Thursday, 19 January 2012

Commander Robert Falcon Scott


January 17th 1912

Scott writing his journal.  Photo: Herbert Ponting
On January 17th 1912 Commander Robert Falcon Scott reached the South Pole. Along with him were Seaman Edgar Evans, Lieutenant Henry Bowers, Captain Lawrence Oats and Dr Edward Wilson. They set out on their final journey on 1st November 1911 and they arrived one month and a day after the Norwegian Roald Amundsen. Their journey back to civilisation was ultimately to end in tragedy and whilst initially celebrated as a Great British Hero Scott has, over recent years, been criticised by many for some of his decisions but even Amundsen conceded that Scott's achievements were far greater than his.

It was never meant to be a race to the pole in Scott's eyes, his mission to the South Pole was one of scientific exploration and the information he and his team gathered between 1910 and 1913 gave an amazing insight into a previously unexplored continent. So what was his mission and why did it go so badly wrong?
A little background.
Photo: Herbert Ponting
Scott had lead a party to Antarctica previously - the Discovery expedition between 1901 and 1904 when amongst his team was Ernest Shakleton, another man whose name became synonymous with south polar exploration, but whom history has treated somewhat more kindly than Scott.
Prior to his appointment in June 1900 as leader of the National Antarctic expedition Scott had a distinguished career with the Royal Navy, he was well regarded and was an experienced leader. The aim of the Discovery expedition was one of exploration and scientific discovery and his team included a zoologist, a marine biologist, a palaeontologist, a doctor and a physicist.
By the time of the Terra Nova expedition of 1910 - 1013 much more was known about the region thanks to Scott's previous journey and that of Shakletons. Again his party was comprised of a mix of Royal Navy personnel and a select group of scientists. Their aim was to explore and learn more about Antarctica as well as to be the first people to the south pole. Amundsen's only goal was that of reaching the South Pole first.
Initially Amundsen had indicated that he was heading north for further exploration of the Arctic, but on 12th October 1910 Scott received a telegram whilst they were docked in Melbourne. It simply read "Madeira. Am heading South. Amundsen." (Madeira was a usual stopping off point for European vessels heading south.). Despite this gauntlet being clearly thrown down Scott stuck to his original plans.

The Terra Nova.  Photo: Herbert Ponting
Having left Cardiff on 15th June 1910 they first saw land in Antarctica on New Years eve and began unloading their cargo and making camp at Cape Armitage on 4th January 1911. Between that point and the time they set off on their quest for the South Pole (1st November 1911) Scott's team carried out a phenomenal amount of research relating to the weather (readings were taken throughout the winter), the geology of the region, the plants and the many animals. Their studies formed a basis for our understanding of the region and much of the information they gathered is still being used today.

One of the most famous expeditions during their stay is recounted by Apsley Cherry-Garrard, one of the youngest men in Scott's team, in his book "The Worst Journey in theWorld" and relates to a winter journey to locate Emperor Penguin eggs. Cherry-Garrard also details the rest of the expedition in touching and harrowing detail.
The expedition was also one of the first examples of commercial sponsorship in action. Companies such as Fry's chocolate, Heinz baked beans and Bovril provided food and money in return for photographs of the team enjoying their products. Herbert Ponting was the photographer on the expedition and took many iconic images as well as fulfilling their commercial obligations.
So, what went wrong?
Manhauling.  Photo: Herbert Ponting
There have been many theories as to why Scott's party failed to be the first at the pole and why they ultimately died just 11 miles short of a provisions depot that could have saved their lives. The reality is that, as with most things in life, it wasn't as a result of any one thing, rather it was a combination of factors, some of which I'll outline:
Taking 5 people instead of 4 to the pole. Various depots had been laid out along the route and the sledges packed with enough provisions to support 4 people on the last leg of the polar journey. At the last minute Scott opted to take a 5th person with him in the final party. This is most likely because everyone wanted to be part of the final group and Scott wanted to give the opportunity to as many people as possible. However this decision meant reduced rations, more cramped living conditions (they had a 4 man tent) and the sharing of vital equipment, in particular they only had 4 pairs of skis, meaning one of the party (Bowers) had to walk through deep snow as he man hauled the sledge, rather than ski.

Not using dogs. This is a criticism that has often been made, especially as Amundsen succeeded using dog teams. Scott instead used a combination of ponies and man power. The reality is that Scott was simply not familiar with the use of dog teams in the way Amundsen was. Growing up in Norway Amundsen had used dog teams since he was young, Scott on the otherhand had limited experience with much of his knowledge coming from working with his friend and mentor Nansen. He did take dogs as part of the overall expedition, but as the results of working with them were mixed at best he did not use them on the final journey. Instead he did what many of us would do, he stuck with what he knew.
L-R: Oates, Bowers, Scott, Wilson, Evans.
Photo: Herbert Ponting

Insufficient provisions. We know an awful lot more about calories and vitamins now than we did then. Based on the provisions that we know they took with them it has been clearly established that there were not enough calories or vitamins in their daily ration packs. The whole team also had an equal allowance, even though they were of quite different sizes and builds. One of the first people to start suffering was Evans, a big strapping fellow and, as Scott put it "...the one least expected to fail." The lack of calories over the five month journey was enough to render the team too weak to face the exceptional conditions they had to endure.

Unusually poor weather conditions. A basic weather pattern was known for the region thanks to Scott's previous expedition and throughout his South Polar journey immaculate weather records were kept. This has allowed us to establish that the weather they faced on their return journey was worse than they would have expected. The temperatures were much lower and they were pinned down on several occasions by vicious blizzards. These unforeseen stops meant it took them longer to reach food depots and consequently the inadequate provisions they had needed to be reduced further to make them last longer.

Evaporation of oil. Oil formed a vital part of each food depot, providing much needed fuel for their stoves, without which not only would they have no warm food or means of heat, but they would also have no means of melting snow for water. The leather seals used on the oil containers perished in the extreme conditions allowing oil to escape, this meant that fuel had to be used very sparingly and a vital heat source was reduced.

Geologists in Ice Cave.
 Photo: Herbert Ponting
Caring for sick men. When the first of their party, Evans, showed signs of illness the team did all they could to care for him. He weakened quickly on their reutrun journey, not only becoming unable to pull the sledge, but eventually needing to ride upon it. There is no doubt that this slowed the party and even when it became clear that Evans would not survive the journey home they still cared for him until he died on February 17th. The next of the party to fall ill was Oates, yet he made no mention of his dreadfully frostbitten feet until 3 days before he died. During those few days he deteriorated rapidly and on March 17th asked to be left to die. The team refused. Later that day, while they were camped during another blizzard he uttered his now famous last words: "I am just going outside and may be some time." before leaving the tent and walking off into the blizzard never to be seen again. Should they have allowed the sick men to slow them down when they had the means to end their own suffering? (On March 11th Scott insisted Wilson hand over to each remaining man the means to end their own suffering, 30 opium tablets each.) It's a question I hope I'm never in a position to have to answer. By the time Oates died they were all aware of the fact they were very unlikely to survive their ordeal, sticking together in those circumstances would perhaps seem the most appropriate thing to do.

Continuing to haul heavy geological specimens. Until the end Scott and his men remained focused on the scientific nature of their journey. Their sldeges were heavily laden with rock samples from the centre of the continent, which were found by the party who eventually discovered them. Could their journey have been made easier if they had jettisoned this cargo earlier? Possibly. When hauling over ice overcoming the initial inertia is the main problem, once the sledge is moving it is easier to maintain momentum. The problem was that very little of their hauling was smooth and easy, much of it involved stopping and starting over difficult surfaces and the heavily laden sledges would not have helped matters.


Heroic Achievement

Scott and his extended support team left Cape Evans for the last time on 1stNovember 1911. They marched every day, with their support team leaving them at various stages along the route. On 4th January 1912 the last of the support parties turned back leaving Scott and his 4 companions to journey onwards. They arrived at the South Pole on 17th January 1912. They began their return journey on 18th January. Evans died on 17thFebruary and Oates on 17th March. Based on Scott's continuing diary entries it is believed that he and his remaining companions, Wilson and Bowers died on or around 29th March 1912, exhausted and pinned down by a blizzard just 11 miles from the One Ton Depot, which could well have saved their lives. (The original site for the depot had been 24 miles further south, meaning Scott would have reached it, but for a variety of valid reasons it was moved north - another story in itself.). During that time they man hauled sledges over 1200 miles across Antarctica, often facing the most appalling conditions, and they maintained their good spirits until the end.
Scott's 43rd Birthday 6th June 1911.
Photo: Herbert Ponting

Scott's team were devoted to him: "I loved every hair on his head. He was a born gentleman and I will never forget him." Tom Crean (a member of the supporting party). "He is thoughtful for each individual and does little kindnesses that show it." Edward Wilson (who died in the tent alongside Scott).

There is little doubt in my mind that Scott was a true leader, with the respect of all those who worked with him. Were it not for a tragic combination of events he would have survived to receive the recognition he so richly deserved. In his final days he wrote long letters to the loved ones of those who perished alongside him praising their character and courage.
The final passage in Scott's Message to the public ends: "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, but surely, surely, a great rich country like ours will see that those who are dependant upon us are properly provided for."

The last entry scrawled in his diary simply states "For God's sake look after our people."


References:

The Worst Journey in the World - Apsley Cherry-Garrard
Robert Falcon Scott Journals - Scott
Captain Scott - Rannulph Fiennes