Heartbreak and Tragedy for Captain Scott

The British party, l-r Scott, Oates, Wilson and Evans reach Amundsen's tent. Photo: Henry Bowers/British Library
The British party, l-r Scott, Oates, Wilson and Evans reach Amundsen's tent. Photo: Henry Bowers/British Library

by Ray Setterfield

December 14, 1911 — Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen became the first man, on this day, to set foot on the South Pole. To celebrate, he and his team pitched their tent on the spot with the Norwegian flag fluttering proudly above it.

It was an achievement that would break the heart and spirit of fellow explorer Captain Robert Falcon Scott who had set out from Britain months before, determined to win the race to the Pole.

At the time, Antarctica was the last unexplored continent and of interest to a number of countries including Britain, Japan, Germany, Sweden, and Norway. They would compete against each other to gain knowledge and commercial opportunities in the region as well as claiming new territory. But the geographical prize was the South Pole – the most remote spot on the planet.

The British party arrived in Antarctica in January 1911 and preparations began. Scott's expedition had a dual purpose - to reach the Pole for the British Empire, and to explore and document this great southern land. He left base camp with support parties, motor sledges, dogs and ponies for his journey south on 1 November 1911. The race was on.

But they hadn't reckoned on the appalling conditions that they would face. The mechanical sledges constantly broke down in the freezing weather and the ponies could not cope with such cold. The expedition carried on without them. In mid-December the dog teams turned back and the explorers had to haul their sledges by hand.

Of the 65 members of the original expedition team, only five now remained to face the ascent of the Beardmore Glacier and the polar plateau: Scott; his friend Dr Edward Wilson; Welshman Edgar Evans; Scotsman Henry 'Birdie' Bowers; and Captain Lawrence 'Titus' Oates.

Tired and hungry, suffering from hypothermia and scurvy, they arrived at the Pole on 17 January to find the heartbreaking sight of the flag that Amundsen had hoisted 33 days earlier. He had taken a shorter route.

Scott wrote in his diary: "The Pole, yes, but under very different circumstances from those expected. Great God! this is an awful place and terrible enough for us to have laboured to it without the reward of priority."

The men did not stay long. With heavy hearts they took pictures and quickly left to begin the 1,500 km journey back. They did so amid ferocious winds and temperatures hovering around minus 8 degrees Fahrenheit (minus 22 degrees Celsius).

Evans was the first to die on 17 February – he had stumbled behind the group until he slipped into a coma. A month later, on 17 March, Captain Oates, crippled with frostbite and believing he was holding the others back, walked out of the party's tent. It was his 32nd birthday.

Scott immortalised the courageous army officer in his diary, writing: "As he left he said, 'I am just going outside and may be some time...' We knew that Oates was walking to his death. It was the act of a brave man and an English gentleman."

A few days later, the three remaining men were themselves lying in their tent waiting for death. A swirling blizzard had confined them to their sleeping bags, while – tragically – a pre-arranged cache of food and supplies lay only 11 miles away. Scott wrote in his diary:

"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."

Eight months later a search party found Scott and his two companions in their small tent on the ice frozen inside their sleeping bags. His diary lay nearby. The search party used the tent to cover the bodies then built a cairn of ice and snow over it to mark the spot.

Published: November 27, 2017

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