Posted on 05 December 2010.
The Terra Nova held up in the pack, December 13th, 1910. Photos: Herbert Ponting.
By David Wilson
They stare out of photographic immortality, looking every inch the explorer-heroes of the Antarctic. This should not, perhaps, be surprising, since these are portraits of key figures from the Heroic Age of Antarctic exploration, most of them photographed as they returned to Cape Evans from supporting Captain Scott’s ill-fated trek to the South Pole. These photographs were taken to record moments of glory within a great triumph; the shadow of the tragedy-to-come had not yet crossed anyone’s mind. As each supporting party returned from the Pole Journey, the Expedition photographer, Herbert Ponting, was there to record it.
The men are trail-worn, with hair and beards unkempt: their tans broken by the pale shadow of snow-goggles; their lips and faces in various stages of being blistered and peeled by sun, snow and the biting Antarctic wind; and they haven’t washed for months. Bernard Day and Frederick Hooper were part of the supporting Motor Party, leaving Cape Evans on 24 October 1911 ahead of the main Pony Party. Making steady but slow progress, the motor tractors reached as far as Corner Camp, the first failing on 29 October and the second on 5 November. This contingency was planned for, as Scott had never had complete confidence in these innovative machines.
The motor-tractors were in many ways ahead of their time. Amundsen greatly feared that they would allow Scott to beat him to the Pole, a fear so great that he became impatient. Leaving his base at Framheim on 8 September 1911, Amundsen’s first attempt on the Pole was too early in the season. It was a near-disaster, with dogs dying in the low temperatures, and two of his men almost lost to exposure. They returned to base and waited for warmer weather before launching their second, successful, attempt on the Pole. Scott’s polar tractors foreshadowed the tanks of the First World War and contemporary snow-mobiles. Scott dreamt of the day when draft-animals and manhauling were eliminated as means of polar transport.
For now, however, his dream ended as hulks of metal on the Great Ice Barrier and the members of the Motor Party continued south, manhauling the necessary supplies instead. The main Pony Party caught up with them at 80° 32’ S, the point which it was hoped the motors would reach. It had long since been planned that Lieutenant Evans and Chief Stoker Lashly would be added to the main Polar Support Parties at this point. The jobs of Day and Hooper were over, however. They headed north on 24 November at 81° 15’S, 525 miles from the Pole.
The Motor Party was the first of the supporting parties to return and when they reached Cape Evans on 21 December, Ponting was waiting for them with his camera. They had to pose, filthy as they were, whilst their portraits were taken. Posing for Ponting, or Ponko, as he was more commonly nicknamed, had become something of a standing joke amongst the Expedition members. The Expedition even had its’ own verb for it, invented by Griffith Taylor. It was a play on Ponting’s name, ‘to pont’, meaning “to pose, until nearly frozen, in all sorts of uncomfortable positions”; thus “ponting for Ponko.” The resulting teasing ended in some lectures from Ponting on the value of photography. Meares wrote a humorous poem about it in the South Polar Times apparently playing on the verb ‘To pont’ meaning both ‘To pose for Ponting’ and ‘To pontificate’: (Chorus) Then pont, Ponko, pont, and long may Ponko pont; With his finger on the trigger of his ‘gadget.’
For whenever he’s around, we’re sure to hear the sound Of his high-speed cinematographic ratchet. (South Polar Times, 3 October, 1911) Ponting for Ponko was also believed to carry considerable risks. Early in the Expedition, Ponting had been attacked by killer whales, whilst trying to photograph them; he barely escaped their culinary intentions. This resulted in Ponting becoming the butt of ‘Jonah’ jokes for the rest of the Expedition. However, when Tryggve Gran injured himself whilst showing off some skiing manoeuvres for the camera, the first murmurings about the ‘evil eye’ started to be muttered. Sailors were a generally superstitious bunch. Their discomfort was not helped when Clissold, the Chief Steward, fell from an iceberg whilst posing for Ponting.
This was a serious injury and his mechanical skills, that were to have been of use on the Pole Journey, had to be foregone. His place on the Motor Party was taken by Hooper who, somewhat unexpectedly therefore, entered the great pantheon of Antarctic sledgers. A few days later, during a football match staged for Ponting’s cinematograph, Frank Debenham injured himself, which resulted in a serious delay to the departure of the geologists’ Western Party and so another accident, rather unfairly by Ponting’s account, was attributed to the ‘evil eye’ of the camera and its Jonah. So it was that when the Polar Parties were hit by a very rare wet blizzard at the bottom of the Beardmore Glacier, despite Ponting’s absence, Cherry Garrard noted that “The sailors began to debate who was the Jonah. They said he was the cameras. The great blizzard was brewing all about us.” (Worst Journey. Saturday, December 2.)
The blizzard deposited a large quantity of snow that bogged down the sledges and made life a misery, as men sank up to their knees and sledges overturned; instead of a hard, clear surface, the attempt on the Pole nearly foundered in deep snow. The dogs too, were struggling and Meares and Demetri Girev were finding it hard to make much progress. The dogs had left Hut Point three days later than the Pony Party and soon caught up with it. Indeed, the dogs were travelling so well that Scott took them farther south than he had initially planned, across the Great Ice Barrier and onto the Beardmore Glacier.
Farther south, even, than the ponies upon whose remains they were fed. Some rather ridiculous untruths about Scott and dogs have grown over the years and he has come in for some ill-informed criticism following Amundsen’s success in using them. There is no doubt that Scott recognized the abilities of dogs. Amundsen took experienced dog drivers and professional skiers with him and Scott noted that ‘… he is bound to travel fast with dogs …’. He was under no illusions as to what dogs could do. However, following his experiences of them on the Southern Journey from Discovery during his 1901-04 Expedition, he also had misgivings about their reliability.
Experienced British dog drivers were also a rare commodity, Meares was an exception, so it seemed obvious that a British attempt on the Pole would probably have to use other means. Nevertheless, Scott seriously considered taking dogs all the way to the Pole, until the late stages of his planning. When my Great Uncle, Edward Wilson, was put in charge of driving the dog teams with Meares, for the depot laying journey in January 1911, he was delighted, writing home to say that he was pleased to have been chosen to drive the dogs as it greatly increased his chances of going to the Pole the following season. Wilson, being Scott’s confidant, would have known the general plan at the time. On the return journey, however, one of the dog teams disappeared entirely down a crevasse. Scott insisted on personally rescuing each of the dogs, despite the danger of being lowered into the crevasse on a rope.
Debenham noted that he never heard Scott talk of taking dogs to the Pole again. It isn’t surprising. Shackleton’s account of his ascent of the Beardmore Glacier, during which he lost a pony and sledge down a great chasm of a crevasse, made fearsome reading. Scott concluded that it was unlikely that any animals could safely navigate the glacier. Manhauling was the only rational answer. He fervently hoped that he was right and that Amundsen would therefore find his passage blocked by crevasses. There was a further consideration for Scott too: he wanted the dogs for future scientific journeys which were likely to be made. For Scott the Pole was his duty but the scientific work was his passion. He did not want to sacrifice the dogs to the Pole and limit the Expedition’s scientific discoveries as a result. The Pole was to be “merely an item in the results”. It was Scott’s order, therefore, ‘not to risk the dogs.’ This however, increasingly came into conflict with the varying orders sent with each returning Support Party, regarding the use of the dogs in the relief of the Pole Party. This resulted in a confusion that contributed to the final demise of the Polar Party itself.
The tenement bunks in hut. Lieut. Bowers, Mr. Cherry Garrard, Capt. Oates, Mr. Maeres and Dr. Atkinson, October 9th, 1911.
So it was that the Dog Party, Cecil Meares and Demetri Girev, turned north on 11 December at about 83° 36’S, 384 miles from the Pole. The first part of their return journey was a struggle through the deep snow, the dogs sinking up to their bellies; it slowed them significantly for some distance across the Barrier. Because they were farther south than planned Meares had to improvise regarding rations at the supply depots. Meares thought this a risk to their lives and blamed Scott. The returning parties which followed them, and in particular, Charles Wright, thought that Meares had panicked and taken too much ration; they blamed Meares.
Lieutenant Evans was nevertheless to praise Meares and Demetri after the expedition, for travelling back on short rations, voluntarily giving up one meal per day on their return journey. By the time they returned to Cape Evans on 5 January, Meares was ready to head home with the relief ship. First, however, he and Demetri had to pont for Ponko and photographic immortality. Looking at his portrait, you can almost hear Meares’s poem running through his mind. At the top of the Beardmore Glacier, almost onto the Polar Plateau, the Polar Parties laid the Upper Glacier Depot. It was from here that what was known as the First Supporting Party turned north for Cape Evans, although it was the third returning party after the Motor Party and the Dog Party. Its members had already had a long, hard slog, first as part of the Pony Party, then manhauling up the Beardmore Glacier to a height of about 8,000 feet. At the top of the Glacier, however, came the first crunch.
The Motor Party and the Dog Party knew that they were not destined for the Pole. The remaining members of the Support Parties did not know what their fate was to be. Each and every one of them hoped to be selected to go on to the Pole. Choosing between them was not something that Scott relished: ‘I have just told off the people to return to-morrow night: Atkinson, Wright, Cherry-Garrard and Keohane. All are disappointed – poor Wright rather bitterly, I fear. I dreaded this necessity of choosing – nothing could be more heart rending.’ (Scott, 20 Dec 1911)
Indeed, both Scott and Wilson spent some time with Cherry-Garrard and with Wright, trying to alleviate their disappointment. So it was that the First Supporting Party, Dr. Atkinson, Charles Wright, Cherry-Garrard and P.O. Keohane turned north on 21 December at 85° 7’ S, 293 miles from the Pole. ‘It was a sad job saying good-bye. It was thick, snowing and drifting clouds when we started back after making the depôt, and the last we saw of them as we swung the sledge north was a black dot just disappearing over the next ridge and a big white pressure wave ahead of them… Scott said some nice things when we said good-bye. Anyway he has only to average seven miles a day to get to the Pole on full rations – it’s practically a cert for him. I do hope he takes Bill and Birdie.’ (22 Dec 1911 Worst Journey)
It was a straightforward journey back to Cape Evans, if any journey is straightforward in the Antarctic; crevasses, thick weather, dysentery and weariness all played their part. When they arrived, on 28 January 1912, the men had walked for 1164 statute miles in nearly three months. Waiting for them was Herbert Ponting and his camera. However, on this occasion, the timing of their arrival was not conducive to photographic work and so the party had to wait a day before they could ‘arrive home’. ‘We reached Hut Point without any further difficulties on January 26th 1912, chalking up an average for the return of about sixteen statute miles a day. How we looked forward to a bath at Cape Evans! But it was not to be until the following day since Ponting made a claim (sustained by Simpson) on our bodies to take part in a cinema record of our arrival up the icefoot at Cape Evans, filthy as we were, unshaven and with hair uncut and with sledge firmly attached behind us. “Art not for Art’s sake, but for publicity’s! ” ’ (Wright, Jan 28 1912)
So it was that Ponting’s portraits of Cherry-Garrard, P.O. Keohane and Charles Wright are inscribed “On return from the Barrier, 29 January 1912”, a day later than their actual arrival, though no doubt they looked the same. However, they are clearly not amused. Keohane’s eyes could fry an egg with their righteous indignation. Whether or not they finally enjoyed the long-desired bath remains an open question. Perhaps the fact that they longed for one was a sign of sledging inexperience; or a symptom of the stiff upper lip, for which this generation is so renowned – Wright playing to the civilized expectations of his diary-audience. However, it is doubtful that a bath was an unmitigated pleasure.
Just occasionally, when browsing through the archives, I come across something unexpected. Such was the case when I started to read the original long-hand version of Edward Wilson’s paper on the Medical Aspects of the Discovery Expedition, given at the British Medical Association in 1905. I was not expecting anything unusual. Then I noticed the pages of material that had been crossed out. He had apparently decided that it was too personal in nature. To my amazement, here were detailed aspects of their sledging lives, which are so rarely recorded in this period. About his return to Discovery in February 1903, after the first Southern Journey with Scott and Shackleton, he had written: ‘As for the want of a wash in extended sledging, it is a thing one seldom pines for. In the first place one has no wish to remove one’s clothes, and at the end of three months without either a wash or once getting my clothes off, I have returned to the ship and only bathed from a sense of duty – but with no pleasure whatever.
The fact is that from long exposure to frost and sun, a sun that literally skins one’s face and lips – and a frost that makes deep and painful cracks all round one’s mouth and nostrils – one is so abominably sore that the mere touch of a sponge and water is very painful. Add to this the fact that one has chafes on the hips and shoulders from one’s harness, and on the feet and ankles from one’s fur boots, and on a variety of other places from other causes, and it will be guessed that a bath can be no unmixed joy.’
Herbert Ponting with his camera.
Such a description humanizes the participants of the Heroic Age of Antarctic Exploration and makes their uncomplaining achievement all the more remarkable. Herbert Ponting had been approached and then appointed photographer by Scott to enhance the scientific work of his second expedition. Scott was keenly aware of the importance of this, following his first expedition aboard Discovery. Ponting’s work did not disappoint. He was the first, for example, to record on film the technique by which the Weddell Seal cuts a breathing hole in the ice; he could hardly wait to show the film to Wilson and demonstrate that his hypothesis as to its method was, in fact, incorrect. His work was ground-breaking, establishing Ponting as one of the world’s greatest pioneer travel and wildlife photographers and film makers. Ponting recognized the commercial as well as the scientific potential of his work, however.
It was for this reason as much as for the scientific record that Ponting took portraits. He knew their publicity value: ‘The men who participated in the Conquest of the Pole!’ As such, when Ponting sailed back to civilization at the end of the first year of the expedition, he left detailed instructions as to how to take the portraits of the Polar Party when they returned so that the sequence of portraits should be completed. Noone imagined that the Polar Party might not return, for all the fact that the Second (and last) Supporting Party nearly met with disaster on its return journey when Lieutenant Evans developed scurvy, his life being saved by Petty Officers Lashly and Crean. They were later awarded the Albert Medal for their bravery in getting him to Hut Point. As it turned out, there were to be no portraits of Scott, Wilson, nor of the others in an heroic return and so the only portraits that remain of them are those taken by Ponting prior to their departure. Somehow, given the events in which they participated, the portraits are almost understated, but that is what they would have wanted. They were not men who courted publicity. Here is the taciturn Captain Oates, staring into the distance, months before his famous suicide in an effort to save his companions, with his immortal words, ‘I am just going outside and may be some time.’ Wilson was left in the tent with Scott and Bowers to write in sympathy to his mother.
When telling these epic tales and thinking about the scale of the grand projects and landscapes which gave them birth, it is easy to forget that those who took part in these expeditions, the men who made it all happen, were human beings. It is easy to put them onto pedestals and worship them as heroes, or to knock them into the ditch and ridicule them as incompetence perfected, which is perhaps another kind of hero. Either way it robs them of their humanity and somehow, therefore, of the magnitude of their human achievement. These portraits were part of a grand photographic concept, to record moments in a great achievement, for historical and commercial reasons. Perhaps, therefore, it was unintended, or perhaps it is part of their photographic greatness, but Ponting’s photographs humanize the heroes he portrays; and that is why I love them. Their humanity is in their eyes burning indignantly from the frame; their faces are skinned by the frost and the sun; and somehow, it is doubtful that they enjoyed their bath.
Anon. Hooper, F.J. Obituary. Polar Record, v. 8, no. 53, p. 188. May 1956.
Anon. Meares, C.H. Obituary. Polar Record, v. ?, no. 14, p. 93, July 1937.
Cherry-Garrard, A. The Worst Journey in the World. London, Chatto and Windus Ltd., 1922.
Debenham, F. Cherry-Garrard, A. Obituary. Polar Record, v. 10, no. 64, p. 93. January 1960.
Debenham, F. The Quiet Land: the Antarctic diaries of Frank Debenham, member of the British Antarctic Expedition 1910-1913. Bluntisham, Bluntisham Books; Harleston, Erskine Press, 1992.
Ponting, H.G. The Great White South. London, Duckworth and Co., 1921.
Scott, R.F. Scott’s Last Expedition. London, Smith, Elder and Co. (2 Vols.), 1913.
The South Polar Times, (Ed.). Volume 3, April – October 1911. London, Smith, Elder and Co., 1914.
Wilson, E.A. The medical aspect of the Discovery’s voyage to the Antarctic. British Medical Journal. July 1905: 77-80.
Wright, C.S. Silas. In Bull, C. and Wright, P.F. (Eds.), The Antarctic Diaries and Memoir of Charles S. Wright. Columbus, Ohio State University Press, 1993.
The Worst Journey in the World
Captain Scott’s Antarctic expedition 1910 -1913. The photographs of Herbert Ponting.
December 9, 2010 – January 9, 2011
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