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The Coldest March: Scott's Fatal Antarctic Expedition Paperback – 30 Nov 2001

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Most Helpful Customer Reviews on (beta) HASH(0x9509be40) out of 5 stars 1 review
1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
HASH(0x952d0a5c) out of 5 stars "The worst weather in the world" 16 July 2005
By mwreview - Published on
Format: Paperback
The Coldest March (referring to the month as well as the verb) is about British explorer Robert Falcon Scott and his team of explorers and scientists who raced a Norwegian team led by Roald Amundsen to the South Pole in 1911-12. Amundsen was the first ever to reach the Pole. Scott and four of his crew (hand-chosen by Scott) reached the Pole a month later. Amundsen's team made it back but Scott's did not. Many books and reports have been written since trying to explain why Scott failed to return. Many critics site several bad decisions on the part of Scott leading to the legend that he was a bumbler. Scott kept a journal right to the end and sometimes his self-effacing entries fueled the criticism.

Susan Solomon may seem to have an agenda. Throughout the book, Solomon attempts to defend many of Scott's decisions and actions. She has tremendous expertise in the subject. Solomon studied the Ozone layer in the Antarctic. She is a senior scientist at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration in Boulder, Colorado. When considering the legend of Scott, Solomon admits that she assumed the Brit explorer foolishly disregarded the power of Mother Nature until she studied the data and diaries left by Scott and his crew (xvii). While Solomon often defends Scott against highly critical historical accounts like Huntford's The Last Place on Earth, she is no apologist. She also points out Scott's errors and baffling decisions.

At the beginning of each chapter, Solomon includes part of the experiences of a modern-day Antarctic visitor. This visitor is not a specific person but a conglomeration of typical visitors. At first I was confused as, while reading about this modern experience, the story would shift gears to 1911-12. Soon, I figured out the pattern. The modern stories are at the beginning of each chapter (only about 2-3 pages each) and are in bold print. These stories are able to demonstrate clearly the issues or problems surrounding the Scott legend: i.e. comparing the huge stock of frozen vegetables at the warehouse there today and the comfortable living conditions against what Scott and his him men faced (pp. 71-2), the importance of drinking plenty of water in higher elevations versus the meager cups of tea Scott and company could drink each day with the scarce fuel they had, (p. 209), how much a visitor suffers in just a short period in extreme conditions (p. 286), etc. These stories, especially one explaining the need to risk snowblindness to better see crevasses (p. 183) helped me, as a reader who will never experience anything remotely close to the Antarctic, better understand the issues people face there.

Solomon clearly refutes points of criticism of Scott: i.e. that his men suffered from scurvy because they refused to eat seal meat or their ponies (pp. 3, 176), that the final five men who journeyed to the Pole did not have enough to eat because they only prepared food for four (p. 213), etc. She does point out Scott's weaknesses and mistakes. For example, he put too much faith in the opinions of some of his men (p. 86) and, even more importantly, he planned by the margins, putting too much stock in past experiences and not preparing for the possibility of worse case scenarios as did Amundsen. The inferior sleeping bags and faulty fuel cans were significant problems stemming from a lack of proper testing and preparation. Solomon is no sycophant and makes a fair assessment based on Scott's and his men's diaries and other primary sources.

What makes this work a fresh approach is the information on weather conditions taken from stations set up near Scott's path. They provided data for several decades demonstrating that the conditions Scott faced during the last month of their lives (March 1912) were extremely rare and perhaps unprecedented. What is puzzling is Solomon's conclusions which are contradictory. She discusses the rarity of the blizzard they faced in March 1912 and then shifts to explain that a 10-day blizzard noted in Scott's diary probably did not occur and that the men stayed in their tent for other reasons; one possibly being Scott's frost-bitten foot. Then, out-of-the-blue, Solomon mentions a suicide plan Scott wrote in his diary on March 11 involving opium tablets (p. 322). They decided not to take them but it seems odd to only mention such an entry briefly towards the end of the book. They probably lived another 18 or more days. Her confusing and inconclusive ending is the only criticism I have of this well-written and fascinating book. It is extremely well-researched and, on a historical level, offers fresh ideas and approaches. She also discusses the men on Scott's team (Edward Wilson, Lawrence Oates, Henry Bowers, Edgar Evans, Lt. Edward Evans, Apsely Cherry-Garrard, etc.) describing some of their backgrounds, characters, and personalities which added a lot to the human side of the story. This is one of the best books I've read in a while. Definitely go through the Amazon sellers if you want the hardcover edition.
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