Comments on Bill Alp’s Commentary on May (2013)

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by Kristoffer Nelson-Kilger

In Alp’s commentary, we are given the first review of Karen May’s 2013 debut article in Polar Record (May 2013) since the brief and focused review provided by Krzysztof Sienicki (Sienicki 2016, p. 501–502), which centered on her error about humans not being able to store vitamin C, and her errors regarding navigation. Alp gives us a similarly focused, but longer, look at a different subject: the allegations made by May against Dr Atkinson.

Comments on “Advanced navigation skills”

Alp gives apt criticism regarding May’s misuse of Captain Scott’s navigation orders, though he misses the point of noting that they were also inapplicable to Cherry-Garrard, as the orders were intended for officers (“every officer who takes part”), which Cherry-Garrard was not. He is on solid ground in describing the marker cairns as obviating the need for advanced navigation skills, echoing Sienicki’s work (2016, p. 502). He is also on solid ground for his remarks on May failing to realize that Atkinson could potentially replace himself with Nelson or Wright. “Perhaps this is a sign of hasty or insufficient research” by May indeed.

The matter of Wright needs further consideration. Both Dr Atkinson and Cherry-Garrard gave the account that Dr Aktinson decided that Wright was required to remain at Cape Evans on account of qualification to supervise the scientific work. Wright himself gave a much different account, in which Dr Simpson had demanded that he remain at Cape Evans in order to continue Dr Simpson’s meteorological work. This task did not require anyone with Wright’s qualifications, as it consisted of simply taking measurements (Sienicki 2016, p. 419). Reinforcing Sienicki’s conclusion is the fact that Dr Atkinson would pass the meteorological work from Wright to Gran on April 24, 1912, as he had evidently overcome previous difficulties in carrying them out (Hattersley-Smith and McGhie 1984, pp. 176, 192). But there is another surprise from Wright. In a letter written to his father, Wright apparently indicated that he was staying at Cape Evans in order to supervise the scientific work (Hattersley-Smith and McGhie 1984, p. 242). This is in contradiction to what Wright would later write about Dr Simpson’s demand (which was written by Wright as part of his unfinished memoirs).

Comments on “The dogs were not to be risked”

Alp makes an important point in showing that Cherry-Garrard’s diary does not corroborate Dr Atkinson instructing him to not risk the dog teams. However, he misses a major issue in dealing with Gran’s 1961 book: not only is it not a contemporary primary source, Gran was not present at all on December 11, 1911, being hundreds of miles away on a side journey (Hattersley-Smith and McGhie 1984, p. 152). In fact, he was never present at any point in the polar journey. Considering this, the precision with which Gran was able to describe the conversation about the use of the dog teams is suspicious. The most reliable information about the polar journey that Gran would be able to provide is what returning members were able to tell him. Checking Gran’s diary revealed no trace of knowledge about what Gran would later write on this topic.

Comments on “Alteration of orders for the Dog Party”

Alp makes an interesting observation regarding May’s apparent rush to publication. However, he stumbles in reading Cherry-Garrard’s quoted statement that “and indeed it appeared that we had been wrong to hurry out so soon, before the time that Scott had reckoned that he would return, and that the Polar Party would really come in at the time Scott had calculated before starting rather than at the time we had reckoned from the data brought back by the Last Return Party” (Cherry-Garrard 1922, Vol. II, p. 420). Cherry-Garrard was talking about Captain Scott’s party taking longer than previously calculated, which would not cause optimism as Alp states. The most valuable part of this section is the summary of Cherry-Garrard’s notes.From this, one thing emerges that reinforces Sienicki’s description of Cherry-Garrard in Chapter 2 and the silent mutiny at Cape Evans in Chapter 10: there was no intention to go past One Ton Depot.

But there is more about what return dates could have been calculated. Cherry-Garrard’s calculation for Captain Scott’s arrival at One Ton Depot as March 1, as cited by Alp, roughly aligns with Sienicki’s calculations, being off by no more than two days later, with March 13 being possible assuming the overall average of 10.1 geographical miles per day (Sienicki 2016, p. 79). Yet as Alp notes, Cherry-Garrard’s calculation for Captain Scott’s arrival at One Ton Depot had been done based on Second Return Party data. The incorporation of Second Return Party data (which added 42 / 2 = 21 geographical miles to the return leg) into Sienicki’s calculation gives March 3 as the earliest date, with March 18 being possible assuming the overall average of 10.1 geographical miles per day (Sienicki 2016, p. 79).

Using Cherry-Garrard’s incorrect (Sienicki 2016, p. 725) figure of 11.2 geographical miles per day for the Second Return Party to One Ton Depot – even without the extra 21 miles–gives an arrival for Captain Scott’s party at One Ton Depot of March 7. Another discrepancy emerges from the fact that the route was calculated to extend to One Ton Depot, despite Cherry-Garrard’s later insistence – based on incorrect daily averages (Sienicki 2016, p. 725) – that at the time “it was supposed that all the previous estimates made for the return of the Polar Party were too late, and that the opportunity to reach One Ton Camp before themhad been lost” (Cherry-Garrard 1922, Vol. II, p. 415). Strangely, Alp cites Dr Atkinson as having made the same observation. Despite repeated checking of the section where Dr Atkinson describes the First Relief Party, I have been unable to find this observation in the first U.S. edition of Scott’s Last Expedition. These findings raise fresh questions about Cherry-Garrard’s honesty, in addition to the one that Alp has raised in the “The dogs were not to be risked” section. To conclude this section, Alp makes an important point regarding May’s ignoring of the written instructions to Cherry-Garrard. This is all the more bizarre considering May’s emphasis on written instructions in describing Captain Scott (May 2013, pp. 78–79).

Overlooked Issue with May (2013)

Unfortunately, due to his focus on May’s allegation about Dr Atkinson, he misses a critical issue elsewhere in May’s paper. It has to do with May’s reproduction of latitudes given by Captain Evans and Captain Scott. She quotes Captain Evans’ account of orders to the dog teams, and accurately reproduces his words “meeting the returning party about March 1 in Latitude 82 or 82.30” (May 2013, p. 79; Evans 1921, p.162) But not once, but twice, May subsequently and incorrectly translates the latter latitude into 82°30’ S (May 2013, p. 79, 82).82.30° S does nottranslate to 82°30’ S, it translates to approximately 82°18’ S.Anyone can verify this for themselves by entering 82.30° S into this calculator (“Latitude and longitude coordinates,” n.d.).

There are two possibilities. The first possibility is that this incorrect translation is not an accident, as May correctly rendered the latitude as 82.30° in quoting Captain Evans. At first, there would seem to be no reason for deliberately making this incorrect translation. It is a matter of only 12 minutes of arc. But a possible reason for this incorrect translation emerges in May’s repetition of it with a latitude that Captain Scott gave. In his letter to Sir Edgar Speyer, Captain Scott gives his latitude as “79.5°” (Scott 1913, Vol. I,p. 412). This was obviously a mistake, as it translates to 79°30’ S, which would put him within sight of One Ton Depot. But if it is incorrectly translated to 79°50’ S, as Karen May did (May 2013, p. 86), and the reader is not informed of Captain Scott’s mistake as a reason for making the correction (as May did not do), then Captain Scott’s mistake is concealed. Then 82.30° would be similarly altered in order to maintain consistency. The second possibility is that these incorrect translations are merely an egregious mistake. But considering the plausibility of the first possibility, it is a mistake that cannot escape the shadow of suspicion.


Overall, Alp’s paper is a useful criticism of May (2013), even if it has its problems. It conclusion is strong and measured.


Cherry-Garrard, A. (1922). The worst journey in the world, Vol. I & II. London: Constable & Company Ltd.

Evans, E. R. G. R. (1921). South with Scott. London: Collins.

Hattersley-Smith, G. (Ed.) and McGhie, E.J. (Trans.). 1984. The Norwegian with Scott: Tryggve Gran’s Antarctic diary. HMSO.

Jones, M. (Ed.). 2006. Journals: Captain Scott’s last expedition. Oxford: Oxford University Press. Latitude and longitude coordinates. (n.d.). Retrieved from [1]

May, K. (2013). Could Captain Scott have been saved? Revisiting Scott’s last expedition. Polar Record, 49(248), 72-90.

Scott, R. F. (1913). Scott’s last expedition: Being the journals of Captain R. F. Scott, R. N., C. V. O., Vols. I & II. Cambridge, MA: Dodd, Mead and Company.

Sienicki, K. 2016. Captain Scott: Icy deceits and untold realities. Berlin-Warsaw: Open Academic Press.