Southern exposure

 The Lost Photographs of Captain Scott, by Dr David M Wilson, Little, Brown, RRP£30, 192 pages

Almost exactly one hundred years ago, Captain Robert Falcon Scott and his South Pole team experienced brutal conditions in Antarctica, that vast chunk of ice and rock far bigger than China. Scott starved and froze to death beside his friends, Henry Bowers and Edward Wilson, and a controversial legend was born.

Through two world wars, the Scott story was used as a heroic example of how to face death when fighting for your country. Many biographies of Scott have been written since then. My own was the product of much time and effort but somehow I missed the remarkable fact, only now fully explained in The Lost Photographs of Captain Scott, that Scott had himself taken many superb photographs of key moments during his great journeys.

Another camera, lost on a mountainside a decade after Scott’s death and still being sought, may yet prove who was the first to climb Everest. If photos taken by George Mallory are found, they will become of great value, not to be handled carelessly and then disappear. Yet Scott’s photos, which form an invaluable record from one of the greatest tales of human exploration, were indeed lost and completely forgotten for many long years until, very recently, they were quietly and privately sold at auction and brought to the attention of this book’s author by their new owner.

The author, Dr David Wilson, a polar historian, is the great-nephew of Captain Scott’s best friend, polar colleague and companion in death, Dr Edward Wilson. This magnificent book, so lovingly put together, is a fitting tribute to the memory of the man I rate as the greatest polar explorer of all time – and, of late, the most mistreated, thanks to critical biographers such as Roland Huntford and those who followed him.

As Wilson comments in his introduction, carelessness by photo archivists of invaluable exploration photos has a modern equivalent, in that Nasa had recently to admit that it has lost key primary image data of man’s first landing on the moon only 40 years ago. The fact that Scott’s lost photos, as printed today, are still so effective and impressive, despite the careless storage they clearly suffered for decades, must owe a great deal to luck in terms of room temperature, exposure to light and chemical stability. And this despite the fact that a great many original photo collections of the same period using the same chemical ingredients are known to have disintegrated or even spontaneously combusted.

One of the oft-used debunking tactics of today’s Scott detractors is to stress that he lost the great race to be first to the South Pole. When the American Admiral Robert Peary, two years before Scott’s death, claimed that he was first to the North Pole, and when in 1982 I claimed to be first to both poles, neither of us pretended that our motive was anything other than claiming precedence. But Scott, although planning to reach the South Pole as one of the two aims of his expedition, had an equally well prepared twin goal, which was to garner as much scientific knowledge from the unknown wastes of the great frozen continent as he and his carefully picked scientists were able.

If he had known that the Norwegian ski-master Roald Amundsen was hell-bent on racing him to the pole, then Scott could have tried to upgrade the speed potential of his team with racing dogs, experienced dog-drivers and men who knew how to ski. But the Norwegian leader had announced that he was going north to the Arctic, not south, and had successfully deceived not just Scott but even his own sponsors.

In my past attempt to establish the truth about Scott’s great zeal for science, I only wish I had known of the existence of his lost photos, providing as they do an irreplaceable personal insight into his final and fatal journey. Archives in Cambridge and London have long held wonderful images of Scott’s journeys, mostly taken by the professional photographer Herbert Ponting, whom Scott took on his team to augment the endeavour’s scientific potential as much as to record the action. In the pre-camera past, survey work of new lands had often included detailed sketching and Wilson, a great artist, had fulfilled this task for Scott.

It was during the Discovery Expedition of 1901-1903 that Scott, Wilson and Ernest Shackleton made the first journey into Antarctica’s interior. No human eye had seen the unfolding panorama with gleaming black and red cliffs of mountains rising to 14,000ft and more. The glare was ferocious, causing agonising sun-blindness, especially to Wilson as he diligently sketched what he saw. Scott wrote: “Poor Wilson ... was writhing in horrible agony ... I have never seen an eye so terribly bloodshot and inflamed ... an almost intolerable stabbing and burning of the eyeball.”

Of Scott, Wilson wrote: “The Skipper is endlessly planning new theories and new methods of observation.” One of these was increasingly to include photographic records and to encourage more of his men to learn from Ponting, who was not expected to set out on the final trek to the pole in November 1911. Wilson, chief sketcher and himself a good photographer, wrote: “We want the scientific work to make the bagging of the Pole merely an item in the results.” The imaging programme was an important part of the work, and the sketches and photos would provide records and reference points.

Today’s polar scientists still use the early Wilson sketches and Scott/Ponting photos of mountains and glaciers to help assess the effects of global warming, comparing them with contemporary photos of the same features. One of the rediscovered Scott photos of the Piedmont Glacier in 1911 clearly shows how much more extensive was the ice flow then than now.

The diaries and letters of Scott’s men, the only testament of their last journey, were retrieved by a search party from the death tent, and subsequent biographers intent on assaulting Scott’s reputation often cast doubts on the veracity of their accounts. Great, therefore, is the value of the Scott photos, which underline visually the extreme conditions that were clearly not exaggerated in his diary. Consider such lines as “The horses could hardly move, sank up to their bellies, and finally laid down”; “With skis they could shift the load only a yard at a time. Without skis, they merely sank to their knees”; and, from Bowers, “I have never pulled so hard or so nearly crushed my inside into my backbone.”

From the Scott photos you can see the depth of the wet snow and the deep imprints of Scott’s own footprints where he has trudged back to take the picture. Other, often seemingly unimportant, items in the photos serve to support, as witnesses for the defence, the case for Scott’s competence. How, for instance, he championed the pioneering use of skis in Antarctic travel and of two ski sticks, where just one had always been the norm. How he insisted that however tired his men might be at the end of each day, they must build high snow walls to protect the ponies from the wind. Scott was to be accused of failure, partly due to suddenly choosing five, not four, men to make up the polar team when such a number was without precedent. Yet another early Wilson sketch, clearly in response to a detailed discussion with Scott, shows five men with a carefully rigged towing system pulling a single sledge.

Above all, the Scott photos emphasise the truly incredible determination of those five men whose achievement is best summed up by one of Amundsen’s own team, Helmer Hanssen. “It is no disparagement of Amundsen and the rest of us when I say that Scott’s achievement far exceeded ours,” he wrote. “Just imagine what it meant for Scott and the others to drag the sleds themselves, with all their equipment and provisions to the Pole and back again. We started with 52 dogs and came back with eleven. What shall we say of Scott and his comrades, who were their own dogs? Anyone with any experience will take his hat off to Scott’s achievement. I do not believe men have ever shown such endurance at any time, nor do I believe there will ever be men to equal it.”

Sir Ranulph Fiennes is author of ‘Captain Scott’ (Coronet). He was the first man to reach both poles by land and the first to make an unsupported crossing of the Antarctic continent

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