Robert Falcon Scott
Terra Nova Expedition (1910-1913): The Story
On November 1, 1911, the time came for the start of the last journey. The first to leave were those with the motor sledges while the others with ponies and dogs followed behind – ten men each with a pony and sledge. Both sledges soon failed. The distance to the Pole and back was 1766 statute miles and every step of the way had to be marched on foot. Temperatures never rose above zero Fahrenheit. Fighting constant snowfalls, the team reached One Ton Camp on the fifteenth day. On November 24, the first pony was killed. Four camps later, on December 1, the second pony was shot.
Depots were made at intervals of seventy miles, each containing food and fuel for a week for the returning parties. Scott wrote on December 3, "Our luck in weather is preposterous...the conditions simply horrible". On December 5 they awoke to a blizzard. Scott wrote, "One cannot see the next tent, let alone the land. What on earth does such weather mean at this time of the year? It is more than our share of ill-fortune, but the luck may turn yet". The blizzard kept them confined to their tents for the next four days. (This event quite likely led to their deaths. If they had not lost these four days they would have reached One Ton Depot ahead of the blizzard that kept them pinned at their last camp.) Scott wrote, "Resignation to misfortune is the only attitude, but not one easy to adopt...It is very evil to lie here in a wet sleeping-bag and think of the pity of it, whilst things go steadily from bad to worse". On the fifth day the blizzard let up enough for the men to break camp. They had to beat the ponies as they floundered up to their bellies and, Wilson wrote, they "constantly collapsed and lay down and sank down, and eventually we could only get them on five or six yards at a time--they were clean done". They struggled for eleven hours after which time the party camped. Five ponies were shot, skinned and made into a depot. Wilson wrote, "Thank God the horses are now all done for and we begin the heavier work ourselves".
Two days later found them on the foot of the Beardmore Glacier. A party of twelve, divided into groups, set out to man-haul the sledges up the glacier towards the summit 10,000 feet above and the rest turned back. The struggle began with each man pulling over 200 pounds through the soft snow which they sank into nearly up to their knees. Some suffered from snow-blindness as others stumbled into crevasses, sledges and all. On December 13, the day before Amundsen reached the Pole, in nine hours the party had advanced less than four miles. Scott wrote, "I had pinned my faith on getting better conditions as we rose, but it looks as though matters are getting worse instead of better". Bowers wrote that he had "never pulled so hard, or so nearly crushed my inside into my backbone by the everlasting jerking with all my strength on the canvas band round my unfortunate tummy". The situation gradually improved as they scaled the glacier and on December 20 Scott named the first returning party: Atkinson, Wright, Cherry-Garrard and Keohane. Scott had dreaded this moment as all had pulled to the limit of their strength, but now four good men had to be deprived of their just reward: the Pole.
The next day the men established Upper Glacier depot at 7,000 feet. After completion, the first supporting party left for home and reached Hut Point thirty-five days later on January 26, 1912. The two remaining groups went on with two sledges and twelve weeks' supply of oil and fuel, pulling 190 pounds per man. In Scott's group were Oates, Wilson and Taff Evans while Bowers had Teddy Evans, Lashly and Crean. They went on climbing for another sixteen days to reach their highest altitude at 10,570 feet. On Christmas day, with a strong wind in their faces, they advanced seventeen-and-a-half miles. The Christmas meal consisted of pony hoosh, ground biscuit, a chocolate hoosh made from cocoa, sugar, biscuit and raisins thickened with arrowroot, two-and-a-half square inches each of plum-duff, a pannikin of cocoa, four caramels each and four pieces of crystallized ginger. From here they made remarkable marches of fourteen to seventeen miles a day. On January 3 Scott chose four men to continue with him to the Pole and instructed the other three to return. Bowers was brought into his tent and Teddy Evans, Lashly and Crean would become the second returning support party.
On January 6 they crossed the line of latitude where Shackleton turned back and were farther south, as they believed, than any man had been before. For the next few days the going was difficult. On January 9 they stayed in their bags all day as a blizzard roared outside. On January 10 they resumed their march, made a depot of one weeks' provisions and reckoned they were only ninety-seven miles from the Pole. On this day came the first hint that everyone was growing tired. Scott wrote, "I never had such pulling; all the time the sledge rasps and creaks. We have covered six miles, but at fearful cost to ourselves...Another hard grind in the afternoon and five miles added. About seventy-four miles from the Pole--can we keep this up for seven days? It takes it out of us like anything. None of us ever had such hard work before...Our chance still holds good if we can put the work in, but it's a terribly trying time". A day later "It is an effort to keep up the double figures, but if we can do another four marches we ought to get through. It is going to be a close thing". Two days later, despite higher temperatures Scott wrote, "It is most unaccountable why we should suddenly feel the cold in this manner".
At the Pole, L to R: Wilson,
On January 17, a force five gale struck them along with temperatures falling to negative fifty-four degrees of frost. Oates, Evans and Bowers all suffered from severe frostbite as they made an early lunch-camp. Scott wrote, "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 tomorrow". Wilson wrote that it was "a tiring day" and despite Amundsen having "beaten us in so far as he has made a race of it...We have done what we came for all the same and as our programme was made out". The next morning they found the Norwegian's camp about two miles away. In the tent Amundsen left a note for Scott and a letter to be delivered to King Haakon. Bowers took photographs, and then they marched seven miles south-south-east to a spot which put them within half a mile of the Pole, altitude 9,500 feet. Here they built a cairn, planted "our poor slighted Union Jacks" and the rest of the flags, photographed themselves and headed for home. Scott wrote, "Well we have turned our back now on the goal of our ambition with sore feelings and must face 800 miles of solid dragging--and goodbye to the daydreams!"
The return trip started out fairly well but the temperatures were obviously becoming colder. Scott wrote, "There is no doubt that Evans is a good deal run down". On January 23 they had to camp early because of frostbite to Evans' nose. Oates' feet were always cold and when a blizzard held them up seven miles short of the next food depot, Scott wrote, "I don't like the look of it. Is the weather breaking up? If so God help us, with the tremendous summit journey and scant food". Despite the delays and difficult travel, the marches were good. They were becoming very tired as evidenced by the many injuries due to falls: Wilson strained a leg tendon and had to limp painfully beside the sledge for several days; Scott fell and bruised his shoulder and Evans hand lost two fingernails.
On February 7 they reached the head of the Beardmore Glacier and the next day they started their decent. On February 11, in difficult conditions, they took a wrong turn and ended up in the worse "ice mess" they had ever been in. For the next two days they stumbled around in a maze of ridges, growing more weak and despondent. They knew the next depot could not be far away but they simply couldn't find it. Down to their last meal, the men accidentally came upon the depot which was shrouded in fog. Scott wrote, "The relief was inexpressible. There is no getting away from the fact that we are not pulling strong". At this point it was determined to reduce rations since they weren't making the distances between depots in a timely manner. This only weakened them further as Evans began losing heart and was "nearly broken down in brain, we think".
On February 16 Evans collapsed and camp had to be made. Next day he felt better and said he could go on. He would march for a while and then stop to adjust his boots while the others went on. When he failed to catch up, the others would go back only to find him kneeling in the snow with a wild look in his eyes. His companions sledged him to the next camp and soon after midnight he died. After a few hours rest, they were on their way again. At the foot of the glacier they reached the pony meat and enjoyed their first full meal since leaving the plateau. "New life seems to come with greater food almost immediately". From here the travelling became difficult as the snow became very soft. "Pray God we get better travelling as we are not so fit as we were and the season advances apace". They left the foot of the glacier on February 19.
On the 27th, Wilson's diary stopped. Bowers had given up on his on January 25. They arrived at the Southern Barrier depot six days later. Here they discovered a shortage of oil, presumably due to evaporation from the poorly sealed one-gallon tins. Another seventy miles brought them to the Middle Barrier depot where they once again discovered a short supply of oil. By this time Oates could no longer conceal his pain: his toes were black and gangrene was setting in. Temperatures were down to -40°F and the surface was so bad that even a strong wind in the sail would not move the sledge. Scott wrote, "God help us, we can't keep up this pulling, that is certain. Among ourselves we are unendingly cheerful, but what each man feels in his heart I can only guess."
On March 7 Scott mentions the dogs for the first time: "We hope against hope that the dogs have been to Mt. Hooper (the next depot), then we might pull through. If there is a shortage of oil again we can have little hope...I should like to keep the track to the end". On the same day, the dogs, driven by Cherry-Garrard and Dimitri, were waiting at One Ton Depot, some seventy-two miles from Mt. Hooper. On March 9 Scott and his men reached Mt. Hooper. "Cold comfort. Shortage on our allowance all round...The dogs which would have been our salvation have evidently failed". An unusual north-west wind kept them in camp the next day as it was simply too cold to face. With half-cooked food, all of them getting frostbitten, all knowing they were doomed, they discussed the situation. Months before, at Cape Evans, they had discussed what to do if one of them became so injured as to not be able to continue on. Wilson carried lethal doses of morphine and opium in his medicine chest so one could eliminate himself if the situation called for it. At this point Scott ordered Wilson to hand over the drugs so Wilson handed each man thirty opium tablets. They were never used as suicide was against the code.
Things got worse as the north wind continued to blow in their faces. Wilson was now becoming weak so Scott and Bowers had to make camp by themselves. The temperature fell to -43°F. On March 16 or 17 (they lost track of the days) Oates said he couldn't go on and wanted to be left in his bag. The others refused and he struggled on. There was a blizzard blowing in the morning when Oates said "I am just going outside and may be some time" and he stumbled out of the tent. Scott wrote, "We knew that poor Oates was walking to his death, but though we tried to dissuade him, we knew it was the act of a brave man and an English gentleman". Oates was never to be seen again.
On March 20 they awoke to a raging blizzard. Scott's right foot became a problem and he knew "these are the steps of my downfall". Amputation was a certainty "but will the trouble spread? That is the serious question". They were only eleven miles from One Ton Depot but the blizzard stopped them from continuing on. They were out of oil and had only two days' rations. "Have decided it shall be natural--we shall march for the depot and die in our tracks", wrote Scott. They did not march again and on March 29 Scott made his last entry: "It seems a pity, but I do not think that I can write more. R. Scott. For God's sake look after our people". On another page he scribbled, "Send this diary to my widow". Remarkably, Scott was able to find the strength, despite being half starved and three quarters frozen, to write twelve complete, legible letters. He wrote to Kathleen (his wife), and Hannah (his sister), to his brother-in-law, to his naval comrades Sir Francis Bridgeman and Sir George Egerton, to the Reginald Smiths and to Sir James Barrie. To Barrie he wrote, "I may not have proved a great explorer but we have done the greatest march ever made and come very near to great success". He wrote to Oates' and Bowers' mothers and to Wilson's wife. Wilson wrote to his parents, "looking forward to the day when we shall all meet together in the hereafter. I have had a very happy life and I look forward to a very happy life hereafter when we shall all be together again. God knows I have no fear of meeting Him--for He will be merciful to all of us. My poor Ory may or may not have long to wait". Letters were written to J. J. Kinsey in New Zealand and Sir Edgar Speyer expressing regrets for leaving the expedition in such a state of affairs, "But we have been to the Pole and we shall die like gentlemen". In Scott's letter to Kathleen, he wrote of hopes for his son, "I had looked forward to helping you to bring him up, but it is a satisfaction to know that he will be safe with you...Make the boy interested in natural history if you can. It is better than games. They encourage it in some schools. I know you will keep him in the open air. Try to make him believe in a God, it is comforting...and guard him against indolence. Make him a strenuous man. I had to force myself into being strenuous, as you know--had always an inclination to be idle". As for Kathleen, "I want you to take the whole thing very sensibly, as I am sure you will...You know I cherish no sentimental rubbish about remarriage. When the right man comes to help you in life you ought to be your happy self again--I wasn't a very good husband but I hope I shall be a good memory...The inevitable must be faced, you urged me to be the leader of this party, and I know you felt it would be dangerous. I have taken my place throughout, haven't I?...What lots and lots I could tell you of this journey. How much better it has been than lounging about in too great comfort at home. What tales you would have had for the boy, but oh, what a price to pay. Dear, you will be good to the old Mother...I haven't had time to write to Sir Clements. Tell him I thought much of him, and never regretted his putting me in charge of the Discovery (his previous Antarctica expedition)." Finally, there was a Message to the Public. He explained how the expedition's disaster was not due to poor planning, but by bad weather and bad luck. It was no one's fault..."but for my own sake I do not regret this journey, which has shown that Englishmen can endure hardships, help one another, and meet death with as great a fortitude as ever in the past. We took risks, we knew we took them; things have come out against us, and therefore we have no cause for complaint, but bow to the will of providence, determined still to do our best to the last...Had we lived, I should have had a tale to tell of the hardihood, endurance, and courage of my companions which would have stirred the heart of every Englishman. These rough notes and our dead bodies must tell the tale, but surely, surely, a great rich country like ours will see that those who are dependent on us are properly provided for".
Even at the very end Scott still felt comfortable with his decisions and felt a need to defend that position when he wrote, "Every detail of our food supplies, clothing and depots...worked out to perfection...We have missed getting through by a narrow margin which was justifiably within the risk of such a journey". Death, to Scott, was not a failure since they had reached their goal---the Pole. He hoped he had set an example of courage and loyalty to all those left behind when he wrote to Sir Francis Bridgeman, "After all we are setting a good example to our countrymen, if not by getting into a tight place, by facing it like men when we were there".
The blizzard raged on for another ten days before Scott's last entry on March 29, 1912. It was not until November 12 that Surgeon Atkinson, leader of the search party, found their tent all but buried in snow. When "Silas" Wright pulled the flap aside, they saw the three men in their sleeping bags. On the left was Wilson, his hands crossed on his chest; on the right, Bowers, wrapped in his bag. It appeared that both had died peacefully in their sleep. But Scott was lying half out of his bag with one arm stretched towards Wilson. Tryggve Gran said, "It was a horrid sight. It was clear he had had a very hard last minutes. His skin was yellow, frostbites all over". Gran envied them. "They died having done something great--how hard must not death be having done nothing". Petty Officer Williamson said, "His face was very pinched and his hands, I should say, had been terribly frostbitten...Never again in my life do I want to behold the sight we have just seen". At the age of forty-three, Scott had been the last to die.
Atkinson took charge of the diaries and letters and read aloud the account of Oates' death and the Message to the Public. He then read the Burial Service and a chapter from Corinthians after which all the men gathered and sang Scott's favorite hymn, "Onward Christian Soldiers". The tent was then collapsed over the bodies and a snow cairn was built over all. Placed on top was a pair of crossed skis. Here they would lie until one day, drifting with the Barrier, they would find their final resting place in the sea. Atkinson led the search party back along the path believed taken by Scott in hopes of finding Oates. They found his sleeping bag but nothing more. Near the spot where they assumed he had fallen, the men erected a cross with the following inscription: "Hereabouts died a very gallant gentleman, Captain L. E. G. Oates of the Inniskilling Dragoons. In March 1912, returning from the Pole, he walked willingly to his death in a blizzard to try to save his comrades, beset by hardship".
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