A LIFE OF COURAGE AND TRAGEDY
"Polar exploration is at once the cleanest and most isolated way of having a bad time which has been devised." -The Worst Journey In the World
"Men wanted for hazardous journey. Low wages, bitter cold, long hours of complete darkness. Safe return doubtful. Honour and recognition in event of success." -Shackleton
"Take it all in all, I do not believe anybody on earth has a worse time than an Emperor penguin." -Robert F. Scott
"I may not have proved a great explorer but we have done the greatest march ever made and come very near to great success". -Robert F. Scott
Cpt. Robert F Scott the ill fated British polar explorer, much maligned for his inability to bring his little expedition back safely experienced death on the frozen edge of Antarctica. His untimely demise was a national tragedy. When one is biking 15 miles a day in sub below temperatures, thoughts of freezing to death begin to cross ones mind. Thoughts of Scott and his bravery in perilous conditions occupied my mind. I researched more in depth his journals and experiences while traversing the harshest and most bitter of climates known to our world. The team had set out on its final push to the Pole in January of 1912. They knew they were in a race to be the first to reach the Pole. Their competition was a Norwegian expedition lead by Roald Amundsen. Amundsen relied on dogs to haul his men and supplies over the frozen Antarctic wasteland whilst Scott preferred horses, once these died from extreme conditions the sleds were man-hauled to the Pole and back. In fact, Scott distrusted the Norwegian's reliance on dogs. Their use was somehow a less 'manly' approach to the adventure and certainly not representative of the English tradition of "toughing it out" under extreme circumstances. Man could manage Nature. A similar spirit guided the building of the "unsinkable" Titanic and then supplied the ship with far too few lifeboats to hold its passengers if disaster did strike. Just as the passengers of the Titanic paid a price for this arrogance, so too did Captain Scott and his four companions.
However, recent analysis of his ill-fated return from the pole shifted blame to the men under his command – crucial orders left by Scott to run the base camp in his absence were not followed, allowing the expedition to suffer and die 11 miles from a food depot that could have saved their lives. The expedition members left behind instead, made a series of bungled decisions that delayed attempts to rescue their leader. Scott left the base camp in Cape Evans on Antarctica’s coast with four other men in November 1911 on an attempt to be the first humans to reach the South Pole. Arriving at their goal three months later only to find Norwegian Roald Amundsen had beaten them. During the 800 mile trek back, Scott and his party perished in bitterly cold temperatures of -44 degrees C towards the end of March 1912, just 11 miles from a food depot. The official journal of the Scott Polar Research Institute, said "written instructions left by Scott before his departure had ordered the men left at base camp to send dog sleds out past the food depot to meet him and his party as they returned from the pole". These orders were neglected resulting in the ensuing deaths of Scott and his party. A careful journal was kept by Scott documenting their every move: Upon nearing the pole Scott wrote: "We started at 7.30, none of us having slept much. We followed the Norwegian sledge tracks for some way. Then the weather overcast, decided to make straight for the Pole. To-night little Bowers is laying himself out to get sights in terrible difficult circumstances; the wind is blowing hard, T. - 21 degrees, and there is that curious damp, cold feeling in the air which chills one to the bone in no time. We have been descending again, I think, but there looks to be a rise ahead; otherwise there is very little that is different from the awful monotony of past days."
Upon discovering Amundson had already beat him to the Pole Scott writes: "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 to-morrow. ...Now for the run home and a desperate struggle. I wonder if we can do it" -- They did not do make it. This was a tragedy of emotional desperation for Scott and his men on the return back, upon discovering the Swede's had beaten him to the pole, their was naught but the hopeful chance of possible survival enabling their legs to continue plodding forward.
Another entry describes the fate of a fellow expeditioner: "A very terrible day. Evans looked a little better after a good sleep, and declared, as he always did, that he was quite well. The surface was awful, the soft recently fallen snow clogging the ski and runners at every step, the sledge groaning, the sky overcast, and the land hazy. After lunch, and Evans still not appearing, we looked out, to see him still afar off. By this time we were alarmed, and all four started back on ski. I was first to reach the poor man and shocked at his appearance; he was on his knees with clothing disarranged, hands uncovered and frostbitten, and a wild look in his eyes. Asked what was the matter, he replied with a slow speech that he didn't know, but thought he must have fainted. We got him on his feet, but after two or three steps he sank down again. He showed every sign of complete collapse. Wilson, Bowers, and I went back for the sledge, whilst Oates remained with him. When we returned he was practically unconscious, and when we got him into the tent quite comatose. He died quietly at 12.30 A.M. On discussing the symptoms we think he began to get weaker just before we reached the Pole, and that his downward path was accelerated first by the shock of his frostbitten fingers, and later by falls during rough travelling on the glacier, further by his loss of all confidence in himself. Wilson thinks it certain he must have injured his brain by a fall."
Another entry shows the death of another team member as 'Oates walks into oblivion': "Friday, March 16 or Saturday 17th: Lost track of dates, but think the last correct. Tragedy all along the line. At lunch, the day before yesterday, poor Titus Oates said he couldn't go on; he proposed we should leave him in his sleeping-bag. That we could not do, and we induced him to come on. In spite of its awful nature for him he struggled on and we made a few miles. At night he was worse and we knew the end had come. Should this be found I want these facts recorded. Oates' last thoughts were of his Mother, but immediately before he took pride in thinking that his company would be pleased with the bold way in which he met his death. We can testify to his bravery. He has borne intense suffering for weeks without complaint, and to the very last was able and willing to discuss outside subjects. He did not - would not - give up hope till the very end. He was a brave soul. This was the end. He slept through the night before last, hoping not to wake; but he woke in the morning - yesterday. It was blowing a blizzard. He 'I am just going outside and may be some time.' and he went out into the blizzard, we have not seen him since. 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.
Following are the last entries before Scott perished:
Wednesday, March 21 - Severe blizzard. To-day forlorn hope, Wilson and Bowers going to depot for fuel.
Thursday, March 22 and 23 - Blizzard bad as ever - Wilson and Bowers unable to start - to-morrow last chance - no fuel and only one or two of food left - must be near the end. Have decided it shall be natural - we shall march for the depot with or without our effects and die in our tracks.
Thursday, March 29 - Since the 21st we have had a continuous gale from W.S.W. and S.W. We had fuel to make two cups of tea apiece and bare food for two days on the 20th. Every day we have been ready to start for our depot 11 miles away, but outside the door of the 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.
"For God's sake look after our people."
"We have gone down hill a good deal since I wrote the above. Poor Titus Oates has gone — he was in a bad state — the rest of us keep going and imagine we have a chance to get through but the cold weather doesn't let up at all — we are now only 20 miles from a depot but we have very little food or fuel."
He wrote to Oates' and Bowers' mothers and to Wilson's wife. "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 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"
"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.— to forfeit the sight of your dear dear face, only don't be too proud to accept help for the boys sake, 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". 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"
"For four days we have been unable to leave the tent – the gale howling about us. We are weak, writing is difficult, 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. But if we have been willing to give our lives to this enterprise, which is for the honour of our country, I appeal to our countrymen to see that those who depend on us are properly cared for.
"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."
The blizzard raged on for another ten days before Scott's last entry on March 29, 1912. It was not until November 12 that Atkinson, led by a 12- man search party sent to look for them after they did not return from their journey to the ends of the Earth, 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, "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. It is my strong opinion that one would be hard pressed to find another explorer, nobleman or individual, more calm, brave, cool and collected amidst immense physical hardship, in his last moments on earth as British explorer Sir Robert Falcon Scott..
"He [Scott] cried more easily than any man I have ever known. What pulled Scott through was character, sheer good grain which ran over and under and through his weaker self and clamped it all together." -The Worst Journey in the World.