Capt. Robert F. Scott writes in his journal in October 1911, shortly before… (Scott Polar Research InstituteUniversity…)
A century ago, British naval Capt. Robert F. Scott and four members of his polar expedition trudged across the forbidding Antarctic landscape, “man-hauling” sleds across 800 miles of ice and snow in a desperate push to make it back to their base.
The Englishmen were suffering from frostbite, malnutrition, dysentery and probably heavy hearts: They were coming home with the knowledge that a competing expedition, led by Norwegian Roald Amundsen, had beaten them to the South Pole.
But halfway back to their base, Scott did something quite extraordinary. He stopped at the foot of a mountain range and sent one of his men to collect some unusual rocks.
“I decided to camp and spend the rest of the day geologising,” Scott wrote in his journal on Feb. 8, 1912. “It has been extremely interesting. . . . [Edward A.] Wilson, with his sharp eyes, has picked several plant impressions, the last a piece of coal with beautifully traced leaves in layers.”
The team loaded 35 pounds of these fossils onto their already packed sleds and pushed off down the Beardmore Glacier. It was a treacherous route across deep crevasses, and one of the men — Petty Officer Edgar Evans — fell twice. He died two weeks later from injuries and exposure.
By mid-March, the remaining four men were running out of food and water, and their fuel supplies were dangerously low. On March 17, Capt. Lawrence Oates left their encampment and wandered off by himself; his famous last words, recorded by Scott, were: “I am just going outside and may be some time.”
The last three men tried for two weeks to push forward but were forced to remain inside their tent, buffeted by a storm. Scott’s final diary entry is dated March 29, its last words referring to his family: “For God’s sake, look after our people.” Nine months later, the bodies of Scott, Wilson and Lt. Henry Bowers were found frozen in their tent, 100 miles from their permanent base.
And those fossilized plants were eventually sent back to London.
So how to judge Scott and his expedition? As the 100th anniversary of the “Race to the South Pole” is marked this winter, it reinvigorates a long debate over Scott’s judgment and preparation. Was he a victim of bad luck and unusually cold weather, as he wrote in his diary, or bad planning and dumb decisions, as some historians have written?
One thing experts seem to agree on: Scott’s British Antarctic Expedition of 1910 to 1912 laid the groundwork for understanding climate, paleohistory, oceanography and biology in the most remote continent on the planet.
“Scott’s legacy is really science,” said Edward J. Larson, historian and author of “An Empire of Ice: Scott, Shackleton, and the Heroic Age of Antarctic Exploration.” Amundsen’s expedition, he said, “was a mere dash to the pole. But Scott’s expedition was remarkably successful. He ended up producing a composite picture of what Antarctica was all about.”
The two expeditions could not have been more different.
Amundsen, who turned his attention to Antarctica only after he learned that somebody else had beaten him to the North Pole, brought 19 men aboard his ship, the Fram. They were selected for their ability to ski fast, survive and navigate across the featureless Antarctic landscape, and to run sled dogs. Amundsen used only dog teams because he believed they were the best form of transportation, something he had learned from the native peoples he encountered while exploring the Arctic years before.
In contrast, Scott’s crew of 65 men aboard the Terra Nova included physicists, meteorologists, zoologists, glaciologists and a photographer with a complete darkroom. The men camped at several locations during the year and a half they spent in Antarctica. To traverse sea ice, glaciers and the vast ice sheet that covers much of Antarctica, Scott brought not only dog teams but also four motorized tractors (one of which broke through the ice and sank; the others broke down) and several dozen Siberian ponies (whose hooves sank in the snow).
Before sailing from London in June 1910, Scott announced to the world that he was headed south to find the pole. Young men clamored to join his expedition, many paying a thousand pounds to join the adventure. By the time Scott reached Australia in October, the expedition had turned into a race: He received a telegram from Amundsen — who had thus far kept his plans secret — saying that he, too, was sailing to the continent at the bottom of the planet.
Both teams reached Antarctica in January 1911. While Amundsen spent all his time preparing for a lightning-fast dash to the South Pole once the summer began in November, Scott was busy launching scientific side trips, including a geology trip to Antarctica’s Western Mountains and another to collect emperor penguin eggs in the animal’s winter rookery.