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Geoff Robinson: “There’s a new explanation for why Captain Robert Scott died in Antarctica in 1912. He refused to make his horses wear snow-shoes. Captain Scott and his team succumbed to hypothermia as they returned from the South Pole after being defeated by the Norwegian explorer, Roald Amundsen, in the race to the Pole. Now The Long Riders' Guild, the first international association of equestrian explorers, says Captain Scott made a deadly mistake by leaving snow-shoes for his horses at the South Pole, prolonging his journey back to base camp.
Basha O’Reilly is a Founder Member of The Guild and I asked her what happened to the shoes.”
Basha O’Reilly: He left them at Base Camp, but we don’t know why he left them. We don’t know if it was deliberately obstructionist on Oates’ part who disliked them so much, or if it was just an oversight.
What difference would they have made?
Well, we believe, as Scott believed, that they would have made a huge difference. He wrote in his diary that they were miracles, that they made all the difference, they were worth their weight in gold, ‘we could get on much quicker if we had them’. He clearly believed in them.
But Captain Oates was the equestrian man on the expedition, wasn’t he?
He was, yes. In fact, he paid to join the expedition, and he was a great horseman. He hunted, he played polo, he was a cavalry officer. But of course none of those climates are exactly the same as Antarctica. Also we believe from what we’ve read and heard, and we’ve spoken to his biographer, he was almost xenophobic and therefore that anything that wasn’t invented by a Brit. wasn’t of any use at all.
So the fact that all around the world people had been using snow-shoes for hundreds of years made no difference to him?
No, apparently not. He just called them an ‘unmitigated nuisance.’
Now who rediscovered these snow-shoes? I am told it was a New Zealander.
It was indeed. It was the Antarctic Heritage Trust people who sent us a photograph of some snow-shoes that they’d just unearthed from under the huts. And we looked at them – and they didn’t know what they were because they sort of look like rackets rather – in fact the French call them “raquettes”! We looked at them and we thought “My God that’s exactly the same as what the Norwegian Arctic people are using today! So of course we knew immediately what they were.
One of the strange things I guess about Scott’s expedition is that a lot of people are probably quite surprised to learn that he actually uses horses on it. We have an image of men towing sledges.
Absolutely. Almost everybody has forgotten that Scott used horses, and even we didn’t know, until we started doing our research, that Shackleton used horses beforehand. We call it the greatest example of equestrian exploration amnesia, because everybody has forgotten. Perhaps they chose not to remember because of course they all died.
They would presumably have had to carry fodder for them.
They did, indeed they did. In fact Oates paid extra to take some more for them. They had to take hay and grain and whatever they could. Because of course unlike Siberia where they can scratch away the surface of the snow and eat the grass underneath, there is nothing in Antarctica.
That was Basha O’Reilly, a Founder Member of The Long Riders' Guild.
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