The Coldest March, by Susan Solomon revisits the often maligned Robert Falcon Scott Expedition to the South Pole mounted from 1910 through 1912, but from a much different point of view than that held by the current purveyors of conventional historical wisdom. An atmospheric scientist, Dr. Solomon analyzes the expedition’s detailed log books, scientific records, the writings of the survivors of the venture, and the writings of the men who accompanied Scott on his final and fatal drive to the Pole. She also carefully examines each of Scott’s mistakes, mistakes that he himself notes in nearly every case, mistakes that his critics have contended were fatal and an indication of his incompetence, and she follows their effects on the actual conduct of the mission. Dr. Solomon comes to conclusions that largely discredit Scott’s critics and also shed new light on the vast amount of new scientific information Scott’s large expedition accumulated. She shows that Scott and his scientific team were in fact scientists first and adventures second.
Scott’s critics, viewing events through the crystal clear lens of hindsight, point out errors that were real but not fatal. They are the normal mistakes that one makes as a decision maker in a complex situation. Oftentimes, Scott was the first to point out his errors himself, in his own journals and diaries. The bumbler and fool depicted by most modern historians of these events would never recognize his own mistakes, much less acknowledge them. His errors were no more than those of any ship’s captain who makes minor logistical mistakes during the course of a long voyage, all of which become irrelevant if the ship is struck by a typhoon. The “ship” of Scott’s final trek was sunk because of ghastly weather, not minor errors in provisioning and equipment.
While not seeking to diminish his achievement, Amundsen’s expedition was a simple flag and footprints effort, with little attention paid to anything other than making it to the Pole and back again. It was well planned and well equipped to do that, but in no respect equaled the scientific ambitions and achievements of Scott’s efforts. That being said, it is important to remember that Amundsen’s success was largely due to his respect for and consultation with Inuits and Laplanders who had the experience and knowledge borne of centuries of cultural survival an arctic environment. The favorable outcome resulting from Amundsen’s choice of practical experience over science and technology confirms the validity of his decision.
At the time when Amundsen and Scott were racing to the Pole, Great Britain was the premier imperial power in the world. The British Empire spanned the globe while British science and technology was recognized as second to none. Coming from such a background, Scott would have been inhuman not to lean heavily on the tried and true methods established in an earlier expedition when he and Ernest Shackleton made it to 82 degrees south and later by Shackleton again, who made it to 87.5 degrees south. Both were British projects and Scott was naturally inclined to trust his own judgment and that of his own kind of men over any other. In addition, the scientific goals and accomplishments of the expedition were so numerous and varied, that the actual assault on the Pole seems almost an afterthought, a necessary concession to the backers of the venture.
Herself a polar explorer and world renowned atmospheric scientist, I can think of no contemporary author more qualified to write this history of the Scott Expedition than Susan Solomon. Her conclusion, based upon temperature and wind measurements made by the explorers at the time and confirmed by comparison with data since collected by modern automatic weather stations, was that Scott’s return trip across the Ross Ice Shelf was battered by weather that not even skilled adventurers with modern equipment could have survived. If Scott’s group had experienced normal weather for the season, they most likely would have made it back to base handily. But they didn’t. Their trek experienced a one in fifteen year freak freeze that doomed them as certainly as it would have doomed Amundsen or anyone else who might have encountered it.
In addition to being thoroughly researched, well organized, and well written, this book has many fine maps and some heretofore unpublished photographs. Dr. Solomon has also prepared several excellent graphs comparing the temperatures and wind velocities experienced by the several polar expeditions of that period as well those recorded by modern instruments. I highly recommend this excellent book for anyone who wishes to get a clearer understanding of the Antarctic explorations in the early 20th century as well as an understanding of what the conditions are like seen from a modern viewpoint.
As a personal note, I was in London in 1973 and went aboard the Discovery, Scott’s ship on his first Antarctic expedition. Parked on the Thames, the ship had many documents and artifacts from the period of Antarctic exploration. At that time my only knowledge of Scott’s final expedition was from a PBS documentary that essentially depicted him as a disorganized incompetent. I vividly recall that the journals, detailed records, equipment and general impression one got of Scott in viewing his effects seemed in stark contrast to that notion, but I never really explored any further. This book vindicates the essentially visceral impression I had 40 years ago.