Robert Scott in Antarctica

Writers’ Trigger:

Even those of us who aren’t farmers or sailors, have taken note of the unpredictable weather (the blizzards, flooding and mudslides) of winter 2010-11. Encroaching weather always has the upper hand, and man can only scramble. Aside from the physical aspects of weather, weather is laden with portent. 

  • Write an entry in which weather is central to the story.
  • Invent an impending disaster. Your main character has only 10 minutes to leave the house. What does he think? What does he take? Does he make it out in time?
  • Create a scene in which weather foreshadows events or affects your main character’s mood.

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I’ve learned to love London’s dusky, gray, rainy, winter days that blend dawn and twilight at high noon.

Perhaps the weather is my attraction to the photographic exhibit of Robert Scott’s expedition to Antarctica. A hundred years have passed since the ill-fated sledge-haul, and to mark the occasion, the National Geographic store (on the west side of Regents Street just north of Piccadilly Circus) is exhibiting the work of photographer Herbert Ponting.

And what wonderful work it is. All the more amazing because Ponting  was using the camera of the day in numbing temperatures. Many pictures show the men at work. Pictures of men hanging from the ice-coated yardarms while trying to haul up frozen sails.  Pictures of the men bailing with buckets, the ship listing in a ferocious storm. White, bleak and beautiful.

And in contrast, are pictures of the men at-rest on the deck of the Terra Nova. One shows a rare sunny day. Space is at a premium. The men lie cheek-by-jowl, swathed in wool. Most are asleep with books on their bellies. One man lies perpendicular to the others. His head rests on the legs of one man; another man’s legs are flung over him. It is a woven tapestry of exhausted bodies.

Robert Scott is famously known for making the South Pole, only to learn that the Norwegian team led by Roald Amundsen had arrived 33 days earlier.

Privately, in his journal, Scott wrote”The worst has happened. All the day dreams must go. Great God! This is an awful place.” Publically, Scott blew off his second place finish saying that his goal was scientific research, not his arriving at the South Pole before Amundsen.

The expedition did not end well. On Dec. 4, 1911, on route to Beardmore Glacier, a blizzard struck. When it lifted, the remaining exhausted ponies were shot and eaten. On Dec. 11, two men turned back to the base camp with the stiff-upper-lip message: “Things were not as rosy as they might be, but we keep our spirits up and say the luck must turn.”

The Manchurian ponies (bought by the sled dog handler who knew more about dogs than ponies) were an issue from the very first as the ponies were of advanced age and in poor condition. Nevertheless, they pulled their weight and more. I love this photo of the ponies at rest- their loving caretaker, Lawrence Oates, drawing on his pipe.

On March 23, having been waylaid for nine days by a blizzard, Captain Scott and his four companions perished. Exhaustion, starvation, frost-bite, snow-blindness and cold all played their part. One of Scott’s last journal entries read: “Had we lived, I should have had a tale to tell of the hardihood, endurance, and courage of my companions that would have stirred the heart of every Englishman.”

Scott’s competence has been questioned. Did the expedition fail in that Scott made poor decisions or was the expedition doomed because of bad weather? As with anything, the outcome was the result of a constellation of factors. But I’m looking forward to reading more.

If you are in London, catch Herbert Ponting’s brilliant work in person. If not, Google Herbert Ponting + Scott Expedition.

About timeout2

I have lived 100 lives. I write essays, short stories, poetry, grocery lists and notes to myself. If I am ever lost, look for a paper trail, but be careful not to trip over any books that lie scattered here and there. I am a reader. I am a reader in awe of writers. When I don't live in Westcliffe, Colorado, I live in London where I am a long-time member of Word-for-Word - Crouch End.
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