On November 12, 1912 an Antarctic search party discovered its objective - the
tent of Captain Robert Scott and his two companions half buried in the snow.
Inside, they found the body of Captain Scott wedged between those of his fellow
explorers, the flaps of his sleeping bag thrown back, his coat open. His companions,
Lieut. Henry Bowers and Dr. Edward Wilson, lay covered in their
sleeping bags as if dozing. They had been dead for eight months. They were
the last members of a five-man team returning to their home base from the Pole.
The team had set out on its final push to the Pole the previous January. They
knew they were in a race to be the first to reach their destination. Their competition
was a Norwegian expedition lead by Roald Amundsen. The two expeditions employed
entirely different strategies. Amundsen relied on dogs to haul his men and supplies
over the frozen Antarctic wasteland. Scott’s English team distrusted the
use of dogs preferring horses, once these died from the extreme conditions the
sleds were man-hauled to the Pole and back. In fact, Scott deprecated the Norwegian’s
reliance on dogs. Their use was somehow a less manly approach to the adventure
and certainly not representative of the English tradition of “toughing
it out” under extreme circumstances. Man could manage Nature. A similar
spirit guided the building of the “unsinkable” Titanic and then
supplied the ship with far too few lifeboats to hold its passengers if disaster
did strike. Just as the passengers of the Titanic paid a price for this arrogance,
so too did Captain Scott and his four companions.
At the Pole
In addition to Capt. Scott, Lieut. Bowers, and Dr. Wilson, two others, Capt.
Titus Oates and Petty Officer Edgar Evans made the final push to the Pole. Conditions
were appalling: temperatures plummeting to minus 45 degrees F., nearly impassable
terrain, blinding blizzards, or blinding sunshine. On January 16, nearing their
objective, Scott and his team make a disheartening discovery - evidence that
the Norwegians have beat them to the Pole. In fact, the Norwegians had arrived
four weeks earlier on December 14, 1911. Psychologically numbed by the finding,
the team pushes on. We pick up Scott's journal on the following day:
"Wednesday, January 17 - Camp 69. T. -22 degrees at start. Night -21 degrees.
The Pole. Yes, but under very different circumstances from those expected. We
have had a horrible day - add to our disappointment a head wind 4 to 5, with
a temperature -22 degrees, and companions labouring on with cold feet and hands.
We started at 7.30, none of us having slept much after the shock of our discovery.
We followed the Norwegian sledge tracks for some way; as far as we make out
there are only two men. In about three miles we passed two small cairns. Then
the weather overcast, and the tracks being increasingly drifted up and obviously
going too far to the West, we decided to make straight for the Pole according
to our calculations. At 12.30 Evans had such cold hands we camped for lunch
- an excellent 'week-end one.' ...To-night little Bowers is laying himself out
to get sights in terrible difficult circumstances; the wind is blowing hard,
T. - 21 degrees, and there is that curious damp, cold feeling in the air which
chills one to the bone in no time. We have been descending again, I think, but
there looks to be a rise ahead; otherwise there is very little that is different
from the awful monotony of past days. 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, and the wind
may be our friend to-morrow. ...Now for the run home and a desperate struggle.
I wonder if we can do it.
Thursday morning, January 18 - ...We have just arrived at this tent, 2 miles
from our camp, therefore about l 1/2 miles from the Pole. In the tent we find
a record of five Norwegians having been here... We carried the Union Jack about
3/4 of a mile north with us and left it on a piece of stick as near as we could
fix it. ...Well, we have turned our back now on the goal of our ambition and
must face our 800 miles of solid dragging - and good-bye to most of the day-dreams!"
Death of the First Team Member
"Saturday, February 17 - A very terrible day. Evans looked a little better
after a good sleep, and declared, as he always did, that he was quite well.
He started in his place on the traces, but half an hour later worked his ski
shoes adrift, and had to leave the sledge. The surface was awful, the soft recently
fallen snow clogging the ski and runners at every step, the sledge groaning,
the sky overcast, and the land hazy. We stopped after about one hour, and Evans
came up again, but very slowly. Half an hour later he dropped out again on the
same plea. He asked Bowers to lend him a piece of string. I cautioned him to
come on as quickly as he could, and he answered cheerfully as I thought. We
had to push on, and the remainder of us were forced to pull very hard, sweating
heavily. Abreast the Monument Rock we
stopped, and seeing Evans a long way astern, I camped for lunch. There was
no alarm at first, and we prepared tea and our own meal, consuming the latter.
After lunch, and Evans still not appearing, we looked out, to see him still
afar off. By this time we were alarmed, and all four started back on ski. I
was first to reach the poor man and shocked at his appearance; he was on his
knees with clothing disarranged, hands uncovered and frostbitten, and a wild
look in his eyes. Asked what was the matter, he replied with a slow speech that
he didn't know, but thought he must have fainted. We got him on his feet, but
after two or three steps he sank down again. He showed every sign of complete
collapse. Wilson, Bowers, and I went back for the sledge, whilst Oates remained
with him. When we returned he was practically unconscious, and when we got him
into the tent quite comatose. He died quietly at 12.30 A.M. On discussing the
symptoms we think he began to get weaker just before we reached the Pole, and
that his downward path was accelerated first by the shock of his frostbitten
fingers, and later by falls during rough travelling on the glacier, further
by his loss of all confidence in himself. Wilson thinks it certain he must have
injured his brain by a fall.
It is a terrible thing to lose a companion in this way, but calm reflection
shows that there could not have been a better ending to the terrible anxieties
of the past week. Discussion of the situation at lunch yesterday shows us what
a desperate pass we were in with a sick man on our hands at such a distance
Oates Walks Into Oblivion
"Friday, March 16 or Saturday 17 - Lost track of dates, but think the last
correct. Tragedy all along the line. At lunch, the day before yesterday, poor
Titus Oates said he couldn't go on; he proposed we should leave him in his sleeping-bag.
That we could not do, and we induced him to come on, on the
afternoon march. In spite of its awful nature for him he struggled on and we
made a few miles. At night he was worse and we knew the end had come.
Should this be found I want these facts recorded. Oates' last thoughts were
of his Mother, but immediately before he took pride in thinking that his regiment
would be pleased with the bold way in which he met his death. We can testify
to his bravery. He has borne intense suffering for weeks without complaint,
and to the very last was able and willing to discuss outside subjects. He did
not - would not - give up hope till the very end. He was a brave soul. This
was the end. He slept through the night before last, hoping not to wake; but
he woke in the morning - yesterday. It was blowing a blizzard. He said, 'I am
just going outside and may be some time.' He went out into the blizzard and
we have not seen him since."
"Wednesday, March 21 - Got within 11 miles of depot Monday night; had to
lay up all yesterday in severe blizzard. To-day forlorn hope, Wilson and Bowers
going to depot for fuel.
Thursday, March 22 and 23 - Blizzard bad as ever - Wilson and Bowers unable
to start - to-morrow last chance - no fuel and only one or two of food left
- must be near the end. Have decided it shall be natural - we shall march
for the depot with or without our effects and die in our tracks.
Thursday, March 29 - Since the 21st we have had a continuous gale from W.S.W.
and S.W. We had fuel to make two cups of tea apiece and bare food for two days
on the 20th. 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.
For God’s sake look after our people."