Wednesday, July 31, 2013

22: Where snowman has gone before

Between about 1900 and 1916, we had what's known as the golden age of polar exploration, when adventurous types from assorted leading nations developed an urge to go off to the farthest and coldest points on the Earth and freeze themselves solid for years at a time.
Sometimes they had a consignment of scientists with them, which helped give those enterprises an edge of genuine worth-while-ness, but the thing that fired up the public, the funding governments, private backers and, on the whole, the explorers themselves, was the kudos of being able to say they'd gone as far away as it's possible to go and gone there first.  
Concerning the South Pole, three names loom large in these tales: Amundsen, who got there first, Scott, who got there a narrow second and died on the way back, and Shackleton, who never got there at all. There's an edge of bitterness connected to all three.
Amundsen's ambition was always to be first man at the North Pole, and he borrowed a ship on the understanding that he was going that way, but in the meantime Robert Peary made the claim that he'd reached it, so Amundsen boldly headed south with the goal of taking the other pole instead.
Scott, however, was already down there with an expedition, and it was generally considered - by the British at least - that it was only right and proper for the British to get there first.
There was some justification for this. The British had been mapping and exploring the Antarctic for about ten years by this time, and had already made a couple of game attempts at the pole. Most of what was known about that side of the continent - the lie of the land, the climate, the wildlife and geology - came from British expeditions. It seemed unfair for foreign interlopers to suddenly turn up and take advantage of groundwork laid down by others. (They did have the courtesy to land a couple of hundred miles along the ice shelf and navigate a new route, however.)
Amundsen had the advantage of having lived among Eskimos and knew a lot about how to get around and survive on the ice. Scott was an old school British naval officer who would never dream of doing such a thing. Consequently, while Scott was pottering about trying to persuade primitive tractors and mangy Siberian ponies to haul his sledges as well as rather disagreeable dogs, Amundsen only had dogs and knew how to use them to best effect (before shooting them and feeding them to each other, incidentally - something Scott balked at). In addition, Scott felt he was there to do scientific work, which possibly held him up a little.
The net result of all this was that Amundsen got there first and got home safely. Scott, thanks to a combination of  poor decisions, once-in-a-lifetime bad weather and and mile after mile of a gritty ice surface that they had to drag their sledges over inch by painful inch, died along with his team just 11 miles short of a vital supply cache. Fortunately his tent was found, along with all his team's notebook including Dr Edward Wilson's meteorological and geological observations, which along with the expedition's other research, was still proving its value over half a century later.
Amundsen got the glory, but his expedition didn't add an atom to mankind's store of knowledge.
On the other hand, if Scott had known just one thing that Amundsen had learnt from the Eskimos, - that if you spit on the runners of a sledge and let it freeze, it will pull smoothly over a surface of coarse ice instead of sticking and dragging, things might have turned out differently.


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