Scouts at the Poles
Scouts often go to the ends of the earth to make things happen. But some take this more literally than others. Chris James pulls on his ski boots to discover the stories of Scouts who’ve ventured into the frozen wildernesses of the Arctic and Antarctic in search of adventure
When Scout Joe Doherty finally reached the South Pole in January 2019, things did not quite go to plan.
‘My skis broke on the last day so I had to walk.’ It wasn’t quite the heroic scene he’d imagined six years before, when he first had the idea to head for Antarctica.
Joe’s astonishing achievement – to head up the first Scout-led expedition to ski to the South Pole and kite ski back – is yet another milestone in the history of Scouts’ adventures at the poles.
South with Scott
One of the earliest Scout supporters to reach the South Pole was Dr Edward Wilson. A member of Captain Scott’s ill-fated Terra Nova expedition, ‘Uncle Bill,’ as he was affectionately known to his friends, made it to the Pole on 18 January 1912, only to discover that the Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen had beaten them to it by a mere five weeks. The British party suffered terrible luck, running out of provisions and meeting unseasonable blizzards. Tragically, Wilson died with his friends Bowers, Oates, Evans and Scott on the return journey.
In the Scout Heritage Collection, we hold a precious copy of Baden-Powell’s Scouting for Boys, the book that started the Scout movement. It belonged to Wilson, who took it with him to Antarctica.
The book wasn’t the only Scout related item that accompanied the expedition. Flying from the bow of the Terra Nova was the flag of the 4th Cardiff Scout Troop which, despite its name, was the first ever Welsh Scout Group. It was returned to the group by Commander Evans on 17 June 1913, three years after they last saw it.
Baden-Powell was a great admirer of these early polar pioneers. For him, they embodied the great British character – uncomplaining, defiant and resolute.
‘There is plenty of pluck and spirit left in the British after all,’ he said. ‘Captain Scott and Captain Oates have shown us that.’
Sir Ernest Shackleton, Scott’s great rival, was also a great champion of Scouts. In 1921, he was preparing his ‘Quest’ expedition to map the boundaries of Antarctic continent and was keen for a Scout to join the crew. He well was aware of the bourgeoning popularity of the movement and realised that a Scout on board could be wonderful publicity.
Baden-Powell thoroughly approved of this great adventure and agreed to help Shackleton find a suitable candidate. Following a letter in The Daily Mail, an astonishing 1,700 applications poured in from Scouts aged 17-19, of which just 10 names went forward to Shackleton.
The great explorer found it incredibly difficult to choose between them. Finally, Patrol Leaders Norman Mooney and James Slessor Marr, both from Scotland, were the two lucky Scouts selected. In the run up to departure, the boys were feted as heroes in the press and received pens, watches, cameras and other paraphilia from companies keen to cash in on the fame of ‘Shackleton’s Scouts.’
On 17 September, the Quest was finally on its way. Mooney sent a final message: ‘Many thanks for all your kind wishes… keep the Scouts flag flying.’
Sadly, the trip was cut short when Shackleton suffered a heart attack on route to the Antarctic, meaning the Scouts never did reach the southern continent. Although this signalled the end of the heroic age of polar exploration, that was not the end of Scouts’ involvement in polar exploration.
A daring rescue
Seven years later, a 19-year-old Scout named Paul Siple joined Admiral Richard Byrd’s expedition to the Antarctic in 1928, acting as ‘mess man’ helping out in the galley. He was quickly promoted to the senior role of helmsman on account of his training as a Sea Scout. Later, he was even involved in a daring rescue mission to save Byrd when his plane was unable to return from an exploration mission – an astonishing journey for such a young man.
Fast forward to 2003 and Andrew Cooney, a 23 year old British Scout leader, became the youngest person to trek to the South Pole as part of wider team. Despite suffering with a shoulder injury following a slip on the ice, Andrew reached the pole on 2 January to the jubilation of his family and friends. He pledged to celebrate his safe return with a bacon sandwich and a hot bath.
All points north
What about the North Pole? In 2003, Beaver Scout Leader Lucas Bateman of 10th Harrogate (St Wilfrid’s) Group found himself part of a race to reach the Magnetic North Pole – a 350-mile journey taking them through some of the toughest landscape on earth. He described the expedition as ‘a unique opportunity to compete in one of the world’s most extraordinary environments and to learn from and work with extraordinary people.’
Perhaps the most inspiring story is that of Scout Ambassador, Dwayne Fields, who in 2010 became the first black Briton to reach the North Pole. Born in Jamaica, Dwayne moved to England at the age of six – and immediately missed the freedom and landscapes of his birthplace.
Joining Scouts (he tagged along with a friend) helped him find a place to belong, learn skills and access the countryside. But after getting caught up in gang violence in inner city London as a young man, life began to unravel. When Dwayne became the victim of knife and gun crime, he made up his mind to take a completely different path. This eventually led him to the pole.
‘It was gruelling. And I don’t think I’d realised how boring it would be! When we finally arrived, I looked down and thought, “Gosh, that patch of snow is exactly the same as the one 400 miles back.” But you know what? It was my goal and I achieved it.’
Looking to the future, more trips are planned. Dwayne now has his sights set on the South Pole, with Scout Adventurer Phoebe Smith, as part of a new mission called Penguins to Pole. They are keen not just to reach the pole but to draw attention the escalating conservation crisis – notably the plight of the Emperor Penguin, whose habitat is increasingly endangered.
Meanwhile, Scout Adventurer and polar explorer, Mark Wood, recently returned from Mount Everest, looks set to return to the Arctic in 2021, highlighting the affect of climate change on the Arctic Ocean.
The intrepid Karen Darke, another of our brilliant Scout Adventurers, is also planning to head south as the latest part of her Quest 79 project. She is planning to cover 79 miles at 79 degrees south at the end of 2021.
Finally, Scouts in Kent also hope to go full circle and commemorate Shackleton’s 1921 expedition with ReQuest21. One hundred years on from the original Quest voyage, the team of Scouts hope to crew a classic ship and venture once again into the great white silence.