South: The race to the Pole

22nd September 2000 at 01:00
SOUTH: THE RACE TO THE POLE. National Maritime Museum, Greenwich

Captain Scott's doomed voyage to the South Pole is central to an engaging look at the heroic age of exploration, writes Sean Coughlan

The single most poignant image in this evocative exhibition celebrating the race to become the first to reach the South Pole is what at first might seem a rather undramatic photograph.

It shows Captain Robert Falcon Scott and four of his companions, in January 1912, staring out from the bleached background of the polar wilderness. It's an archetypal picture of the "heroic age" of exploration when colonial adventurers would cross the globe to stake claim to vast tracts of land, going without contact with the outside world for months on end.

But this isn't a victory picture. The group huddled in the snow had trudged for over two months in nightmarish weather conditions with no back-up teams, wireless or any realistic means of rescue, only to find that a rival Norwegian expedition had beaten them to it. Wind-burned and haggard, they look nothing like Boy's Own heroes, and it's difficult not to wonder what was going on behind those implacable black and white stares. Did they realise that there was no way back and that within a few bleak weeks they would all be dead?

Alongside the photograph is the camera which took the picture, and the Union flag that also appears in the photograph. And beside it stands a big leather shoe belonging to one of the men, Edgar Evans, a Welshman who was the first of the group to die.

Captain Scott recorded Evans's death in his journal: "A very terrible day... (Evans) was on his hands and knees with clothing disarrayed, hands uncovered and frost-bitten... we got him into the tent quite comatose. He died quietly at 12.30am." The next to die, Lawrence Oates, was to became a national icon: he walked out of the tent into a blizzard and certain death, with the words: "I am just going outside and may be some time."

The three remaining men - Scott, Henry Bowers and Edward Wilson - without fuel and running low on food, slowly succumbed to the freezing conditions. Their bodies were found 10 months later, along with Scott's journal and letters he had left for his wife and for the families of his companions.

The exhibition works hard at trying to capture the circumstances of Captain Scott's doomed journey and the more successful Antarctic expeditions of Sir Ernest Shackleton in 1909, and Roald Amundsen from Norway, who won the race to the South Pole in 1911. But the biggest missing piece ofevidence is the extreme cold these men endred. To put it into context: fish fingers are rock hard in your freezer at a temperature of - 22C. The temperature at which uncovered human skin freezes is - 32C. The average winter daytime temperature at the South Pole is - 60C. Once you make that imaginative leap, the experience of South becomes that much more intense, and you realise the sheer awfulness and courage of their last days.

By the time of Captain Oates's death, his frostbite had become so bad that his feet had turned to "mush". The pain of his feet defrosting when he was in his sleeping bag was so extreme that he had taken to sleeping with his feet uncovered so that they remained permanently frozen. And as well as recording the "gentlemanly" way in which he went to his death, Scott recorded that his outlook was so bleak that Oates had gone to bed the previous night hoping never to wake. But he had and, in the early hours of what was his 32nd birthday, he disappeared into the snow. His exit line has the same Carry On status in history as Nelson's "Kiss me, Hardy". South puts it in its harrowing context.

The examples of the clothing the explorers wore to protect them from the cold - remarkably amateurish to today's viewer - are fascinating. A balaclava worn by Shackleton seems to have been made out of scraps of canvas. There is also an extraordinary wolfskin suit used by Amundsen, whose team travelled on dog-sleds and who had equipment and provisions better suited to the conditions. On the day Scott's team was being photographed at the Pole, the Norwegians were feasting on seal steak, well on the way home to base camp.

The exhibition goes some way to reinstating the achievement of Amundsen who, in the wake of Scott's death, felt personally snubbed that the British had failed to acknowledge his success. The Norwegian victory had hurt national pride - it was as if Finland had beaten the United States to get the first man on to the moon.

South tells other stories of remarkable human endurance, so bizarre that they would be improbable as fiction. When Shackleton's attempt to cross the Antarctic failed, he and his crew lived on seals for five months while they waited for rescue. When none seemed likely, he set off in a tiny open boat on an 800-mile journey across the South Atlantic to get help. Arriving in South Georgia, he had to undertake an epic trek over glaciers and mountains to reach a whaling station and raise the alarm. The exhibition includes the couch on to which he collapsed when he arrived.

South is at the National Maritime Museum until September 30, 2001.Tel: 0208 312 6565

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