Scott

Robert F. Scott was one of the early British Antarctic explorers. He led two of the most ambitious expeditions into the continent, the Discovery expedition (1901-1904) where he walked around a lot, and the infamous Terra Nova expedition (1910-1913) where he walked to his death.

Discovery represented Britain’s first main exploration of Antarctica’s interior. Scott and his team (which included Shackleton at this time) had major finds including the Polar Plateau and the Dry Valleys, however this trip didn’t represent a push for the Pole. During their time on the ice, Scott and his men set up Discovery Hut on Hut Point, Ross Island, which is within easy walking distance of McMurdo. This hut served primarily as a store house for the expedition, but also was used on occasion for living and other work.

Scotts Hut

Like a ski chalet

Last week I had the chance to wander down there and have a stumble around inside. The most impressive thing is that in 100 years since it was built the exterior of the building looks immaculate. Structurally sound, it looks like quite a pleasant place to live. Until you step inside. It’s an incredibly cold building, amazingly more cold inside than it feels outside. Laws under the International Antarctic Treaty mean that historic relics must be preserved for future generations with as little interference as possible. Old seal carcasses hang frozen in the back room, a rack of rib meat sits on the floor of the hut, blackened but still in one piece after a century of aging. Boxes of goods line the walls, and are used as building blocks to separate sections of the hut into “rooms”.

Scotts Kitchen 2

Then there’s the kitchen. A pan of something, cooked fat it seems, rests where they would have eaten meals and looks decidedly unappetizing. Cases of biscuits made of rock are uneaten and are next to cases of cocoa powder and hard liquor – the necessary item used to convince yourself to force down what’s in the pan.

Scotts Supplies

Scotts Barrels

Scotts wine

Scotts Me

The clothes they give me are a little more advanced

If the food doesn’t evoke enough sympathy from tourists, the early explorers’ clothes hang across the room. I complain about having 4 pairs of clothes for 3 months. These guys had one pair for 2 years. After having read the stories and now seen their hut and supplies, these explorers must have been made of tougher stuff than most of us mortals. Exceptionally tough though they may have been, it didn’t mean they were exceptionally brilliant.

The Terra Nova Expedition. This was Scott’s death-march to the South Pole. While history books often endlessly praise Scott’s bravery, I tend to think these are glorified tales of a guy who was either negligent or ignorant when planning his expedition. Briefly, this expedition was a race to the South Pole. Scott was racing Roald Amundsen, a Norwegian, to become the first team to reach the Pole and claim the glory and nationalistic prize that such an achievement brings. Scott and his men struggled against some of the worst conditions in the world, only to reach the Pole and find a tent flying the Norwegian flag, and a note confirming that Amundsen had gotten there first. Scott’s devastation is well recorded – “Great God! This is an awful place and terrible enough for us to have laboured to it without the reward of priority.” On his return, Scott and his men froze to death in their tent, having marched themselves to near starvation after running out of supplies, getting lost, and blizzard after blizzard. The manner in which they died was incredibly dignified and brave (Oates, a member of Scotts team who knew he was dying and slowing down the team’s progress, stepped outside their tent during a blizzard and said, “I am just going outside and I may be some time.” thus relieving the team of the burden of caring for him). However, the British just didn’t have their brains on when planning things. They were inept with and had not practiced using sled dogs or skis as transport, they brought ponies and early motorized vehicles to try as alternative means of moving across the continent, and they generally had no Arctic or Antarctic experience among them.

The Norwegians on the other hand were masters. Amundsen and his men were experienced with their equipment. They planned their provisions correctly. They used sled dogs. Amundsen had coldly calculated that they could carry less weight with them across the continent if they fed the sick and dying sled dogs as food to the others throughout the journey. Thus they may have started with 50 dogs, but they returned with 25 (I don’t have the actual numbers in front of me). Not a story for the kids, but incredible planning. The Norwegians’ journey to the pole and back was relatively straightforward and mundane when compared to the harshness of Scott’s. Perhaps it was this martyrdom that garnered the attention, perhaps it was the vivid imagery of his death. Regardless, I think the Norwegians have been overlooked as masters of the continent in favor of a harrowing story of poor planning and incredible misfortune.

Upon hearing the news of his death, the men who had remained on Ross Island erected a cross on Observation Hill memorializing Scott and his South Pole party. The cross still stands to this day. If you look closely you can still read the inscription, “To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield”.

Scott was a brave man, but his expeditions chronically suffered from poor planning and over-ambition. His historical status has been the equivalent of hero-worship. There’s someone else I respect much more:

Before the race between Scott and Amundsen, one leader had gotten within 97 miles of the pole. Facing deteriorating weather and running out of supplies, Ernest Shackleton knew that continuing on meant certain death. He turned around. In a letter to his wife he wrote “I thought you’d rather have a live donkey than a dead lion”. That’s my hero.

Scotts Writing

"To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield"

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74 thoughts on “Scott

  1. Hi, very interesting stuff. One detail; Amundsen and his men did kill a lot of dogs, they starded of with 52, returning to Frameheim with 11, and they even ate some of the dogs themself. -arne

  2. Great article. I actually have a peice of crate hanging in my bedroom, which my Uncle took when he visited the shack in the 1950’s as part of a navy expedition. Growing up, I had no clue what the thing was and never valued it for anything other than a wooden plank.

    It’s truly a incredible peice of history with an amazing story that’s very casually hanging on a wall, in a single bedroom apartment, in north Florida.

    It SHOULD be in a museum.

      • agree’d, people stealing debris from ground zero got the cold sholder so whats the difference here?

      • not all redditors are asses said: Are you talking about Hiroshima? I can see why people who needed supplies or a relic of a site would take something.

        In the case of Hiroshima, which I think you’re referring to, most of the people around there would have been dead and for someone to steal while others were trying to rebuild their society would have been wrong. Someone taking a few items they found from an abandoned house in Ant-fucking-artica is frivolous to be upset about. Why didn’t the leaders of the country send another team back there to get the stuff? Maybe they didn’t want to risk their lives or resources to obtain it? Maybe it’s just a bunch of shit no one cares about?

        If someone took the risk to go out there for any reason and learn anything about the place and they are sharing their knowledge about it with others then I don’t think it matters what they do there.

        Fuck it! Let em burn it down for all I care! Now that I know about that house maybe I’ll go burn it down. Ron Paul 2012, baby!

      • It’s a piece of wood. There are bigger things in the world to be worried about. Let the guy keep it and stop hassling him – I’m sure you’re not as innocent as your self-righteous smug “I’d never take a bit of wood from an Antarctican shed” attitude would suggest. To this guy it’s not just a piece of history, it’s something to remember one of his relatives by. Who the hell are you to say that’s not important enough?

    • While it must be cool to have a piece of history in your room, I agree it should be in a museum. Specifically it should go back to the hut it came from, which is now a museum.

      Here’s the web-site of the Antarctic Heritage Trust, the non-profit organization that cares for the historic huts in the Ross Sea area: http://www.nzaht.org/ It’s based in Christchurch, New Zealand.

  3. The last quote (from Shackleton) reminds me of Ed Viesturs recent book (No Shortcuts to the Top) wherein he sticks to a mountain climbing strategy that emphasizes an important fact: “the top is only halfway”. Thinking clearly about risk and not getting wound up with the glory—that’s how you climb as many big peaks as Viesturs has and live to write a book.

    • Reminded me of mountain climbing too. Finnish Veikka Gustafsson has reached the tops of all 8k+ metre mountains without bottled oxygen. His first try reaching the last of the 8k’s, Gasherbrum I, ended 100 yards before reaching the top. He did it a year later instead. Just imagine what it must take to convince yourself to turn back at that point. On second thought, and remembering some of his stories, maybe not that much after seeing frozen dead climbers along the way to the tops of those 8k’s…

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  4. Eating dogs was a very pragmatic move. As they used their supplies throughout the journey (both for men and animal), they needed less dog-power to pull fewer supplies. Killing the dogs and using them as sustenance was good planning.

  5. They didn’t necessarily kill the dogs outright. The practice was to cut off food food for the dogs (after what they could carry for them ran out) and then wait for when the dogs began individually to die off from starvation to feed them to the others to keep as many going as long as possible. Arctic sled dogs were conditioned to last several days without food in times of necessity. There was little point in killing a dog when it still had the strength to help pull the sleds.

      • Dogs are tools in the Arctic, not buddies. Amundsen was following an ancient practice – you don’t get attached to your tractor.

    • In our case, if anything were to die it would be one of us while hiking. And sadly, I’m unable to eat a broken helicopter. My two teammates are looking decidedly appetizing.

  6. Nice posting. Interesting to know that the Discovery Hut is still there, though I have to say I’m a bit surprised they left it in such a state. Not even clearing away the cooked food seems … lax for a naval expedition.

    Your assessment of Scott and Amundsen is matched by Roland Huntford’s, given in the book “The Last Place on Earth”, about the Scott & Amundsen race. Basically, Scott really was both negligent and ignorant.

    One example will have to suffice: they ran out of paraffin (their main source of heat for cooking, melting water, heating, etc), because it unexpectedly evaporated from their containers. Their stores had no extra paraffin (or extra anything else, for that matter), so this was a serious problem.

    Amundsen, by comparison, knew this would happen, so he sealed his containers with lead. Plus, of course, he had extra stores of everything. Some of their paraffin containers, left behind because they had more than they needed, were found 50 years later. None of the paraffin had evaporated.

    So, basically, where Scott and his men worked, starved, and froze themselves to death, Amundsen and his team had what amounted to a somewhat strenuous and quite cold adventure holiday.

    I really recommend Huntford’s book. It’s an excellent read.

    • Since I’ve been down here I’ve heard of Huntford’s book, sounds like he got a lot of flak initially for going against the common train of thought. Will definitely have a look for it when I get back – thanks for the recommendation.

  7. Great article and I agree with your sentiments. Scott was typical of the era of men who were brave but ignorant and even bigoted. I say bigoted because people have been living in northern polar regions for eons, and Scott could have learned how to dress, camp, and travel by observing how they did it – the Lapps and Inuit in particular. But nooooo, manly Englishmen wouldn’t stoop to that. I also think this plays into why Scott’s story is the better known; the history that filters down to us almost never includes the exploits of people who aren’t white British or white American or some variant; think also Tenzing Norgay, much less commonly known than Edmund Hillary as the “first man atop Mt. Everest.”

    • I’ve always admired Hillary for not subscribing or pandering to that. For all his life, his answer to whether he or Tenzing Norgay reached the top first was “we reached it together”. He spent a huge amount of time and energy, right up until his death, working on behalf of the Nepalese sherpa communities.

      http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Edmund_Hillary

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  8. Wow, it’s fascinating that you got to visit the shack. I’m pretty impressed and happy that it’s stayed in such pristine condition for so long and not suffered the ravages of tourism. Thanks for the interesting post!

  9. Pingback: Ayush » “To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.”

  10. It’ pretty easy to criticize a generation that didn’t sit around behind desks as most young folks in the west do. This generation (in the west at least) is a bunch of pansies. So many have open access to all the information we need and still do nothing with their lives. It disgusts me.

    Scott and Amundsen went for what they wanted. That’s admirable. Being an early adventurer w/out information they did what they could w/ the information available to them. Calling a dead man from another generation a racist like this is a low, cheap shot.

    • The point is that the information was available; humans have been living in cold climates for a long time. Their deaths was simply the result of negligence and ignorance, combined with hubris. Hardly something to be admired…

    • Yesss, that’s right, telling us to essentially “harden up” and that we have no idea what it was like in “the good old days” totally revokes the fact that Scott dropped the ball, quite severely, and paid for it with the lives of himself and his whole expedition.

      Why people hero-worship a guy who’s inability to think more than 1 step ahead got him killed over a guy who braved the wastes and survived – AND GOT TO THE POLE FIRST – has and always will be beyond me.

  11. :) Intestesting story. I write you from my litle island, Tenerife, near to Africa… and I was cold when I started to read you, now I’m not!

    Poor Scott. If he had been friend of Shackleton, at least in facebook, he would have chosen to be a live donkey.

    Beam to Skackleton! I get the quote because here the donkeys are disappearing, no matter what they say in all of these studies of school failure.

    Greetings and I hope you are well

    • Point of interest, Scott and Shackleton were well acquainted. Shackleton was part of the Discovery expedition led by Scott prior to the Terra Nova expedition.

  12. I’ve been reading about the later Shackleton expedition, which also seems to have been marked by typical British hubris: they nearly starved to death on an island because NOT ONE OF THEM knew how to fish?!?!?

  13. I desperately want to work a season at McMurdo. Waiting for my kids to get a little older, but definitely at the top of my list! Thanks so much for sharing!

    • If you’re interested in McMurdo, I suggest giving a look at Raytheon Polar Company. They run the logistics of Antarctic operations and they hire all sorts of trades. It’s tough to get in because of the number of interested people, but always worth a shot.

  14. 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. -Scott, Robert Falcon

  15. Pingback: Scientist in Antarctic Visits Robert F. Scott’s Hut (Andymatic.com)

  16. I don’t think the writer understands.

    Scott and his team have acquired greatness in the minds of humanity precisely becuase they knew they were venturing out with little experience and little supplies and poor planning ability. This is what it means to strive and achieve. Even if you know the risks are against you, you still have to try — because in the end, there are more important things than mere living.

    THERE IS THE GLORY OF VICTORY!!!!!!!!

    THIS IS SPPPAAAARRRTAAAAAAAAAA!!!!

  17. Wonderful article. We in England/America/Australia worships winning so much, we seem to clamour for a hero when the real winner was not one of “ours”. Suddenly, the glory goes to the loser, no matter how ignorant or blinkered they were.

  18. I’m English, but I’m absolutely with Roland Huntford. Not only did Amundsen get to the Pole before Scott (‘the owner’), but more importantly he got all of his men out alive. Even so, anyone who can read the last pages of Scott’s diary, or look at these photos of the astonishingly preserved interior of his hut, without shivers running up and down their spine, must be less than human.

    • I agree. I’ve been outside in unpleasant weather here, but it pales in comparison to what they endured. It’s hard to imagine the horrendous conditions in which they died, starving and freezing to death alone.

  19. thanks for living there and doing the research you’re doing…so we don’t too.

    brr.. you should remember to dress warm ok.?

  20. Nice post. You should have brought the book “The Terror” down there with you. It is not about Antarctica, but it does describe a bunch of Brits going through living hell trying to brave the north west passage.

  21. Very cool stuff! Do you happen to work with Philip Spindler from Owatonna Minnesota? I know he works somewhere down there & have been trying to reconnect with him on facebook…but no luck. If he does, please have him drop me a line!

    Thanks

    • Nope, I’m working with a group out of U Colorado – Boulder, however I’m not a part of the university, just a freelance researcher. If I happen to run into him I’ll pass on the message.

  22. Thank you for an interesting essay; I’ve always been intrigued as to why Roald Amundsen is always overshadowed in tales by Scott. Amundsen is, to me, the more interesting character, because while passion drove him to the pole, he didn’t let it rule his planning.

    Btw, reached your blog through Felicia Day’s tweet, and am delighted. Look forward to hearing more.

    • I’ve been quite confused as to how people have found my blog: I was averaging about 15 views, and now suddenly it’s at 90,000.

      Who’s Felicia Day?

      Thanks for reading! Will definitely post more often now that I know people are looking.

      • That’s because you got featured on Mental Floss too – that’s the link I’ve put up. Congratulations, by the way! :)

        Ernest Shackleton’s wife was a lucky woman.

      • Felicia Day is an actress/writer/producer. She’s the creator and star of the web series “The Guild”, starred in “Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog”, and has had recurring roles in shows including “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” and “Dollhouse”. She has over 1,600,000 followers on Twitter, and she posted a link to your blog. If you don’t know her, someone you work with must, as she mentioned her “buddy”.

        Do post often. I’m fascinated by all the research going on there.

      • Felicia Day retweeted someone’s post on Twitter. The person who originally made the tweet called the poster his or her buddy – not FD herself. She probably just found this blog just as interesting as the rest of us do and decided to pass on the link.

  23. Pingback: So my buddy is in Antarctica doing research and he’s blogging the experience, here is my favorite post. | Zocials

  24. Amundsen was a true great. His work in opening the Northwest passage was also glossed over by failed British expeditions.

    Scott was a failure but he did one thing, proved that journeying to the poles wasn’t a simple task and shouldn’t be taken lightly.

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    • Splendid blog dude, I totaly loved this entry. I’ll be sure to forawrd this to my dad who would, odds are, enjoy to read over this page too. Found this blog post through the Google search engine by the way, incase you were curious. Can’t wait till the next one!

  26. Great article.

    In college, I saw a play that was about the race to the South Pole from Scott’s perspective. I think it was called “Terra Nova”–was a good.

  27. As a history teacher, amateur historian, and polar history buff, I’ve been eating up these posts. It’s awesome to see the photos from Scott’s hut.

    I do find your assessment of Scott to be little uninformed, though. Scott’s expedition was actually well planned for its purpose, which was not a race to the pole but instead part-pole, part-scientific (he had not planned to race for the pole, since he wasn’t even aware of Amnundsen’s bid, which Amundsen had concealed). Scott’s team accomplished a much greater feat, reaching the pole under human power (at least once they reached the glacier). He was hit by unusually cold weather, the worst in 35 years, and that was the key variable that caused the expedition’s downfall. My sense of the consensus on Huntford’s book is that it’s poorly sourced and downright inaccurate in places. You might be interested in reading “Race to the Pole: Tragedy, Heroism, and Scott’s Antarctic Quest” by Ranulph Fiennes, which I found to be the most competent and thorough book on the pole quest of the dozen or so that I’ve read.

  28. Simply wish to say your article is as amzniag. The clearness in your post is just nice and i could assume youre an expert on this subject. Well with your permission let me to grab your RSS feed to keep updated with forthcoming post. Thanks a million and please keep up the rewarding work.

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