A century ago, British naval Capt. Robert F. Scott and four members of his polar expedition trudged across the forbidding Antarctic landscape, “man-hauling” sleds across 800 miles of ice and snow in a desperate push to make it back to their base.
The Englishmen were suffering from frostbite, malnutrition, dysentery and probably heavy hearts: They were coming home with the knowledge that a competing expedition, led by Norwegian Roald Amundsen, had beaten them to the South Pole.
But halfway back to their base, Scott did something quite extraordinary. He stopped at the foot of a mountain range and sent one of his men to collect some unusual rocks.
“I decided to camp and spend the rest of the day geologising,” Scott wrote in his journal on Feb. 8, 1912. “It has been extremely interesting. . . . [Edward A.] Wilson, with his sharp eyes, has picked several plant impressions, the last a piece of coal with beautifully traced leaves in layers.”
The team loaded 35 pounds of these fossils onto their already packed sleds and pushed off down the Beardmore Glacier. It was a treacherous route across deep crevasses, and one of the men — Petty Officer Edgar Evans — fell twice. He died two weeks later from injuries and exposure.
By mid-March, the remaining four men were running out of food and water, and their fuel supplies were dangerously low. On March 17, Capt. Lawrence Oates left their encampment and wandered off by himself; his famous last words, recorded by Scott, were: “I am just going outside and may be some time.”
The last three men tried for two weeks to push forward but were forced to remain inside their tent, buffeted by a storm. Scott’s final diary entry is dated March 29, its last words referring to his family: “For God’s sake, look after our people.” Nine months later, the bodies of Scott, Wilson and Lt. Henry Bowers were found frozen in their tent, 100 miles from their permanent base.
And those fossilized plants were eventually sent back to London.
So how to judge Scott and his expedition? As the 100th anniversary of the “Race to the South Pole” is marked this winter, it reinvigorates a long debate over Scott’s judgment and preparation. Was he a victim of bad luck and unusually cold weather, as he wrote in his diary, or bad planning and dumb decisions, as some historians have written?
One thing experts seem to agree on: Scott’s British Antarctic Expedition of 1910 to 1912 laid the groundwork for understanding climate, paleohistory, oceanography and biology in the most remote continent on the planet.
“Scott’s legacy is really science,” said Edward J. Larson, historian and author of “An Empire of Ice: Scott, Shackleton, and the Heroic Age of Antarctic Exploration.” Amundsen’s expedition, he said, “was a mere dash to the pole. But Scott’s expedition was remarkably successful. He ended up producing a composite picture of what Antarctica was all about.”
The two expeditions could not have been more different.
Amundsen, who turned his attention to Antarctica only after he learned that somebody else had beaten him to the North Pole, brought 19 men aboard his ship, the Fram. They were selected for their ability to ski fast, survive and navigate across the featureless Antarctic landscape, and to run sled dogs. Amundsen used only dog teams because he believed they were the best form of transportation, something he had learned from the native peoples he encountered while exploring the Arctic years before.
In contrast, Scott’s crew of 65 men aboard the Terra Nova included physicists, meteorologists, zoologists, glaciologists and a photographer with a complete darkroom. The men camped at several locations during the year and a half they spent in Antarctica. To traverse sea ice, glaciers and the vast ice sheet that covers much of Antarctica, Scott brought not only dog teams but also four motorized tractors (one of which broke through the ice and sank; the others broke down) and several dozen Siberian ponies (whose hooves sank in the snow).
Before sailing from London in June 1910, Scott announced to the world that he was headed south to find the pole. Young men clamored to join his expedition, many paying a thousand pounds to join the adventure. By the time Scott reached Australia in October, the expedition had turned into a race: He received a telegram from Amundsen — who had thus far kept his plans secret — saying that he, too, was sailing to the continent at the bottom of the planet.
Both teams reached Antarctica in January 1911. While Amundsen spent all his time preparing for a lightning-fast dash to the South Pole once the summer began in November, Scott was busy launching scientific side trips, including a geology trip to Antarctica’s Western Mountains and another to collect emperor penguin eggs in the animal’s winter rookery.
“Scott was a British gentleman, and at that time science was part of the standard British expedition,” Larson said. “He was determined to lead it in a way that facilitated the work of scientists.”
Scott’s expedition certainly produced scientific results:
● Shipboard oceanographic measurements on the Terra Nova led to the discovery that marine currents, colder than the surrounding water, circle the Antarctic continent. Since then, scientists have concluded that these currents form a natural barrier that has allowed Antarctic marine life forms to develop along their own evolutionary paths. Scott’s scientists at both the winter quarters on Ross Island and on ship voyages also pulled up dozens of examples of strange, previously unknown sea life.
● Weather balloons launched daily by meteorologist George Simpson and other members of the expedition recorded temperature, wind and barometric pressure data that scientists are still using today as a base line to measure climate change. These balloons also measured the high-altitude winds that circle the Antarctic continent and since then have been found to affect weather around the globe. To expand the temperature data, Simpson assigned a night watchman to take readings at midnight as well as noon.
● Before leaving base camp for the pole, Scott and three other men explored the Dry Valleys along the western Antarctic coast. This two-week, 150-mile “jolly excursion,” as one man described it, brought back fish fossils and rocks that gave clues to the continent’s early history. Scott also made the first measurements of the movement of the region’s glaciers using flags that had been planted in the ice a year earlier.
● Physicist Charles Wright made detailed studies of Antarctic ice sheets, how sea ice forms and how the air and snow together form ice crystals on different structures. He also reexamined the nature of icebergs, according to Larson, and how they break off from glaciers moving slowly from the polar ice cap toward the ocean.
● Scott allowed three men to travel 70 miles each way across Ross Island to retrieve the eggs of the emperor penguin during the midwinter of 1911. It was a harrowing trip that zoologist Apsley Cherry-Garrard wrote about in “The Worst Journey in the World: Antarctic 1910-1913.” The eggs helped biologists figure out the life cycle of this rugged animal. Years later, studies on the bird’s embryos disproved a theory that these penguins were descended from lizards.
While Scott was a career naval officer, not a scientist, he did have an immense curiosity and a scientific mind. In the months before the final push for the South Pole, 25 of Scott’s men built a wooden hut at Cape Evans, along the Antarctic coast. There they conducted scientific studies while laying a string of supply depots. (Other shore parties made smaller camps around the Ross Sea area, and about half the company remained aboard the Terra Nova, ferrying supplies and taking oceanographic measurements.) In this passage from his diary, Scott describes his excitement with some findings of biologist Edward Atkinson:
“Adjacent to the physicists’ corner of the hut Atkinson is quietly pursuing the subject of parasites,” Scott wrote on May 5, 1911. “Already he is in a new world. The laying out of the fish trip was his action and the catches are his field of labour. Constantly he comes to ask if I would like to see some new form, and I am taken to see some protozoa or ascidian (sea squirt) isolated on the slide plate of his microscope.”
Scott’s hut at Cape Evans is still standing. The cold, arid conditions have preserved the contents inside as if buried in a time capsule. I visited it last January, taking a short helicopter ride from the main U.S. base at McMurdo Station. Inside the hut, I met with Al Fastier, program manager for the New Zealand Antarctic Heritage Trust, which is restoring the structure.
Stables for horses and kennels for sled dogs line the outside of one wall. Inside, rows of bunk beds and stacks of supplies take up half the space. Microscopes and test tubes filled with crystallized and powdered chemicals sit on the workbench that Atkinson used as a laboratory. Wooden crates of cocoa, lentils, biscuits, cabbage and 23 kinds of canned meat are stacked inside the kitchen pantry. There is a musty smell of dried fur and rancid meat, seal skins and penguin blubber.
In addition to conducting science, the men spent time reading, telling stories, writing a camp newspaper and even putting on minstrel shows.
“I imagine they lived well,” Fastier said. “They had their own cook and made their own bread.”
The seamen and officers slept in separate areas, in accordance with naval tradition. Along with penguins, which the men both studied and ate, locally caught seals provided meat and heating oil.
Fastier said Scott was determined to both explore and document the Antarctic continent.
“He was very outcome-driven,” Fastier said. “He wanted to be the first to the pole and wanted to do a lot of good science. He was a product of his time.”
Fastier said he often feels the spirit of Scott and his men watching over him.
“The heroic era was the last of a very special time,” Fastier said. “That’s when people went out and they really pushed the boundaries, and we really don’t do that today.”
Scott’s scientific legacy is the subject of an exhibit opening Jan. 20 at the Natural History Museum in London. “Scott’s Last Expedition” features hundreds of items, including scientific instruments such as microscopes and compasses, the specimens they collected, the iconic black-and-white photographs taken of the expedition by Herbert Ponting, and original diaries.
“Scott’s expedition was the broadest and the biggest scientific program at the time,” said curator Elin Simonsson. “This is the first time in a hundred years that the artifacts and the specimens they collected have been reunited to tell the story of the expedition.”
Simonsson says the expedition was greater than its ultimately doomed leader.
“Looking at the story and the expedition, it’s also important to look at Scott and his interest in science,” she said from her office in London. “The whole expedition is remembered for the race for the pole and how the polar party died on the way back. But the story of the scientific expedition, that story has fallen out over time.”
In November 1911, Scott left from Cape Evans for the 800-mile trip to the South Pole. Five men made the final push and arrived on Jan. 17, 1912 — only to find a Norwegian flag and a message from Amundsen, who had gotten there on Dec. 14. Then Scott and the four others headed back on that final, doomed journey.
When the surviving crew of the Terra Nova sailed back to England in 1913, the ship was carrying 40,000 specimens — rocks, corals, freshwater algae, sponges, mollusks, petrels, microbes, worms, lichens, fossilized fish, mummified seal skulls — none of which had been collected before.
The fossils that Scott and Wilson picked up in the weeks before they died turned out to be Glossopteris, an extinct fern that had previously been identified in India, Australia, Africa and South America. That chance find — when examined years later by geologists — proved that Antarctica was once part of the super-continent Gondwana, which broke up 180 million years ago.
The fossils had been found alongside the bodies of Scott and his men.
Niiler is a freelance writer in Chevy Chase.