Friday, 16 July 2010

The Longest Winter

The events surrounding the 1910-12 expeditions to the South Pole have been written about so many times that it is hard to believe that there is anything new to say about the travails of Scott and Amundsen. It was a surprise then to come across The Longest Winter: Scott's other Heroes by Meredith Hooper, a a tale that has never been fully told.

While most of Captain Robert Falcon Scott's 59-strong team was dedicated to getting their leader and four others to the Pole, six members set out in February 1911 on a separate expedition several hundred miles north of the main Ross Island base camp. Under the leadership of Lieutenant Victor Campbell, the purpose was zoological and magnetic research. The Longest Winter tells the tale of how this Eastern, or Northern Party as it became known, after a partially successful year at Cape Adare, was picked up by Terra Nova, the expedition ship, and deposited further down the coast for further exploration. However, five weeks later, severe ice conditions meant that the ship couldn't collect them and so they were forced to spend the winter in an ice cave measuring 9ft by 12ft. Rations were low and seal and penguin became the main source of food. Come the Spring, and with no sign of a rescue party, the team then had to make a 230-mile walk back to the main base.

The first section of the book covers the team's year in a prefabricated hut. It's interesting to hear about life, (and often boredom), in a remote research outpost but the story really comes to life with the telling of the men's unexpected stay in the ice cave. Drawing on the diaries of the team - three officers and three 'men' - some still smelling of the seal blubber fires on which they depended for survival, Hooper reveals the daily grind and feeling of desperation they felt in what was dubbed Inexpressible Island (above).

Life revolved around trying to have enough to eat. The seal was served in the form of a 'hoosh', a stew which they found tastier when stirred in the blood-soaked ice. This was cooked over fires of burning seal blubber, which also served as fuel for improvised lamps made out of Oxo tins. The walls of the cave were soon blackened by the smoke and the acrid fumes choked the men. 'That igloo with its black and blubber beastliness' was how Apsley Cherry-Garrard later described it, after hearing accounts of the place.

While the diet of mainly seal and penguin kept the mean alive, the salt-water ice, combined with a lack of carbohydrate led to all of the team suffering from chronic diahorrea (often after long periods of constipation.) The radical change in their appearance can be seen in these photographs. In the first, taken at the Cape Adare hut, the men look like they're posing for a Boden winter catalogue.
A year later, and making the most of a lull in the wind to get out of the cave, the team, in their blubber soiled clothes resemble a particularly disgruntled Scandinavian heavy metal band.

Why this group of six very hungry men cooped up in a tiny ice cave for six months didn't end up fighting each other can be explained in part by the fact that Campbell maintained the strict naval discipline that had carried them through their year in the hut. All abided (if sometimes reluctantly) to this. That said, living in such close proximity to each other did lead to some of the strict class and social barriers breaking down. Certain matters though remained sacrosanct. It would take an expert in Edwardian etiquette to explain why exactly, even during a period when all the team were suffering extreme stomach problems, they needed one latrine for officers and one for the men - each side by side. At times the account feels almost Monty Pythonesque.

However, The Longest Winter recounts a story that should certainly be up there in the pantheon of tales of endurance. A good piece about the expedition appeared in the New York Times on February 15 1913 (a version of which was reproduced in the Manchester Guardian on the same day).

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