SCOTT & The South-Pole

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"The Summing Up"

Scott and his men had accomplished much, including reaching the South-Pole. As for Scott's Pole Party: they had travelled 1,600 miles, they had gotten there and a good distance of the way back. The party's prospects, however, once it was in the final stage on the Ross Shelf, steadily worsened and yet 400 miles to go. All five74 members of the party died due mainly to dehydration and starvation. The first to die was PO Evens. Next, after a further month of trudging, and a few days after Oates' dramatic exit, the remaining three (Scott, Wilson and Bowers) died, storm-stayed in their tent. The three had made their final camp on March 19th, but 11 miles short of One Ton Depot.75 Scott, with frozen fingers, little light, and storms still raging outside the tent, wrote his final words, on 29 March: "Last entry. For God's sake look after our people."

At the last of it, Scott thought their only chance was if the dogs and their attending men would appear and save them from what they then knew was to be certain death without them. Scott had the expectation that he would meet the dogs, or to find that they had been out to top up the remaining depots with food and fuel. This, as it turned out were but dreams of dying men. We can see from Scott's Journal that he wrote of the dogs, beginning with March 7th, 1912: "We hope against hope that the dogs have been to Mt. Hooper (See Map); then we might pull through." Then on March 8th, "The great question is, What shall we find at the depot? [Mt. Hooper] If the dogs have visited it we may get along a good distance." Then on March 10th, "The dogs which would have been our salvation have evidently failed. Meares had a bad trip home I suppose."

Well to begin with, Meares had packed it in and went aboard the Terra Nova and sailed for home. Instead, on February 26th, 1912, "Cherry and dog handler, Dimitri Gerov made one last supply run out to the 'One Ton Depot'.76 They waited there seven days hoping to meet the South Pole team on their return journey, although the mission was to resupply the dump and not to provide an escort for the polar party 'home' who weren't expected to reach this point for another week or two. Cherry finally turned back on 10 March 1912 in order to preserve his dog team which were short of food, and out of concern for the health of Gerov."77

Atkinson had received specific instructions from Scott that the dogs were to be brought out to One Ton Depot in February and, "with the depot (of dog food) that has been laid at One Ton, come as far as you can" -- presumably to meet and assist the returning polar party. Atkinson was ready to carry out his orders, except on February 19th Crean (he being one in a returning party) arrived at base camp on foot and "reported that Lt Edward Evans was lying seriously ill in a tent some 35 miles to the south, and in urgent need of rescue. Atkinson quickly decided that this mission was his priority, and set out with the dogs to bring Evans back. This was achieved; the party was back at Hut Point on 22 February."78

Upon his departure, Scott reminded Atkinson, who was at the head of a returning parties, of Scott's previously made orders that he was "to take the two dog-teams south in the event of Meares having to return home, as seemed likely." Further we can see that, eleven days before the teams had set off to the pole, Scott gave Meares written orders at Cape Evans dated 20 October 1911 to secure Scott's speedy return from the pole using dogs:

"About the first week of February I should like you to start your third journey to the South, the object being to hasten the return of the third Southern unit [the polar party] and give it a chance to catch the ship. The date of your departure must depend on news received from returning units, the extent of the depot of dog food you have been able to leave at One Ton Camp, the state of the dogs, etc. ... It looks at present as though you should aim at meeting the returning party about March 1 in Latitude 82 or 82.30' Wikipedia."79 (See Map)
Having rescuing him, Atkinson determined to stay with the recovering Edward Evans. (It is to be remembered that Atkinson was a medical doctor.) So, the task set by Scott of taking the dogs and supplies to the One Ton Depot, at least, was left to Apsley Cherry-Garrard. No one seem to think that the five trekking back from the pole needed rescuing.80 As we have already recounted, Cherry-Garrard with Demetri left base camp with the dogs on February 26th, carrying extra rations for the polar party to be added to the depot. After waiting there for several days, "they returned to Hut Point on 16 March in poor physical condition and without news of the polar party."81

While "Teddy" Evans was being nursed back to health, in came the Terra Nova with fresh supplies. Atkinson decided to spend time unloading the ship, seemingly, putting aside Scott's order. "Atkinson tried to send the experienced navigator Wright south to meet Scott, but chief meteorologist Simpson declared he needed Wright for scientific work."82 Though everyone knew of his vision problems (short-sightedness), and the resultant difficulties in him being able o navigate83, Atkinson sent Cherry-Garrard, who, with Dimitri Gerov, set out on February 25.

The purpose of these writings, is to explore, in some detail, Scott's Last Expedition to the Antarctic Continent. But, in the process, we have touched on the contemporaneous Norwegian expedition under Amundsen. Making comparisons between Scott's and Amundsen's respective runs to the South-Pole, is an activity which many writers have engaged themselves in for the last hundred years84; we make, here, but short reference to it.

"In the selection of their men, Amundsen and Scott followed a fundamentally different approach: Amundsen was organizing a raid; Scott a general offensive. Amundsen depended on nimbleness and mobility; Scott saw safety in numbers."85
The following quote comes from Roland Huntford's work (much hated by Scott supporters):
"Huntford put forth the point of view that Roald Amundsen's success in reaching the South Pole was abetted by much superior planning, whereas errors by Scott (notably including the reliance on man-hauling instead of sled dogs ultimately resulted in the death of Scott and his companions."86
At London a letter to the Daily Mail written at the time, went in part, as follows:
"It WAS a race87 and I think I’m right in saying they [Amundsen's team] did not stop to make scientific observations. As for samples, that was on the return journey. Scott did not want a race and had not planned for one. Amundsen behaved like a rascal: he told everyone he was heading for the North Pole when his secret intention was to go for the South Pole. This deceit led Scott to think he had no competitors and that is why his planning was for a relatively unhurried trek to the Pole. When Amundsen cabled Scott in New Zealand to tell him the South Pole was his goal it was too late for Scott to plan for a race. The disparity in methods and personnel made Amundsen's victory almost inevitable."88
Amundsen Sledging with Dogs

If the sole purpose of both Scott's expedition and that of Amundsen's was just to get to the South-Pole, then a fair comparison might be made. However, while it was Amundsen's: it was not Scott's. Scott's was an exploratory expedition of a specific part of the southern continent, which included a long trip to the South-Pole. It is for this reason that Scott's planning and execution were complex. There was to be put in use: numerous men, animals (ponies and dogs) and something, that was then, in 1911, new, motor sledges (which failed, early). In contrast, Amundsen's expedition was simple: 5 men with half a hundred dogs, all the way to the South-Pole, and back.

Scott's Man-Hauling Technique

Amundsen's expedition was Simple, maybe, but he planned everything down to the last detail. (Amundsen certainly had something that Scott did not have -- a great deal of prior poplar experience). The approach to matters was considerably different. We might take for example the manner in which Amundsen packed his sledges: "Amundsen designed his boxes with lids built into the top like tea canisters; when the Norwegians pulled into camp, they could keep their boxes lashed on the sledges and just had to pop the lid off, grab what they needed, and put the top back in place -- leaving more time for resting in their sleeping bags."


"The canisters of paraffin fuel that both men took on their expeditions were known to have leaking problems. Amundsen soldered the canisters shut, while Scott kept the standard leather washers. On their return from the Pole, Scott and his men were dismayed to reach their depots, only to discover that much of the paraffin had evaporated, forcing them to eat frozen food and leading to dehydration (they didn't have enough fuel to melt the snow). One of Amundsen's canisters was found in the snow 50 years later -- still 100% full."
Another example: It must be remembered that, whether English or Norwegian, these men were tracking through a wasteland of ice and snow. And when one adds in thick fog and blizzards, which came along without warning from time to time, visibility could become a serious problem. To find the life sustaining depots on the way back, which had been set up on the way out, became job number one. Thus to make the depots conspicuous, became an important part of setting up the depot in the first place. Scott built them reasonably high, but with but one flag. Whereas, "Amundsen placed a line of ten black flags, spaced a half mile apart, on both sides of his depots. If the men got within a few miles of the depot, they would run into one of the flags, and each flag was marked with its distance to and direction from the next depot."

Roland Huntford, in his work, The Last Place On Earth, from which we took the last couple of quotes, was of the view that Amundsen's success in reaching the South-Pole and returning in good health, and which was accomplished in shorter time (the difference was more than a month) was, because of superior planning.


"Amundsen’s expedition benefited from careful preparation, good equipment, appropriate clothing, a simple primary task (Amundsen did no surveying on his route south and is known to have taken only two photographs), an understanding of dogs and their handling, and the effective use of skis. In contrast to the misfortunes of Scott’s team, Amundsen’s trek proved rather smooth and uneventful."89
Scott knew, early, that Amundsen had a significant edge.

When Scott came to know of Amundsen's presence (February 22, 1911) on the Ross Ice Shelf, Scott determined, to "proceed exactly as though this had not happened. To go forward and do our best for the honour of the country without fear or panic." He commented, further, "There is no doubt that Amundsen's plan is a very serious menace to ours. He has a shorter distance to the Pole by 60 miles -- I never thought he could have got so many dogs safely to the ice. His plan for running them seems excellent. But above and beyond all he can start his journey early in the season -- an impossible condition with ponies."

Scott, of course, failed to win the "race." His exculpation was summed up in his Message To The Public It was primarily a defence of the expedition's organisation and the result, the failure to be the first at the South-Pole and the death of five men including Scott, was attributed to weather and other misfortunes. At a time near his end, Scott wrote these inspirational words:

"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.'"90
Scott's plea made, it seems on the date of his death -- "For God's sake look after our people" -- Was Heard.
"The response to Scott's final plea on behalf of the dependents of the dead was enormous by the standards of the day. The Mansion House Scott Memorial Fund closed at £75,000 (2009 approximation £5.5 million). This was not equally distributed; Scott's widow, son, mother and sisters received a total of £18,000 (£1.3 million). Wilson's widow got £8,500 (£600,000) and Bowers's mother £4,500 (£330,000). Edgar Evans's widow, children and mother received £1,500 (£109,000) between them."91
The expected costs of Scott's expedition, and for that matter Amundsen's, was not all in hand when these intrepid polar explorers set out. And, one might think that Scott's last expedition was under the auspices of the British government -- not so! It was thought that when Scott got back, together with Herbert Ponting's photographs, key members would go on tour and make enough money to at least carry the costs of the expedition. The death of Scott and his South-Pole companions might has scotched this, however, as it turned out, there was more money raised with Scott's death than if he had returned home triumphant.
"... when the bodies of Scott and his companions were discovered in their tent on the Ross Ice Shelf, in November 1912, their diaries and journals were also found. These records described the explorers' final days while suffering from exposure and malnutrition, and their desperate effort to get to a depot of food and fuel that could have saved them. Scott knew he was doomed, and used his final hours to write pleas to his countrymen to look after the welfare of the expedition's widows and survivors.
The eloquent appeals, upon publication in the British press, wrung massive donations from the public. The gifts repaid the entire cost of the expedition, provided large annuities (carefully doled out by expedition status and rank) for the widows and survivors, and left a substantial surplus for eventual use as the start-up endowment of the Scott Polar Research Institute (SPRI), an affiliate of Cambridge University."
Scott's heroic image shone bright throughout most of the 20th century.
"Following the news of his death, Scott became an iconic British hero, a status maintained for more than 50 years and reflected by the many permanent memorials erected across the nation. In the closing decades of the 20th century, the legend was reassessed as attention focused on the causes of the disaster that ended his and his comrades' lives, and the extent of Scott's personal culpability. From a previously unassailable position, Scott became a figure of controversy, with questions raised about his competence and character. Commentators in the 21st century have on the whole regarded Scott more positively, emphasising his personal bravery and stoicism while acknowledging his errors, but ascribing his expedition's fate primarily to misfortune."93
From the times of Amundsen and Scott, and through the following decades, nations were busy with other matters (World Wars, mainly) such, that not much -- that I can discover -- was carried out in respect to explorations of Antarctica.
"It was not until 31 October 1956 that humans once again set foot at the South Pole, when a party led by Admiral George J. Dufek of the US Navy landed there in an R4D-5L Skytrain (C-47 Skytrain) aircraft. The US Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station was established by air over 1956–1957 for the International Geophysical Year and has been continuously staffed since then by research and support personnel."94
If one reads Scott's journal, from end to end, which he kept daily during his last expedition, one will end up liking Scott, a reminder of an ordinary man much like oneself. He was, at times a wonderful writer, a humorous one, as might be demonstrated in this one of his entries:
Another accident! At one o'clock 'Snatcher,' one of the three ponies laying the depot, arrived with single trace and dangling sledge in a welter of sweat. Forty minutes after P.O. Evans, his driver, came in almost as hot; simultaneously Wilson arrived with Nobby and a tale of events not complete. He said that after the loads were removed Bowers had been holding the three ponies, who appeared to be quiet; suddenly one had tossed his head and all three had stampeded—Snatcher making for home, Nobby for the Western Mountains, Victor, with Bowers still hanging to him, in an indefinite direction.
For more than a century the tent in which are to be found the frozen remains of Scott, Wilson and Bowers have been swallowed, inch by inch, to form the broadening tongue of the glacially pushed ice shelf, The Ross Ice Shelf. Encased they are and moving to the open sea. It has been estimated that currently, "the tent with the bodies was under about 75 feet (23 m) of ice and about 30 miles (48 km) from the point where they died; he [the glaciologist, Charles R. Bentley] speculated that in about 275 years the bodies would reach the Ross Sea, and perhaps float away inside an iceberg."95

- The End


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Peter Landry
2013 (2015)