In 1910, British explorer Robert Falcon Scott led a privately funded expedition to become the first people to successfully reach the South Pole. The expedition was Scott’s attempt to be the first to reach the South Pole, as well as carry out important scientific research along the coast of Victoria Land on the Ross Ice Shelf.
The scientific work was considered by chief scientist Wilson as the main work of the expedition, though Scott felt that the main objective was to reach the South Pole, and to secure ‘for the British Empire the honor of this achievement’ of reaching the remotest place on earth, and its southernmost point, first. Scott’s previous Discovery expedition had seen him return as a hero for having reached the furthest south, and he had similar ambitions to reach the Pole first, perhaps at any cost.
The expedition was made up of seamen and scientists, as well as paying guests, who could take up various duties. Scott’s second in command was Admiral Edward Evans, 1st Baron Mountevans. Evans was the recipient of numerous honors and decorations for his Antarctic efforts, military service and lifesaving, and in 1913, received the Most Honourable Order of the Bath. The expedition would use the Terra Nova supply ship to guide them on the initial portion of the journey. Because of the name of the ship, Scott’s mission has been historically referred to as the Terra Nova Expedition.
The attempt to reach the most remote spot on earth was in itself brave and ambitious, but international rivalries added to the pressure. Japan, Norway, Germany, Sweden, France and Belgium were all making attempts at that time. Norwegian Captain Amundsen had an extra incentive, having previously narrowly missed being the first man to set foot on the North Pole.
In early January 1911, Scott’s men arrived in Antarctica. Conditions were extremely harsh, with temperatures plummeting as low as minus 60 degrees Celsius (-76 degrees F). First Officer Victor Campbell took six men and sailed the Terra Nova east, hoping to carry out scientific work in King Edward VII Land. On the way back to camp, they stumbled upon a surprise — Roald Amundsen’s expedition had arrived and was camped in the Bay of Whales.
The two parties exchanged pleasantries, and Campbell hastened back to camp to inform Scott that his rival had arrived. Though dismayed by this development, Scott decided to proceed as planned and begin laying supply depots farther and farther into the interior of the continent in preparation for the push to the pole. The mission encountered complications almost immediately. The party was held up by fierce blizzards. The ponies, who had performed much worse than expected, began weakening and dying. Only two of the eight ponies on the depot-laying mission made it back.
Meanwhile, parties of geologists explored the surrounding areas, surveying uncharted regions and collecting samples and specimens. The 25 men of the shore party hunkered down in the hut with the beginning of the Antarctic winter in April 1911, passing the time with lectures, scientific studies and the occasional soccer match. Scott continued his calculations and planning for the journey to the pole.
In the middle of winter, Chief Scientist Dr. Edward Wilson led several men on an outing to retrieve Emperor penguin eggs from a rookery 60 miles away, during which they endured near-hurricane force winds and temperatures as low as -77 degrees Fahrenheit. They got three eggs out of the ordeal.
When spring finally came, Scott laid out his plan to reach the South Pole. An initial party of 16 men would set out across the Great Ice Barrier, carrying supplies with motor sledges, ponies and dogs. Members of the party would turn back at specific latitudes, leaving a final group of five to reach the pole. The group with the motor sledges set out on October 24, 1911. The sledges broke down after about 50 miles. Without them, Scott had to adjust his plan and make the dogs push on.
The dogs were sent back to base, and on January 3, 1912, Scott selected the four men who would join him in the polar party: Chief Scientist Dr. Edward Wilson, Lawrence Oates, Henry Bowers and Edgar Evans. The final five men pushed southward.
On January 16, amid the endless expanse of white nothingness around them, they spotted something — a black flag fluttering from a sledge runner. A note was attached. Amundsen had beaten them by a month. Crestfallen, Scott and his companions reached the South Pole the next day, and discovered the camp that Amundsen had left behind the day after that. Though not the triumph they had envisioned, their mission was complete. 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.’
On 19 January 1912 the deflated group began their 800 mile (1,300 km) return journey. After a good start they began to suffer from slow starvation, hypothermia and scurvy. Even so, they stayed true to their scientific quest, taking geology samples whenever possible.
The final demise of the men was harrowing, amid worsening weather conditions. Edward Evans died on 17 February at the base of Beardmore Glacier, having fallen and suffered damage to his head. Captain Oates had severe frostbite and walked out into the cold to the words, later recorded by Scott: ‘I am just going outside and may be some time…’, walking out into a blizzard to sacrifice his life so the other men could carry on unhindered.
In due course, having taken shelter in tents and written farewell messages to their family, Scott and his two surviving comrades, Bowers and Wilson, perished from most likely starvation and exposure to the extreme cold. Their bodies were found 8 months later.
The last entry in Scott’s diary on 29 March 1912 read: “Every day we have been ready to start for our depot 11 miles away, but outside the door of the tent it remains a scene of whirling drift. I do not think we can hope for any better things now. 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. R. Scott. Last entry. For God’s sake look after our people”.
Back at camp, the other members of the expedition made numerous trips to supply depots in hopes of catching the polar party, to no avail. After wintering in the hut, a search party set out on October 29. Less than two weeks later they found the bodies of Scott, Wilson and Bowers. They built a stone cairn over them where they lay.
In 1913, Scott’s late wife, Kathleen, was made a widow of a Knight Commander of the Order of the Bath. Scott had not received a posthumous knighthood, and Kathleen was not entitled to be called Lady Scott, but she could be treated as if she were the widow of such a knight. In July 1913, members of the expedition (Bowers, Oates, Wilson, Edgar Evans, Scott and Brissenden posthumously), were awarded the Polar Medal (silver or bronze) with clasp inscribed ‘Antarctic, 1910-1913’. In the same year (1913), a wooden cross was erected on Observation Hill, Ross Island, inscribed with the names of the dead adventurers and the apt Tennyson quote, ‘To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield’.
(Photo credit: Scott Polar Research Institute / University of Cambridge / Hulton-Deutsch Collection / Corbis via Getty Images)