Biographer Details Determination of Antarctic Explorer Scott

By Behe, Regis | Tribune-Review/Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, December 31, 2006 | Go to article overview

Biographer Details Determination of Antarctic Explorer Scott


Behe, Regis, Tribune-Review/Pittsburgh Tribune-Review


Less than 100 years ago, two men were engaged in a rivalry that would take them, literally, to the end of the earth. Roald Amundsen of Norway and Great Britain's Robert Scott were racing to be the first to reach the South Pole.

On Jan. 18, 1912, Scott arrived with four of his men. A photo shows their grim countenances, eyes hooded, behind them the Union Jack waving forlornly in a polar breeze.

There is no sign of celebration, with good reason. Nearing completion of a quest that had consumed a large part of Scott's life, the team had found incontrovertible evidence -- a tent with some belongings, a sledge runner -- that proved Amundsen had beat them to the pole.

"Great God," Scott would write, "this is an awful place and terrible enough for us to have laboured to it without the reward of priority. ... Now for the run home and a desperate struggle. I wonder if we can do it."

They could not.

But Scott and his fellow explorers, according to David Crane, the author of "Scott of the Antarctic: A Life of Courage and Tragedy," displayed the same industry and perseverance as they marched toward their base -- and bitter deaths -- as they had racing to the South Pole.

"What is absolutely obvious from all the letters, the diaries and the scientific and meteorological report," Crane says, "is on the return journey from the pole, they went on with exactly the same determination, the same standards, as when they'd gone out there. It's almost impossible for us now -- we belong to a different culture -- not to believe their morale must have been so shattered by discovery of Amundsen's priority, that the will to survive was somehow fatally damaged.

"But I don't think that's true." he says. "I think all the evidence would suggest, intellectually, they realized they were up against it. But until the very end, they didn't allow that to remotely influence their behavior."

In his native Great Britain, Scott has been the subject of numerous biographies and speculation. He is alternately seen as courageous and foolhardy, a hero and a tragic figure.

"With Scott, especially if you're English, you start with what he has meant to national psyche over the last century," says Crane, who lives in western Scotland

"Nobody of my age -- and I'm in the mid 50s -- grows up without being aware of Scott. What had been interesting to me is the history of Scott's reputation in what's now nearly a century since he died and how it's fluctuated, how he's come in and out."

To put Scott's accomplishments in context, Crane thinks it is correct to consider polar explorers the ancestral equivalents of astronauts. They were attempting to traverse unmapped, unknown territory, a landscape that was almost unknowable without modern technology.

Since just after the Napoleonic Wars, the Royal Navy had been sending expeditions to the polar regions, the better to regain the glory of Lord Nelson and other British naval heroes. …

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