One of the hardest parts for me to grasp in this whole story is the status quo. This was an expedition without plastic of any kind. Without fleece, without Gore-Tex, without Velcro, without lexan, kevlar, mylar, or spectra. Without zippers, even. There was no gasoline. Cherry relished the chance to cook with clean-burning kerosene – and if you’ve ever tried to clean your fingers after picking up a pot cooked over kerosene, that should give you an idea.
No quick-release buckles, no Camelbaks, no headlamps, no flashlights, no batteries. No sunscreen and no sunglasses. The millennia-old technology of the compass didn’t even work because they were so close to the pole. The needle mostly pointed down, into the ground.
And they didn’t know enough about nutrition. After Cherry’s return, a little math indicated a large part of the problem the men had faced:
According to the most modern standards the food requirements for laborious work at a temperature of zero Fahr. (which is a fair Barrier average temperature to take) are 7714 calories to produce 10,069 foot-tons of work. The actual Barrier ration which we used would generate 4003 calories, equivalent to 5331 foot-tons of work.
Is it possible that every man on the sledging teams was supplying an extra 3,711 calories per day on top of what they got from their food – for up to three months at a stretch?
Actually, it was worse than that. The word “vitamine” was only invented in 1912, the year Scott died on the ice. By 1922, Cherry was still writing gingerly about the concept. You can almost hear him putting Dr. Evil-style quotation marks around the word “vitamins”:
Modern research suggests that the presence or absence of certain vitamins makes a difference, and it may be a very great difference, in the ability of any individual to profit by the food supplied to him. If this be so, this factor must have had great influence upon the fate of the Polar Party, whose diet was seriously deficient in, if not absolutely free from vitamins.
In the end, after comparing Scott’s approach to Amundsen’s, Cherry sums up the situation in one line:
We did not suffer from too little brains or daring: we may have suffered from too much.
Later, he goes on an extended tirade about the state of science funding which will be heartwarming to grant-writers everywhere:
But when one thinks of these Nimrods and Terra Novas [Shackleton’s first ship and Scott’s last one], picked up second-hand in the wooden-ship market, and faked up for the transport of ponies, dogs, motors, and all the impedimenta of a polar expedition, to say nothing of the men who have to try and do scientific work inside them….
And then the begging that is necessary to obtain even this equipment. Shackleton hanging around the doors of rich men! Scott writing begging letters for months together! Is the country not ashamed?
He goes on, and while he is impassioned, he’s also very farsighted:
Modern civilized States should make up their minds to the endowment of research, which includes exploration; and as all States benefit alike by the scientific side of it there is plenty of scope for international arrangement, especially in a region where the mere grabbing of territory is meaningless, and no Foreign Office can trace the frontier between King Edward’s Plateau and King Haakon’s…. Ross Island is not a place for a settlement: it is a place for an elaborately equipped scientific station, with a staff in residence for a year at a time.
The establishment of such stations and of such a service cannot be done by individual heroes and enthusiasts cadging for cheques from rich men and grants from private scientific societies: it is a business, like the Nares Arctic expedition, for public organization.
Specially built ships, and enough of them; specially engined tractors and aeroplanes; specially trained men and plenty of them, will all be needed if the work is to be done in any sort of humane and civilized fashion; and Cabinet ministers and voters alike must learn to value knowledge that is not baited by suffering and death.
I hope that by the time Scott comes home – for he is coming home: the Barrier is moving, and not a trace of our funeral cairn was found by Shackleton’s men in 1916 – the hardships that wasted his life will be only a horror of the past, and his via dolorosa a highway as practicable as Piccadilly.
Present-day McMurdo Station sits on the southwest tip of Ross Island and butts right up against Scott’s Discovery expedition hut.
And for researchers, explorers, and different-drummers everywhere, Cherry thinks you should keep going:
Some will tell you that you are mad, and nearly all will say, ‘What is the use?’ For we are a nation of shopkeepers, and no shopkeeper will look at research which does not promise him a financial return within a year. And so you will sledge nearly alone, but those with whom you sledge will not be shopkeepers: that is worth a good deal.