17 January 1912 : Scott and his team reach the South Pole 44 days after Amundsen
Published on 17.01.2012 - General Info
Of course, having reached the SP on 14 December 1911, Norwegian Roald Amundsen had won the race to SP. But the Scott's odyssey has also remained for ever a glorious page of the polar History. Here is a small recap.
- British Prime Minister's message to polar scientists, marking 100 years since Scott's arrival at the South Pole.
- Renowned polar explorer Sir Ranulph Fiennes has posted a guest message on the Foreign Secretary's Facebook.
- Yesterday Minister Henry Bellingham visited the British Antarctic Survey and Scott Polar Research Institute.
- These pages provide information on the Foreign and Commonwealth Office’s objectives in Antarctica.
- The British Antarctic Territory website.
Who would be the first to the South Pole : Amundsen or Scott?
Nobody was asking that particular question at the time. Because, when the Norwegian left the port of Oslo aboard the Fram (the ship used by the explorer, Fridtjof Nansen, at the time of his drifting on the Arctic pack ice in 1893), nobody yet knew, not even the crew, that instead of going as envisaged towards Greenland and Siberia, they were in fact heading for the Antarctic with the intention of being the first men to reach the South Pole. It was only several weeks after leaving the Madeira point of call, 09 September 1910, that his brother to whom he had entrusted his secret mail, could finally send the letter to London and let the world know of the great news. It was with stupefaction that Scott learnt of the telegram when his ship, the Terra Nova, stopped over at Melbourne: 'We kindly inform you that the Fram is going to Antarctica. Amundsen'.
Both explorers had chosen the Ross Iceshelf
The disappointment was all the greater because, several months after having set up their base at Cape Evans (Ross Sea), one of their forward teams, which was on an exploratory mission in King Edward VII Land, perceived, far away, the Fram anchored in the Bay of Whales! Not only was Amundsen attempting the pole at the same time as he was but he too had chosen the Ross Ice Shelf as the landing point for establishing his base camp. And, greater misfortune still, his rival already had several days advance on him, his camp being, by chance, about 100 kilometres further south than the Cape Evans base!
For the two teams, the four winter months of 1911 were going to be devoted to meticulous preparation for the great departure. In Amundsen's team, they were frantically struggling in any way that they could to get rid of any superfluous weight. The expedition's carpenter planed down the components of the sledges to a maximum and made skis. In a make-piece shelter located outside their small house, they also transformed the tents in order to make them lighter. On Scott's side there was also a host of tasks of all kinds that occupied the English during the winter months - meticulous preparation of portions of rations, checking the seams of the tents, creating soles from sealskin, and other things.
86 dogs or Amundsen, 233 for Scott
There was however one essential difference between the ways that the two expeditions were getting ready. With Scott, they hardly paid any attention to weight. Amundsen, on the other hand, was to set off as light as possible, and each man would steer a sledge that would be pulled by dogs. Scott, for his part, was to use heavy equipment with motorised sledges and ponies pulling other sledges on part of the route until the assault team was to set off on its own. Amundsen had brought 86 dogs with him (of which 13 were to go to the Pole and return), the others having been slaughtered along the way in order to feed the survivors. Scott, for his part, had embarked 233 of them. Another point of view separated the two explorers: the one was counting on the ability of his animals to help him conquer the pole, the other, good Britisher that he was, preferred to wager on the courage of the men. The proof was that instead of taking dogs on the final assault, which was to take place over more than 900 kilometres, Scott and his last four companions decided to pull the sledges over the ice themselves. One might be surprised a posteriori of these tactics; but England was undergoing a full-blown identity crisis and the men that went off to defy the South Pole had to be models for their fellow citizens and could not allow themselves to forget the great moral Victorian principles that guided the British; loyalty, courage, a spirit of solidarity, sacrifice, denial, endurance of suffering and so on.
Be that as it may, in September 1911, the two men were hard at work, a few hundred kilometres from one another. Finally ready.
After organising numerous secret votes to decide the day of the great departure, Amundsen finally left his base in the Bay of Whales on 08 September with the sole objective of reaching the Pole.
Three days later, because of the intense cold and a thick fog, he turned back without even having reached his first supply depot. At that time, the Norwegian explorer decided to lighten the ski-trek still further and to set off with only four men, the two others having the mission of going off to explore Edward VII Land. This time, the weather conditions were less catastrophic; on 20 October, four sledges, each pulled by 13 huskies, headed off towards the Great South. Ahead of them there stretched 15,000 unknown kilometres as the crow flies that they had decided to signpost with snowmen every 100 kilometres so that they could more easily recognise the return itinerary. Two weeks later, they reached the last stockpile of rations without let or hindrance, and rested there for 48 hours. The ski-trek was light and the men were sometimes progressing more than 50 kilometres a day! When they had arrived at the foot of the mountain chain that divides the Antarctic in two, they only had another 600 kilometres to cover. The crossing of the Axel Heiberg glacier, which ascends toward the continental plateau at an altitude of more than 3,000 meters, was accomplished in less than a week. At the top, they slaughtered the dogs that were no longer necessary and the march was resumed, despite temperatures that were dropping from day to day and the blizzard that had started to rage again.
On 08 December, they passed the southernmost record established by Shackleton in 1909 (88°23' South) and were then only 180 kilometres from their goal. Six days later, victory. Their hands frozen, their bodies bruised but transcended by the exploit, they set up a tent inside which Amundsen left a message for Scott and his men.
On 07 March, 1912, after a month-long sea-crossing almost without incident, the Fram arrived in Tasmania; the explorer then sent a cable to his brother asking him to let the entire world know of the great news; the Norwegians had beaten the English by arriving at the South Pole first!
Scott : a chapter of unfortunate accidents
At the same time, March 1912, the worst had not yet arrived for Scott's men. But the expedition had been going wrong for several weeks already. It had been nothing but a chapter of unfortunate accidents.
There was first of all the tactical choice that was mentioned earlier. From the beginning, Scott had opted for a heavy ski-trek. When he left Cape Evans on 01 November 1911, it was a caravan of more than 50 kilometres long that stretched across the ice; the sledges weighed 300 kilograms each. Furthermore, they were pulled by ponies that were getting stuck in the snow up to their underbellies. As they were slowing the expedition down it was decided to slaughter them along the way. There then followed technical setbacks; the air-cooling system of the motorised sledges was not working properly; it was causing numerous breakdowns and inevitable delays. The atmospheric conditions, for their part, were not favourable either for the English explorers; for four days, a frightening gale had been blowing over the expedition making all progress impossible. After which a short period of thaw had made the ground soft and almost impassable. In the first 19 days the caravan had only covered 291 kilometres, or an average of about 15 kilometres a day.
Before attacking the glacier that gave access to the plateau, Scott decided to send the dogs back to base, thereby evidencing a blind obstinacy with consequences that were to be fatal. On 03 January 1912, 65 days after their departure, with the men having to pull the sledges themselves, the team was still 273 kilometres from its goal - Amundsen, for his part, had taken 51 days to cover the same distance! Scott then took the decision to send three men back to base. They were now no more than five to make the final assault on the Pole: Robert Falcon Scott, Birdie Bowers, Titus Oates, Edgar Evans and Bill Wilson. Despite the various misfortunes, the five men were content finally to be alone and to do battle with the danger. But a hammer blow was going to put a brake on the explorer's new ardour; several days before reaching the top of the mountain chain, they saw the tracks of Amunden's sledges. But even if that did not prove that the Norwegian had reached the Pole, the discovery was difficult to digest. To give up so close to the goal? The men were not minded to. But one can imagine the Englishmen's disappointment on discovering that, on 17 January, after 78 days of progressing over a more than difficult terrain, the Union Jack would not be the first flag to fly at the South Pole. In this saga that was to last for more than 10 years, Scott had arrived 44 days after his Norwegian rival…
The nightmare began ; it was to be a slow agony…
In the tent, the expedition leader discovered, in addition to the letter that Amundsen had written to him and an envelope addressed to the King of Norway, some spare clothes and a sextant. Two days later, it was five frustrated men who set off on the return journey. More than 1,500 kilometres of inhuman suffering with the unbearable thought in their heads that the failure, whatever the welcome they received in England, would in perpetuity be stronger than victory. Another race against time had begun. The nightmare was beginning; it was to be a slow agony…
Edgar Evans was the first to be a victim - of scurvy and frostbite. When they reached the first stockpile, it was the turn of Titus Oates to see his feet turn black from gangrene. On 17 February, Evans died in his sleep; one month later, Oates went out of the tent like a zombie. Despite the blizzard that was blowing, he said to his comrades that he was going for a little walk. They were never to see him again. On 17 March, Scott and the two other survivors were approaching the last stockpile of rations; no more than 20 or so short kilometres to cover. But a storm arose and prevented their advance; once again, the men were blocked. The next day, they ran out of fuel. They had practically no more rations either; the trio prepared themselves for the inevitable.
Perhaps they had in mind, beyond the exploit, beyond the failure, the idea that it was preferable for their lives to end with an heroic act of which future generations could be proud. Scott, Wilson and Bowers set up the tent that was to be their shroud one last time; they knew however that they were only 180 kilometres away from Cape Evans !
Eight months later, a patrol coming from the winter quarters in search for the missing men enabled a reconstruction of the last moments of their lives; as Wilson and Bowers were lying quietly in their sleeping bags and the leader was stretched out on top of his, history deduced that Scott died last and, before expiring in turn, he had had the time and the delicacy to take care of his comrades without having had the strength to get back into what could have protected him from the cold for a few moments longer.