Lessons from a polar expedition where five people died

Yeah, I'm reading The Worst Journey in the World, a memoir written by Apsley Cherry-Garrad (God, British names crack me up sometimes) about the Terra Nova expedition to the South Pole, where Robert Falcon Scott died along with four other people after reaching the pole a month after Roald Amundsen did.

I want to say that I realize that Scott's reputation during the 20th century went from unrealistically high to unfairly low, and I'm not trying to pile on here. (Honestly, I feel like before people criticize explorers, mountain climbers, and the like for poor judgement, they should first give sleep deprivation, hypoxia, exhaustion, and malnutrition a shot for a month or two and see how their mental processes hold up.) I also feel like people who run down Scott tend to valorize Amundsen for contrast, and he was hardly a perfect person.

Still, Cherry-Garrad's book--which was not written to be critical of Scott at all--is a really frustrating read, and I think it does contain lessons for authors trying to navigate this new world of publishing. (Hey, if I'm willing to do it with the Transformers, clearly nothing is a bridge too far for me.)

Lesson 1: Admit what you don't know. Scott had visited Antarctica ten years before on an earlier expedition. You'd think that would have been helpful, right?

Oh, no. Scott felt like he knew exactly what Antarctica was supposed to be like. The ice was supposed to be this way, the blizzards were supposed to be that way, the temperatures were supposed to be another way. They were all supposed to be exactly the way they were when he had visited Antarctica before.

The Terra Nova expedition spent almost a year in Antarctica before making the disastrous run for the pole. In that time, it became painfully obvious that the weather in Antarctica is totally unpredictable. It was colder-than-expected inland. Blizzards could crop up at any time. Local weather conditions were fantastically specific, so it could be sunny and warm in one spot, and two miles away there could be a blizzard. Also, it was considerably colder than it had been at any time during the previous expedition.

Now, I am the first to admit that it's hard to plan for, This is totally unpredictable!!! But they didn't seem to try. Instead they assumed that the weather during the run for the pole would be the way Antarctic summer weather is "supposed" to be--clear and relatively warm. They left depos of food rations on the assumption that people would be able to walk about 10 miles a day, every day.

So what happened when the support parties headed back north and ran into unexpected storms that slowed them down? They went hungry. What happened when the party that actually reached the pole headed back north, were going more slowly than planned, and ran into more unexpected storms? They died--11 miles away from a huge food cache.

Let's hope no one actually starves to death here, but do you understand why it makes me nervous when people with absolutely no track record of sales make financial plans based on the expectation that they will sell X many copies of their book? This is not salaried work: You do not get a regular paycheck every two weeks. As a new writer, you don't want to set up your financial life so that if you don't sell X copies your book each and every month, you go hungry. And you really don't want to be that tragic author who perishes in the snow six months or six years before sales finally start to kick in.

Lesson 2: Leave room to fail. Cherry-Garrad makes a big deal out of the fact that Scott wasn't just making a "pole dash"--he was trying to figure out what would actually work in the Antarctic.

So, for the run to the pole, they had motor vehicles, ponies, and dogs. Before his death, Scott even arranged to have mules brought down on a relief ship so that people could try them out, too.

The problem with all this was that Scott didn't give himself any room to have an experiment fail. The motor vehicles and the ponies didn't do well, and in neither case was that some big surprise. Dogs did much better (that's what Amundsen used), but Scott didn't have many dogs because he had packed so many motor vehicles and ponies.

I feel like Scott's motivation were very noble: He was hoping that motor vehicles would provide an alternative to using and killing animals. But in 1910 the reliability of motor vehicles was just not something you could bet your life on, even if you weren't on a polar expedition--cars were still hand-cranked at that point, for God's sake.

Using ponies was also a new and untested idea. And it basically killed Scott. That huge cache of food he died 11 miles away from? It was supposed to be 30 miles further south, but the ponies couldn't make it.

So, give yourself room to fail. If you have a great new marketing idea, that's swell--don't mortgage your home. Don't set yourself up for disaster. Remember--these are experiments, not certainties.

Lesson 3: Be honest and realistic about your goals. Remember how Cherry-Garrad said that the expedition was no mere pole dash?

Unfortunately, that's not how Scott saw it: He felt like the entire worth of the expedition depended on reaching the South Pole.

The actual run to the pole was not just a disaster at the end: It was a disaster the entire way. Those unexpected storms didn't just unexpectedly turn up on the way back north, they unexpectedly showed up and unexpectedly slowed the party on the way to the pole as well. Of course rations earmarked for later in the trip unexpectedly got eaten early, because everything was unexpectedly taking so much longer.

Seeing how all their planning was proving inadequate, did they abort the run for the pole while they still could? No, they did not.

Did Amundsen? Why, yes, as a matter of fact, he did. His first shot at the pole was aborted because of bad weather. It's not that he wasn't competitive (he was), but he also seemed to understand that sheer force of will would not get him to the pole and back alive--good weather would.

Amundsen was just more realistic, and he made a ton of compromises to get himself to the pole that Scott did not. Scott put his base camp in a location that was further from the pole and actually cut off from it for part of the year (!) because it was a better location for the many scientists in his party. Amundsen, in contrast, had almost no scientists in his party. Amundsen was doing a pole dash, period.

Now obviously we can argue that Scott was a nobler person who was dedicated to the ideals of science and all that. We can argue that Scott's "failed" expedition actually accomplished more that was useful than Amundsen's "successful" one. But the problem was that Scott defined success in a certain way (reach the pole!), but he wasn't really willing to acknowledge that (this is no mere pole dash!). As a result, he was ill-situated to actually reach his goal, and then he got desperate.

Honestly, I see that most often with writers who really, really want to be popular--they want big sales! and their name in lights! and fame and fortune! But they also want to write whatever they want, whether or not that's something anybody wants to read.

You can't, OK? Even with self-publishing, we're still operating in a market. Certain types of literature are more popular than other types of literature.

If your goal is to tell Danielle Steele to suck it, your abstract poetry is not going to get you there. I would guess that most people who write bestsellers think long and hard about what most people want to read before they write--I've certainly read and heard memorable interviews with ones who did.

If you don't want to write within those sorts of constraints, that's great--neither do I. But I also never assumed the Trang books would be big commercial sellers. In fact, the whole point of writing Trang for me was to move away from making Big Macs. I'm not going to freak out and do something stupid because there isn't a McSisson's on every corner with a sign proclaiming how many billions I have served--if I wanted that, I would have written a very different book.