open country

The man at ease with his pint was not the man who stood in front of us in the Eastgate Theatre, Peebles.

Henry Worsley’s intense passion for his subject, polar exploration, was at times difficult to listen to. I do not mean this in a negative way, I mean it was almost overwhelming.

Lieutenant Colonel Henry Worsley is a professional army officer, as was acutely demonstrated during his lecture. As I reflect on the talk and the images provided, I realise that his style has made an impression on me – almost a desperate sadness.

I have thought whether it was the small human details, the poignancy of the last photos or the proximity to safety when Scott’s team lost their fight with death. I think that it was a combination of all these factors woven together by an action man who has been moved by their endeavours most of his life.

The lecture started formally enough with an aerial view of a ghostly white Antarctica. This visual was simple and effective. With four coloured lines, he showed Scot’s initial exploration, Shackleton’s long journey just short of the pole and Scott’s and Amundsen’s routes to reach the pole.

Routes are difficult to explain without an accompanying map. What can simply be related is the shock felt by Scott when he was informed that Amundsen was also going south. Going south for what reason, he was initially unsure. There is an old photograph of Fram (Norwegian for forward), Amundsen’s ship, in the foreground and Terra Nova, Scott’s ship, eclipsed in the background while moored by the Ross Ice Shelf. The image cuts into Henry’s consciousness; through him we feel Scott’s discomfort. We shift slightly in our comfortable chairs.

Scott’s team set up their base camp at Ross Island and Amundsen’s team set theirs at the Bay of Whales. The logistics for the parallel expeditions were quite different. Amundsen chose animal skins for their clothing and dogs to pull the sleighs. Scott had opted for boiled wool garments and oiled smocks. He had also brought ponies to pull the sleighs but these were less efficient and could not be used for the full journey.

The starkest contrasts Henry outlined were between the old and the new. On his centenary expeditions to the pole they had lightweight sleighs, lightweight clothing, lightweight cooking gear and tents.

Henry and his fellow adventurers had the higher number of calories in 2009 and 2011 – 5,500 per day compared to Scott’s meagre 3,000; a ration consisting of tinned stew, butter, tea, cocoa powder, sugar lumps and dried biscuits. As Henry had lost two stone just doing the outward journey, it is not difficult to imagine Scott’s team perishing on their route back to the ship.

As Henry talked us through the route his bright images, taken at the same points as the teams in the early 1900s, had their own dialogue. They had an unspoken conversation with the black-and-white images of the jubilant and the tragic. An image comes up on the screen of hooded figures, coal black against the white background. One of them is placing a flag in a large cairn – he looks like the personification of death, the Grim Reaper. I cannot see the faces of any of the men.

Something in another image is deeply meaningful to Henry. He has a short video in which he pulls a stone out of a cairn on a rocky hillock to reveal a petrol can that Scott has buried for future explorers. He carefully puts the stone back. We adjust our feet slightly.

I realise that the juxtaposition of the old and modern expeditions and the care and seriousness that Henry has taken to describe these stories has left me tense. When he finishes his lecture I become aware of my surroundings. I cease to be mentally submerged in images of dead explorers and barren snow-scapes.