Death on the Ice

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Death on the Ice  By Robert RyanIn 1917, as the First World War raged across Europe, artist Kathleen Scott was busy fighting her own battles for the memory of her late husband, Captain Robert Falcon Scott. Following the tragic events of the Terra Nova expedition to the Antarctic, one-time popular hero Scott is widely treated as a man of poor judgement and foresight, who lost the pole to Norway, who brought disaster on those depending on him, and Kathleen seeks desperately to publish a new book that will re-establish him as a great man. In this vision she partially succeeded, with him becoming a hero once more before it later become fashionable in a more sceptical age to condemn the man, instead raising Sir Ernest Shackleton – who never reached the pole but also never lost a man – to the position of Antarctic hero in his place.

Scott is now part of a pantheon of noble British failure, a man given hero status by some, but seen as controversial, incompetent and a leader who recklessly endangered the lives of his men while seeking personal glory by others. His name became indelibly associated with the Antarctic after his part in the largely successful 1901 Discovery expedition; reaching the pole was not a goal of this trip, but Scott and a small group of men did manage to march to 82°, the furthest south anyone had reached at that point. After being feted upon his return to Britain in 1904, Scott wrote and lectured widely on his experiences before turning his attention to raising money for a second expedition to the Antarctic; this was to be a scientific expedition financed in part by the Royal Geographical Society, but a clear secondary objective of the expedition was to reach the pole and “claim” it for Britain. The Terra Nova expedition, the better known of Scott’s two expeditions, is the subject of “Death on the Ice” – and if you didn’t already know what happened, the title should be something of a giveaway. Scott’s reputation was given a major dent by what happened on the Terra Nova, and it was against this negative image of her husband that Kathleen fought against so strongly. Author Robert Ryan now steps in to present his account of events based on some very detailed research into the expedition and its participants.

Before reading this novel, my prior knowledge of this part of history rested largely with two television series that had taken Scott’s race to the pole against Roald Amundsen (as we now remember this expedition) as their inspiration. In 2006, the race was recreated by the BBC – with Bruce Parry taking the place of Scott and Rune Gjeldnes standing in for Amundsen – as part of a historical experiment to understand just why the Norwegian explorer reached the pole so much more quickly and easily than the British team did (answer: attempting a 1600 mile round trip on foot while man-hauling very heavy sledges is much harder than attempting the same journey with well-trained dog teams to take much of the weight for you). The second was the more recent 2009 showing of Ben Fogle and James Cracknell’s South Pole race that regularly alluded to the 1912 parallel (and yes, the Norwegians won that one too), which amply demonstrated just how hard such a journey is even with modern equipment and fitness training. Seeing that footage and imaging how much harder it would have been with Edwardian equipment over a longer distance reminds you what a great feat Scott was undertaking.

Death on the Ice” is a substantial novel of some 560 pages that follows the Terra Nova Expedition from its origins in the Discovery voyage, through its build-up and preparations, to the conclusion we all know is coming, told with Scott and cavalry officer Captain Laurence Oates as the principal two characters. Starting from the 1901 Discovery expedition, it takes a long time for the narrative to actually reach the adventure it sets out to tell the story of, but while this makes the book feel almost more like a biography rather than a novel, this great amount of background leaves you feeling you know the main characters well by the time the fateful 1912 trip begins. As readers we follow Scott, Oates and the others as they sail for the Antarctic – getting stuck for three weeks in pack ice and losing some supplies in a severe storm along the way – arriving late in the season at Hut Point on the Ross ice-shelf, a position where the wooden huts built during the previous expedition still stood. This late arrival impairs their preparations for the long journey south in the following year, but the party press on as best they can with this work and the scientific investigation that their sponsors have demanded. Further bad news comes in the form of news that Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen – last heard of planning a trip to the North Pole and therefore not a threat to Scott – is heading south to also make for the pole, setting up Scott’s expedition for a race they never expected.

“In this novel, Ryan takes the bones of an episode of history that we all know – in outline if not in detail – and turns them into a meaty, thoughtful and thoroughly believable tale of heroism and adventure…”

The method for long polar journeys at the time was to lead a series of shorter expeditions along the route to be taken to lay stores at a number of depots along the way; it would take the final expedition many months to reach the pole and return to Hut Point, and taking the large amount of food and fuel along with all the tents and other equipment for this journey would have been too much for one trip. Depoting therefore enabled Scott to learn the route and the strengths of the various men he was with while allowing him to travel lighter when they finally struck out for the pole. The first season’s problems meant One Ton Depot had to be laid 35 miles north of where it had been originally planned, something that was to have major consequences later on. By the time of the final trip south, the motorised sledges had broken down beyond repair, many of the horses and dogs had had to be put down, some of the men had succumbed to illness and injury, and the lack of decision over who would be in the final four to race for the pole left the team demoralised. What this book revealed, by starting its story years before the Terra Nova trip was showing what problems existed before they ever left England – the under-funding, the poor preparation, the dithering over the best means to reach the pole (Scott couldn’t decide between skis, motorised sledges, dogs or horses were best so he took the lot) and decisions taken that were to cost the party dearly in the long run. However, Scott, ever the optimist, noted that, “I feel sure we are as near perfection as experience can direct” – Ryan leaves it up to the reader as to whether Scott was trying to put a brave face on a string of bad luck or whether he was genuinely in denial about the poor state of his team.

In this novel, Ryan takes the bones of an episode of history that we all know – in outline if not in detail – and turns them into a meaty, thoughtful and thoroughly believable tale of heroism and adventure that remains stirring and tragic without ever becoming mawkish. He brings to vivid life the characters and their expedition in every painful detail and makes the reader understand just what a daunting and dangerous undertaking this was, to walk hundreds of miles across Antarctica without any means of communication with the base party, dangerously (to us) underequipped, in an age when even the cause of scurvy was still not known. Imaginative speculation is called upon only towards the end when we have no true record of what really happened. The inclusion of Oates as main character in a book that could have so easily been dedicated in its entirety to Scott makes the utterance of one of history’s most famous last words even more powerful when they finally come to be spoken. This story is gripping to start with, but Ryan’s telling is descriptive and evocative. He gives Scott himself a fair handling, presenting the man both as potential hero material who encountered an awful lot of bad luck, but not holding back where a bad decision on the expedition leader’s behalf caused dire consequences later on. Fans of Scott may not like these sections of the book, but the obvious detailed research that has gone into producing it suggests that they are as accurate accounts of these errors as history will permit us to have. This is a gripping account both for those with and without historical knowledge of the era, an expert blend of facts and fiction writing. He celebrates the men’s courage and spirit whilst acknowledging that mistakes were made, and that makes it a balanced and highly readable novel that should appeal to fans of historical fiction.

“Had we lived, I should have had a tale to tell of hardihood, endurance and courage”, said Scott in his final entry in his journal. Now, 98 years on, Robert Ryan has told it admirably for him.


Death on the Ice” by Robert Ryan
Headline Review, 2009, 560pp

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Death on the Ice
by Robert Ryan

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Written by collingwood21

Collingwood21 is a 32 year old university administrator and ex-pat northerner living down south. Married. Over-educated. Loves books, history, archaeology and writing.

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