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The Coldest March: Scott`s Fatal Antarctic Expedition Hardcover – September 1, 2001

33 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews Review

The icy deaths of Robert Falcon Scott and his companions on their return from the South Pole in 1912 made them English icons of courage and sacrifice. Soon, however, Scott's judgments and decisions were questioned, and his reputation became one of inept bungler rather than heroic pioneer. Susan Solomon, senior scientist at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration in Colorado, approaches Scott's story from a meteorologist's point of view. She shows that the three weeks from February 27 to March 19, during which the explorers fell further and further behind the daily distances they had to cover in order to survive, were far colder than normal. Unusual blizzards of wet snow had already slowed the party and depleted their provisions and strength. Without these once-in-a-decade phenomena, Solomon believes the party would have returned to its base on the Ross Sea--second after Roald Amundsen in the race to the Pole, but safely. She opens each chapter with comments from a hypothetical modern visitor to Antarctica, presumably to give a wider context to the human drama of the last century, though this reviewer finds them inappropriate. She enriches her narratives of Scott's two Antarctic expeditions with vintage photographs and tables of meteorological data that highlight the explorers' achievements. Their determination was pitted against the worst weather in the world. Scott's story has been told many times before, but its weather information makes The Coldest March a useful addition to the literature. --John Stevenson

From Publishers Weekly

British explorer Robert Scott's legacy has been debated since his ill-fated 1911 expedition. Initially pegged a hero, he's subsequently been maligned as a bumbler who lost the race to the South Pole and died, with four companions, because of his mistakes. Solomon, a senior scientist at the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration, attempts to restore Scott's reputation, arguing that unnaturally cold weather (weeks of -35 F.), not poor judgment, caused the captain's demise. She traces the polar expedition (Scott's second) using modern scientific evidence and the explorers' diaries. In clear, well-paced prose, Solomon paints characters and landscape deftly and delivers well-conceived arguments. But the book is not without flaws. Each chapter has a forced, heavy-handed though sometimes amusing introduction featuring a fictional visitor to contemporary Antarctica. And while Solomon's arguments are plausible, they are not ironclad. To her contention that Scott's plans didn't work because of extreme weather, one might answer that he should have planned for any possible situation; his Norwegian rivals, for instance, took more than enough provisions. Still, whatever opinion readers have of Scott when they start the book, by the end he will have risen in their esteem. Solomon's exhaustive research provides readers with enough information to form their own opinion. B&w photos and illus. (Sept. 10)Forecast: This book should be popular among exploration buffs because of its new scientific information. The book could get lost among the many polar adventure tales, though Solomon's fluid, accessible writing, her five-city tour and events at the National Geographic Society and the Smithsonian may distinguish it from the crowd.

Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information, Inc.


Product Details

  • Hardcover: 416 pages
  • Publisher: Yale University Press (September 1, 2001)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0300089678
  • ISBN-13: 978-0300089677
  • Product Dimensions: 9.5 x 6.4 x 1.2 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.7 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 3.8 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (33 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #804,848 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Most Helpful Customer Reviews

30 of 31 people found the following review helpful By Peter Savage on January 4, 2002
Format: Hardcover
I've always been more interested in Arctic exploration than the Antarctic -- it seems less two-dimensional, and far more colorful in terms of history. But this book really got my attention. Solomon isn't some armchair theorist, she is an Antarctic professional, and an expert on weather conditions there. Taking a close look at what happened to Scott's 1911-12 expedition, and contrasting it with his earlier journey (with Shackleton) plus Shackleton's 1908 attempt, and the rival Amundsen polar bid, she shakes out a lot of rumors, innuendos and plain nonsense about what Scott 'knew' versus what he 'ought to have known.'
Scott has always seemed a stiff-upper-lip bumbler to me, and to some extent he was, but what happened is not as simple as it appears. He made some educated guesses, and he also made some mistakes. Using motor sleds was a waste of time, considering the poor engine technology of the time. He allowed someone else to select some unsuitable Manchurian ponies. He didn't trust dogs, based on prior experiences. He didn't pay enough attention to suitable clothing and sleeping bags. But he did set up a workable logistical system for his polar attempt, that should have worked.
So what went wrong? The factors above, plus too great a level of fatigue for his team. Poor Bowers ended up walking 400 miles in snow, instead of skiing. They didn't know, as we do, what a menace dehydration at high altitudes would be. Scurvy was poorly understood, and they probably suffered marginally from this, too. And finally, they set out for the Pole a month too late, and got caught in an extremely cold spell that made sledding by manhauling almost impossible. Solomon proves every contention with solid data from the expedition's copious records and from modern survey work.
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29 of 31 people found the following review helpful By Susan Paxton on October 27, 2001
Format: Hardcover
Susan Solomon has tried very hard in this well-written and documented new book to exonerate Captain Robert Falcon Scott, the leader of the ill-fated Terra Nova expedition to the South Pole in 1911-1912. In recent years Scott has been accused of everything from simple incompetence to real stupidity by critics of his leadership and organization, which Solomon, an NOAA scientist with a distinguished career and Antarctic experience, clearly finds unjustified. By extensively researching not only the original documentation - diaries of Scott and his men, the expedition's meteorological records, information from other Antarctic expeditions of the day such as Shackleton's 1908-1909 try for the pole and Amundsen's successful polar bid of 1911-1912 - but also modern meteorological data, now available for some years along the entirety of Scott's route to the pole (now the course for aircraft bound for the Amundsen-Scott Station), she has tried her level best to suggest that abnormally cold weather was the deciding factor in the loss of the five-man polar party. And indeed cold weather must have been a factor. The poor weather conditions not only would have debilitated the men and caused severe frostbite, the friction of cold snow would have made it almost impossible for the men to pull their sledges more than a few miles a day. Indeed Solomon has charted the progress of the polar party, comparing it with the two supporting parties that turned back short of the pole, and her information does demonstrate how badly slowed up Scott and his four companions were.Read more ›
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24 of 26 people found the following review helpful By A Customer on December 28, 2001
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
This book is worth having and reading as a contribution to the pool of information available to the general reader to frame an informed imagining of what it might have been like, what could have happened, how people might have felt in Antarctica with Captain Scott.
However, many of the points the author raises in defense of Captain Scott seem to be in answer to the wrong questions. Why were Scott's people wearing fabric clothing? Because fur clothing would have been too hot for manhauling. This is an entirely reasonable answer to the wrong question. The expedition had ponies, dogs, and motor-sledges, and yet the expedition was dressed for man-hauling; and why was that? That underlying decision process may have been a good one, but it is not touched on, leaving us with a good answer to the wrong question.
The author's election of a frame-story puts me in mind of that used by Josephine Tey for her wonderful "The Daughter of Time." I enjoyed reading the real-time comparisions but quickly got tired of being preached at, and I find remarks such as "The visitor shakes his head at his own ignorant failure to truly grasp . . . the enormity of the task that Scott and his men faced" (p. 264) to be unnecessarily confrontational.
Susan Solomon writes well; I have no doubt that she is very intelligent, highly educated, passionate about her subject, and persuaded that an historical injustice has been committed. This book earns three stars well and truly for the shocking implications of the final chapter, "The Winds of Chance and Choice.
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