Friday, April 06, 2007


You are looking at a photo of doomed men.

British Antarctic Expedition 1911-1912

Date: January 18, 1912. Place: the South Pole. From left to right are Dr. Edward Wilson, Henry Bowers, Edgar Evans, Robert Scott and Lawrence Oates. The Polar Party of the British Antarctic Expedition which had set out in 1910 with the aim of raising the British flag at the South Pole. Sadly for them, a Norwegian expedition under Roald Amundsen had forestalled them, arriving first at the South Pole one month earlier. The location of their camp was marked by an abandoned tent and a black flag. One wonders whether the sight of that flag instilled in Scotts men more than the feeling of just having been beaten... a feeling of looming death perhaps... Because none of them would make it back.

British Antarctic Expedition 1911-1912I have been reading Ranulph Fiennes' excellent Captain Scott [Hodder & Stoughton, 2003]. Like most people of my generation with an interest in history, I was fairly well acquainted with the story of Robert Scott's second polar expedition, which ended so tragically. More specifically, being post-1965, most stories I read about it paid a lot of attention to the reasons for Scott's failure. These varied from using cotton-based Burberry clothing instead of Inuit furs, over relying on manhauling power and Manchurian ponies instead of dog teams, to prematurely deploying prototype motorized sledges. Or from choosing wrongly composed rations to poor planning. Even "typical" imperialistic arrogance in the face of earth's most hostile environment was used as an explanation. The authors of this kind of biographies though, have one thing in common: they never set foot on the Antarctic. Indeed, there is e.g. a biographer who possibly did more than anyone else to ruin Scott's reputation, Roland Huntford, who not only wrote the Amundsen-glorifying and Scott-bashing Scott and Amundsen (1979) but who also had the honour of seeing his book serve as the basis for a Central TV film script, a film which acquired the status of a documentary to the extent that as late as 2000, the 7-episode (!) drama was still shown at US science stations in Antarctica. Yet Huntfords main experience with snow and hazardous situations mainly confines itself to... skiing in the Alps. By contrast, Sir Ranulph Fiennes is, apart from a gifted writer, possibly the world's greatest living explorer, having led over thirty expeditions including the first unsupported crossing of Antarctica as well as the first polar circumnavigation of the Earth. The flap cover of "Captain Scott" reads: "For the first time Scott's story is told by someone who has experienced the deprivations, the stress and the physical pain that Scott lived through. Fiennes has suffered all but the final tragedy endured by the much maligned Scott: he is determined to put the record straight." I found out that was not a word too much.

To grasp the importance of the early 20th century south polar expeditions, one has to understand that in those days, the real nature of Antarctica was generally still not fully understood. Only some seventy years before, in 1831, had a British naval officer, James Clark Ross, spotted land below 85 degrees, the most prominent feature of which he called Cape Adare. On the map below to the right, this is the tip protruding from Victoria Land. Sailing 360 miles further south, Ross found his passage barred by an enormous, solid ice wall, in some places up to 200 feet high. On its eastern extremity (actually its western, but relative to the maps below its eastern) was a deep bay, which he called McMurdo Sound. Sailing along the Barrier, Ross met land again a staggering four hundred miles further. Only later was it understood that the Barrier was in fact the front ridge of some gigantic glacier starting somewhere on the Antarctic mainland. Comparison of the satellite and geographical maps below makes it clear this glacier is roughly triangular in form; while the satellite photo shows this "ice triangle" as land, it is actually a gigantic floating ice pack, and so on the geographical map is only indicated by a line: the Barrier. Clearly visible on the satmap is a prominent mountain range, now called the Transantarctic Mountains, starting at Cape Adare and describing a faint "S" before petering out in the land ashore the Weddell Sea. It is clear that there is a huge height difference between the Ross Ice Shelf and the plateau across the mountain range and indeed, the South Pole itself is on this plateau. Therefore, any expedition attempting to reach the Pole using McMurdo Sound as its starting point, would have to cross the mountain range at some point before resuming the journey to earth's southernmost point - and this last stretch would have to be made at a considerable height above sea level. These elements are critical to understanding antarctic travel bound for the Pole. As for Ross, in 1843 he finally headed back home, and the sea over which he first entered the polar region now bears his name: the Ross Sea. Consequently, the floating ice pack became known as the Ross Ice Shelf.

British Antarctic Expedition 1911-1912British Antarctic Expedition 1911-1912

As mentioned earlier, Scott's 1910-1912 expedition to the South Pole was actually his second one. In 1901-1904 he led the first attempt to reach the Pole, using a hut on Ross Island, in McMurdo Sound, as his base camp. The spearhead party of this expedition consisted of only three men: Scott himself, his close friend Dr. Edward Wilson, and a certain Ernest Shackleton, a young Merchant Navy officer. Shackleton would become another famous polar explorer of his own, and to this day a controverse exists as to whether he was Scott's nemesis or not. Many biographies depict both men as hostile rivals, but Fiennes' work reaches a different conclusion. Whatever their later personal relationship was, initially they must have come along quite well, because after all Scott plucked Shackleton from a crew of around 50. In the first week of November 1902 they set out, and after much hardships and having had to kill all of their dogs (Scott did use dogs as sledge haulers during this first expedition), came as far south as 82°11'S. At this point, they were well within range of the Transantarctic Mountains and actually, a deep-cut valley in the mountains opposite their southernmost point was called the Shackleton Inlet. But they never got across the mountains.

Six years later Shackleton would. Leading an expedition of his own, he succeeded in getting his four man strong polar party as far south as 87° - only 97 nautical miles from the South Pole. Given the circumstances, it was an amazing feat, about which more later in this story. But the really important thing for Scott was that during his journey, Shackleton found a way to traverse the Transantarctic Mountains. Cutting through the mountain range from high up the plateau towards the Ross ice Shelf, was a gigantic glacier, which Shackleton called the Beardmore Glacier, after a former employer and sponsor of his. With some justification, one could call this Beardmore Glacier a "stairway to heaven" - for it was riddled with extremely dangerous crevasses - hidden chasms under the surface ice crust which could suddenly give away and swallow man, dogs and sledges into unknown depths. I have included the map below because I think it does an awful good job of depicting the geographical situation around the Ross Ice Shelf. It is incongruous to some extent since it marks both Shackleton's 1908 expedition and Amundsen's one three years later without any hint to Scott's two journeys. But one can clearly make out how the Beardmore slashes through the mountains and thus seems to offer a "quick" way up to the polar plateau more than three thousand meters higher. Likewise, you can also make out how Amundsens course, which took him due south in 1911, by sheer luck directly brought him at the foot of a similar, albeit shorter glacier, which he called the Axel Heiberg Glacier, after a financier of his.

British Antarctic Expedition 1911-1912

British Antarctic Expedition 1911-1912So when Scott's ship, the Terra Nova, arrived in McMurdo Sound in January 1910, he could rely to a considerable degree on Shackleton's experiences. For instance, not only would they follow in Shackleton's trail, but also would they use ponies for sledgehauling instead of dogs, since Shackleton had shown that ponies could haul heavier loads than dogs on snow, ice or a mixture of the two. Scott used Manchurian ponies, procured for him through a certain Cecil Meares, an Army major's son turned adventurer. A man of careful preparations, Scott did not intend to go for the Pole immediately upon arrival. Also, the British expedition was never meant to be merely a race for Earths's southernmost point, as was Amundsens undertaking, but a scientific endeavour also. Scotts best friend, Dr. Wilson, had gone to great lenghts to ensure that they would set out "to take the largest, most professional and best equipped scientific team ever assembled to Antarctica." And so the expedition comprised a.o. physicists, zoologists, geologists, biologists as well as a meteorologist, George Simpson, who later would become Director of the British Meteorological Office. The result was that the expedition spent 10 months before the polar party finally set out on its quest. Of course, it would have been foolish to set out in the middle of a calendar year, since then the Antarctic winter is at its most severe. In those months several crucial depots along the polar route's first leg were laid out, the last one of them being One Ton Depot at 79°29'S, as well as some minor scientific explorations. One of these returned with the shocking news that the British were not alone in their polar endeavour: in the Bay of Whales, some three hundred miles along the Barrier, they had come across the Norwegian expedition. Suddenly, the undertaking took the form of a race.

On November 1, 1911, the main expedition finally set out with eight men and ten ponies. They were preceded by a small party under Teddy Evans (not to be confused with Edgar Evans) using first the motorized sledges and then manhauling with the aim of establishing even more depots beyond One Ton Depot. As it was, Scotts group found the abandoned broken down motor sledges after only 51 miles. As much as Scott has been criticized for employing them in the first place, in reality their use was a relative success, since they carried the bulk of the supplies the crucial first days when the expedition traversed a dangerous crevassed area; the result was that once firmly on the Ross Ice Shelf the ponies were relatively fresh. On the 21st of November, the main group caught up with Evans' group. United, they arrived at the foot of the Beardmore Glacier by early december, and between them and One Ton Depot they had established three more depots. At this point the first two men were sent back. Indeed, the whole idea was that as more depots were laid down, teams would be gradually ordered back, until a core group carrying with them the last supplies would remain for the final effort. When this group would return, it would use the supplies stored in the outbound journey.

The expedition, now 12 strong, toiled up the 120-mile long Beardmore glacier, killing the by then wasted ponies and storing their meat in three depots, Upper, Middle and Lower Glacier, as they went. The Beardmore was a killer, and as the teams, now all of them manhauling, ascended the thirty-three mile wide, 9,000 foot glacier, the first sledge teams began to lag behind and expedition members began to show signs of frostbite. On 20 December, still on the Glacier, they reached the 85th parallel. Here Scott had to decide which further men to send back. A party of four returned under the leadership of the young Apsley Cherry-Garrard, who would in 1922 write the widely acclaimed "The Worst Journey in the World". British Antarctic Expedition 1911-1912 At least three of the four were very unhappy about having to return, being only 283 miles from the Pole now. One of them though, a certain Atkinson, was already near the end of his tether, and his state would prove prophetic for the rest of the crew. On 23 December, the eight remaining men were finally on the plateau, and on 31 December, they laid their last but one cache, which they called Three Degree Depot - they were as far south as Shackleton had come, 87°, three years earlier. Next to go was a party of three led by Teddy Evans, and here we come upon a main criticism for Scott. Of eight men, he sent back three, so the final polar party counted five men. But the expedition's tents were designed for four. Moreover, there were only four pairs of skis, so the last sledge would have to be pulled by four men using skis with the fifth man plodding along on foot. While these arguments sound very reasonable, Fiennes, bearing on his vast polar experience, rebukes them convincingly, since early expedition reports ascertain that five men could sleep comfortably in a four-man tent, and that the state of the polar plateau's surface was such that it did not make much difference whether one would use skis or go merely on foot. Fiennes comes to the conclusion that Scott took a fifth man for a simple reason: sheer manpower. So, with five men they set out for the journey's final leg, and as we have seen these men were, apart from Scott himself, Dr. Edward Wilson, Royal Navy Petty Officer Edgar Evans, Army Captain Laurence "Titus" Oates, and RN Lieutenant Henry Bowers. The "indestructible" Bowers acted not only as the group's navigator, but also as its photographer, and the historical photo above, showing his comrades at a distance of only 75 nautical miles from the Pole, is his work.

British Antarctic Expedition 1911-1912On 16 January 1912 Bowers was the first to spot something he thought was a cairn. In Scott's diaries, an entry reads: "Soon we knew, that this could not be a natural snow feature." And so it was. The Norwegians had beaten them by more than a month, on 14 December 1911. Scott's expedition had never been planned as a race - they had mapped their journey, taken photographs, made sketches and meteorological readings, taken rock samples - but nevertheless the taste of defeat was bitter. A close-up of the first photo of Scott's face, left, speaks bookmarks. Only Wilson and Bowers manage to smile. By contrast Amundsens crew had "merely" made a dash it, without manhauling, purely relying on dog power to pull their sledges... but the flag of their newborn state - as a nation, Norway was barely a couple of years old - flew first at the Pole. The Brits took ten photographs, planted the British flag nevertheless, and headed back for their base on Ross Island, 800 miles away, on 19 January. Unnoticed for Scott, Wilson and Bowers were Evans' badly cut hand, leaking pus, and Oates' frostbitten foot, slowly turning black.

When Amundsen reached the Pole, in mid-December, the brief Antarctic "Summer" was still in full swing. Now, five weeks later, the weather began to deteriorate quickly, and snowdrifts limited the Brits' sights. Temperature averaged -21°C. In Scott's diary, disturbing entries begin to appear. January 20: "I think Oates is feeling the cold and fatigue more than the rest of us." January 23: "There is no doubt Evans is a good deal run down - his fingers are badly blistered and his nose is rather seriously congested with frequent frost bites." Wilson's notes, being a surgeon's, offer more details. Around January 30: "Titus' toes are blackening and his nose and cheeks are dead yellow." February 4: "Evans' fingers suppurating, nose very bad and rotten looking." Still, 4 February was also the day the group neared the rocky outcrops of the Beardmore Glacier's upper markers, for despite the bad weather and intense cold they had made very good progress. Once on the Beardmore, they did not neglect their scientific agenda, for they took one day to collect rock samples. Scott's diary on February 8 reads: "It has been extremely interesting... Wilson, with his sharp eyes, has picked several plant impressions, the last a piece of coal with beautifully traced leaves in layers, also some excellently preserved impressions of thick stems, showing cellular structure". In all, they collected 35 pounds of rock samples on the Beardmore.

On 16 February, one month after reaching the Pole and almost at their lowest supply depot on the glacier, the group noticed that Edgar "Taff" Evans had seriously lagged behind. They went back and found him totally collapsed, sick and unable to even stand on his feet. They laid him in the tent, where shortly thereafter he died quickly and quietly. It has been suggested afterwards that he died from a brain haemorrhage, since Wilson's diary, and Scott's, mention a serious fall Evans suffered two weeks before in a crevasse. The harsh realities being what they were, there was not time for a formal funeral - any lingering out in the cold while standing still could lead to fatal hypothermia. Their companion was buried on the spot. But prayers will certainly have been said over poor Evans' body, since Bowers and Wilson were deeply religious, and Scott himself was religious too, although he did not take the Bible at face value. Now there were just the four of them, basically at the foot of the Beardmore Glacier, and theoretically still with a fair chance to make it back. After all, they were halfway back. They had always found their depots and thus were well stocked. They would no longer suffer from altitude sickness as they had up on the plateau. Under normal circumstances, survival was within their grasp.

But they were not to encounter normal circumstances. Because from 25 February on, the temperature dropped suddenly and unexpectedly to unprecedented levels. By 30 February, it was -40°F. In addition, where normally they could expect a strong wind from the south, which would have allowed them to put up a sail on the sledge, they now had to fight against strong northerly winds. On top of it all, while they were not short of food, they had precious little fuel, since they had found out at the last depot that the fuel cans had lost a great deal of primus oil. Leaking leather washers allowing the liquid to evaporate were to blame. Less fuel meant less cooked food and less melting of ice for drinking water, so that they had to resort to eating ice and melt it in their mouths. This depleted their body warmth even more, so they "drank" less ice - but this in turn led to dehydration. Still, until 4 March they managed to do averages of over ten miles a day, a pace which might still see them through. But Oates was by now suffering horribly from his frostbitten feet, and since his hands were also very bad, required help one hour and a half each morning just to get him dressed. Scott's diary reads: "We are in a very queer street since there is no doubt we cannot do the extra marches and feel the cold horribly." By that time he was the only diarist. On 6 March Oates was unable to pull anymore and trodded along the sledge - but no complaint came from his lips. On 8 March, an alarming entry in Scott's diary: "Wilson's feet giving trouble now." On 10 March, a blizzard kept them in their tent; it cleared the following day and incredibly, Oates was still able to keep up with the rest - but his fingers had frozen to total uselessness. Wilson, on the other hand, had deteriorated to the point he could not reach down himself to unbind his skis. On 13 March, a blizzard kept them again in their tent; the day after, they managed to do another couple of miles before the awful wind and the temperature, between 10 and 20 degrees lower than "normal", forced them to camp again and stay put for the following two days. Scott wrote: "Truly awful outside the tent. Must fight it out to the last biscuit." Then, on the evening of 16 March, Oates somehow wringled himself out of his sleeping bag and got out of the tent on his dead feet, speaking the immortal words: "I am just going outside and may be some time." He disappeared forever.

British Antarctic Expedition 1911-1912

Oates' final words, the epitome of British understatement, will live on forever. He willingly walked into his death in order to save his comrades. Without him, and with weather improving, they still had a minor change to get through to base camp. Already the year after, the famous Victorian painter, John Charles Dollman, crafted a work which convincingly depicted Oates' sacrificial suicide. The painting may be extremely close to the truth except for one thing: the tent Titus Oates left is still lit. By that final stage of the expedition, whatever drops of fuel were left were surely not used for lighting a tent, and it's hard to imagine Oates leaving his comrades while they were preparing one of their last meals on the primus stove. Six months later, a search party from Base Camp fruitlessly looked for his body, and finally left a cairn topped by a cross with the text: "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 and save his comrades, beset by hardship. This note is left by the Relief Expedition of 1912."

British Antarctic Expedition 1911-1912

Now the tragedy quickly came to an end. The three remaining expedition members managed on 18 and 19 March to come within just eleven miles of One Ton Camp - one of the first depots on the Ross Ice Shelf. But yet another blizzard struck and forced them into their tent. There, out of food and fuel, and with the temperature inside barely a couple of degrees higher than outside, they contemplated their options. By now Scott himself was immobile, due to a frozen foot. Despite his frostbite, Wilson was still slightly better off. Clearly, the strongest was Indestructible Bowers. His last letter to his mother reads: "I am still strong and hope to reach this one [the depot] with Dr. Wilson and get the food and fuel necessary for our lives. God alone knows what will be the outcome of the 22 miles march... but my trust is still in Him and in the abounding Grace of my Lord and Saviour whom you brought me up to trust in and who has been my stay through life... There will be no shame however and you will know that I have struggled to the end."

In this life, however, Salvation was not to be. The wind did not die. Bowers and Wilson stayed put in their tent together with their commander. On 21 or 22 March Wilson wrote to his parents that "two of the 5 of us are already dead and we three nearly done up". Over the following days, bereft of food and warmth, and with only ice water to drink, they slowly starved to death. Apart from their ability to walk or even stand up, it appears that the oldest man, Scott himself, who was 43, lasted the longest. It must have been horrible for him to see his comrades, one of whom, Dr. Wilson, was his best friend, slowly waste away. Somehow he managed to write intermittent entries in his diary, till the end, as well as a letter to his wife. The latter's entire content was not made public until January of this year, 2007. It contains heartbreaking passages, like "Dear, it is not easy to write because of the cold – 70 degrees below zero and nothing but the shelter of our tent. You know I have loved you; you know my thoughts must have constantly dwelt on you… the worst aspect of this situation is that I shall not see you again – the inevitable must be faced."... or "When the right man comes to help you in life you ought to be your happy self again,..."... "I wouldn’t have been a very good husband, but I hope I shall be a good memory. Certainly the end is nothing for you to be ashamed of and I like to think that the boy will have a good start in parentage of which he may be proud."

British Antarctic Expedition 1911-1912Scott's diary ends on 29 March, and it reads: "Every day we have been ready to start for our depot 11 miles away, but outside the door of our 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... Last entry. For God's sake look after our people. R. Scott." That day, or possibly the day after, all three men were dead.

Six months later, on 12 November 1912, a search party from Base Camp found the bodies of Scott, Bowers and Wilson. They took all scientific data gathered during the journey, including the Beardmore rocks and meteorological records, built a twelve-foot snow cairn by the tent, of which they draped the cloth over the dead, and sang "Onward Christian Soldiers". As we have seen, they then searched in vain for Oates' body. Back at Base Camp on Ross Island, they erected a nine-foot high memorial cross, with the names of the five inscribed, as well as a verse from Tennyson: "To strive, to seek, to find and not to yield."




Today's role models for our youth are Britney Spears, Eminem and Snoop Dogg. As a father, and a much smaller man than those heroes of past times, I cannot really recommend our children follow in the footsteps of Captain Scott and the likes. At least not if a similar final fate is to be foreseen. But apart from that... am I convinced much more is to be learned from these men's lives than from Oops!.. I Did It Again! Yeah yeah yeah yeah yeah yeah Yeah yeah yeah yeah yeah yeah.