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One hundred years ago, in June 1911, Robert Falcon Scott and 32 explorers—most of them British scientists, naval officers or seafarers—were huddled in the darkness of the Antarctic winter, when the sun never rises above the horizon and up to eight feet of ice seals the surrounding sea. Winter temperatures on Ross Island, the southernmost piece of exposed land reached by Scott’s ship, can plunge below –50 degrees Fahrenheit. Blizzards rise up often. Lacking wireless communication and totally cut off from the outside world, the explorers waited for the longer, warmer days of spring, in October, when some of them would set out to cross nearly 900 miles of ice shelf, mountains and the Polar Plateau to arrive at a spot of no particular interest to anybody except for its location at the bottom of the earth.
Two British expeditions had tried to reach the South Pole before. Scott led one himself from 1901 to 1904, and Ernest Shackleton led another from 1907 to 1909. They had fallen short. This time, though, Scott was brimming with confidence. Drawing on those earlier experiences, he had methodically planned this expedition not merely to be the first to reach the South Pole but also to advance an ambitious scientific agenda. He had already put in place several teams that would fan out across the Ross Sea basin, collecting fossils, data and other things of scientific importance. With the spring, his own team planned to make its way slowly southward, plant the Union Jack at the pole early in the Antarctic summer, and head back laden with the glory of both polar conquest and scientific discovery.
The long winter months gave Scott plenty of time to mull over a momentous decision that he had made four months earlier, shortly before winter closed in on the explorers. In February 1911 a small band of Scott’s men were trying to reach the virtually unknown King Edward VII Land on the Ross Ice Shelf’s eastern side and ran into another group encamped on the shelf’s sea edge, about 350 miles away. These nine men hailed from Norway, and their leader was Roald Amundsen, an expert Arctic skier and dogsledder who in 1905 had been the first to traverse the Northwest Passage above Canada. Amundsen was supposed to be heading for the North Pole, more than 12,000 miles away, but he had secretly shifted his goal to the southern pole in what appeared to Scott to be an effort to catch the British explorers off guard. Amundsen’s men traveled light—no scientific ambitions for them. With sled dogs and skis, they planned to make a dash to the pole from a base already 60 miles closer than Scott’s base on Ross Island. What started for Scott as a deliberate march to the pole had suddenly turned into a race.
The news caused something of a crisis in Scott’s camp. Some team members suggested jettisoning the science and focusing on the race. If it came down to a choice between science and the pole, they said, better to go for the pole. Scott, however, thought differently. Scott’s first expedition to Antarctica had yielded a wealth of geologic and biological specimens, meteorological and magnetic data, and oceanographic and glaciological findings. He saw science as an important part of the new expedition.
Not having anticipated competition, Scott had to choose between staking everything on the pole and persevering with his plan. He persevered. “The proper, as well as the wiser, course for us is to proceed exactly as though this had not happened,” Scott wrote in his diary about Amundsen’s challenge. He doubted that Amundsen’s sled dogs could manage a sprint of hundreds of miles over unknown terrain, but if they did, Scott could not hope to beat them anyway. From the standpoint of history, we can be grateful that he did not abandon research for the pole, because his trip yielded important contributions to science. But this faithfulness to science cost Scott and his team dearly.
Science was something of a tradition in the Royal Navy—and Scott was, after all, an officer. All three British Antarctic expeditions of the early 1900s had taken along physicists, geologists and biologists. Since evolution was one of the central issues of the day, the scientists had kept an eye out for a key piece of fossil evidence: Paleozoic Era flora called Glossopteris. Critics of Darwin’s theory of evolution had pointed to the seemingly abrupt appearance of this distinct, broad-leaved flora in the fossil record of Africa, Australia and South America to defend creationist explanations for life. In response, Darwin had hypothesized the existence of a south polar landmass, somehow connected to the other southern continents, where Glossopteris had evolved. Scott’s first expedition had found seams of coal, proving that plants once flourished in Antarctica, and Shackleton’s expedition found plant fossils but no Glossopteris. Scott hoped to settle the matter.
Scott’s polar plan called for multiple support parties falling back in stages, leaving a small team to haul one sled to the pole on foot. This approach, Scott thought, would provide a margin of safety and perhaps allow for research and mapping along the way. And throughout his time on Antarctica, he would dispatch several teams of explorers whose sole purpose was to gather scientific evidence. Although Scott could have had these groups abandon their arduous missions and focus on the polar trip, he chose not to. During the time of the polar trek, various officers and scientists would remain at the main base to keep meteorological and magnetic records, while sailors and scientists onboard Scott’s ship would conduct oceanographic research in the Southern Ocean. None of this changed because of Amundsen.
The first of the groups set out from base camp in January 1911, without knowing about Amundsen’s location. Scott dispatched 10 men in two separate parties to explore the mountains and glaciers of the Antarctic mainland. Even after the larger of the two parties discovered Amundsen’s base, it returned to the field on another scientific mission—to study rock outcroppings, glaciers and bays along Victoria Land’s northern coast. This team spent the winter of 1911 there, as planned, unable to contribute to the polar effort. After an unexpected second winter in the field, the party returned to Scott’s base in November 1912 with an array of fossils, including a striking tree imprint, but no Glossopteris.
The smaller party, which included geologists T. Griffith Taylor and Frank Debenham, explored the dry valleys, exposed peaks and enormous glaciers of Victoria Land’s midcoastal region during February and March 1911. They spent the winter months from April to October 1911 at the main base, examining their findings, which included many fossils (but still no Glossopteris). Taylor and Debenham then left for an even longer research trip in early November 1911, just after Scott departed for the pole. They took with them Scott’s best Nordic skier, Tryggve Gran, and petty officer Robert Forde, an extraordinarily strong sledder, to help with the rough terrain. Assigning Gran and Forde to the scientific party rather than his own group showed Scott’s commitment to science. It paid off: Taylor and Debenham were able to explore a vast area of previously unknown mountains and glaciers, where they found a remarkable set of Paleozoic Era fossils (but, alas, no Glossopteris).
The most severe diversion from the polar effort, though, came from a promise Scott made to Edward A. Wilson, in return for agreeing to undertake the trip. Wilson had served with distinction as a zoologist on Scott’s first Antarctic expedition, which found an emperor penguin egg rookery on Ross Island’s Cape Crozier, where Wilson discovered that birds of this supposedly ancient species laid and hatched their eggs in winter. Scott promised Wilson that he could go back to the rookery in midwinter to see if emperor embryos showed vestiges of reptilian teeth. Wilson hoped to prove that birds evolved from reptiles.
The journey would take Wilson, assistant zoologist Apsley Cherry-Garrard and H. R. “Birdie” Bowers—among Scott’s best men—away from the base during a period of planning and preparation for the polar journey and subject them to the unknown hazards of sledding in the dark Antarctic winter. Wilson and his party set off on June 27, 1911, for a 70-mile trek across the Ross Ice Shelf. They dragged 757 pounds of scientific equipment, cold-weather gear and supplies on two nine-foot sleds linked end to end and to the men by harnesses.
The party traveled around Ross Island to the south, where the temperature frequently dipped below –70 degrees F. The heavy surface caused by extreme cold forced the men to relay the sleds—one mile gained for three miles walked. After three weeks of brutal hauling, the men finally reached a moraine overlooking Cape Crozier. There they built a stone hut in which they hoped to examine embryos before the eggs froze solid. Using one sled for a ceiling beam, they stretched canvas over the top of four rock walls, caulked cracks with snow and assembled a blubber stove for heat. Then, using the midday twilight that dimly illuminated the ice for a few hours each day, the men struggled through a maze of massive ice hummocks and crevasses to the rookery. They arrived just as the twilight failed. “We had within our grasp material which might prove of the utmost importance to science,” Cherry-Garrard lamented. “We were turning theories into facts with every observation we made—and we had but a moment to give.” They grabbed six eggs and bolted for the hut with the expectation of returning later.
A severe storm rolled in overnight. The hut’s canvas roof rose and fell with the gale-force winds until, at about noon on the third day, it exploded outward in shreds, leaving the men cowering in their sleeping bags under drifting snow. When the storm finally subsided a day later, Wilson abandoned the effort. “We had to own ourselves defeated by the Cape Crozier weather and by the darkness,” he wrote. The few eggs they had collected were lost or frozen, rendering them useless for research.
The men were exhausted on the return trip. The temperature again plunged toward –70 degrees F, and the sleeping bags were now worthless for warmth. No one slept much at night; Bowers and Cherry-Garrard became so tired that they dozed while sledding. At one point, Bowers dropped into a deep crevasse and hung by his sledding harness until rescued. Cherry-Garrard’s jaws chattered so much that his teeth shattered. When they arrived at camp in August, each 17-pound bag had accumulated up to 27 pounds of ice from melted snow and sweat. “They looked more weather-worn than anyone I have yet seen,” Scott said. “Their faces were scarred and wrinkled, their eyes dull, their hands whitened and creased with the constant exposure to damp and cold.”
Bowers bounced back quickly and took again to the field. In September 1911, for his final outing before the polar journey, Scott took Bowers and Edgar Evans on a two-week, 175-mile trip to check on stakes that another team had planted in glaciers to measure their movement. The trek over mountains was taxing. The team hauled a heavy sled in –40 degrees F and in one 24-hour period had to march 35 miles. “It is not quite clear why they are going,” Debenham noted at the time. The most plausible reason was science. Scott had written earlier in his diary, “It is a really satisfactory state of affairs all around. If the [polar] journey comes off, nothing, not even priority at the Pole, can prevent the Expedition ranking as one of the most important that ever entered the Polar regions.” Science would make it so.
The Polar Journey Begins
Bad weather and delays caused by some of the expedition’s side efforts held up the start of Scott’s polar journey. By the time he finally set off on November 1, 1911, he was already 12 days behind Amundsen.
“I don’t know what to think of Amundsen’s chances,” Scott wrote shortly before departing. “I decided at a very early date to act exactly as I should have done had he not existed. Any attempt to race must have wrecked my plan.” Scott’s push for the pole was designed for safety, not speed. It used several supporting teams, one with tractors pulling sleds over the initial ice shelf and others with dogs and ponies that might reach or even ascend the mountains at Beardmore Glacier. Each would place supplies in depots for the polar party’s return trip and then fall back in stages until only one group was left to haul a single sled across the nearly 10,000-foot-high Polar Plateau to the pole itself. The process was cumbersome because the entourage could go only as fast as its slowest part. That turned out to be the ponies, which labored in soft snow up to their haunches and required fodder for food and special protection from the winds when resting.
On January 3, 1912, the last supporting team turned back from the plateau. The final polar party—consisting of Scott, Wilson, Bowers, Evans and British army captain Lawrence “Titus” Oates—faced nothing but a 150-mile expanse of ice, which offered scant prospect for doing any scientific research beyond taking regular meteorological readings and observing the windswept surface.
Amundsen and his men, meanwhile, were moving swiftly. With his dogs pulling well, the party reached the pole on December 14, after two months of sledding. Their journey back went even quicker. The surface was firm, and the route was mostly downhill. “We always had the wind at our backs, with sunshine and warmth the whole time,” Amundsen wrote. Rations steadily increased for men and dogs as they passed their evenly spaced supply depots. They returned in just five weeks. Amundsen had gained weight.
On January 17, 1912, Scott arrived at the pole and found the Norwegian flag. “Great God,” he wrote, “this is an awful place.”
The March Back
The worst was yet to come. The weather turned bitterly cold, and the snow assumed the texture of sand. Day after day, the sledders’ diaries were filled with the same complaint: all pull, no glide, with the sled runners sometimes sinking so deep into the granular surface that the crossbars plowed through the coarse snow. The food held out, but there was not enough to supply the calories needed for trekking in such conditions.
The men grew weaker. Evans gashed his hand, and the wound became infected. Oates suffered from severe frostbite. Though not diagnosed, everyone showed signs of scurvy. Nevertheless, they took time out to make geologic observations. Descending Beardmore Glacier, they steered toward the moraine beneath Mount Buckley. “The moraine was obviously so interesting that ... I decided to camp and spend the rest of the day geologising,” Scott wrote after lunch on February 8. “We found ourselves under perpendicular cliffs of Beacon sandstone, weathering rapidly and carrying veritable coal seams. From the last, Wilson, with his sharp eyes, has picked several plant impressions, the last a piece of coal with beautifully traced leaves in layers.”
The plants looked like Glossopteris. With Bower’s help, Wilson took away 35 pounds of fossils and rock samples.
Evans and Oates died first. After floundering down the glacier for a week, Evans became increasingly disoriented, lost consciousness and passed away on February 17. Oates’s frostbite worsened to the point where he could not keep up, yet he refused to hold the others back. Instead he left the tent during a snowstorm on March 16. “I am just going outside and may be some time,” he reportedly said. He never returned.
The others marched their last on March 19. They had left behind everything except the barest essentials and, at Wilson’s request, diaries, field notes and geologic specimens. These they carried to their final camp, only 11 miles shy of a critical supply depot, where a blizzard pinned them down for eight days. They ran out of food and fuel. They died together, with Wilson and Bowers in an attitude of sleep and Scott between them, his sleeping bag half open and an arm flung across Wilson.
A search party found them the following spring, frozen, along with their writings and specimens. Wilson, it turned out, had been correct about the fossils: they were indeed the long-sought Glossopteris. “The 35 lbs. of specimens brought back by the Polar Party from Mt. Buckley,” wrote Debenham, “are of the character best suited to settle a long-standing controversy between geologists as to the nature of the former union between Antarctica and Australasia.” A relentless researcher with a religious zeal, Wilson would have been satisfied. Darwin was right, and he had helped prove it.