save his negative feelings toward the man.

While Scott appears in many documents as a complex man with not easily categorized emotions and reactions, if Fiennes’ book is to be believed, he was nowhere near the monster Huntsford has made him out to be. Instead, the portrait that emerges in Race to the Pole is of a decent, hard-working, driven, intelligent individual who was struck down by forces too powerful to withstand. Even if you account for what comes off clearly as hero worship on Fiennes’ part, it is still an unjustifiable leap of faith to get to Huntsford’s portrait.

And perhaps the most charming aspect of Scott the person is his frequent resourcefulness with inventive solutions to problems and hardships. To navigate in a white out blizzard he comes up with a flag/windsock for using the wind direction as well as a sun-based shadow pin dial with two circles, one for compass degrees, one for time elapsed in half hour increments. He is also credited with the invention of a troll net, a tide measurement gauge, as well as a face funnel wire for ease in looking into the wind that is still used today.

Even though Fiennes’ style is rather straightforward, stripped down save for his gilding Scott’s halo, the end scenes are so bathetic that I found myself sniffling back tears and reminding myself “Stiff upper lip, boy, stiff upper lip.” The force of Race to the Pole’s argument, as well as the terrible ordeals suffered by polar expeditions of all stripes, pushed me into Scott’s corner and by extension into Fiennes’. I was won over both by the suffering and by the pleasure of Scott’s company.

Reader David Povall was so effective at presenting the book to me, that I, as a listener, hardly even took notice of him. In a the dramatic world of fiction this isn’t always a good thing, but as the performer of an account of tough, no-nonsense men, this no-nonsense reading didn’t require the perfumery of theatrics.

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