I guess, I’ll be putting of writing about uinput for another day…
I just finished reading Captain Robert “Falcon” Scott’s journals of his second, and final, expedition to the south pole. I can’t remember exactly what led me to be interested–I think it may have been some offhanded comment in Jon Krakauer’s Eiger Dreams–but the journals are entirely free on project Gutenberg so there wasn’t anything stopping me from giving them a try. And try them I did. Since I read it on my kindle, I’m not entirely sure how long the book really is, but it certainly felt long. It is a testament to Scott’s descriptive ability that reading his journal’s often felt like an endless march through a bleak monotonous landscape. But, unlike Scott, I was able to make it to the end.
On a more serious note, I recognize that it’s a collection of journals and not a novel or even a historian’s account of the journey. Much of the journals are exactly what you would expect to be recorded in a captain’s personal journal. Scott gives nearly daily descriptions of the temperature, weather, quality of the snow surface, and distance marched. Presumably these would be useful records for future journeys to the south pole, but considering the advancements in polar travel since Scott, even if I wanted to head to the south pole, most of these records probably wouldn’t be relevant. I came mostly for a tale of adventure in what was one of the final (above water) unexplored areas on earth–a place where the explorers weren’t just some of the first Europeans to arrive, but were actually some of the first people to even be there. And to be honest, the journals disappointed. Not to say that there wasn’t anything of value in them, but the ratio of interesting content to snow descriptions and weather reports was quite low.
With that said, I must admit that after spending a few weeks working through the journals (I am a slow reader, but this also wasn’t the only thing I was reading), the end that I knew was coming was surprisingly heart wrenching. I guess, even if it felt like a slog, I actually felt like I got to know some of the crew and I grew to like Captain Scott.
This brings me to something that I was thinking about quite frequently throughout the journals. While I know that Captain Scott has become a controversial figure, this book is literally my only source of information about his expedition. I understand from its preface that Scott and his crew have been accused of being irresponsibly ill prepared for the arctic environment. Knowing this, I found it interesting that Scott is constantly extolling the amazing abilities of his crew. The worst Scott has to say about one of his crew comes when his party is near death and he writes something to the effect of ‘after falling into that crevasse and getting a fatal concussion Evans has become a real downer’. Aside from this, Scott does not have enough space in his journal to discuss all of the positive attributes of everyone he brought along on the expedition. I see there as being two possible explanations. (1) This journal was never meant to be private and even had he survived, Scott was planning on publishing and wanted to portray everything in the best possible light. This would certainly explain his incessant optimism and the purported unstrained relationships between every member of a diverse group of Englishmen who were trapped together in a small hut without sunlight in extreme cold for many months. Another explanation might be that these expeditions could be considered the equivalent of modern day trips to the ISS. Great Britain really did send their most resilient and resourceful on this trip and Scott’s descriptions of them are accurate. Frankly, I don’t know which is closer to the truth. I want to believe the latter, but I think its more likely that Scott was really just trying to portray the journey in the best possible light.
Was reading it worthwhile? Probably not, I probably should have cut my losses earlier, but at least I know something about Robert “Falcon” Scott’s last expedition to the South Pole. That counts for something, right? …right?
PS. If you’re interested in learning about this expedition, I would recommend checking out Herbert Ponting’s account of the journey. He was the photographer and his account includes many amazing photos that are not included in Scott’s journals. I only read very little of the actual text of Ponting’s account but it seems like it may be pretty good too. I don’t think it’s in the public domain, but I was able to get a copy online through my university.