Onward to the Pole: The Saga of the Idiot Brit

The British are a spooky, stubborn race with a penchant for losing every battle before winning whatever war is at hand. This British predilection for what might be called “affirmative self-destruction” is currently being field-tested by no less a figure than HRH Prince Henry of Wales, fourth in line of succession to the English Throne and now conqueror of the South Pole.

Captain Wales had been cooling his heels at a base in Antarctica’s McMurdo Sound waiting for the weather to warm to begin what is billed as “The South Pole Allied Challenge.” Waiting until the Antarctican weather moderated to something above zero degrees Fahrenheit, Captain Wales joined a soldierly retinue setting out to traverse a 200-mile slice of the most forbidding ice-scape on Earth. The trek is part of the charity, “Walking With the Wounded” designed to provide aid and comfort to members of various armed forces injured in recent wars. Prince Harry lead one of three teams on an expedition that, sorry to say, simply reeked of British self-importance ,not to mention illustrating what might be called “the Saga of the Idiot-Brit.”

Manhandling ski-sledges weighing more than 70-kgs each, the “Walking With The Wounded” teams was designed to focus attention on the retraining of injured soldiers. Beyond this noble cause, the expedition was also designed to test the limits of human endurance, and, perhaps most important, re-live and redeem other British expeditions that have tried to conquer the forbidding vastness that is Antarctica and spectacularly failed.

Prince Harry and team didn’t simply pick the South Pole as a (literally) cool destination to test their explorer’s mettle. Rather, they represent the singular brand of early 20th Century Brit who was drawn to the kind of wasteland associated with “Lawrence of Arabia,” “Gordon of Khartoum” and “Scott of the Antarctic.” These three were the type driven to explore those increasingly rare places that have remain terra incognita into a new century. Most of all, it was Captain Scott, the English Polar explorer who, perhaps more than any other man of his time, set the standards for what might be referenced as the “On a Mission, Idiot Brit.” It was Scott whose ill-fated 1911 race to the South Pole would only net him second place to the Arctic- and Antarctic-savvy Norwegian, Roald Amundsen.

Not only did Scott lose the Pole to Amudnsen, he and his three exhausted comrades arrived at Latitude –90/00000, Longitude /-00000, on January 17, 1912, trailing Amundsen by a month. Not only did Amundsen reach the Pole ahead of Scott, but also made the whole exercise seem like a ski in the park: Amundsen’s team of men and sled-dogs actually gained weight on the trip back to their home base on McMurdo Sound. And if in many quarters the name “Amundsen” came to stand for straightforward, well-thought-out scientific exploration, in many other sectors the name “Scott” became shorthand for the useless, tragic and futile.

In many ways, the race to the Pole was the Apollo Program of the early 20th Century. And when Amundsen departed the Pole, he made sure to have marked his presence. He left behind a tent sporting a Norwegian flag, letters and other identifying documents along with some gourmet victuals in case Scott and his men happened to be hungry (they were) or suffering from the heartbreak of their second-place finish (they were). Sick, tired and disheartened, Scott and his team froze to death less than a dozen miles from one of the caches located for Scott’s return trip so that he and his men would not have to man-haul all of their supplies to the Pole and back. As it was, the Scott expedition’s burden was a terrible one both coming and going.

It was not until months later that a rescue team from Scott’s home base found his body and those of his companions. Scott, it turned out, was clueless as an expedition leader, but also a public relations genius. As Scott lay dying only miles from salvation, he began the opening salvo of farewell letters and diary-writing designed to resonate from the grave with various Edwardian-era notables.

So effective were these ice-road correspondences, that Robert Scott’s letters and diary helped his executors transform his dismal South Pole debacle into one of the great, resonating dramas of early 20th Century Imperial Britain. Alive, Robert Falcon Scott, was an embarrassment. Dead, he became one of Britain’s greatest heroes and an embodiment of a nation’s indomitable spirit, one that, a mere two years later would be tested in Flanders Field, Ypres and along the Somme. Scott would become, in other words, the very model of the “On-a-Mission Idiot-Brit.”

The press coverage of the 1911 Scott South Pole Expedition bore little relationship to the actual experience doomed from the start by faulty planning, uncertain leadership and innate British conservatism and insularity. According to one post-World War I American writer, the average Brit “does not imagine dangers in advance, and it is only when danger is upon him that he perceives it.”

Scott blithely ignored the lessons of Polar exploration taught by Norwegians like Amundsen, and Fridjof Nansen. Instead of the skis and dog sleds that enabled Amundsen to make his lighting sprint to the pole, Scott organized a ponderous, military-style campaign with a hopelessly mixed-bag of transport including ponies and a primitive motorized sled. The sledges failed; the ponies had to be shot. Worse, Scott and his fellow members of the British Geographic Society, the exploration’s sponsor, considered the use of dogs somehow to be unmanly and unseemly. Scott and his men would instead man-haul their over-laden sleds nearly 1,500 miles from McMurdo Sound to the Pole and back.

By comparison, the Norwegians’ trek was more or less an extended cross-country ski excursion, albeit, the greatest ever attempted up to that time. And with Scott’s fate still unknown, Amundsen sailed from Antarctica bringing word of his own feat to the outside world – or at least as far as Norway. Amundsen’s feat, as great as it was, was given short shrift by the Brits who seemed to feel that the Norwegians were somehow simply not playing cricket, relying, as they did, on dog-teams. Scott’s shocking death and the popularity of his diary also had the effect of making him an even greater hero. Today, you are likely as not to see Amundsen’s Polar expedition as a footnote to the moral heroics of Captain Robert Falcon Scott. Equally certain, related books and movies, of which there were many, would inevitably be titled “Scott of the Antarctic.”

To this day, Robert Falcon Scott has such a lock on the British moral compass, that in 1984-1985, Robert Swann, another modern British explorer, funded his own “in-the-footsteps-of-Scott” expedition. Swann purchased an old whaler called the “Southern Quest” and set off on his own trek across Antarctica. True to form, Swann followed Scott’s route and decided to use the same means of transport. This meant expedition members would have to man-haul its supplies on the heavy sleds being towed behind crewmembers. Inevitably, the ghost of Robert Scott seemed to haunt every aspect of the Swann exploration. Which, not at all surprisingly, proved to be a disaster remarkably similar to Scott’s own. Getting locked up in Antarctic pack ice, for example, the hull of the Southern Quest fractured like an eggshell and sank. After one final indignity, an attack on team members by an enraged leopard seal, the Swann team was evacuated by the US Navy which had warned from the start that Swann had little more of a chance of success than had Scott.

But you do have to give these “Idiot-Brits” points for persistence. One-hundred-and-four years after Capt. Scott and a dozen years post-Robert Swann, a member of the British royal family has arrived, this time, at least, in an airplane. Out of the plane stepped Prince Harry Wales complaining, naturally, about the temperature differential between South Africa, where the trek was organized, and Antarctica where, one way or another, the trip will play out.

Having still not learned their lesson, this latest team of Idiot-Brits have once again chosen to forget the dogs and manhandle the sledge’s north to the South Pole and back. The good news is that the Wales exploration only travelled 200 miles and seems to have reached the Pole with fingers and toes intact.