With Scott in the Antarctic
Science can be a harsh mistress. Yet in many other ways, Scott played a key role in opening up Antarctica to scientific scrutiny.
A new study has reignited the contentious debate about what led to the explorer's demise in 1912
He used mechanised sledges — the only aid Amundsen feared might win the race for Scott. The sledges failed, but the lessons learned were crucial to their use in future expeditions. The meteorological readings made by his team provided science with the longest unbroken measurement of weather in Antarctica and are still used today.
The most important of all specimens returned was one of the last to be collected. On 12 February , as his team trudged, defeated from the pole, Scott stopped at the top of the Beardmore glacier and, noting some interesting moraine, decided it would be a good day to spend "geologising".
Incredibly, they added 35lb of rocks to their load, an act that is seen by Scott's critics as an act of utter folly. Roland Huntford describes it as "a pathetic little gesture to salvage something from defeat at the pole" see box above.
What went wrong for Captain Scott and his team to die on the way back from the South Pole?
Certainly, it seems an extraordinary move, wasting time and adding weight to sledges that were difficult to haul. On a sunny day, it is a beautiful place. Scott was probably giving his men a rest before the last trek home. And the weight would have made little difference to the energy they expended. Whatever the reason, it was a providential decision. But it was a very important find," says palaeontologist Paul Kenrick of the Natural History Museum in London, where the Scott Expedition's myriad fossil samples are stored. Its discovery in Antarctica provided key support for the idea that all these continents had once been linked together in one vast supercontinent, a theory we now know to be correct.
This success was the last moment of relief for Scott and his men. Edgar Evans, the team's strongest man, had already begun to weaken. On 17 February, Scott found "the poor man… on his knees with clothing disarranged, hands uncovered and frostbitten, and a wild look in his eyes.
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Oates was next. Lame from frostbite, he could hardly walk and had his reindeer-skin sleeping bag slashed on one side so he could keep his leg outside so it would freeze and kill the pain. He asked Scott to leave him to die, but was refused. By 16 March it was obvious he could not go on and he walked out of the tent, into a blizzard, to his death, an act of self-sacrifice that has achieved mythic status.
The search party that had found Scott, Bowers and Wilson in their tent later discovered Oates's effects and erected a cross there. After Oates's sacrifice, Scott realised that he, Bowers and Wilson had little chance of survival.
By 22 March they had two days' food left, but were three days short of their next depot. Then a blizzard struck and stopped them moving on. They never left their tent again. For his part, Bowers tried to soothe his mother. Scott, almost certainly the last to die, wrote copious letters to the expedition's backers, his colleagues and the families of his dead comrades.
His final letter is dated 29 March. R Scott," he scrawled, before adding a last frantic message: "For God's sake look after our people. Many of these letters are gathered at the Scott Polar Research Institute's museum in Cambridge, and displayed in drawers where visitors can study them. Oates's sleeping bag is also displayed there, with its slashed-open side, another poignant reminder of the men's suffering. He was frantic they would be left destitute.
That is why he wrote those words. An appeal for funds by the Lord Mayor of London was so successful it provided pensions for all the polar party's widows and orphans, with enough left over to set up the Scott Polar Research Institute. There is one final twist to Scott's story. Edward Atkinson, the man left in charge of Base Camp, knew Scott was dead, but had no idea what had happened to a second expedition led by Lieutenant Victor Campbell to survey the coast to the north.
He and his men had become trapped by the Antarctic winter, but survived for months in blubbery filth by sheltering in a cave they carved out of the ice.
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As the weather improved, Atkinson had to decide: should he try to find Scott's or Campbell's party? The former were certainly dead while finding Campbell could make the difference between life and death for his men. Atkinson held a vote. There was one abstention. The rest voted to find Scott. Scott played by John Mills organizes an expedition to Antarctica for the purpose of being the first to reach the South Pole.
After enduring a series of setbacks from the harsh elements, he and his team of five finally reach their destination only to find the Norwegian flag—explorer Roald Amundsen had beat them to their goal. Dejected, Scott and his team begin the long return journey to their camp. Battling treacherous weather and exhaustion, Scott and his men perish on the ice, the last of them dying just 11 miles 18 km from a supply depot.
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Captain Robert Falcon Scott | International Antarctic Centre
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