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Thursday, 21 August 2014

In the icy footsteps of South Pole pioneer

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EXPLORER: Captain Robert Scott led the ill-fated British expedition to reach the South Pole

FEW people have had the opportunity to experience the many hardships faced by pioneering Antarctic explorers than Geoff Somers who came to Grange Lecture Society to contrast some of his adventures with those of Captain Robert Scott.

As most school boys used to know, Scott was one of the British Empire’s heroic failures whose team lost out on being first to the South Pole but then redeemed themselves in the brave manner of their long but unsuccessful battle for survival against the worst that nature could throw against them.

Mr Somers chose the controversial title of Scott, Hero or Loser? for his illustrated talk to around 200 people at the Victoria Hall for the Nevile Burwell Memorial Lecture, but left his audience in little doubt that he was a Scott fan.

The MBE and Polar Medal holder led an expedition to the South Pole five years ago with a group of four city workers “who wanted to do something different.”

They certainly got what they asked for – kitted out in retro clothing of the type which Scott used almost 100 years earlier.

At the end of the talk there was an opportunity to examine expedition items including a reindeer sleeping bag, wooden skis, bamboo ski poles and beaver fur gloves.

The expedition sledges were made in Gloucester and could carry enough to keep the team alive for up to 30 days in the snow and ice.

They even persuaded McVitie’s to make up a batch of biscuits to a 1910 recipe.

He said: “We had to have everything specially made for us.”

The modern trip had a few corners shaved. Flights and a 200-mile trek compared to Scott’s hazardous sea journey taking three months before the walking started.

Another important difference was the chance to quit or call for help, which was never available to Scott or his fellow pioneers.

He said: “Today’s travellers survive because of two very import things – radio telephone and aeroplanes.

“Scott had no way of being rescued. It is impossible today to do an expedition when you are totally on your own.” Training for the modern expedition included running up Lakeland fells pulling car tyres on a rope to replicate the effort of hauling a sledge across ice.

The South Pole had proved to be a tough nut to crack for explorers.

Shackleton got to within 100 miles in 1907 while Scott got there in 1912 only to be deflated by news that the Norwegians had been there first.Scott’s diary entry for January 18 in 1912 noted: “Great God, this is a terrible place.”

He was still 800 miles from help and running out of food but still got to within 11 miles of safety.

Mr Somers said: “He didn’t blame anyone but himself.”

Compare that with today’s South Pole where there is a permanent research base which has a music room, library, pool room and laundrette.

While Scott’s team melted snow to drink, today’s scientists can enjoy beef burgers or fish and chips.

l The next event at Grange Lecture Society in on November 9 when Mark Baldwin will talk about The Battle of the Atlantic and the role of U-boats. The talk starts at 7.15pm in the Victoria Hall, Grange.

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