SCOTT & The South-Pole

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9 - "The Laying of the One Ton Depot"

A person ignorant of the challenges which Scott and his men faced in getting to the South-Pole, might well think that Scott one day put his head out of the hut, and -- figured it was a good day. So, gather up the dogs, get into your outfit, and head south. This was not a jaunt of a few miles. The pole was 900 miles south of them! The distance to be travelled is the same as going from New York City to Nashville; and back again. In between: nothing but ice and snow; not a critter or a person to be seen; with temperatures that can get down to -50; and too, in between, a glaciated mountain range.

Such a journey in such conditions over such a long, long distance, required a lot of planning. The only chance of getting to the pole, and back, was to do so during the Antarctic summer (November to March). There was work to be done before officially starting out. This work started within a month of Scott's arrival on January 4th, 1911. On January 25th, 12 men25, 8 ponies and 26 dogs went south to set up a major depot of food and supplies. It was intended to establish this depot at a position approximately 750 miles from the pole (80 degrees, south). It was essential to get it well south of the leading northern edge of the Ross Shelf, to a secure point on the shelf not much affected by seasonal thaws. At the first of it, outward bound, they were faced with late melting ice.

A typical start on a typically march day:

"We turn out of our sleeping-bags about 9 P.M. Somewhere about 11.30 I shout to the Soldier [Oates] 'How are things?' There is a response suggesting readiness, and soon after figures are busy amongst sledges and ponies. It is chilling work for the fingers and not too warm for the feet. The rugs come off the animals, the harness is put on, tents and camp equipment are loaded on the sledges, nosebags filled for the next halt; one by one the animals are taken off the picketing rope and yoked to the sledge. ... Still we wait: the picketing lines must be gathered up, a few pony putties need adjustment ... With numbed fingers on our horse's bridle ... At last all is ready. One says 'All right, Bowers, go ahead,' and Birdie [Bowers] leads his big animal forward, starting, as he continues, at a steady pace. The horses have got cold and at the word they are off, ... with a rush. ... for a minute or two drivers have some difficulty in maintaining the pace on their feet. Movement is warming, and in ten minutes the column has settled itself to steady marching."
Ponies trailing over the Ross Ice Shelf

And, a typical stop:
"As the end of the half march approaches I get out my whistle. Then at a shrill blast Bowers wheels slightly to the left, his tent mates lead still farther out to get the distance for the picket lines; Oates and I stop behind Bowers and Evans, the two other sledges of our squad behind the two other of Bowers'. So we are drawn up in camp formation. The picket lines are run across at right angles to the line of advance and secured to the two sledges at each end. In a few minutes ponies are on the lines covered, tents up again and cookers going.
Meanwhile the dog drivers, after a long cold wait at the old camp, have packed the last sledge and come trotting along in our tracks. They try to time their arrival in the new camp immediately after our own and generally succeed well. The mid march halt runs into an hour to an hour and a half, and at the end we pack up and tramp forth again. We generally make our final camp about 8 o'clock, and within an hour and a half most of us are in our sleeping-bags. Such is at present the daily routine. At the long halt we do our best for our animals by building snow walls and improving their rugs, &c."
And what is it like to be in a tent, pitched on the ice with a blizzard raging outside. Scott gave a description:
"Still blowing hard -- a real blizzard now with dusty, floury drift -- two minutes in the open makes a white figure. What a wonderful shelter our little tent affords! We have just had an excellent meal, a quiet pipe, and fireside conversation within, almost forgetful for the time of the howling tempest without; now, as we lie in our bags warm and comfortable, one can scarcely realise that 'hell' is on the other side of the thin sheet of canvas that protects us."26
On the trail, Scott wrote out his poetic impressions:

"The seductive folds of the sleeping-bag.
The hiss of the primus and the fragrant steam of the cooker issuing from the tent ventilator.
The small green tent and the great white road.
The whine of a dog and the neigh of our steeds.
The driving cloud of powdered snow.
The crunch of footsteps which break the surface crust.
The wind blown furrows.
The blue arch beneath the smoky cloud.
The crisp ring of the ponies' hoofs and the swish of the following sledge.
The droning conversation of the march as driver encourages or chides his horse.
The patter of dog pads.
The gentle flutter of our canvas shelter.
Its deep booming sound under the full force of a blizzard.
The drift snow like finest flour penetrating every hole and corner -- flickering up beneath one's head covering, pricking sharply as a sand blast.
The sun with blurred image peeping shyly through the wreathing drift giving pale shadowless light.
The eternal silence of the great white desert. Cloudy columns of snow drift advancing from the south, pale yellow wraiths, heralding the coming storm, blotting out one by one the sharp-cut lines of the land.
The blizzard, Nature's protest -- the crevasse, Nature's pitfall -- that grim trap for the unwary -- no hunter could conceal his snare so perfectly -- the light rippled snow bridge gives no hint or sign of the hidden danger, its position unguessable till man or beast is floundering, clawing and struggling for foothold on the brink.
The vast silence broken only by the mellow sounds of the marching column."

Picture with Wilson and the pony, Nobby

For days these twelve men and their animals trudged along the southern trail, taking two stops per day as described; the "midday" stop and the other to sleep over. (It was determined early that night travelling was best. In these polar regions, the light was much the same, night and day.) It was on the eighteenth day, on February 12th, at camp no.11 (See Map) Scott made the decision to send three men back: "E. Evans, Forde, and Keohane." Scott explained that he sent them back "with the three weakest ponies which they have been leading. The remaining five ponies which have been improving in condition will go on for a few days at least ..."

By February 16th, they were at camp no.15 (Again, see Map) "The surface a good deal better, but the ponies running out. Three of the five could go on without difficulty. Bowers' pony might go on a bit, but Weary Willy is a good deal done up, and to push him further would be to risk him unduly, so to-morrow we turn." Scott:

"Friday, February 17. -- Camp 15. Lat. 79 28 1/2' S. It clouded over yesterday -- the temperature rose and some snow fell. Wind from the south, cold and biting, as we turned out. We started to build the depot. I had intended to go on half a march and return to same camp, leaving Weary Willy to rest, but under the circumstances did not like to take risk."27
There at Camp no.15 (see Track Chart Map Scott and his team unloaded and stored 2181 pounds of food and supplies; it became known as the "One Ton Depot." It was at a point, 130 miles south from Cape Evans. It was a long and hard struggle over a period of 23 days. Yet their objective, the south-pole, was 750 miles beyond that point, an objective to be pursued in the start of the Antarctic spring next year, November 1st, 1911. They intended to get back to winter over at their base camp at Camp Evans.

Having dumped their main loads, the nine men and their animals, traveling light and calling on the successive depots that had been built on the way out, made their return journey. On the way back the conditions were as bad, likely worse, as they were when they made their way out. On February 22nd they were at a place not far off from Hut Point. (See Map) It will be remembered that Hut Point was Scott's base during the Discovery Expedition (19011904), thus often referred to as, the "Discovery Hut". It is a bit difficult to figure out exactly, from Scott's Journal, just what their situation was when the Scott's party approached Hut Point. It seems they broke up into teams to gather in supplies and try to rescue their ponies, seven of the eight ponies were lost on this last difficult lag. They were at the edge of the great Ross Shelf ("The great Barrier"28). North of this shelf, there was floating, cakes of sea ice which kept them from advancing directly to their main station at Cape Evens.29 They had to wait for the sea to freeze over, which it certainly would do in the coming weeks as the Antarctic winter closed in. In the meantime "We were confined to the hut and its immediate environs." Scott thought they might well have to spend the winter at Hut Point and set about preparing himself and the men.30

By April 13th, the conditions were right and certain of the men, including Scott, headed to Cape Evans. During that time, from February 22nd to April 13th, the men at Hut Point went about building a stable to shelter seven ponies. Scott wrote there were 16 men waiting for the ice to form.31 Leaving a guard, ponies and dogs behind, Scott and his group made it to Cape Evans which included getting over a creviced glazier, (the Erebus Tongue). It took but 24 hours with an intervening camp on the ice, with winds howling and the temperatures now much below zero. (The distance between The Hut on Cape Armitage and their winter quarters at Cape Evans was 15 miles.)

There was much excitement at Cape Evans when, on April 14th, Scott and his men arrived. Nine men32 were then at Camp Evans. These nine had not seen Scott or his group since January 25th, a period of 80 days.

As glad as Scott was to get back to the more comfortable setting at Cape Evans, it was not his intention to immediately settle in for the winter. On April 17th, with his chosen men, he returned to Hut Point with supplies for the men that were there, together, it seems, with a number of dogs and a group of ponies. (See Map) On the return trip they had two 10 ft. sledges. Two of the Cape Evans "ponies hauled the sledges to within a mile of the Glacier Tongue." There were, after their journey back from the "One Ton Depot," ten ponies left, eight at Cape Evans and two at Hut Point.33 They reached Hut Point on April 18th. Three days later after dropping the supplies, Scott returned to Cape Evens. The returning group with Scott were: Bowers, Wilson, Oates, Atkinson, Cherry, Crean and Hooper. They reached Cape Evans on April 21st. On that day Scott declared in his journal, "The sledging season is at an end." As April turned into May, the sun kept close to the northern horizon and gradually the dark took over, but at parts of the days, for awhile, eerie twilight, was all about.

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Peter Landry
2013