The Ghost of Scott (And His Ponies)

A hundred years ago today, Robert Falcon Scott died. He and the other two survivors of the Terra Nova Expedition’s South Pole team perished in a tent not too far from here. Okay, it’s a ways from here, not even a day trip, but, relatively speaking, in the grand, global scheme of things, it’s not too far from here.

I’m afraid I don’t have any exciting new photos for this post. It was a gray day, for starters, and I spent most of it at work. I had signed up to join a group climbing Ob Hill early this evening to commemorate the centenary of Scott’s death, but the truth is I’m not feeling great and climbing a steep, icy hill in a bracing wind didn’t seem like the best idea when one is light-headed and dizzy (don’t worry, Mom, it’s nothing serious).

Looking out, however, over the vast and empty place that I call home, I couldn’t help but think of Scott, Edward Wilson and Henry Bowers, Scott’s ill-advised ponies and even Amundsen’s doomed dogs.

I thought about the animals mostly because I think a lot about what we, as humans, do to animals to further our own gains, and I wonder what, if anything, the dogs and ponies of Antarctic exploration thought of the whole business. It reminds me of the memorial to warhorses that I visited in Melbourne last year:

He gains no crosses as a soldier may

No medals for the many risks he runs

He only, in his puzzled, patient way

‘Sticks to his guns.’

I assume Amundsen’s dogs, being sled dogs, were thinking “Oh boy oh boy oh boy, I get to run I get to run I get to run! Whoo hoo, I’m running! Runrunrunrunrun. Whew, I’m tired. Why is that man walking toward me with a gun?”

When I wasn’t thinking about the animals, though (I can’t help it. I still get verklempt when the oliphants and Rohirrim horses die in The Return of the King…even though they were computer-generated!), I was thinking about that final trio of Scott’s party, snowed in, doomed in a tent just 11 miles shy of a food depot somewhere out there on the Ross Ice Shelf that I see every day.

I wondered what kind of day greeted Scott, believed to be the last to die, the final time he lifted the tent flap and looked out across the frozen expanse, the empty landscape where I find so much beauty but which inspired him to declare, famously, “great God! This is an awful place.”

I wondered if it was a dull, gray day like today, or if it was howling wind and stinging snow. Or if, like yesterday, it was cloudless, and that clear late autumn sun, low on the horizon but sharp as an arrow, highlighted the ice sheet’s subtle topography.

I wondered what Scott thought, feeling his system shutting down beside the bodies of his dead colleagues. I’m not trying to be morbid, nor do I want to romanticize the moment. Scott and his drive to reach the Pole, his achievement of that goal, albeit five weeks after Roald “Killjoy” Amundsen, and his death have already been turned into an epic of courage and perseverance and stiff-upper-lippiness by others. I’m just curious, the way I am about a lot of things. What did the man think, surrounded by dead men, knowing he was going to die, sitting in a tent on the Ross Ice Shelf, a place I know and love and can see from the loading dock where I toss cardboard into the recycling bin every day.

Sure, anyone who has a passing interest in Antarctic history has probably read Scott’s final journal entry, written one hundred years ago today:

We took risks, we knew we took them; things have come out against us, and therefore we have no cause for complaint, but bow to the will of Providence, determined still to do our best to the last … 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. (excerpted)

But, come on, he knew he was writing for posterity. And he was a British naval officer–not exactly the sort of chap known for baring the heart in times of difficulty. Those are words I’m sure he chose carefully.

But I wonder what he was thinking, not as a guy who would get a lot of things named after him posthumously, but as a man, a husband and a father, in the middle of a continent that was not at all impressed with him, with a trail of dead ponies and companions behind him, unsure if cold or hunger or exhaustion would kill him first but certain that the end was soon, and non-negotiable.

If I could, I would like to tell Scott he should not have been distraught in his final weeks over Amundsen beating him to the Pole.

I would also like to tell him he really should have listened to the folks who told him bringing ponies to the Antarctic was a supremely bone-headed idea, but I digress.

The world, aside from us Antarctic geeks and the nation of Norway, largely has forgotten ol’ Killjoy Roald. You’re the one, Robert Falcon, with statues all over the world and tons of stuff named after you, thanks in part to the reach of the British Empire, but also because we puny humans do love a good epic with a tragic yet courageous hero.

Heck, even the station at the South Pole is named after Amundsen and you. How many other things are named after the guy who finished second?

I’d like to tell Scott, though his whole motivation for reaching the Pole first was to claim it for the British Empire (ok, he said “to secure this achievement” rather than the territory itself, but we all know how these things go), that Antarctica remains unique in the world, the only land mass not claimed by any country and unsullied (at least for now) by short-sighted human designs on resource exploitation and geopolitical squabbling. Scott, who had more than a passing interest in science, might be interested and pleased to know that only scientific exploration is allowed on the continent (again, at least for now… let’s hope that never changes).

And hey, Robert Falcon, people live here now! Year-round! Even chicks! I wonder what Scott would think if he could see the tidy green buildings of the Kiwi base that bears his name, the ramshackle mining-town vibe of McMurdo, the C17s and Airbus and 757s and Hercules that fly in and out half the year, landing on the same ice shelf where he breathed his last.

I’d say “we’ve even got WiFi down here!” but I suspect that would lead to a lengthy digression about computers and the Internet that would be beyond the both of us, RFS.

We have heating and refrigeration and a greenhouse in winter so that we can celebrate the darkest day of the dark months with fresh tomatoes. We have self-heating pads that fit in our gloves and boots, and cold weather gear that lets us comfortably stretch out in the snow and look up at the sky, watching the auroras overhead for hours in minus 20F degrees.

Did you ever pause, in all the time you spent here, to watch the Southern Lights, Robert Falcon? Bob? Can I call you Bob?

Did you ever look up at auroras and feel, as I have, utterly insignificant to the universe and totally okay with that feeling? Did the Lights make you appreciate your own mortality, Bob, as something not to be dreaded but rather celebrated, one puny human working hard to make the best of his time on our planet, kind of like when Frodo is all bummed in the Mines of Moria and says he wishes none of his whole quest thing had ever happened and Gandalf tells him “All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given to us”-

Oh. Sorry, Bob. You never got to read Lord of the Rings, nevermind see the movie, but I think you would have liked it. Very epic. Lots of stiff upper lippiness. No Norwegians whatsoever.

I’ll never know what you thought on that final day, of course. And it’s impossible to guess what you might have made of Antarctica today. It is almost entirely unchanged from when you saw it, of course, aside from the tenuous, technology-dependent toehold we puny humans have on the continent.

And, had you had the chance to turn up at Gallagher’s on karaoke night, I’m pretty sure you would have again declared “great God, this is an awful place,” this time rightfully so.

But I do know this. I thought of you today. I think of you often, particularly when I put on the socks I bought at Scott Base, named after you, just over the ridge from McMurdo. They were made in New Zealand from merino wool, and when I wear them with my regular hiking boots, not even my bunny boots–what are bunny boots? Oh, Bob, you do have a lot to catch up on–they keep my feet nice and warm. And on the bottom of each sock is your name.

So, you could say I’m walking in your footsteps, in more ways than one.

If you can hear me, Bob, know that you’re not forgotten. And give those ponies each a bag of heaven-oats because, seriously, dude, it’s the least you can do.

Mount Discovery and the Ross Ice Shelf, October 2011




2 thoughts on “The Ghost of Scott (And His Ponies)

  1. What was it called in Hitchiker’s? The Total Perspective Vortex? The most hideous torture device in the universe that presents to you your insignificance when compared to the rest of creation. I think I’d prefer laying in the snow at the bottom of the world watching the aurora, though.

  2. Another great post… Really brings it alive to me. As a child I used to visit the Scott Polar Institute in Cambridge, with the marvellous statue by Robert’s wife Kathleen outside and I still have a fascination with the story… but it all sounds just too cold! ( I always thought the statue was of their son Peter and have only just discovered it wasn’t!)

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