Robert Falcon Scott. In my mind, one of the greatest explorers of the early 1900’s. Behind Shackleton, he’s one of the main archetypes of the golden age of discovery. His legacy is palpable to anyone that’s ever set foot on the continent of Antarctica and just as tragic. If you don’t know the story, it’s full of excitement and intrigue, along with soul-crushing disappointment and catastrophic events that eventually unraveled upon the great captain of the British Naval Fleet.
Captain Scott grew up with a middle-class family that had a small estate and owned a small brewery. He grew up with a bunch of siblings in a stable family. He was also a daydreamer, small and weakly for his age, and extremely apathetic towards everything society saw as normal in that age. He struggled to overcome these attributes that were considered weaknesses all his life, never really shedding these perceived character flaws. Although, in my mind these attributes are what made him such an accomplished and important perceivable character in the history of this place. Nicknamed Con, he will always be in my mind as the toughest explorer and leader to aspire to.
When he joined the Naval Force, he worked his way through ships and rankings, eventually landing himself as an officer having dinner with the Commodore, Albert Markham. The Commodore’s cousin was present, who was a prominent geographer at the time. Con so thoroughly impressed him with his charm, enthusiasm, and pure intelligence. He later wrote about how Captain Scott was the pre-destined man to lead the most scientifically advantageous expedition of their century. After his father died, his favorite younger brother died, and his family became penniless, he eventually ended up getting random qualifying and good paying jobs throughout the Naval Forces. All the while, he had 3 chance meetings with the Commodore’s cousin. In these meetings, Con expressed his restlessness within the Navy and Markham urged him to apply to be a Captain for Naval exploration missions.
He eventually ended up beating out any other contender to lead the Antarctic expedition and led the highly equipped ship, Discovery, to the most harrowing and scientifically significant expedition into the Antarctic. Being the first expedition of the 20th century into this icy wasteland of snow and glaciers and monolithic mountains, he helmed a legacy that was later carried on by his predecessors and grandchildren for the preservation of Antarctica and the science that it contained. After this first expedition, he went on to travel England giving lectures and beginning preparations to write a book, which he felt he wasn’t qualified for. He went on to say that he would probably never return to the polar regions.
It took Con 8 years to return to the icy south and only a year after the Discovery mission to be goaded by the scientific community into leading another expedition into Antarctica. In this time, he became a prominent figure in the British Naval Force, a husband and father to a son, and a respected man in the science community. His expedition had found hundreds of new species of animals and many fossils with plants embedded, persisting on the focus of the mission to be completely scientific. After Shackleton’s first attempt at traversing Antarctica to the South Pole and was knighted, an accomplishment the Captain had missed that caused public outcry in favor for Scott, he started to gather funds and plan for the trip.
Scott procured a ship named the Terra Nova. He also bought 20 ponies, 34 sled dogs, and experimental motor sledges. Undoubtedly, this is one of the mistakes that ended up being his downfall. His plan was to get the ponies to drag the sledges a majority of the way up until they reached the glaciers of interior Antarctica. The dogs would be used for a majority of the way, sending them back with the support crew to help with the return trip. They would effectively kill off each pony along the way, leaving extra caches of food for the return trip. What they didn’t realize was that the pony hoof was less stable than dog paws and sank in the snow much deeper. Only a few ponies actually survived the winter before they even started out for the pole and many of the motor sledges broke before they were able to be used on the journey south.
When Scott and his men finally made it to Antarctica, they set up their camp on Cape Evans, just north of Hut Point where his first trip was based in. After exhaustive amounts of work by his men, they got the Cape Evans hut set up. Not soon after that, Scott got word that Roald Amundsen, the Norwegian explorer that was charged with reaching the North Pole first but was supposedly beaten by an American Navy engineer, turned his ship towards Antarctica for a race to the South Pole. He kept this quiet among his men until the very last-minute, however, until Roald Amundsen himself showed up next to the Cape Evans Hut with a team of the most highly trained dogs Scott had ever seen. Amundsen said he was going to forestall his efforts until the end of winter for sufficient time to set up, effectively giving Scott reason to keep the scientific mission in place through the end of winter. Unknown to Scott, Amundsen was actually planning to leave a month before Scott with his sled dogs and no ponies.
As winter ended, Scott began his journey. Starting out with his whole crew and slowly chipping away at the team at each depot. Each group was used as support crew to help carry supplies to the next depot and would be sent back to Cape Evans. He ended up with 6 total, including himself. After incredible bouts of endurance after the last support crew left, their mental capacities became strained. When he finally reached the South Pole, he found the Norwegian’s flag already embedded in the ground. They had made it to the Pole just 21 days shy of Amundsen, completely shattering all resolve from the tired and beaten men. They also found a cairn made by Amundsen with letters written by his 4 men and a picture. Not only did they lose the anticipation of having reached the Pole first, they also had to drag their sledges back nearly 900 miles to Cape Evans.
The cost to Scott and his men getting to the pole was unimaginable. With almost primitive equipment compared to the gear being developed today, these men dragged their sledges with just chest harnesses through worse conditions than I can even imagine. Their return trip started out dismal and only got worse. The same day they found the flag and cairn at the South Pole, a force 5 gale came down on them and forced them to set up camp much earlier than intended. The temperatures had fallen below -50 degrees and that first night was miserable for the men, giving 2 of Scott’s men major frost bite. The return trip started out fairly well but the drop in temperature with each step started becoming more and more noticeable.
Soon after starting back, each man who Scott lead back to Cape Evans slowly started to mentally break. Their mental capacity was so low at times that it left little room for error if anything happened. Even trips and falls walking on the ice would mentally weigh on them more than the actual physical injury should have. One even got separated from the group, being found on his knees with a wild look on his face several minutes later. The next day, this crew member died. This demoralized state was made worse by how much oil at each depot had evaporated from poor sealant on the canisters, leaving them with an alarmingly low amount.
The major disruption in Scott’s original support crew plan was to have a team meet them at a mountain past the edge of the glaciers with a team of dogs to help them get to the next depot but the support crew member that was supposed to lead the dogs was indisposed, leaving a noticeably less apt person in means of navigation to meet Scott. Instead, he posted 72 miles north at the next depot nearest the mountain. The distraught nature of Scott’s men when they found out there was no relief at that point was undeniably the last straw. 3 men had already died at this point, mustering just 20 miles from the depot where the dogs were posted at.
As they approached 11 miles from the depot, an incredible blizzard stopped them in their tracks. Completely out of oil and only 2 days of food left, they were indefinitely stuck in their tent. The blizzard ended up lasting 12 days, effectively obliterating any chance they had in reaching those last few miles. After months of hardship and extreme conditions, they had died for no other reason than how ridiculously harsh the Antarctic climate can be. They just couldn’t tame it. Scott wrote his last journal entry, telling whoever found him to send this diary to his widow. Miraculously, he wrote 12 legible and complete letters despite being 3/4 frozen and half-starved to his closest family and friends. In the letters was a letter to his wife regarding his son. He wrote that she should encourage his son to be interested in natural history since it’s better than any game and how much satisfaction he had from knowing that his dear wife and son are safe. This showed how much he cared for the science that him and his men were doing. When his body was found, within his belongings were hundreds of sketches and writings about every type of science you can imagine all the way up until he died. To one of his closest friends, he wrote:
“I may not have proved a great explorer but we have done the greatest march ever made and come very near to great success”
I believe that because he was able to give himself to the journey no matter the risk, this contradicted his statement on how he proved to not be a great explorer. Also contained in the writings was a letter to the public. He wrote about how the expedition’s disastrous outcome was not due to poor planning, nor was it anyone’s fault. He also wrote:
“but for my own sake I do not regret this journey, which has shown that Englishmen can endure hardships, help one another, and meet death with as great a fortitude as ever in the past. We took risks, we knew we took them; things have come out against us, and therefore we have no cause for complaint, but bow to the will of providence, determined still to do our best to the last…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 dependent on us are properly provided for”.
This public address showed how much determination and resolve he had, being optimistic until the very end. This revealed his character more than anything else could have. It must have been extremely painful to even write a word, let alone a message to England’s public about his misfortune. The strength he had to have is completely unfathomable.
When the search party finally found their tent 8 months later, it was clearly evident Scott had faced an awful death and was the last to die. His last 2 remaining crew members had seemingly passed away peacefully in their sleep, with hands crossed over their chests and bundled in their sleeping bags. They found Captain Scott half out of his sleeping bag with one arm reaching for his friend that had died next to him. His skin was yellow and he had frost bite all over him. His face was in anguish for his friend that followed him into such a desolate place just to die. The man who found them had said that never in his life would he want to lay eyes on the site he had seen in that tent.
His final resting place became his burial site with a cairn erected and an inscriptional cross posted at Hut Point, at the base of where the present McMurdo Station is. The burial site is estimated to be covered in 75 feet of ice after a century had passed and pushed nearly 30 miles closer to the sea. Eventually, it will be pushed out to the Ross Sea and drift in a glacier out to open ocean. Afterwards, England granted his wife the honor that would have been bestowed upon him, the knighthood they disappointingly refused from his with his first expedition. All the members of the ill-fated journey were commemorated and Scott became an instant national hero for more than 50 years.
In the 60’s, a few skeptics of Scott’s competency wrote books about how his leadership was the cause of the outcome for his men, not nature. Many more came out of the wood works to analyze this and his reputation was cast down among the public after it came to light of how Scott only verbalized his order for his support crew to meet him at the intended depot with the dogs that would have saved their lives. It wasn’t until 2012 that this theory was debunked by a researcher that discovered a written order of where Scott needed the men to relieve his crew.
I got the opportunity to actually visit the Cape Evans hut a few weeks back. That trip is mainly what spurred this impromptu project of mine. I wish I had done this before so I would’ve dove into the moment even more when I was walking through the hut seeing Scott’s bed and belongings. I have plenty of pictures, though. Enjoy kids!