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.
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”.
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.
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.