Remembering Captain Scott's final journey

By Andrew Stone

Captain Robert Falcon Scott in 1911. Scott and four others died 100 years ago while in a race for the South Pole. Photo / Supplied
Captain Robert Falcon Scott in 1911. Scott and four others died 100 years ago while in a race for the South Pole. Photo / Supplied

It is 100 years since Captain Robert Falcon Scott died on his doomed polar expedition. Andrew Stone recounts a trek to immortality.

One by one they succumbed, starving, dehydrated and frostbitten.

They had endured unimaginable cold and ferocious blizzards, barely fortified on a thin, fatty stew.

But in the end, the bleak, bone-chilling Antarctic wastes claimed explorer Robert Falcon Scott and the four men he led to the South Pole in January 1912.

Cruel luck seemed to burden the punishing expedition and, as tends to happen to heroic figures, Scott's leadership has been subjected to brutal revision.

Historian Roland Huntford labelled him "one of the worst of the polar explorers". Huntford, who has devoted years to debunking what he considers the Scott myth, regards the Royal Navy captain as "an incompetent loser who battled nature rather than tried to understand it".

If a bitter war rages over his reputation, Scott and the great southern continent remain, a century after the doomed trek, inextricably connected.

New Zealand's icecap toehold is firmly established as Scott Base. The massive station at the Pole itself is called Amundsen-Scott in honour of the two men who fought for bragging rights over the southernmost point on the planet.

To reach the Pole, 1300km from his base camp at Cape Evans, Scott planned to use ponies, dogs, motor-sledges and manpower. The little Manchurian ponies were ill-suited to the unforgiving land. Their small hooves sank in anything but firm ice and their food had to be carted to the next forward depot.

The motor-sledges were a disaster. One crashed through thin ice as it was unloaded from the expedition vessel Terra Nova. The other two were cast aside because of repeated faults.

As for the dogs, Scott was in two minds. He felt they could be used with the aim of bringing them back alive, or driven until they dropped. He was reluctant, he wrote, "to calmly contemplate the murder of such animals which possess such intelligence and individuality".

Roald Amundsen, his Norwegian rival, had no such qualms, and planned to kill the weaker dogs to feed the animals and men as they pushed to the Pole.

Using skis, dogs and sledges, and blessed by the weather, Amundsen reached 90 degrees south on December 14, 1911.

A month later the Norwegians were back at their base camp, all accounted for.

Scott and his team got there on January 17, 1912.

In a tent standing a close to the Pole, they found a letter.

"As you probably are the first to reach this area after us,"Amundsen had written, "I will ask you kindly to forward this letter to King Haakon VII. I wish you a safe return."

Downgraded from polar hero to postman, Scott's despairing mood is captured in his diary.

"Great God! this is an awful place and terrible enough for us to have laboured to it without the reward of priority," Scott wrote in pencil. "Now for the run home and a desperate struggle. I wonder if we can do it."

Perhaps that thought was weighing on all the party. The final photograph shows five grim-faced men before the camera: Scott, eyes downcast and with the British flag at his back, is flanked by Petty Officer Edgar Evans, 35, and the army captain Lawrence "Titus" Oates, 31. At their feet sit Royal Navy lieutenant Henry "Birdie" Bowers, 29, and team doctor Edward Wilson, 39.

They stayed the night, rose early and turned back north. In a little over two grim months, all would be dead.

Ahead lay a return journey across the bleak vastness of the Antarctic, and a losing battle against exhaustion, hunger, cold and, in Evans' case, injury.

The Welshman was the first to go. He had cut his hand repairing a sledge and the wound never healed. Wilson wrote on January 31: "Evans' fingernails all coming off, very raw and sore."

Five days later the entry read: "Evans' fingers suppurating. Nose very bad [hard] and rotten-looking."

On February 17, Scott found Evans "on his knees with clothing disarranged, hands uncovered and frostbitten, and a wild look in his eyes".

Most likely dehydrated, starving and in the final stages of hypothermia, Evans was helped back to the tent, but by then he was "quite comatose. He died quietly at 12.30am."

They prayed and stayed with Evans for two hours before slogging on, leaving his body at the base of the Beardmore Glacier.

Oates was next. Crippled by frostbite, he could hardly walk and had cut a slit in his reindeer-skin sleeping bag so he could poke his leg outside the tent where it would freeze and numb the pain.

The Boer War veteran, who paid to join the expedition, pleaded with Scott to leave him to die but was refused.

They trudged on, but by March 11, Oates, suffering terribly with a now-gangrenous leg, was "very near the end", wrote Scott. "What he or we will do, God only knows."

Oates knew he was harming whatever chance the others had. That night he slept, "hoping not to wake", but in the morning he woke to a raging blizzard.

"He said, 'I am just going outside and may be some time,"' Scott wrote. "He went out into the blizzard and we have not seen him since."

They knew he 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. We all hope to meet the end with a similar spirit, and assuredly the end is not far."

Despite later searches, Oates' body was never found. By March 21, the three survivors - Scott, Wilson and Bowers - were within 17km of One Ton Depot. Fearsome storms trapped them in their tent, with very little food and no fuel to make water.

"Must be near the end," Scott wrote. "Have decided it shall be natural - we shall march for the depot ... and die in our tracks."

In the event, their tent became their tomb. They spent their last days writing letters to loved ones.

"I should like to come through for your dear sake," Bowers, a tough little Scot, wrote to his mother on March 22. "It is splendid to pass, however, with such companions as I have."

Scott wrote to Kathleen, his wife, and to Wilson's wife: "If this letter reaches you," he wrote to Mrs Wilson, "Bill and I will have gone out together. We are very near it now and I should like you to know how splendid he was at the end."

To Kathleen, Scott said they had decided "to fight to the last ... a painless end, so don't worry". As death drew near, Scott was upset by "the thought that I shall not see you again".

A week later, after Scott's last diary entry, dated March 29, it was all over.

"It seems a pity, but I do not think I can write more," he managed. "Last entry. For God's sake look after our people."

- NZ Herald

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