Book review: The Longest Winter by Meredith Hooper

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As the drama of Captain Scott’s iconic polar expedition was unfolding in January 1912, a group of men from his ‘Northern’ party were about to begin one of the greatest ever tales of adventure and physical endurance.

Stranded on the coast south of Cape Adare in Antarctica, their tents torn, their food nearly finished and their rescue ship trapped by thick pack ice, six desperate men faced disaster in the bitter cold of approaching winter.

The intensely human story of their miraculous survival in an ice cave is brought to life in Meredith Hooper’s gripping book which separates the parallel tragedy of Scott and his companions and allows these other heroes to take their rightful place in history.

The three ‘officers,’ including a lieutenant, doctor and geologist, along with a cook and two seamen, huddled in a 12ft by 9ft igloo carved into a snowdrift, lived off emperor penguins, seal meat and blubber and endured ailments from ‘stove blindness’ and frostbite to piles and dysentery while the polar winter raged outside.

Using accounts and diaries of the men involved, Hooper lays bare not just the sickness, starvation and suffering but the ingenuity, resilience, camaraderie and discipline which helped the party survive over six months of Antarctic winter.

On the day they burrowed a 5ft 6in high hole inside the snowdrift, officer in charge Lt Victor Campbell drew a line across the floor in the freezing gloom to establish naval order – the officers on one side, the three seamen on the other.

As the weeks of confinement stretched into months, their illnesses increased, their roles blurred and a new sense of reality emerged with their mutual suffering making the men indivisible.

Birthdays, occurring more often than was feasible, were celebrated with hoarded biscuits, raisins and sugar lumps, there were hymns on Sundays and shared readings from Dickens and the New Testament.

Campbell and his men were the ‘research’ element of Scott’s expedition and had already spent the previous winter in a wooden hut at Robertson Bay where their exploration plans were foiled by sea ice and their inability to find a route into the interior.

They were transferred to the location near Cape Adare in January 1912 for further geological work but their ship was unable to collect them.

Facing yet another almost intolerable winter, this time in a makeshift igloo, it was ‘enough to give anyone the hump,’ recorded Dr George Levick in a marvellous piece of English stiff-upper-lip understatement.

Cheerfulness, noted as a necessary quality from the moment the Terra Nova set sail from England, was the byword of the expedition.

Cheerfulness countered adversity, could override exhaustion and provided bulwarks against loneliness, boredom, irritation, repetition and tediousness.

After brief hunting forays throughout the winter, the men emerged for the last time into the spring sunshine on September 24. They photographed each other with matted hair and indescribably filthy clothes, heavy with blubber, and set off on a 200-mile, five-week sledge trek over sea ice to camp at Cape Evans.

‘We are all pretty fit, but after the time we have had ... it is just about time we had a little comfort and good food or I think we should have knocked up,’ wrote Levick on arrival.

Hooper’s superbly detailed and researched book is based very much on the experiences of the men involved. Add to this her commendable objectivity and you have an unadulterated version of what is undoubtedly a unique and amazing story of suffering and survival.

(John Murray, paperback, £9.99)