Author Adrian Raeside speaks about 100-year-old race to the South Pole
WATERLOO - Adrian Raeside, editorial cartoonist and author of Return to Antarctica, recently spoke at Laurier about the ill-fated expedition to the South Pole in 1910 led by Englishman Robert Scott. Scott, who became the second man to reach the South Pole, perished on the return journey with four of his men.
The famous expedition has been a source of controversy: can Scott be blamed for the blunders and conflicts that plagued the journey?
Raeside’s grandfather, Canadian physicist Charles Wright, was among the surviving members of the expedition. Armed with his grandfather’s diary and his own experiences from a voyage to Antarctica in 2008-09, Raeside offered his unique perspective on the events that occurred 100 years ago.
“Over the years I grew up with the stories, of course,” he said. “There were portraits of these very hairy, grizzled, icicle-covered men hanging on the walls … I never gave them a lot of attention until I got old enough to know my granddad a little better, and he also opened up a little more about his time in Antarctica with Scott.”
Raeside realized his grandfather was reluctant to speak about the expedition because it wasn’t the story Raeside was brought up to believe the story that was in all the textbooks.
“There was more to it and I think granddad chose to keep quiet about it because he was the last surviving member of the expedition, and he felt that to talk about what really did happen might be a little disconcerting to the living relatives of those who were dead.”
But Raeside wanted to tell the story the way it really happened, and “why if Scott had listened to a 23-year-old Canadian physicist, he might have actually survived.”
Charles Wright was studying at the University of Cambridge in England with his friend Griffith Taylor when they heard Scott was putting together an expedition to the South Pole.
They both wrote letters to Scott, but only Taylor was accepted. Wright was devastated, so the two walked 50 miles from Cambridge to London to speak to Scott in person and try to change his mind.
“Scott asked granddad if he knew anything about glaciers because they needed a glaciologist. Well, granddad knew nothing about glaciers the only ice he had experience with was in his drink, but he said, ‘Oh yeah, yeah, I’m Canadian, of course.’”
Scott’s 1910 expedition was the second time the Englishman had tried for the South Pole his first attempt was in 1901-04.
“What to me is fascinating is that everything that went wrong in 1901 was repeated again in 1910,” said Raeside, noting that even the same type of equipment was used. “As granddad once said, ‘It’s a pity Scott went to the Antarctic in 1901, because he learned all the wrong things there.’”
For example, Scott was convinced that white-coated ponies would withstand the cold better, which, said Raeside, “was complete rubbish.”
Scott’s “secret weapon” using motorized sledges for the first 200 miles of the 900-mile journey was not as helpful as he imagined, failing after only 50 miles.
Equipment issues weren’t the only problems. A rival expedition led by Norwegian Roald Amundsen was also on the ice and planning to make a run for the pole. What was originally going to be a stroll across the ice was now a race.
“Everyone knew Amundsen was tougher,” said Raeside. “He was a professional polar explorer, he was using sledge dogs and wasn’t relying on slow ponies or man hauling.”
Scott’s plan was to carry everything, and drop provisions off at depots along the route, so when returning parties came back they could pick up the provisions. The ponies would be shot at certain intervals and their meat fed to the sledge dogs.
“Granddad looked at this theory and thought, ‘There is something wrong here … why don’t we take the meat from the ponies and cache that at regular intervals for the returning parties, and instead put more cooking oil on the sledges because you’ll need more cooking oil to boil the frozen meat.’
Wright went to Edward Wilson, Scott’s second-in-command, and asked him to tell Scott that his plan wouldn’t work. It is unknown if Wilson relayed the message. Scott didn’t change his plans.
At the top of Beardmore Glacier, less than 300 miles from the South Pole, Raeside’s grandfather was taken aside by Scott and told he wouldn’t be one of the five men taken all the way to the pole.
When Scott arrived at the South Pole he found that Amundsen had beaten him by more than a month.
Problems plagued the group’s return journey, and led to the deaths of all five men. The seals on the oil tanks left at the provision depots had shrunk in the cold and the oil evaporated, leaving them with a shortage of fuel.
The only proof of their final moments came from Scott’s diary, which had pages removed from it before it was made public.
Meanwhile, after surviving being stranded for eight months with minimal provisions, Raeside’s grandfather struck out with a search party the following spring to learn the fate of Scott’s party.
They found three bodies Scott included and erected a cairn, which today is completely buried. Because the ice barrier where they died is moving, experts estimate the men have travelled about 25 miles toward the sea since they died.
“One day, they may actually end up making it back to the coast after all,” said Raeside.