Race For The South Pole by Roland Huntford

I recently finished reading Race For The South Pole by Roland Huntford. Prior to reading the book I knew little of polar exploration, and was only vaguely aware of the Captain Scott legend via its permeation of British popular culture. I knew roughly that Scott had lead a failed antarctic expedition of some sort, and in particular that one member of the team, Captain Oates, had apparently given his life in an attempt to save his fellows; leaving the tent with the famous words “I am just going outside, and may be some time”, an act which was held up both as an example of noble sacrifice and, occasionally, for ridicule.

Beyond these fragments however, I knew little, and didn’t much care. Tales of arctic exploration and cold-weather derring-do have never really appealed to me. I think because of the horrific physical effects that seem to be part and parcel of them. As a child I remember seeing horrible photos of frostbitten limbs and noses, whose only fate was amputation, and wondering why anybody would risk such injury. Especially to explore parts of the world that, while possessing a sweeping beauty, are ultimately barren wastelands, hostile to life. Even those explorers and adventurers who escaped frostbite always seemed in TV and film footage to be withered and aged by the experience. Buffeted by winds, shrunken by the cold, worn down by the effort, and cooked by the glaring sun.

A few months ago though, I read a short interview with Roland Huntford in a magazine, I think it was New Scientist. He was promoting his new book, Race For The South Pole, and in particular expounding its thesis that Scott had been an incompetent leader, and that his men had died not through poor luck and the unbeatable savagery of the elements, but through a catalogue of errors that had been their own responsibility. Huntford explained how his book compared and contrasted Scotts leadership with that of Roald Amundsen, a Norwegian who lead a simultaneous, successful expedition to the South Pole.

While I can’t recall the details of the interview, I was intrigued by Huntford’s arguments and impressed by the clear and forensic way he expressed them. I must admit, in my ignorance I had never heard of the Norwegian polar expedition, but the idea of an unsentimental comparison between Scott’s failed expedition, and Amundsen’s successful one appealed to me. I decided to pick up a copy when the chance arose.

Acquiring a copy proved a little difficult. The next time I was in a branch of Waterstones I  hunted around for it, but without success. I was slightly baffled by where exactly it would be shelved: Travel? Biography? History? Eventually I discovered an extreme-travel and exploration section, hidden away on a single bookcase in the corner of the store, but alas, no Race For The South Pole. The till staff confirmed via their computer that they did sell it, but were out of stock.

At this point I could have ordered it online via Amazon.com, and probably should have done, but for no real reason I became determined that I would purchase a copy via a physical shop. I have no problem normally shopping for books or just about anything online, but in this case it became a point of bizarre pride. I think it was because, after wandering around the store for so long, trying to determine where the book would be shelved, attempting to use the appalling self-service computers that Waterstones have in store to help me, I was determined that the shop would not best me. I would return, and I would purchase a copy of Race for the South Pole.

I did return, on each of my occasional jaunts into town. I even tried a couple of smaller Waterstones branches, but no dice. The shelf was always empty, and the staff apologetic. Branches down South had it, they earnestly assured me, though whether this was an inscrutable joke at my expense, based on the title I was looking for, I could never be sure. After a couple of months, I have all but given up hope, and was close to giving in and purchasing it online, when one day I popped into Waterstones to find not one, but three copies sitting upon the shelf.

The physical reality of my prize was not quite as impressive as I had anticipated. I had imagined a mighty hard-backed tome, but instead found a thick paperback, with a slightly shoddy cover containing a composite of various grainy photos of polar explorers. It made it look oddly like Scott had hauled his sledge right past the Norweigan camp, while his competitors stood staring at them. Nevertheless, I was excited to finally have acquired and purchased it, and took it home to serve as bedtime reading.

As a nighttime book, it is suited and unsuited, as it was by turns both highly compelling, leading me to stay awake far too late ploughing through the pages, and also sometimes a slog, sending me quickly off into slumberland after a few passages. The latter should not however be taken as a slight on Huntford’s writing, or the book itself, but it is simply a consequence of the book’s central premise or gimmick, which is to present the complete expedition diaries of RF Scott, alongside Huntfords own translations of botth Amundsen’s diary, and that of another member of the Norwegian expedition, a champion skier named Bjaaland.

These diary entries run sequentially and simultaneously, so you can read what both Scott’s English expedition and Amundsen’s Norwegian expedition were doing on the same days in different parts of the pole. While they provide fascinating detail, the entries are rarely thrilling, and that is where they can become a slog. The overland journeys to the pole were clearly difficult and often highly dangerous, but they were also monotonous. Men and animals hauling sledges for hundreds of miles across a snowy and icy wilderness.

In such circumstances, Scott and Amundsen often have little to write about other than the type of snow and ice they encounter, the weather conditions, and the distance they have travelled. To an expert or an experienced polar explorer, such detail might be fascinating, but to a more casual reader like myself, it can become rather dry, and I will confess to skimming some of the larger entries. Particularly those by Scott, whose verbiage, combined with his pomposity, becomes tiring.

Huntford intersperses the diary entries with his own comments, providing context on their content and comparing the approaches of the two expeditions. He offers praise and criticism to both, though it is fair to say he has on the whole very little positive to say about Scott or his expedition. Huntford does not shy away from making his opinions clear, and in that regard he becomes almost as much a character in his book as does Scott, Amundsen or Bjaaland. That is not a criticism; his comments are invariably interesting, and I often found myself wishing there were more of them. It becomes a perverse joy to spot strange or illogical points in Scott’s narrative and anticipate what Huntford’s withering response will be.

The diary entries, which form the central section of the book, are preceded by a long introduction, where Huntford introduces the major players, relates a little of the history of polar exploration and the run-up to the attempts, and lays out his thesis regarding Scott’s failure and Amundsen’s success. His central criticisms of Scott relate to his status as a ‘gentleman amateur’, with no expertise in the skills such as skiing that would be vital to polar exploration,  and to what Huntford perceives as his alienation from the natural world, relying too much on technology and viewing nature almost as an enemy to be conquered. From these stemmed a tide of poor choices and mistakes, in clothing, personnel, transportation, and training, that practically doomed his expedition to failure before it had begun.

Scott’s failings are compared to Amundsen, who had far greater experience in the right areas, both professionally and as a native of cold-climated country, and by Huntford’s reckoning, far more empathy with the natural world. Amundsen, it is argued, was a true professional explorer, who combined his lifetime of experience with exacting preparation to pave the way for his success.

A criticism I would level at Huntford is that he perhaps overreaches in the conclusions he draws. Scott’s failures are numerous and obvious. Even without Huntford’s analysis, the side-by-side comparison of the diaries makes the bumbling and confused nature of the English expedition painfully obvious. But from Scott’s personal failings, Huntford extrapolates to the entire nation of Britain, building up an almost apocalyptically condemning picture of political, spiritual and meritorious malaise. A nation that shuns success and celebrates and glorifies failure.

I’m not sure I buy it. That Scott’s legend is an inane case of undeserved hero-worship and the folly of the gentleman amateur seems true, but that it underlines some gaping flaw in the British national character seems less proven. Could it not just be an aberration, driven by a nationalistic media and a few opportunistic myth-makers? I wonder if Huntford, stung by the battles he has fought with Scott’s advocates, has magnified its philosophical significance through the lens of his own feelings.

In any case, the core of the book is still a highly compelling comparison of two very different expeditions. If I were a Hollywood producer, I might complain that the ‘race’ of the title never feels like much of one. Despite setting off within days of each other, Amundsen’s team are just too good, and Scott’s too poor, for there to be much real competition, even leaving aside that we know the ending anyway. A conventional narrative would have both teams exchanging the lead frequently, as each meet with triumph and mishap along their way, before at last, neck and neck, they reach the final straight and the winner emerges. In fact, Scott’s expedition quickly falls hundreds of miles behind Amundsen’s and its only battle is for survival in the face of its incompetence. Even Scott himself seems less concerned in his diary with the competing Norwegians as with settling scores with Ernest Shackleton, another explorer who had almost reached the South Pole in a previous attempt, and with whom he seems weirdly obsessed.

Another criticism I would make of the book is that, while I would not defend Scott from the charges of incompetence laid against him, I do think that Huntford is a little too easy on Amundsen. Scott’s errors and passive-aggressive bitchiness never pass without scathing comment, but though Amundsen makes mistakes as well, he gets off lightly. Despite his vastly greater skill, there is something of the pettiness and even the pomposity of Scott in Amundsen. His self-awareness is greater, but they are clearly two men on different ends of the same scale. Perhaps only such men, driven by a conflicting mix of nagging insecurity and self-regard, would pursue such lofty but dangerous goals to secure fame.

In stark comparison to both Scott and Amundsen is the third diarist, Olav Bjaaland. The inclusion of his diary entries is apparently something of a scoop, having never been translated into English before. Huntford is fluent in Norwegian, and apparently did the translations himself. Bjaaland was a champion skier, brought onto the Norwegian team for his vast expertise and experience in cross-country skiing. Unlike the two team leaders, Bjaaland was not looking for fame, or keeping his diary with a mind to write a book. His entries are terse, having been written for no audience but himself, but often very entertaining. He mixes entirely matter-of-fact missives with wry observations and the occasional sardonic comment on his leader Amundsen, or their situation.

Bjaaland seems much more the voice of an ordinary man, even though, as a famous champion skier, he was not just anyone. His seems like the testimony of someone who is comfortable with himself, his abilities, and his achievements. His are some of the best parts of the book, undercutting the fairly humourless competition of the other two and bringing them down to Earth. Huntford seems to like him a lot as well.

Overall, I enjoyed the book a great deal, I would recommend it to anybody with an interest in history or human endeavour and the reasons, both technical and personal, why it succeeds or fails. Doubtless there are lessons to be drawn from it for all of us who engage in difficult or complex work, even if it is not quite as dangerous or intrepid as an expedition to the South Pole.

1 thought on “Race For The South Pole by Roland Huntford

Comments are closed.