This website was never intended for words other than those quoted from the members of the Antarctic exploring parties who risked their lives in the name of science and discovery. However, there is one book so compelling in its subject matter, so detailed and literate in its delivery, that it deserves a mention here, and a wider audience.
The subject matter is the story of Scott’s “Northern Party,” who were initially detailed to explore King Edward VII land and when that goal proved untenable transferred their field of discovery to the continental corner of the Antarctic at the northern verge of the Ross Sea. Many of you are aware of their sojourn at Cape Adare, later extended to the southward at Evans Coves, and the brutally hard winter in an ice-lined burrow on Inexpressible Island. Some of you may be familiar with Raymond Priestley’s diary published as Antarctic Adventure, quoted occasionally in this website one hundred years to the day after his words were written in 1912-13. Others may have encountered the story Victor Campbell published as The Wicked Mate. But until you have read and reread Meredith Hooper’s The Longest Winter, I’m afraid you will not have seen the overview of the whole adventure well and uniquely told.
The Eastern Party (as they called themselves), thwarted in their mission to explore King Edward VII Land, went instead to Cape Adare for their first winter, and were transferred by the Terra Nova in the spring of 1912 to Evans Coves farther south on the coast of Victoria Land. There, after a successful season’s exploration, they found themselves isolated in this barren land, and with the Antarctic winter coming on, holed up (quite literally) in a hand-dug snow cave on what they later called Inexpressible Island. These six men were forced to winter over surviving on the meat and blubber of the seals and penguins they killed in the autumn.
The hardship they endured here beggars description, but the diaries of these men, quoted at length in The Longest Winter, bring to immediate life their struggle to survive. With no fuel but burning blubber, no clothing but those on their backs day and night, no food but the frozen meat of the animals they had killed, they endured. In time the spring would come, and the time to emerge from their dungeon, load their sledges once more, and complete the 250-mile journey to the relative safety and plenty of the Scott expedition’s home base at Cape Evans.
Theirs is a tale of Antarctic survival that rivals all others. Told largely in their own words, it recounts endless months of misery with few regrets, of a growing sense of tolerance and interdependence that in the end demonstrates the enduring capacity of human endeavor to maintain, and to win through against overwhelming odds.
It is to author Meredith Hooper’s credit that she gives them scope to tell their story. She weaves together each of the six personal accounts so that we the readers share their experiences as they happen, colored at times by the diverse lenses of those who are living them. She manages to sidestep the fault-finding that many chroniclers of the Scott expeditions seem to fall into, bringing out a largely unbiased, uncritical accounting of the decisions that brought the Northern Party into their desperate straits. Our view of events is thereby enlarged, and with it our respect for the men involved.
Hooper also looks outside the snow cave, to other fields of endeavor happening in the Antarctic at the exact same time, occasionally quoting from the diaries of other men in the field: Amundsen and Scott on their ways to the Pole, the residents at Cape Evans and Hut Point, the men on board the ship Terra Nova as she tries and fails to rescue the stranded Northern Party. This look at what is happening in other places at the same time is one of the real strengths of The Longest Winter, that cements together the many efforts of what is essentially on large field exploration spread out across a continent.
Hooper ties it all together in a final chapter, when the men of the Northern Party, after two years of disappointment and privation come finally home to the security and plenty of the hut at Cape Evans. In spare and elegant language she shows us how in almost indescribable ways they have grown through their ordeal. And we, the readers, in sharing this with them, have also grown. There are few books that can claim this remarkable achievement.
“The Longest Winter: Scott’s Other Heroes” by Meredith Hooper
Pubished by Counterpoint Press, Berkeley CA 2010
$26.00 at your local independent bookseller, or amazon.com
Review by David Hirzel, author of Sailor on Ice and Hold Fast
Shackleton had been advertising for men of various specialties to join the Endurance expedition. Lees, a captain in the Royal Marines, rode up to London on a motorcycle as a demonstration of his “practical knowledge of internal combustion engines.” Shackleton accepted his application on the spot, but the Navy was not so willing to let him go. He could retire, but “That I could not afford to do.”
–from Lees’ memoir “Beset by Berg and Floe”–
“I passes word to Shackleton. ‘Come up and see me again,’ he wired. I went up. We got into a taxi and drove to the Admiralty. . . .Straight into Mr. Churchill’s office we walked. He greeted Shackleton warmly but. . .seemed take aback when Shackleton said ‘I want you, if possible, to release this man for my expedition.’Churchill, addressing me, said, ‘Very well you can go if you’re willing to lose time and pay.’ I was at once in a dilemma, reflecting on my encumbrances, wife ad child. I turned to Shackleton for help and advice. With only a fraction of a twinkle in his eye and a simulation of a nod on his part, I turned to Mr. Churchill and said ‘Ay, ay Sir’ at which I thought he gave a faint smile. To my intense relief Shackleton then said ‘I’ll see to that Mr. Churchill,’ and he did.
“The moment we got outside he told me that he had decided to give me L300 a year, more than I was getting as captain of Marines.”
Shackleton was invited to address a committee of the Royal Geographical Society on March 4th, 1914. In response to a question about possible accidents along the TransAntarctic trail, he replied:
“If a man broke his leg, or anything like that, and I was on the outward track, I would turn for that man and go back to my winter quarters. If I had got beyond the Pole, I would go on as I could, and it is up to him to do what is right. If I had got just half-way I would turn back to the Weddell Sea. If I had passed that and was nearer to the Ross Sea, I would have to go on.”
–from Douglas Mawson’s account “The Home of the Blizzard”–
“On February 26 we gazed on distant cliffs of rock and earth–Kangaroo Island–and the tiny cluster of dwellings round the lighthouse at Cape Borda. Then we entered St. Vincent’s Gulf on a clear, hot day, marveling at the tree-clad shores and the smoke of many steamers.
“Our coming had been signalled from Cape Borda and when the pilot stepped on board he brought with him a telegram from Sir Samuel Way, Lieutenant-Governor of Australia, welcoming us home.
“The welcome home–the voice of the innumerable strangers–the hand-grips of many friends–it chokes one–it cannot be uttered.”
Frank Hurley, the expedition’s photographer, will shortly be tapped by Shackleton for his own upcoming Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition.
The day after Shackleton had taken Winston Churchill, then the first Sea Lord, to lunch, Sir Ernest wrote him the following note:
“Please do look favourably upon . . .our talk. I will return the men safe and undamaged, as far as God wills it. . .so that if you want them back for war purposes [they] could . . . return to England, and I would have the ship manned with a scratch crew. . .You know from our talk yesterday that I am trying to do good and serious work. . . Death is a very little thing, and Knowledge very great. . . and really Regent Street holds out more dangers on a busy day than the five million square miles that constitute the Antarctic Continent.
“If I go on this Expedition without the Senior Service [that is, the Royal Navy, as senior to the Merchant Navy] being represented, it will be the first time in the history of Polar exploration, which. . .has brought forth for the last three hundred years the best qualities of the seaman and has been the brightest page in the history of our sea story. . . . It means much to the country, and it means a great deal to me.”
–from Douglas Mawson’s account The Home of the Blizzard–
On February 12, in latitude 55 S., a strong south-wester drove behind, and under half steam and with all sails set, the Aurora made eight knots an hour. The last iceberg was seen far away on the eastern horizon. Albatrosses followed in our wake, accompanied by their smaller satellites—Cape hens, prions and Lesson’s petrels. . . .
“The first real touch of civilization came early on the morning of February 21. A full-rigged ship on the southern horizon! It might have been an iceberg, the sails flashed so white in the morning sun. But onward it came with a strong south-wester, overhauled and passed us, signalling ‘Archibald Russell, fifty-four days out from Buenos Ayres, bound for Cape Borda.’ It was too magical to believe.”
–undated memorandum from Shackleton to the Admiralty–
“I have received a large number of applications from men and officer in H. M. Navy . . . Naturally my inclination . . .would be to have some of these men . . . for the good of the expedition . . . and for the moral good I feel will result for a happy combination of the premier service with our mercantile marine . . . as an old merchant officer, I feel deeply the compliment that these men pay me in asking to serve under me . . . tried men and good comrades would mean for me the easing of a load of responsibility.”