Exploration of the Antarctic - Part 8
During the first decade of the twentieth century, the geographic poles, north and south, ranked among the highest goals of explorers. They were talismanic locations whose remoteness and inhospitable climates had defeated all human efforts to reach them, and whose conquest would bring prestige to both individuals and nations. In 1911, two expeditions led by experienced polar explorers with different approaches to the challenge, found themselves in a race to reach the South Pole.
Robert Falcon Scott was, in 1911, a forty-two year old British naval officer who had risen from obscurity ten years prior as commander of the Discovery Expedition. He had been selected to lead the well funded and successful three-year (1901-4) expedition which had the backing of of the British government and scientific establishment. Scott had achieved a Farthest South record trekking across the Great Ice Barrier from Ross Island where the Barrier met the Ross Sea. He had also ascended through the Transantarctic Mountains west of Ross Island to reach the 8,900 foot high Antarctic Plateau for the first time, and came close to the location of the magnetic south pole. On his return, Scott was honored and his book, The Voyage of the Discovery (1905), was a popular success. Consideration of a follow-up expedition to continue the science and to reach both the magnetic and geographic south poles began immediately.
Earnest Shackleton, a member of Scott's Farthest South team put forward a proposal to the Royal Geographic Society (RGS) for the follow-up expedition with himself as leader, but was turned down in favor of Scott . Undeterred, Shackleton obtained private funding for his smaller Nimrod expedition and went south while Scott was still raising funds and getting organized. In late 1908, Shackleton used ponies to pull sledges of supplies 400 miles across the Ice Barrier and ascended the Beardmore Glacier for 100 miles through the Transantarctic Mountains to reach the high Antarctic Plateau. On January 9, 1909, having mas-hauled a sledge for another 250 miles at altitudes of 9,000 - 10,000 feet in temperatures down to -40oF and blizzard conditions, Shackleton and three others reached 88°23'S, 97 geographic miles (111 statute miles) from the South Pole. Faced with dwindling supplies and the end of the Antarctic summer looming, Shackleton turned back and returned to Ross Island. It was a stunning achievement, which showed the way to the attainment of the South Pole. On January 17, while Shackleton was returning across the Plateau, three members of the Nimrod Expedition reached the magnetic south pole.
In September 1909, two claims to have reached the North Pole by Americans Frederick Cook (on April 22, 1908) and Robert Peary (on April 9, 1909) became headline news around the world. While both claims proved controversial and are still subject to heated debate, they resulted in a widely-held belief that the geographic South Pole was the last great goal for polar explorers.
Roald Amundsen was thirty-nine when he set out for the South Pole. Inspired by fellow Norwegian Fridjof Nansen's crossing of Greenland in 1888, he joined the Belgica Antarctic Expedition (1897-1899), led by Belgian naval officer Adrienne de Gerlache. Kept south late in the season by de Gerlache, the Belgica, of which Amundsen was second in command, became locked in ice in the Bellinghausen Sea for thirteen months before getting free. Amundsen's first big triumph occurred when he led the first expedition to successfully traverse a Northwest Passage from the Atlantic to the Pacific (1903-6).
When the news of Cook and Peary broke, Amundsen was preparing for his own North Pole bid. He wrote later, "Just as rapidly as the message had traveled over the cables, I decided on my change of front -- to turn to the right-about, and face to the South." However, Amundsen kept his decision secret, even from even other members of his expedition. When he left Norway on August 9, 1910, only his brother and a few of the crew of his ship, the Fram, knew of the true destination. The rest were informed a month later at the Fram's one stop Madiera. No one departed the expedition.
Amundsen would later be criticized, particularly by supporters of Scott, that this silence was dishonorable. Amundsen defended his decision this way,
"I knew I should be able to inform Captain Scott of the extension of my plans before he left civilization, and therefore a few months sooner or later could be of no great importance. Scott's plan and equipment were so widely different from my own that I regarded the telegram that I sent him later, with the information that we were bound for the Antarctic regions, rather as a mark of courtesy than as a communication which might cause him to alter his programme in the slightest degree. The British expedition was designed entirely for scientific research. The Pole was only a side-issue, whereas in my extended plan it was the main object. On this little détour science would have to look after itself; but of course I knew very well that we could not reach the Pole by the route I had determined to take without enriching in a considerable degree several branches of science."
Scott's Terra Nova Expedition (named after his ship) was indeed very much oriented around science (19 of the 33 member land party were "scientific staff"). But the phrases ". . . entirely for scientific research . . ." and the"Pole was only a side-issue . . ." are misleading.Achievement of the Pole was the reason for most of the public support and much of financial backing of Scott's expedition, and it was at the forefront of the minds of most of the expedition members. The science was indeed important, but the pole equally so. Amundsen's objective was strictly the attainment of pole. Science would be conducted to the greatest extent possible, but was secondary.
Scott's preparation for the Pole effort did not consider the possibility of being in a race. Other expeditions were being talked about, but none making a direct bid to the pole simultaneous with Scott. Further, Scott's plan was structured around simply getting to the pole and back within the time constraints imposed by Antarctic weather, accepted by most with Antarctic experience as mid-October and mid-March. Out-side of that window, temperatures and weather went from being the usual "dangerous" to "probably fatal."
Scott adopted a plan that reflected the uncertainty of the time about how best to travel in Antarctica - specifically how to haul the sledges that carried food, tents, cooking fuel, ropes, clothes, and other necessities. Rather than relying on just one means, as did Amundsen (who arrived with 110 dogs to pull his sledges and considered no alternative), Scott tried a combination of four:
- Dogs. Scott had been frustrated by the ineffectiveness of dogs during his earlier Discovery Expedition, but they were recognized as being essential in some degree because of their ability to handle the cold and in the end to be a food supply.
- Ponies had been used with some success by Shackleton's Nimrod Expedition. The military men of the British expedition were experienced and comfortable with ponies, but their weight and ability to handle severe cold meant that they would be of use only when the Antarctic spring was well advanced.
- Motor sledges, tested in cold of Norway but never in the frigid conditions of Antarctica, reflected the revolution that was taking place in modern society. These vehicles were the forerunners of the model snowmobile, the standard means of transportation in Antarctica today.
- Man hauling of sledges. Ultimately Scott's greatest faith was in his comrades. His own experience on the Ice Barrier with the Discovery Expedition informed him of how hard man-hauling sledges would be, and so dogs, ponies, and motors would help. Further, he knew that man-hauling required more food for the expedition members and careful attention had to be given to such details as the sweat resulting from the exertion which affecting what clothes to wear, how boots were taken off and put on, and even the accumulation of frost in sleeping bags.
Scott's plan looks complex in hindsight. However, it looked at the time to be a plan built with an eye to safety and back up to possible failures. If the motor sledges, ponies, or dogs failed, then the others would cover the failure. The main recognized challenge of this multi-pronged approach was that it required time—144 days. This would take most of the season, from mid-October to mid-March. This, above all else, was the great risk of Scott's plan. Every day would be dangerous to the men and would test their fitness and endurance; and every extra day far from base camp would compound those risks as the conditions wore out the men and everything they needed. Many things could prove fatal, a fall into a crevasse or a minor injury that would not heal, a shortage of food or cooking fuel, the failure or loss of boots or clothing or any one of a dozen essential items, or a blizzard, or an early arrival of winter's extreme cold temperature, and always frost bite attacking their faces, their fingers, their toes.
Amundsen's approach was, by contrast, simple. Dogs and more dogs (Eskimo dogs from Greenland)—and speed—to the pole and back in 100 days. His expedition, and Norwegian explorers generally, were experienced and comfortable with dogs; dogs would pull until unable or unnecessary and then would be killed and become food for the remaining dogs or the men—food that carried itself and required no hauling. The men would slide along on skis on which they were experienced and agile. This approach significantly reduced the number of unknowns and decisions required, and it was also a less taxing on the men day-to-day.
Yet, Amundsen did faced many uncertainties that are often over looked in hindsight.
- His Base. Amundsen proposed to base himself on Ice Barrier where is formed a Bay and sloped down to the Ross Sea. Shackleton considered this location, which he named the Bay of Whales, too risky because of the possibility that the Barrier would "calve" a new tabular ice berg and the entire base either would float away into the sea or worse. This, in fact, actually happened many decades later.
- His Dogs. The poor experience of the Discovery Expedition with dogs was well known. And the temperatures of Antarctica was significantly colder than their Arctic counterparts, particularly on the high altitudes of the Antarctic Plateau. Amundsen's confidence in his dogs would be justified but it was not so clear at the time.
- His route. What Amundsen would find, heading south from his base this point was unknown. How far the Ice Barrier extended, how it transitioned to land and then rise up over 9,000 feet to the Antarctic Plateau were all unknowns. It might prove impossible to even ascend from Barrier to Plateau. He assumed that the Transantarctic Mountains extended east from where Shackleton had observed them, and assumed that glaciers would provide a pathway through them. Even if correct, the details of terrain over which he had no power would make the difference between success and failure.
In October 1910, Scott arrived in Australia, en route to Antarctica and received a telegraph stating simply "Beg to inform you Fram proceeding Antarctic - Amundsen". Outwardly, Scott asserted that this made no difference to his plan. Indeed, given the type of expedition that had been planned, it was very difficult to change much at such a late stage. The entire expedition was shocked and keenly aware, however, that a race to be first to the South Pole was underway.
Both expeditions arrived at their bases in the Antarctic summer of January 1910 and set about establishing their bases.
The first fews months of both expeditions were spent establishing depots of supplies for the South Pole effort in the following season. Amundsen, starting farther south, established depots at 80°S, 81°S, and 82°S. With the dogs, he was able to travel 17 or more miles with loaded sledges on most days, and made three runs with supplies. Scott, moving at half the speed could make only one journey targeting his farthest depot (named "One Ton Depot") at 80°S. However, this goal was compromised when the ponies began to weaken and succumb, and the One Ton Depot was established at 79° 29' S, 35 miles short of the target—with unforeseeable consequences one year later.
before leaving on his depot laying journey, Scott sent a party in the Terra Nova east across the face of the Ice Barrier to explore King Edward VII Land. Unable to find a landing place, the party turned around and, on February 4, discovered Amundsen's party at the Bay of Whales. It was a cordial meeting with offers of assistance—that were not taken up. Scott learned of Amundsen's location and one hundred dogs while returning from laying depots.
It was clear to Scott, that if Amundsen found a good route to the pole, the Norwegian would likely get there first for two reasons, which he recorded in his diary:
"The proper, as well as wiser, course for us is to proceed exactly as though this had not happened. To go forward and do our best for the honor of the country without fear or panic. There is no doubt that Amundsen's plan is a serious menace to ours. He has a shorter distance to the Pole by 60 miles—I never thought he could have got so many dogs safely to the ice. His plan for running them seems excellent. But above all he can start his journey early in the season—an impossible condition with ponies."
On April 21, the sun did not appear and did not return until August 24. During the Antarctic winter, preparations continued. Food and supplies were measured and packed carefully. Amundsen's team managed to reduce the weight of their sledges by two-thirds. Scott's team carried out a mid-winter scientific expedition to Cape Crozier to collect the eggs of Emperor Penguins. It took 19 days to cover the 60 miles across the island and one participant, Apsley Cherry-Garrard, dubbed it ". . . the worst journey ever." Another group, the "Northern Party," overwintered at Cape Adare in preparation for research and exploration in the Antarctic spring.
Amundsen attempted an early start on September 8 with sledges; leaving just one man behind at their base Framheim. It proved still too cold for the dogs and they returned to Framheim nine days later in some disarray. There appears to have been some criticism of Amundsen and three men were reassigned from the south pole expedition to explore King Edwards VII Land.
Meanwhile, Scott lead a scientific expedition to Ferrar Glacier to measure movement of the glacier as a follow up to a study started by members of the expedition in February and March.
On October 19, Amundsen set out again. This time with Olav Bjaaland, Helmer Hanssen, Sverre Hassel and Oscar Wisting. Five men, four sledges, 52 dogs (13 per sledge) and provisions for four months in addition to what had been stockpiled in the three depots.
Scott's expedition got partially underway on October 24 when four men started out with the two remaining motor-sledges (a third had fallen through the ice into McMurdo Sound while being unloaded from the Terra Nova in January). The first motor-sledge had already failed, the second failed on November 3, and the four men of the motor party began to man-haul their sledges. The main body of the expedition, twelve men, including Scott, with ponies and dogs started out on November 1, thirteen days after Amundsen. All converged at 80°30'S on November 21.
Meanwhile, Amundsen's expedition, moving swiftly and taking rests at depots, had reach and passed their existing depots at 80°S (October 22), 81°S (October 29), 82°S (November 3) and established new depots at 83°S (November 8), 84°S (November 12), and 85°S (November 15). On Amundsen's route, the Ice Barrier extended an hundred miles farther south than Scott's. On November 17, Amundsen began ascending through the Transantarctic Mountains via the 30-mile long Axel Heiberg Glacier (a shorter, and therefore steeper, ascent than the Beardmore Glacier). On the day Scott's men gathered at 80°30'S, Amundsen's team had already reached the Antarctic Plateau at 10,920 feet altitude at 85°36'S. Twenty-four of his remaining 42 dogs were killed at their camp named "Butcher's Shop". The slain dogs were eaten by survivors—and a sizable amount of meat was cached in a depot for the return trip. A blizzard kept the Norwegians in camp for four days.
After sending two men back, Scott's team reached the end of the Ice Barrier on December 4 and was halted by a blizzard for four days. On December 9 the ponies were killed and the meat stored in a depot. Two days later, on the lower reaches of the Beardmore Glacier, Scott sent the remaining dogs back with two men and continued his ascent.
On the Antarctic Plateau, Amundsen was making steady progress. One sledge had been left at the "Butcher's Shop" and three sledges continued, each with six dogs. They established depots at 86°S (November 27), and 86° 47'S (December 2), discovered more mountains on the Plateau, crossed Devil's Glacier, passed Shackleton's Farthest South (88°23'S), and established another depot at 88°25'S on December 7.
On December 14, as Scott was still ascending the glacier, Amundsen's team reached a South Pole position as judged by reckoning of distance at 3 p.m. and named the area King Haakon VII's Plateau. Observation of sun at midnight resulted in a latitude of 89°56'S. Further measurements gave 89°54' 30"S and so the team trekked an additional 6.2 miles (10 km) to their new calculated position of the South Pole arriving at 11 a.m. on December 16. They took further measurements over a 24 hour period and two men trekked 4.3 miles (7 km) to "encircle" the pole area.
Amundsen's team set up a tent—bedecked with the Norwegian flag and Fram's pendant—that they named "Polheim". They had traveled 870 miles from Framheim base camp. They left messages in the tent, including one for Scott and began the return trip. Later analysis determined Polheim to be at 89° 58.6'S about 1.8 miles (3 km) from the precise position of the South Pole. Amundsen's team were as close as could be determined reasonably with the instruments of the time and the "encirclement" of the pole area was carried out in recognition of this uncertainty.
On December 20, Scott reached the Antarctic Plateau with a party of 12. Two days later, at 85°20'S, four men were sent back. As 1911 came to a close, Scott and Amundsen were at the same latitude, near 87°S, one continuing south and one returning north.
On January 4, at 87°32'S, Scott sent another three men back and began the final push to the South Pole with four others. Five days later, the final team passed Shackleton's Farthest South (88°23'S). On this day, Amundsen was back on the Ice Barrier.
On January 16, as they closed in on the pole, Scott records:
"The worst has happened, or nearly the worst. We marched well in the morning and covered 7.5 miles. Noon sight showed us in Lat. 89° 42' S., and we started off in high spirits in the afternoon, feeling that to-morrow would see us at our destination. About the second hour of the March, Bowers' sharp eyes detected what he thought was a cairn; . . . . Half an hour later he detected a black speck ahead. . . We marched on, found that it was a black flag tied to a sledge bearer; near by the remains of a camp; sledge tracks and ski tracks going and coming and the clear trace of dogs' paws—many dogs. This told us the whole story. The Norwegians have forestalled us and are first at the Pole. It is a terrible disappointment, and I am very sorry for my loyal companions. Many thoughts come and much discussion have we had. To-morrow we must march on to the Pole and then hasten home with all the speed we can compass. All the day dreams must go; it will be a wearisome return."They reached the pole on the following day (January 17). Scott's wrote "The Pole. Yes, but under very different circumstances from those expected."
On January 25, as Scott's team made steady progress north across the Antarctic Plateau, Amundsen arrived back at his base, Framheim, at 4 a.m., with two sledges, 11 dogs and all five men in good condition. A journey of approximately 1,860 miles covered in 99 days.
On February 7, Scott's team reached the top of the Beardmore Glacier and began their descent. One member of the team, Edgar Evans struggled more than the rest. Evans had cut his hand on the outward journey and it had not healed. Also, he also suffered more than the rest from frost bite. On February 4, Evans fell into a crevasse and was further weakened. His progress, and that of the expedition, slowed. On February 17, he fell behind. The others found him "on his knees with clothing disarranged, hands uncovered and frostbitten, and a wild look in his eyes." He died in the tent that night, near the base of the Beardmore Glacier.
On the Ice Barrier, the temperature was unusually severe that year (a fact Scott's recognized at the time and was proven by the establishment of modern meteorological stations established near his route in the 1980s). The cold both impacted the men directly (especially Lawrence "Titus" Oates) and made the pulling of the sledges carrying their supplied extremely difficult. The team's progress slowed again.
On March 10, the group were less than 70 miles from the One Ton Depot where two members of the expedition had come with extra supplies and two dog-pulled sledges. The two waited for eight days, until their own supplies were running low, before returning to base.
On March 15, Oates asked to be left behind in his sleeping bag but was urged on by the others. In the tent on the following morning, Oates declared "I am just going outside and may be some time." He then walked out of the camp to certain death.
The three remaining members continued north but, on March 20, an extreme blizzard stopped all progress for the remaining three (Scott, Edward Wilson, and "Birdie Bowers) just 11 miles short of the One Ton Depot, the depot that was 35 miles farther north than planned. Scott had a badly frostbitten right foot and the plan was for the others to proceed to the depot and return with fuel. The storm probably abated after two or three days, but all three remained in their tent until their supplies ran out. Each wrote in their diaries and letters. Also, Scott wrote a "Message to Public" in defense of the expedition and explaining the reasons he believed the polar team came to the end that they were facing.
The last record was in Scott's diary was March 29, 1912.
"Since the 21st we have had a continuous gale from W.S.W. and S.W. We had fuel to make two cups of tea apiece and bare food for two days on the 20th. 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."
The bodies of Bowers, Scott and Wilson were discovered by a relief party nearly eight months later, on November 12. The remains of Oates and Evans were never found.
Other elements of the Terra Nova Expedition continued with science and some adventure. The Northern Party had been moved to Evans Cove, mid-way between Cape Adare and Ross Island to conduct geologic work. Sea ice prevented them from being picked up by the Terra Nova, in February 1912, and they were force to overwinter in an ice cave on Inexpressible Island. They struggled into base in five days before the relief party found Scott, Wilson and Bowers. Also, another geologic party had failed to be picked up, but were spotted trekking back to Cape Evans and were rescued. The significant scientific accomplishments were naturally overshadowed by the tragedy of the five members of the polar party.
On January 18, 1913, the Terra Nova, arrived at Cape Evans to pick up the expedition at the conclusion of their two-year stay in Antarctica.
There has been much debate over the causes of the Scott expedition's loss, especially when compared to the relative ease with which the Amundsen team had accomplished the same task. Initially considered a hero, Scott has be criticized for various decisions that may have contributed to the disaster, especially his limited use of dogs. Defenders of Scott have noted, however, that his decisions were reasonable given what was known at the time and given that the unusually extreme weather conditions they found on the Ice barrier that year were completely unpredictable. The duration required by Scott's plan, 144 days, was probably the most important fact. Each day brought risks, even to the most experienced and prepared explorers. Its now seems clear that the Antarctic winter did not provide Scott the time he needed.
- The South Pole: An Account of the Norwegian Antarctic Expedition in the Fram, 1910-1912, Roald Amundsen, Interlink Publishing Group, 2003 ISBN: 0815411278.
- Race to the South Pole, Roald Amundsen, White Star, 2007, ISBN: 8854402176.
- Scott's Last Expedition, by Robert Falcon Scott, Oxford University Press, 2007 ISBN: 0199536805.
- The Worst Journey in the World, by Apsley Cherry-Gerrard, Basic Books, 1922 ISBN: 0143039385.
- South with Scott, by Garth Russel Evans, Admiral Lord Mount Evans, Collins, 1952 (ASIN: B000S7APNM).
- The Quiet Land: The Diaries of Frank Debenham : Member of the British Antarctic Expedition, 1910-1913,by June Debenham Back, Hyperion Books, 1993 ISBN: 1852970375.
- In The Antarctic Stories of Scott's Last Expedition, by Frank Debenham, John Murray, 1952 (ASIN:B000OAJMU0).
- The Norwegian With Scott: The Antarctic Diary of Tryggve Gran, 1910-13, by G. Hattersley Smith, Stationery Office, 1984 ISBN: 0112903827.
- The diary of W. Lashly: A record of the return journey of the last supporting party with Capt. Scott to the South Pole,by W. Lashley, University of Reading, 1938 (ASIN: B000891OEE).
- The Great White South: Traveling with Robert F. Scott's Doomed South Pole Expedition, by Herbert Ponting, Cooper Square Press, 2002 ISBN: 0815411618.
- The Coldest March: Scott's Fatal Antarctic Expedition, Susan Solomon, Yale University Press, 2002 ISBN: 0300099215.
- A First Rate Tragedy: Robert Falcon Scott and the Race to the South Pole- Diana Preston, Mariner Books, 1999 ISBN: 0618002014.
- South Pole: A Narrative History of the Exploration of Antarctica by Anthony Brandt, NG Adventure Classics, 2004 ISBN: 0792267974.
- Index to Antarctic Expeditions, Scott Polar Research Institute, retrieved November 1, 2008
- [Exploring Polar Frontiers: An Historical Encyclopedia, William James Mills, ABC-CLIO, 2003 ISBN: 1576074226.
- Scott of the Antarctic: A Biography, David Crane, Vintage, 2007 ISBN: 1400031419.
- The Last Place on Earth, Roland Huntford, Modern Library, 1999 ISBN: 0375754741.
- Scott and Amundsen, Roland Huntford, Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1993 ISBN: 0297813811.
- I May Be Some Time: Ice and the English Imagination, Francis Spufford, Palgrave Macmillan, 1999 ISBN: 0312220812.
- Antarctic History, Polar Conservation Organization, retrieved February 16, 2009