In 1910, when the second of Scott’s two polar expeditions landed on Antarctica from the Terra Nova (See right) the great continent stood much as it had done for centuries: mysterious, magnificent and almost unknown to man. Scott’s aim was to be the first to explore its heart the South Pole. The result was a human tragedy of classic proportions - and evidence of the traditional British aptitude for seeing glory in defeat.
Within a few months of Shackletons return from his epic and so nearly successful attempt to reach the South Pole in 1908 - 09, Robert E. Peary of the U.S. Navy reached the North Pole.
To the British press and public this was an urgent challenge: if America had won the North, Britain must certainly conquer the South. To Scott who saw the race for the Antarctic as “one chapter in the romance of England on the seas,” national and professional pride were involved. And there was the personal spur of his unspoken rivalry with Shackleton. The race for the South Pole was reaching its climax.
But Scott remained a scientist at heart. To him a big programme of Antarctic research was as important as a dash for the Pole.
At Melbourne a shock awaited Scott in the form of a cable from Maderia : “Am going South - Amundsen”. This experienced Norwegian explorer, and his highly competent companions was already an old hand in both polar regions. Beaten by Peary in the Arctic, he was now set on achieving a first to the South Pole instead. Scott’s men were indignant at this secrecy: but all agreed that Amundsen would be a formidable competitor. He was a traveller rather than a scientist. His sole aim was to win the race in the South. He was known for his ruthless efficiency. And more ominous - for his unrivalled expertise in handling dogs.
By the Antarctic midsummer, the Terra Nova was berthed alongside the ice not far from Hut Point, busily unloading men and stores. Scott would make his all-out attempt next spring. A large depot would be laid at once at a point as far south across the ice-shelf as possible. The laying of this depot “One-ton Depot” they called it - proved a discouraging business. Weather conditions on the ice-shelf were severe.: but more disturbing, transport troubles multiplied. The dogs were intractable and Scott lost all faith in them: the motor sledges had to be warmed with blow lamps before they would start and continually broke down despite continuous care. The ponies with their weight and sharp hoofs, sank to their bellies in the soft snow, and five died of exhaustion
Winter was approaching and they had to lay down One Ton Depot 36 miles closer to t the main base than they had hoped. The difference was later to prove critical. Meanwhile the Terra Nova steamed along the face of the Ice Shelf to establish a second base for scientific work. On her voyage, the masts of an anchored ship rose to meet her. It was Amundsen and his men, with 52 dogs, already ashore.
They were to allow 144 days for the journey to the Pole and back - every possible moment of the summer season. There would be a massive lift of food and stores past One Ton Depot to the foot of the Beardmore Glacier, by all available transport. There the dogs and motor-sledges would turn back, and - strangely, considering Scott’s aversion to killing dogs - the ponies would be shot for food. Onwards form the Beardmore, three units of four men each would man haul their sledges. Two of these units would dump their loads at successive points, and return to base. The final four man unit, including Scott, would carry on to the Pole. Every aspect of the 1,800 mile journey was meticulously worked out.
They started in November 1911, 16 men, five tents, ten ponies, 23 dogs and two motor sledges. The motor-sledges “ worked well but not very well” for the first 50 miles across the Ice-Shelf and then gave out altogether. At each camp the ponies had to be sheltered behind snow walls specially thrown-up for them.
Then as they approached the Beardmore, drifts of snow began to blow in their faces from the mountains around it . Wind and whirling snow increased until the tents were enveloped in a howling blizzard. The ponies suffered intensely, for the wet snow drove beneath their rugs and drained the heat from their bodies. After four terrible days the wind dropped. The surfaces were now appalling; but they made the foot of the Beardmore as planned, though behind schedule. Here the ponies were killed; it was a bad moment but at least they would now be independent of animals; and Oates, his services as stableman at an end became a draught-animal himself.
Climbing the Beardmore now at the head of “twelve good men and true”, Scott was obsessed by the thought that he was behind Shackleton’s timetable and urged the sledge parties painfully on to a faster pace. But the added exertion of catching-up sapped their energy: “The teams soon lost their springy step, the sledges dragged more slowly. The strain was beginning to tell.
The first of the supporting teams duly turned back. Then 168 miles from the Pole, the second prepared to do likewise leaving Scott, Dr. Wilson, Captain Oates and Petty Officer Evans to march on by themselves. But here Scott changed his plan. Bowers had been a magnificent worker and Scott could not bear to disappoint him. At the last minute, he ordered Bowers to join his party for the final stage. It was a grave risk to take. Every detail had been organized for a four -man polar team. Now there would be five. And Bowers had no skis; a small man with short legs , he would have to walk in deep snow. On they trudged, the five of them leaning into the unceasing wind with sledge-traces taut, gulping their breath in sharp, numbing mouthfuls across the shelterless horizon
At their rest camps, one of the thought, Scott seemed to lie withdrawn into himself. But when their observations showed they were 27 miles form the goal, he noted: “It ought to be a certainty now”. Then suddenly their virgin path was joined by the tracks of sledges and dogs. And Bowers keen eyesight picked out, in the white distance before them, a tiny speck.
Disappointment. The speck resolved itself into a tent with the Norwegian flag atop it, and it was positioned within half a mile of their reckoning of the Pole. It was deserted but inside they found two letters. One addressed to the King of Norway, reported success. The other was for Scott. “Dear Captain Scott” it read “As you are probably the first to reach this area after us., I will ask you kindly to forward this letter to King Haakon VII, yours truly ROALD AMUNDSEN.
Amundsen had beaten Scott by just over one month. His overland journey had gone like clockwork, with four sledges each pulled by 13 fine Greenland dogs. He had studied the previous records of Scott and Shackleton with the greatest care - and profited from them. His homeward journey was as uneventful. On January 18, 1912, with his hopes frustrated, Scott stood at the extremity of the world with 800 miles between himself and safety. The season was far advanced. “Now for the run home and a desperate struggle”, he wrote “I wonder if we can make it”!
The Fateful Return Journey. They picked up their food depots one by one and with the wind behind them hoisted a sail on their sledge. “Good sailing breeze this morning again” Bowers jotted in his diary. But a few days later a note of anxiety was creeping in. “Wind increased to force 8; in the morning it was blizzing like blazes”. And more alarmingly, “Evans got his fingers all blistered with frostbite”. The following day “we have only three days food with us and shall be in Queer Street if we miss the next depot”. Then came a series of misfortunes. While they were still on the plateau, Wilson strained a tendon in his leg, both Scott and Evans fell into crevasses and Evan’s fingers became almost useless. Soon Bowers diary was down to brief phrases “Very heavy surface - ice crystals - lower temperatures - Wilson’s leg - Evan’s fingers. . . . At the head of the Beardmore Glacier , Evans was weakening. He was the biggest man and had to support his stalwart frame on the same rations as the others. Scott was astonished at his breakdown, for his physique was usually splendid and he had been a Physical Training Instructor in the Navy.
Then a bad fall concussed him; and shortly afterwards he collapsed, dropping behind the sledge and delaying the rest of the exhausted party. They went back to find him crawling on his hands and knees, his gloves off and a wild look in his eyes. That evening he lay insensible in the tent. “The safety of the remainder ”, Scott wrote “seemed to demand his abandonment, but Providence mercifully removed him at this critical moment. We did not leave him till two hours after his death”.
The four others reached the Ice-Shelf from the foot of the Beardmore utterly worn out. It was still 430 miles to safety. The food at each depot was awaiting them, but much of the precious paraffin, vital to cook hot food, had leaked away.
The Bravery of Captain Oates.. Only 29 miles from One Ton Depot, Oates could slog on no farther. Next morning a blizzard was raging round the tent. He got to his knees. “I’m just going outside ”, he said “and I may be some time”. He opened the tent flap disappeared into the blast, and never returned. Some hours later Scott’s pencil traced the words “Though we tried to dissuade him, we knew it was the act of a brave man and an English Gentleman”. We all hope to meet the end with a similar spirit, and assuredly the end is not far“.
Scott, Wilson and Bowers staggered on toward One Ton Depot. All were ll. Their last strength was ebbing. They were tortured by frostbite and Scott wrote of his right foot “Amputation is the least I can hope for now”. The relentless gales gave them no respite. They stopped - managed a few more desperate miles - then were forced by the shrieking winds to camp and wait. “We had fuel to make two cups of tea apiece and bare food for two days”. But the hours and days dragged by , and the blizzard howled on.
Journey’s End. Every day we have been ready to start for our depot, but outside the door of the tent it remains a scene of whirling drift. We shall stick it out to the end, but we are getting weaker . . . It seems a pity, but I do not think I can write more“. SCOTT.
Their last camp was 11 miles from One Ton Depot. Had it been possible to lay the depot on the site originally chosen, the story would have had a different ending.
Much of the frozen southern continent was discovered and mapped by a distinguished line of British sailor-explorers, from Captain Cook in the 1770‘s to Scott and Shackleton in the 1900‘s and Sir Vivian Fuchs in 1957. In penetrating the icy wilderness at the bottom of the world, these men displayed that perseverance and acceptance of danger that carried the British into every corner of the globe.
British explorers were not the first to reach the South Pole. But over nearly two centuries they did most of the pioneering that eventually enabled others to snatch the laurels. Nor has any Antarctic territory been part of the British Empire . But in the South Polar regions Britons displayed many of the qualities which went into the building of the British Empire - love of lonely places, teamwork, tenacity, gallantry, and their quest became a source of national inspiration and prestige abroad.
Ernest Shackleton, trained by Scott on the voyage of the Discovery in 1901 - 04, went on to finance and lead more Antarctic expeditions than any other Briton. In 1909 he got within 97 miles of the South Pole. Then in 1914, he embarked on a project to sledge right across the Antarctic continent. The attempt was another epic failure for British exploration. His Ship, the Endurance was trapped vice-like in pack-ice and eventually crushed, even before the expedition reached Antarctica.
Shackleton and his 27 men were marooned on an ice-floe with three lifeboats as their only hope of salvation . After reaching the uninhabited Elephant Island, Shackleton daringly sailed over 800 miles to a South Atlantic whaling station where he obtained a small Chilean steamer and returned to rescue his stranded men, by now starving at the end of a 19 month ordeal.
When Shackleton died on board ship in 1922, of a coronary - he was embarking on yet another Antarctic voyage.
The lifeboat Shackleton used for his epic voyage to obtain help for his men was called “The James Caird”. At one point on Elephant Island the James Caird had to be man-hauled from one side of the island to the other
The weather was getting rapidly colder. The surfaces were appalling, “like pulling over desert sand”. “The daily mileage was decreasing. Oates feet were now badly frost-bitten. The lack of hot food made his failing condition worse, and he knew he was imperilling his companions chances. He turned to Wilson for advice - as they all did in moments of personal crisis ”Slog on“ Wilson told him ”just slog on“.
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