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Robert Falcon Scott

How do you tell a story that has been retold and analysed for over a century? But, on the 112th anniversary of his death, now seems like the right time to share some hidden stories.

Robert Falcon Scott

Almost all classic tales of Antarctic explorers have two things in common: Tenacity and luck. There is the Endurance saga, with Shackleton and his crew battling the elements to seek survival. There is the Nordenskjold expedition, where three separate teams endured two winters stranded in Antarctica. Tale after tale of these early explorers talks of the hardships and the small moments of nature’s grace that inevitably saw them make it out alive. But that begs the question: What if luck isn’t on your side? Instead, what if each small decision is just another nail in your coffin? Indeed, for every hero’s journey, there is a tragedy to balance the scales. And, in the library of amazing Antarctic survival stories, there is one great tragedy.

This is the story of Sir Robert Falcon Scott and the Terra Nova expedition.

His life, and his final expedition, have been scrutinised for over a century. There are great debates about the decisions he made and the factors that led to his failure. As one of the most famous explorers ever, with many books pouring over these details, we aren’t going to recap Scott’s life. Instead, we are going to look at the tiny decisions and the bad luck that saw him, and his entire team, perish less than 20km from safety.

It’s worth beginning by imagining the context of the time. When Scott first went to the Antarctic in 1901-1904, the area was almost completely unknown beyond the coastline. Despite this, the trio of Scott, doctor Edward Wilson and a young merchant sailor named Ernest Shackleton succeeded in reaching close to the South Pole. They achieved this by dragging the heavily laded sleds across the ice on foot, an exhausting process known as man-hauling. Despite the failure to reach the South Pole itself (and almost losing Shackleton on the way back), the entire expedition was an amazing achievement and captured the imagination of the world. And so, a mere six years after they returned, Scott set out onboard the Terra Nova, once again aiming to be the first to set foot at the South Pole. Shackleton had tried separately a few years before, setting a new ‘furthest south’ record, but the Pole itself remained unconquered. Scott assembled his men and set off, history ready to be made.

The plan, although ever-changing, was simple. Before winter hit and they were confined to base, the crew was to begin laying supply depots along the route, ending with one at 80 degrees south called “One Ton Depot”. The following summer, a large team was then to set out with dogs and ponies dragging more supplies. As they got closer to the Pole, various groups would periodically leave and head back to camp, reducing the amount of food needed. In the end, only a four-man team would remain for the final push to the Pole. Once they reached the South Pole, they would turn around and head north, resupplying at the depots laid for them before being escorted back to camp.

The plan, as we said, was simple enough. But, history had other plans for Scott. Stopping in New Zealand on-route to Antartica, he received a telegram from Roald Amundsen, the Norwegian Arctic explorer. To the surprise of everyone, including Amundsen’s financiers and even his crew, Amundsen had set off for an Arctic trip but had instead headed south to race to the Pole. What was a one-horse race had become a proper horse race, with Scott’s side literally using ponies. It didn’t help that pack ice meant that the Terra Nova almost sank on arrival into Antarctic waters, and when it finally freed it was over three weeks late, delaying their preparations. Then, whilst unloading, one of their motor sledges they planned to lay supplies with broke through the ice and sank. They set off to start laying the supply depots, but the weather quickly worsened. The ponies, used to drag supplies across the ice, suffered in the cold.

Of course, in hindsight, everything is always crystal clear. But, with over a century of analysis since the expedition, this is one example of many where one small decision potentially changes everything.

Many early explorers used animals as both a method of transportation and as a food source. The animals drag the heavy supplies and then when the supplies are used up and the load is lighter, you kill the excess animals and use the meat to feed the others. But Scott was an animal lover and got squeamish at the thought of killing any of his ponies or dogs. So, with the ponies suffering in the weather and Scott not wanting to use them as food to make it to 80 degrees south, Scott decided to lay the One Ton Depot 56km further north than the original location. This now meant upon returning from the pole, his team would have to walk an additional 56km to reach their supplies. Despite this charity, he still lost four ponies on the trek. Not long after this, the ice broke near the camp and three more ponies drowned, putting the whole plan in jeopardy. The bad news kept coming. Arriving back at camp, he was told that his team doing studies along the coastline had run into Amundsen and his team at the Bay of Whales. They had shared an awkward dinner party, with each side too polite to ask outright what the other was doing, before Scott’s men hurriedly sailed back to camp to share the news. Amundsen had chosen dogs to pull the sleds, alongside experienced dog handlers. This meant they would be faster and able to start earlier in the season than the ponies. In addition, the Bay of Whales is also about 111km closer to the pole. Whether there was a clear pathway to the Pole, as there was from Scott’s position, remained unknown at that point. But the danger to Scott’s history-making plans was clear.

Scott resolved to try anyway. As he writes, "The proper, as well as the wiser, course is for us to proceed exactly as though this had not happened. To go forward and do our best for the honour of our country without fear or panic.”

The following summer, Scott and his men set off on the 11th of November 1911 with high spirits. Not long afterwards, with the remaining ponies not well suited to the conditions and the dogs (and handlers) not suitably trained, the team eventually had to resort to man-hauling tonnes of equipment across the ice. As per the plan, the size of the team slowly dwindled as groups left and turned north. Finally on the 4th of January, high on the Antarctic Polar Plateau, Scott made his decision about the final team of four men to reach the Pole. His decision was a shock, with the final team of four instead being a final team of five. He had decided that alongside himself, he would again take Wilson for a push south. He also took Lawrence Oates, Edgar Evans and Henry Bowers. It was a surprise for all, as arguably some of the strongest members (like Tom Crean) would instead return to camp, and the new arrangements meant the ration packs would need to be re-divided. This also meant there weren’t enough skis for all men, with Bowers (the fifth man) having to walk to the Pole whilst others skied. Despite this, the team of five said their goodbyes and went on to the Pole.

It was the last time anyone saw Scott and his men alive.

By this stage, Scott and the five men had been man-hauling supplies for over two months. The physical strain must have been enormous. Upon approaching the South Pole on the 17th of January 1912, the men saw their worst fears come to life. There was a flag, and a tent, erected in the spot. A letter to Scott from Amundsen revealed that he had reached it on the 18th of December, a full month prior. Amundsen asked Scott to deliver it in case he died on the way back. Whilst a polite request, it must have stung for Scott to labour for over two months through an icy hell, only to be beaten and now relegated to the postman.

As Scott wrote in his diary on this day, “The Pole. Yes, but under very different circumstances from those expected ... Great God! This is an awful place and terrible enough for us to have laboured to it without the reward of priority. Well, it is something to have got here.”

The team at the South Pole, Scott second from left

The men turned around and began the almost 1,400km journey back to camp. But with rations dwindling and scurvy beginning to settle in, the team began to weaken, in particular Edgar Evans. He fell and injured his head, now seeming to be in a daze. Only a few days later, at the foot of the Beardmore Glacier, Evans fell and died. With almost 700km left to go, the team pushed on, heading back for camp. But, the supplies of fuel they had stashed along the way seemed to be in low supply. Heating food for five men instead of four had used more fuel, so they were already low, but some of the new bottles were empty. Looking back, it is likely the heat of the polar sun had vaporised the fuel and enabled it to leak through the corks of the bottles. But for the men, without fuel to heat food or melt snow, all that was left was to gnaw on frozen chunks of food and slowly dehydrate.

There is another great mystery to this expedition, and that concerns the dog teams. Scott wrote a letter before he set off instructing that dog teams be sent south to 82 degrees to meet and escort the polar team back home. However, as he took the dogs further south with him than originally planned, his instructions then changed. In fact, they changed multiple times throughout the trip, with each group that splintered off to return home having differing instructions. As a result, when he reached 82 degrees south, there were no dog teams to meet him. There were mix-ups with thoughts of a ship arriving, confusion over who was meant to go and when and many other reasons given for this confusion. In the end, it was only when the base realised that certain supplies were missing from One Ton Depot that his men set out to replace them. Even so, the man originally instructed to do it had only just arrived back to camp from the march and the second was required elsewhere, so in the end a man named Apsley Cherry-Gerrard set off to resupply the depot. This delay and its reasons have remained a mystery ever since.

However, whether it would have made a difference is another question entirely. As Scott and his men trudged on, they all began to slowly fall apart. Hungry, thirsty, exhausted and with frostbite on their extremities, injuries started to occur and sickness came along with it. Oates could barely walk by now and had resorted to dragging himself alongside the sleds. The temperature was also incredibly and unusually cold, with temperatures in the -40’s Celsius. This changed the conditions of the ice, with the ice now becoming sticky. As Scott put it, the ice was “coated with a thin layer of woolly crystals... These are too firmly fixed to be removed by the wind and cause impossible friction on the [sledge] runners.” There was also no wind at all, something Scott fought against whilst heading south and had expected to help him home. They dragged their sleds across the sticky ice, each metre gained through gritted teeth and blackening skin.

Elsewhere, on the 4th of March, Cherry-Gerrard and his dog team made it to One Ton Depot. Short-sighted, not trained in polar navigation and with the temperatures as low as -38 C, he decided that he could easily miss Scott and his team if he continued to head further south in the endless white. So, he stayed put and resolved to wait for them as long as his supplies would last. On the 10th of March, Cherry-Gerrard turned and headed back for camp. This decision to leave haunted Cherry-Gerrard for the rest of his life. Unbeknownst to him at the time, Scott was only 100km south of the depot.

On the same day Cherry-Gerrard left One Ton Depot, Scott and his men stopped for camp as a storm approached, now aware that the dog teams weren’t coming. The men were in bad shape, particularly Oates. In addition to his scurvy, Oates had been slowing them down with “…hands as well as feet pretty well useless". It was now clear that they were going to run out of food. That night, as they shivered in their sodden sleeping bags, Oates left the tent and voluntarily walked out into a blizzard. His last words were “I am just going outside, and may be some time".

Despite this chivalrous gesture from Oates, it was too late for Scott, Wilson and Bowers. They continued to push north for 10 more days but on the 20th March were again confined to their tent in a massive blizzard. Each day they hoped for clear skies, but each day the blizzard continued. They were now less than 20km from One Ton Depot and its supplies, but it might as well have been a thousand.

Every day we have been ready to start for our depot 11 miles away, but outside the door of the tent it remains a scene of whirling drift. I do not think we can hope for any better things now. We shall stick it out to the end, but we are getting weaker, of course, and the end cannot be far. It seems a pity but I do not think I can write more.”

On the 29th of March, 1912, Scott wrote in his diary for the last time.

“Last entry. For God's sake look after our people.”

The following summer a small party of 11 men set out to find the missing polar team. They found an unusual snow drift and upon further examination discovered what was once a tent, and inside three frozen bodies. Wilson and Bowers were zipped up neatly in their sleeping bags. Scott was only half out of his. They discovered Scott’s diaries and farewell letters from the three men. They also discovered letters from Scott to the widows of all the men, including Wilson and Bowers. He had survived the longest of all and had taken care of the bodies of his colleagues before dying himself. The rescue team collapsed the tent over the bodies and erected a snow cairn over the site as a grave.

Despite a search, they never found Oates.

Reading the details of the expedition, the whole trip often comes down to a series of “if’s”, both big and small. What if the dog team had made it south earlier, or had headed further south to 82 degrees? What if the depot had been placed at the original location, rather than just beyond reach? What if Scott had soldered the lids of his fuel cans to prevent evaporation, instead of using cork? What if he took only four men to the pole, or had taken different men? What if he had loaded his sleds differently, used different sleds, insisted others learn to ski, had better rations, taught others to navigate, or unloaded the geology samples he collected? What if, what if, what if? The reality is, we will never know. And, in all honesty, we can’t know because they themselves didn’t know. As Cherry-Garrard later wrote, “we were as wise as anyone can be before the event."

It’s worth remembering that this all took place at the beginning of the last century, at the very edge of the world. The destination was unknown, the conditions were a mystery and almost everything about it was unknown. Vitamin C, the cure for the scurvy that plagued them, hadn’t even been discovered yet. Despite all these unknowns, they went. They dragged their way through hell and back, despite the danger and the great risk that confronted them. Everything they did was a gamble, and in this case, they didn’t have a winning hand.

There is a reason that the North Pole research base that currently sits over the South Pole is called the Amundsen-Scott Research base. Amundsen was the first man to reach the pole, that is without any doubt. But being first doesn’t diminish the achievement of the other. Amundsen was a master of efficiency and calculation, but he had no interest in scientific discovery. Scott, through sheer grit, made it to the Pole a mere month afterwards. But, discovered alongside his body were the fossils and scientific notes his team had collected along the way. Even as he and his men slowly wasted away, walking towards death, he made sure that the science continued. These discoveries changed our understanding of Antarctica and its history. In addition to his incredible story, these scientific discoveries are his real legacy.

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