The hero who melted

On Friday Christie's will auction items found beside the frozen body of Robert Falcon Scott on his ill-fated journey to the South Pole. Those who cling to his legend will bid for his goggles, his stove, even his biscuits. But no amount of Huntley & Palmer digestives can disguise the truth: that Scott was indecisive, incompetent and, when it came to eating huskies, surprisingly unadventurous
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this friday, Christie's will auction materials connected with exploration and travel. In the afternoon, to benefit descendants of Captain Robert Falcon Scott, a number of his relics will come under the hammer. Many are things found in his last tent beside his frozen corpse, things that his widow, Kathleen, and then his son, Sir Peter Scott, kept in a suitcase in a bank vault. They include green-glass snow goggles, a diary, flags, a compass, provisions bags, a stove for cooking in the tent, and even some ancient biscuits from Huntley & Palmer.

Well, why not? The last words Scott wrote in his journal were "For Gods sake look after our people". He missed the apostrophe, though of course he was in a grim state. But now some - among them angry descendants of other men who died on that ill-fated expedition - feel inclined to take Scott's great, uncertain cry and add: "For God's sake look after our heritage. Let these things not be sold away - like grisly souvenirs. Let the nation have them - as it once paid for Scott's journey to the South Pole. Because, after all, aren't Captain Scott and history's most celebrated second place vital to our sense of ourselves?" Well, maybe, but why not add that in this case second meant last, and death? Before we get into the myth, we must remember the facts.

In their last crisis, Scott and his companions were desperately, helplessly brave, and Scott was responsible and eloquent enough to leave one of the great travel journals. But as a man Scott was a depressive; he was sentimental, muddled, insecure, easily influenced by stronger people. As a leader, his personal failings became the greatest risk to his own expedition.

He was the son of a Plymouth brewer. Born in 1868, he became a sea cadet at 13. He rose slowly in the Navy, weighed down by the strain of supporting family members. By 1905 he had been made captain, but two years later his ship was involved in a collision during manoeuvres. The inquiry placed no blame, but by then Scott had an extra value to the Navy: in the years 1901-04, he had led an expedition to Antarctica, the Discovery expedition. With Ernest Shackleton and Edward Wilson, Scott reached 82 16' south - still on the Ice Barrier, short of the Beardmore Glacier, the high plateau and the South Pole itself. They were more than 300 miles from the Pole, and they staggered back, with Shackleton an invalid. But it was the farthest south anyone had ever gone, and it caught the public imagination.

The Discovery expedition had been the dream of Sir Clements Markham, the president of the Royal Geographical Society. He became a fierce proponent of the British explor- ation of Antarctica, and picked on Midshipman Scott as the ideal leader. Then, in 1908, Scott married Kathleen Bruce, a sculptress, and a confident, romantic young woman. He felt inferior to his wife, and was beset by doubt. But she told him that he was her hero, and urged a second expedition. That was accentuated when, in January 1909, Shackleton, poaching on his old boss's terrain (or so the boss felt), hauled himself and three others as far south as 88 23'. At that point, Shackleton had the sense to realise he was beyond his limits. So he turned back, and only just made it home.

There could be no doubt that Scott would soon go again. But he was not comfortable as a naked competitor, so when he prepared the Terra Nova expedition, he stressed its scientific goals. That led to the setting up of a scientific staff of 13 and a total shore party of 33. The expense was enormous, and Scott himself had to raise the money. Contrary to popular belief, the government contributed only pounds 20,000 to the total cost, which exceeded pounds 50,000. In England in advance, and then in New Zealand and Australia on the way south, Scott was an uneasy lecturer as he attempted to raise funds. It was in that spirit that he accepted the offer of a soldier, Captain Laurence Oates, of the Inniskilling Dragoons, of pounds 1,000 for a place in the party. Oates limped and had one leg shorter than the other because of wounds incurred in the Boer war.

The prior journey had only left Scott uncertain about how to travel in the South. He was experimenting with motor sledges; but he also had ponies and dogs. In addition he had equipped himself with Norwegian skis, and an expert Norwegian to advise on their use. Today, enough of us have skied to feel Scott's perilous innocence. He never made up his mind. The new motors broke down. His ponies - hired by an amateur - proved to be sickly and difficult. As for the dogs, well, the British could never face the Norwegian practice of eating the huskies as they went along. Time and again, the British abandoned skis and took to hauling the sledges themselves.

In British eyes, Roald Amundsen has been seen an interloper and an opportunist. Yet, in 1897, he had gone south on the Belgica, along with Dr Frederick Cook who taught him the benefits of eating fresh meat to supplement the conventional sledging rations of pemmican, chocolate, sugar and biscuit. Amundsen also thought of himself as being in a line of descent from the great explorer, Fridtjof Nansen. Like most of his countrymen he skied as easily as he walked, and he was an expert handler of sledge dogs. He was also, by instinct, an unfettered racer. So it was, a few days after Scott set sail, that Amundsen set out on the Fram (Nansen's old ship), crowded with dogs. He landed in Madeira, and sent a cable to Scott (to await his arrival in Australia) alerting him that he would have company in the South.

The two base camps were only about 300 miles apart on the Ice Barrier Edge, and the rivals bumped into each other. Scott and many of the British were filled with anger. But one of Scott's group was impressed: "They say Amundsen has been underhand ... but I personally don't see it as underhand to keep your mouth shut... Also they are very good ski-runners while we can only walk. If Scott does anything silly such as underfeeding his ponies he will be beaten as sure as death."

Scott did nearly everything wrong. He didn't use the wait to make his men practise skiing. He persevered with the motor sledges; he tried to nurse the sad ponies. He mistrusted the dogs. When it came to putting down supply depots, he was lazy and left them short. He had a cooking- stove that was designed to feed four men, but at the last moment he refused to abandon an old favourite, Edgar Evans, a strapping sailor, and took five men in his Pole party. That meant every cooking operation had to be doubled up.

Amundsen, on the other hand, set out with four others, four sledges and 52 dogs. By 15 November 1911 he was at 85 south, 400 miles ahead of Scott. His dogs were averaging 20 miles a day (twice Scott's rate). Sometimes they were so strong the men had to hang on to them as they pulled the sledges along. And Amundsen had a plan for killing off the weaker dogs as he deposited supplies, and making the cutlets and the stew last two or three days.

By 15 December, Amundsen was at the Pole. By 30 January he was back at his base. It was on 15 January that Scott and his Pole party saw the thing they most dreaded: the cairn that marked Norwegian victory.

So the British took their own photographs at the Pole, with some of the flags that are now on sale. And turned back. "Great God!" wrote Scott. "This is an awful place." Edgar Evans was the first to crack. He died on 16 February. They were doing a mile an hour now, and the hauling demanded far more food than they had. They were headed for a vital depot, but it was the one that had been dropped short. Suffering from severe frostbite, Oates took his famous walk in the snow. But he was more than a hero. His letters show that he was the bitterest critic of Scott's incompetence. The last three - Scott, Wilson and Bowers - came to a halt in late March. Their bodies were found the following spring.

Those are the bare facts. Scott's journal was given to the nation. But when it was published, some hand had edited it. A lot of Scott's gloom and petulance had been erased, along with every hint of disunity or error. It was decades before that record was put straight; and only in the 1970s that books began to tell a fuller story. Twenty years later, it seems, there are still some who would cling to the legend.

Let the relics go. The Scott Polar Research Institute in Cambridge has a fine collection. As for the rest, like the Scott children, we should trust the truth.