Reading Robert Falcon Scott on the Coldest Night of the Year (Part 1)

Robert Falcon Scott writing in his diary.

Robert Falcon Scott writing in his diary.

For most of us, nature is almost a foreign country. It’s something we see on an everyday basis, something we’ve read about, and something we venture through, but almost never into. In this respect, language betrays us. We talk about dealing with “the elements” because we deal only with individual elements: rain or wind or cold. At the most, we deal with a few—not all of them at the same time.

Still, if you’ve lived through a Minnesota winter or have experienced something similar (or worse!), you’ll probably agree that cold is bad enough on its own. And it is. From frozen locks and dead car batteries to burst pipes and the plain damn necessity of shoveling, winter scatters its unwanted gifts everywhere, like a stray cat bringing back its trophies. 1

I always notice it in the car. Last winter was a fresh reminder. Even if I started my Ford Focus and let it run for half an hour, it never really warmed up. Instead, I half-shivered on my way past the standards of my semi-rural town—banks, bars, and churches. On the way, I played the daily guessing game—how cold is it according to the bank thermometers?

I soon got to know which ones would show a higher reading, which skewed lower. As the cold days continued almost unabated—I counted 18 days of -20 or lower—I took these readings almost personally. The one that showed a higher temperature almost became an ally, the one that was lower mostly elicited a string of curses.

That winter was the worst I have experienced—but a year later, as another winter approached, I found myself questioning my memory, so I went to the experts.

Here’s the data from the National Climactic Data Center2

Date

Max

Minimum

12/30/13

-6

-26

12/31/13

-2

-26

1/1/14

-8

-26

1/2/14

-4

-25

1//3/14

-3

-24

1/4/14

32

-3

1/5/14

13

-24

1/6/14

-10

-26

1/7/14

-14

-26

1/8/14

2

-22

1/9/14

4

-22

My memory wasn’t far off—while the bank thermometers exaggerated the temperature, it was damn cold.

***

I double-checked the weather records because weather is the first thing we learn to exaggerate, and in Minnesota, we’re guiltier than most. Without irony, we refer to ourselves as the North Country, though the state is only halfway to the North Pole, and we call our portion of Lake Superior the North Shore, when it’s really the lake’s western shore. (One wonders what the folks in Thunder Bay must think.)

As denizens of the “north,” we pride ourselves on our ability to endure cold, and are quick to shrug off twenty below zero and scoff at school closures due to cold weather. While there are certainly people (and the state’s many homeless) who spend a great deal of time amid truly cold weather, most of us—myself included—avoid it all costs. We may consider ourselves cold-hardy, but for most of us, it’s an affectation. We see cold, but we don’t really know it. We don’t sleep in it or have to find food in it. Instead, we dash out to our remotely-started cars3 or shuffle out to gas up the snowblower, but we’re “out there” for as little as possible. There’s perhaps no better image of this than the Minneapolis Skyway, a byzantine system of above-ground corridors that covers 11 miles and links many of the buildings in downtown Minneapolis.

***

I’m guiltier than most, and it’s this disconnect that has driven my (obsessive) interest in cold and the world’s most inhospitable places. Since I first shivered at the bus stop, I’ve been obsessed with polar exploration, especially Antarctica. During the depths of each Minnesotan winter, I make a point to read the accounts of polar explorers.

This year, I read Cherry Apsley-Gerrard’s The Worst Journey in the World and Robert Falcon Scott’s Terra Nova diaries, both pertaining to Scott’s ill-fated Terra Nova expedition of 1910-1912. The expedition sought to be the first to reach the South Pole; Scott and his men, eschewing dogs, succeeded in man-hauling their gear to reach the pole, but arrived to find that a team led by Norwegian Roald Amundsen had beaten them there by just over a month. Due to a combination of malnourishment, illness, and perhaps most of all, especially bad weather (including temperatures below -40 Fahrenheit) the party died on the return voyage, just 11 miles from the supply depot that would have likely saved them.

As I was reading Scott’s diaries, I first found myself questioning his preparations. The primary criticism levied against him is obvious: why depend on man-hauling, instead of bringing dogs? But the more I thought about, the more I realized I didn’t have the slightest what I was talking about. I’ve never man-hauled much more than my ice-fishing gear, and I’ve never slept in weather much colder than freezing, let alone twenty below.

Scott's Polar Party at the South Pole.

Scott’s Polar Party at the South Pole.

***

So I’m planning on changing that. In this column—Dispatches from the Tundra—I’ll be writing a series of linked essays pertaining to cold, polar exploration, and life in the so-called North Country (Minnesota). While my essays will hardly involve a voyage to the Antarctic, in my first piece, I’m going to attempt to experience—if only in a small way—one aspect of what Scott and his men went through: cold. In it, I’m going to camp outside on one of the colder nights of the Minnesotan winter (I’m going for -10 or below) and spend the night reading Scott’s Terra Nova diaries.

Other essays in this series will follow loosely in a similar vein, and they will involve making (and consuming) pemmican, geographical bias, and what it’s like to starve. I’ll also chime in on a variety of other topics pertaining to science, armchair adventuring and the outdoors.

1 If you’re lucky, that’s where it stops, but cold is a hell of a lot more serious for many folks each winter. Cold weather kills thousands of people in the Midwest each year, with about 35 in Minnesota each year. You don’t need to be on the Yukon to find yourself in a scene from “To Build A Fire.”

2 This is from the National Climactic Data Center for Rice, MN, which is located about an hour from my house. (The Twin Cities are also about an hour away, but the temperatures tend to be a bit colder, on the whole, out here in the sticks.)

3 There are enough remote-starting cars in Minnesota to make a car bomb-maker salivate.

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