Wednesday, 14 September 2011

Review: The Longest Winter: Scott's other Heroes (Meredith Hooper)

I've just finished reading: The Longest Winter: Scott's Other Heroes by Meredith Cooper.

The Longest Winter concerns the activities of the member's of Scott's expedition that were tagged on to make it look like some serious science and exploration was included in his plans. Initially the group of six were to be deposited on the Ross Ice Shelf to explore to the East, but this was foiled by the lack of a suitable landing site at the Eastern edge of the ice shelf, and the subsequent occupation of the Bay of Whales by Amundsen's expedition.

Instead, the party was sent West, initially spending a comfortable winter at Cape Adare, far to the North of Ross Island, at the same site occupied by Borchgrevink in 1899, and where a small ruined hut remains to this day. This was a disappointment for the party as they had hoped to be installed mid-way along the Victoria land coast from which they could explore routes to the plateau and collect useful geological information. The Cape Adare site was unsuited to exploration as the sea ice was uncertain (being affected by frequent storms, and having few points on which to be pinned), and rocky mountains prevented sledging access to the interior.

At the end of this first winter, the party was collected by the Discovery and moved to a site at Terra Nova bay, close to the Drygalski ice tongue, to spend a few weeks exploring before being picked up and returned to the main expedition at the end of the summer. Instead, the ship was unable to access their landing site on its return, and the six men were left with no choice but to make do. This is where the real story starts, but also where the least information is available from the men, and, in fact, where very little actually happens.

The party found that winter brings terrible katabatic winds, similar to those that would be experienced by Mawson during his first winter. Terra Nova bay, in fact, is now known to be one of the windiest, and least hospitable places to be outside of the short sunny months of summer. Lacking in supplies and shelter, a snow cave was excavated, a seal-blubber stove constructed, and as much meat hunted as possible. Survival was slight, and the winter passed with little activity and much suffering. At its end, the men resolved to make their own way out of their situation, and begun to sledge back over the uncertain terrain of the Drygalski ice tongue, and along the sea ice of the Victoria Land coast to safety at Ross Island. Somehow, mainly through the good leadership of Campbell and the wise planning of Priestley, supplies were made to last, and sufficient strength was obtained for the men to struggle back to the main party, only to meet the sad news that Scott was dead.

The book has its good parts. For the reader experienced in the literature much will not be new, as the story Campbell's party is interleaved with that of the other portions of the expedition, and it was not always easy to skip over the parts I'd read many times before elsewhere. The parts concentrating on the men stuck out near Inexpressible island are good, well researched, and tied together to make a strong story. I would have been happier had the book been shorter, and concentrated only on this strong material, but I can see the use of the wider context to those not already steeped in the story. Hooper also uses the same names as the expedition used to place the action. This is a shame as it misses much of the later lore lain over the land, and makes it harder for me to know where anyone ever is, but then I am very familiar with the modern geography.

Finally, some parts of the book will make you feel very cold, so I'd suggest reading it while in a warm bath...

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