Tuesday, August 22, 2006


No, the British weather hasn't taken a really surprising turn for the worst. Blizzard is the name of a programme on BBC2 at the moment. It's subtitled Race to the Pole, which gives some of it away. It is a six part series which shows two teams recreating Scott and Amundsen's race to the pole in 1911/12. Needless to say, the Scott team is British, and the Amundsen team is Norwegian. For the most part, the Scott team are man-hauling their sledges, whereas the Amundsen team are having a really easy time of it on their dog sleds. Whilst there are truly comic moments - mostly provided by the British team being, well, British - much of the time it's heartbreaking. Obviously, the 21st century teams are not going to be left to come to any harm (and that includes the dogs), but they are genuinely trying to re-create the conditions under which the 1911 teams operated. Hence, they use the same equipment, including tent, skis, sledges, rations, etc.

Best moment so far: when Mark (I-know-nothing-about-dogs) Anstice (sp?) had to replace the expert dog man. The expert insisted on using rope harness for the huskies as he thought the wire ones would be cruel. The result was chaos as the dogs chewed them through, got loose and fought one another or bonked the bitches on heat. The Norwegians used wire harnesses; if these were actually cruel to the dogs, it could have been counter-productive to them getting to the Pole quickly. The Norwegians, like Amundsen himself, were pragmatic and savvy throughout. The Brit dog expert got injured (only slightly, but the harsh conditions would have ensured a rapid decline), so Mark, self-confessed Oates of the party, took over. And he started to get tough with the dogs. And guess what? The dogs responded to strong leadership and started to run better. Huh. So much for experts. btw, the dogs were sent back after a certain time, much as Scott dispensed with them back in 1911.

The documentary was actually filmed in Greenland, as dogs have been banned from Antartica. Both teams are being closely monitored for their physical condition. Some of the Norwegians are actually putting on weight as they are being towed by the dogs and the diet is better (the Amundsen team of 1911 ate dog meat at times, but it was a vaulable source of fresh food and protein; the modern day teams are eating beef and no dogs were slaughtered). The Brit team are losing a lot of body weight, and by programme five on Sunday were looking unhealthily thin. One chap who had deliberately eaten huge amounts of food in the months before setting out is now almost unrecognisably skinny. As I said, the modern day teams are in little danger of dying, but of course in in 1911 ...

Someone once said someting along the lines of: 'Give me Scott for heroism and grit, but God give me Shackleton in a crisis' And it's Shackles I admire more because he brought his men back alive against all odds, despite failing his original mission, but I do feel Scott's name has been tarnished in recent years. He did what he felt best, but was spectacularly unlucky, eg. the winter came in early that year and his team were caught in blizzards. Ranulph Fiennes' book on Scott is a recommended read. Fiennes is one of the commentators in Blizzard, as is Roland Huntford. In Fiennes' book, Huntford's trashing of Scott's reputation is roundly rejected. And yes, Fiennes is related to Ralph and Joseph Fiennes.

The BBC Blizzard website has some clips from the programmes, so it's well worth visiting.


At 10:29 pm BST, Blogger Sarah Cuthbertson said...

I've been enjoying the Blizzard series too. But I can't help wishing there was more about Captain Scott's last expedition than the talking heads and a few tantalizing old film clips and photos.

Huntford has it in for Scott in an almost pathological way, but Ranulph Fiennes' Scott biography as you say effectively refutes many of his claims about Scott's bungling. So does Susan Solomon's "The Coldest March", which I'm in the middle of reading. Solomon is a scientist specializing in the Antarctic and she explains how recent research on the weather there, as well as more careful reading than Huntford's of the polar party's journals, largely vindicates Scott (who in his journals freely admitted to the mistakes he did make). Solomon asserts that Scott's errors wouldn't have cost lives if his returning polar party hadn't been hit by freezing conditions exceptional for the time of year.

Solomon is also good on what it's *really* like to be in such extreme cold, and she explains the scientific work of Scott's last expedition with admirable clarity to a science-ignoramus like me.

David Crane's 2005 biography of Scott strikes a fair balance, I think, and is particularly good on Scott's personal life and character, as well as those of his wife, family and polar colleagues. And I've yet to read "The Worst Journey in the World", Apsley Cherry-Garrard's classic first-hand account of Scott's last expedition. And I haven't even started on Shackleton yet! Oh dear...it's all so fascinating.

BTW, did you get to see the polar re-enactors at Kelmarsh?

At 11:22 pm BST, Blogger Alex Bordessa said...

I was aware of Soloman's work, as it was on Horizon, I think, a couple of years back. Scott *was* unlucky. He had chaps observing the weather acutely before he left for the Pole and everything seemed to be following the usual pattern.

btw Scott and Shackleton did not get on, which was entirely predictable.

At 4:08 am BST, Blogger Olga said...

That sounds like a great show, and teaches us the lessons of history as well. But, honestly, I wouldn't want to be in Brit team!

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