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Robert Falcon Scott and four companions reached the South Pole 100 years ago today. The goal of that British expedition team was to be the first in history to reach the bottom of the world. They failed by five weeks.
The team rested. Scott wrote of his disappointment in his journal. Then they began what became a death march. A month later the team was one man down. Two months later all lives were lost.
The five died for the glory of King, Country and Science…and in the manner of Greek Tragedy – for personal loyalty. Not quite a band of brothers – Scott was a stickler when it came to rank and class – they shared a common purpose.
Scott became a national hero, lionized in press and film. His companions became mythic heroes, whose names were conjured when examples of selflessness were required during dark and difficult times.
In a twist that has fascinated me for a lifetime, the man who became the first to reach the South Pole, became a footnote in British history books, overshadowed by Scott in the English-speaking world.
Captain Scott’s accrued accomplishments should outweigh his one, dramatic, tragic and complete failure. They should, but that has never been the case. His expeditions to the south polar region contributed greatly to science, art and photography. Let’s spend the next 100 years celebrating that, not his deadly hubris.
Goodness knows that if Robert Falcon Scott or Ernest Shackleton had attempted to gain permission for their expeditions today, the lawyers and insurers would have shut them down for using ill-equipped ships with limited supplies, led by men with limited expertise. When they set out 100 years ago, exploration was a risky business. You may not have admitted it to your backers, but you knew there was a significant chance you wouldn’t come back alive.
Today, risk still exists but it is mitigated as much as possible. You can’t get funding and permits for foolishness. So some folk strike out on their own, risking not only their lives, but their reputations. And to reiterate a point I made last week – they risk the lives of others who are sent to rescue them should the worst happen.
Some modern-day explorers were recently rescued from their Antarctic folly. Their trouble can now be parlayed into a Movie of the Week or a book deal or a lap in Top Gear’s reasonably priced car. Admittedly should they do that they will be following the tradition of Scott and Shackleton, who traveled the speaking circuit, published books and wrote newspaper articles on their return.
I don’t know the folk who have been recently rescued, so I’m trying to temper my criticism. However, the difference between Antarctic exploration 100 years ago, and Antarctic exploration now is knowledge. We understand so much more. The technology is so much better. There really is no excuse for going ill-prepared and unsanctioned into what is still a hostile environment.
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Ninety-nine years ago today, Roald Amundsen became the first human to reach the South Pole. Next year, the centennial of that feat will be marked by a race to the South Pole. The race begins December 14, 2011.
The race sponsors bill the event as the toughest endurance race on the planet. The 704 km (437 mile) route will entail negotiating crevasses, snow bridges and a 3000m (1.8 mile)climb. Each racer will wear a tracking device, and they will place satellite phone calls from time to time. Race updates will be posted hourly on the sponsor’s site.