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The heroic failure and tragic death of Captain Scott

Posted in Adventure, Exploration, Famous Last Words, Famous news stories, Geography, Heroes and Heroines, Historical articles, History on Tuesday, 8 January 2013

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This edited article about Captain Robert Falcon Scott originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 809 published on 16th July 1977.

Scott's expedition, picture, image, illustration

Captain Scott’s expedition to the South Pole

When the old whaling ship, Terra Nova, edged her way out of London’s river on 1st June, 1910, her captain, Robert Falcon Scott, was not aboard. He was in Capetown, South Africa, raising money for his Polar Expedition.

It seems strange, nowadays, to realise that he had to beg in order to pay for the privilege of attempting to be the first man to reach the South Pole. But Scott was a remarkable man. Though short, he had great physical strength.

Among his party were Dr. E. C. Wilson, who was in charge of the scientific staff, Petty Officer Evans, and two army officers, Lieut. Henry R. Bowers and Captain L. E. G. Oates.

It was in Melbourne, Australia, on the journey south, that Scott received a fateful telegram. It read: BEG LEAVE TO INFORM YOU PROCEEDING ANTARCTIC – AMUNDSEN. So it would be a race to the Pole between him and the famous Norwegian explorer.

On the voyage and long before the real hazards began, things were difficult enough. The ship sprang a leak and the pumps failed; later they had to battle their way through pack ice. Finally, however, they reached Cape Evans in McMurdo Sound, and sledging journeys were undertaken to lay down food depots before the winter set in.

Then they settled down to await summer, when they would make their dash to the Pole, refusing to be panicked by the news that Amundsen and his party had made a landing far nearer to the great objective.

At last came the sun, and a party, equipped with motor sledges, set out as an advance guard. They reached the Great Barrier, but near Camp Corner, after a journey over the hummocked ice, the motor sledges had to be abandoned. When Scott caught up with them with his ponies, he was greatly disappointed. But at least the motor sledges had saved the ponies from a difficult stretch of hauling.

Now at last all the months of planning had reached their climax. The route ahead was clear, up the Beardmore Glacier and due south to the Pole – nine hundred miles (1,450 km) of tough going.

At first, all went well. But then unseasonable weather began to delay them. Marching into strong headwinds and snowstorms, they still managed to cover fifteen miles (24 km) a day, but the ponies were now becoming exhausted.

They managed to struggle on, but the going became even tougher than before. Often, they sank up to their knees in the snow and the sledges had to be hauled out when they stuck. And there was still a stiff pull for them up the Beardmore Glacier. At Upper Glacier Depot, Scott had the unpleasant task of sending back four of the party. They were disappointed, but they realised that only five of the party could make the final dash to the Pole, if the rations were to last for the journey.

Scott chose Wilson, as doctor and cook; Petty Officer Evans, a giant of a man with great endurance; Bowers, at twenty-eight, the youngest of the party, apparently oblivious of the cold and enormously strong in spite of his small stature; and Oates, who had proved invaluable with the ponies and now worked as hard at pulling as any of them. With these four companions, Scott plunged on.

Scott wrote in his journal: “I have never had such pulling . . . have covered six miles, but at fearful cost to ourselves . . . about seventy-five miles from the Pole – can we keep this up for seven days? It takes it out of us like anything. None of us has ever had such hard work before.”

A week later, they realised they were a mile beyond the Pole and three miles to the right. They changed direction and found a black flag tied to a sledge bearer near the remains of a camp. Amundsen and his party had beaten Scott to the pole. It was 16th January, 1912. Next day, at the Pole, they found a tent and in it a record of the party Amundsen had taken there.

The five weary, disappointed men fastened a Union Jack to a stick and set it up as near to the South Pole as they could calculate it. Then they began their return.

The weather grew worse. Food was running short and forced marches had to be made if they were to reach the first food depot. Scott fell and hurt his shoulder on a steep slope. Two days later he and Evans fell into a crevasse. Scott was unhurt, but Wilson suspected that Evans was suffering from concussion.

As they approached the glacier they were horrified to discover that a box of biscuits, a whole day’s rations, had disappeared and no one could account for it. To eke out the rations, they hauled all one day on a meal of one biscuit each and a cup of tea.

By now, Evans was obviously weakening. A few days earlier he had gashed his hand badly. It refused to heal and he had grown steadily worse. Not long afterwards, he died.

The remaining four continued on to the Lower Glacier depot. The hard surface was covered with loose snow so that the sledge would not glide, but had to be dragged. The oil in the depot was running short, and without fuel with which to melt the snow to make drinking water, they went thirsty.

Oates was weak and ill. His foot was frost-bitten and he was very lame. He was very quiet when they camped one night, and must have been suffering intense pain, though he never complained. In the morning they awoke to find a blizzard blowing.

Scott, Wilson and Bowers watched as Oates struggled to his feet. “I am just going outside,” he said, “and may be some time.” The others tried to remonstrate with him, for they knew what he intended to do. But he shook his head, opened the tent flap and stepped out into the blizzard. They never saw him again.

The others went on. Only their indomitable courage kept them going. On 19th March, they struggled to make camp and found that their food warmed them enough for them to sleep well.

When they awoke the next morning, it was to find a blizzard raging. They could not go on. They were eleven miles (17 km) from One Ton Camp, where food and fuel awaited them. By the following day they had enough fuel to make two cups of tea, and food for two days. But outside, the blizzard still raged on.

At the time of the expedition, scientists studying vitamins were already realising how essential they were to the human body. They examined the expedition’s daily rations and found that, in addition to all their other hardships, the men had been slowly starving to death. Their rations had lacked the essential vitamins.

On 29th March 1912, Scott made the last entry in his diary. “I do not think we can hope for 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 any more. R. Scott.” Then he added this postscript: “For God’s sake, look after our people.”

Eight months later they were found by a search party. The temperature was minus twenty degrees, but the men who found them stood in the bitter wind, bare-headed and bowed before the tent.

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