The dash to the Pole

Polar plateau

Polar plateau

On January, 17th, 1912, Robert Falcon Scott, Edward Wilson, Henry Robertson Bowers, Lawrence Oates and Edgar Evans reached the South Pole. But they failed on the achievement of being the first: over the zero latitude point stands the Norweigian flag of Roald Amundsen. From Scott diary: “Great God! This is an awful place”. They would never come back.

The dash to the South Pole had begun long before. On July, 31st, 1901, the ship Discovery sailed for the Antartic Ocean under the leadership of Commander Scott. The inexperience was total: dogs and skis were taken, but hardly anyone knew how to use them, and during the two years the Discovery spent in the ice this insouciance was severely tested every time the men confronted the challenges of an unknown territory.

The second year the expedition concluded with important scientific (biological, zoological and geological) finds and the discovery of the Polar Plateau: a large area extending for a few thousand kilometres around the South Pole. Its combined latitude and altitude, an average of close to 3.000 metres, mean that it has the lowest temperatures on Earth, with practically no life at all, even bacteries.

Discovery returned to Britain on September, 1904: the adventure had cautivated people’s imagination and Scott became a popular heroe, condecorated and promoted to Royal Navy Captain.

In contrast to the initial inexperience, he was now a seasoned Antartic traveller. But he kept many of his prejudices: he was not convinced about dogs and skis being the key to efficient ice travel, and keep the British preference for men themselves to carry the equipment, without animal support. In 1910 Scott leaded the Terra Nova expedition, stating clearly that its main objective was “reach the South Pole, and to secure for the Briths Empire the honour of this achievement”. Although he wouldn’t know he was inmerse in a race until he received a telegram from Roal Amundsen on October, in Melbourne.

The expedition suffered a series of early misfortunes: in its journey from New Zeland to the Antartic, the ship was trapped in the ice for twenty days, which ment an important delay and less time for preparation for the antarctic winter. They also had news about Amundsen: he was camped with a huge contingent of dogs 320 kilometres East from their position. Despite that, Scott refused to change his schedule: although Amundsen’s base was closer to the Pole, Scott was counting on the advantage of travelling using a known route (stablished by Shackleton in 1909).

The march to the South started on november 1st, 1911: a caravan of men, dogs, horses and sleighs designed to give support to a final group of four men that would reach the destination. However, Scott’s plans were confused and uncertain, for instance, about the use of the dogs or even about who would be the four men chosen. As a result, his subordinates didn’t know how to act when the time for it arrived.

On January 4th, 1912, two four men groups arrived to the point 87º 34′. Five men would continue: Scott, Wilson, Bowers, Oates and Evans. The others would turn back. The reached the South Pole on January 17th, 1912. Amundsen had been there on December 14th, 1911: thirty-four days before.

Scott, Wilson, Bowers, Oates and Evans

Scott, Wilson, Bowers, Oates and Evans

The journey back started on January 19th. The march progressed well despite the weather, and on February 7th they had completed the Polar Plateau stage (around 500 kilometres). But, during the descent of the Beardmore Glaciar, Evans, who had suffered a fall three days before, got worse and died. During the march across the Ross Ice Shelf weather conditions worsened. They fought against frozen-bites, snow blindness, hunger and exhaustion. On March 16th, an injured Oates considered that he was delaying his fellows march. He went out of his tent and walk to his death. Scott wrote his last words: “I am just going outside and may be some time.”

The three men established a final camp on March 19th. The last entry on Scott’s diary is from March 29th. He left letters to Wilson and Bower’s mothers, to some nobles and to his own mother and wife. He left a “message to the public”, too:

“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.”

The disposition of the bodies in the tent, discovered eight months later, suggest that Scott was the last to die, probably the same 29th o maybe a day later. Their final camp became their tomb: a cairn of snow was erected over it, and a wooden cross inscribed with the names of the lost party and Tennyson’s line from his poem Ulysses: “To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield”.

Tomb of Scott

Tomb of Scott

Response to captain’s last petition was enormous: around 75.000 pounds (equivalent in 2008 to 3,5 million pounds) were distributed among the families, although not equally.

Amundsen heard of Scott’s death in the United States: “I would gladly forgo any honour or money if thereby I could have saved Scott his terrible death”. In a sense, he did, for Scott and his crew are largely most well-known and honoured.

The US scientific base at the South Pole, founded in 1957, is called the Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station, to honour the memories of both conquerors.

Though naught but a simple cross
Now marks those heroes’ grave,
Their names will live forever!
Oh England, Land of the Brave!

(Mary Steel)


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