Tragic polar expedition remembered 100 years on
Robert Falcon Scott raced through icy blizzards to reach the South Pole – only to discover he had been beaten to it. Three months later, he was dead. But why does his legend live on?
‘The worst has happened, or nearly the worst.’ This short, bitter entry in Captain Robert Falcon Scott‘s diary describes his mental torment on realising he would not be the first man to reach the South Pole.
The next day, January 17th 1912, he led his team of exhausted, frostbitten explorers past the Norwegian tent they had spotted the night before, and on to the southernmost tip of the earth. They had endured the bitterest winds on the planet and temperatures as low as -50ºC, so cold that their teeth cracked.
And yet, the worst pain they felt was the pain of defeat: a rival expedition from Norway, led by the explorer Roald Amundsen, had beaten them by nearly five weeks. Mentally and physically broken, overpowered by cold and malnourishment, neither Scott nor any of his men would survive the gruelling 800 mile return journey.
Reaching the pole was not the only motive behind the expedition. Scott’s men, both those on the polar mission and those left behind at base camp, gathered samples of over 2,000 animals, plants and rocks.
But even in this enterprise, success was often out of reach. In his book The Worst Journey in the World, expedition member Apsley Cherry-Gerrard describes how he endured life-threateningly horrible conditions and severe frostbite in order to collect some precious emperor penguin eggs. Tragically, when they were finally examined at the University of Edinburgh, it was found that they contained no embryos, making them scientifically worthless.
But despite his expedition’s failures, Scott was hailed as a hero after his death, and is still remembered today. To mark the centenary of the Terra Nova mission, The National History Museum has an ongoing Antarctica display, while the Queen’s Gallery at Buckingham Palace is opening an exhibition of photography from Scott’s trip. And Blue Peter presenter Helen Skelton yesterday completed a trip to the pole in Scott’s memory, travelling part of the way on a specially modified bike.
Some say it is not Robert Scott but Roald Amundsen we should be celebrating. He had a simpler, more efficient strategy and because of that he reached the pole quicker and with no casualties. Scott, meanwhile, made poor decisions that ultimately cost the lives of five men.
But for others, the tragic deaths of Scott and his men only add to their heroic appeal: they pushed their bodies beyond the bearable extremes of physical and mental endurance in order to achieve their goals. And – when things went wrong – Scott and the others met their fate with extraordinary courage and fortitude. To fail gracefully, it is argued, is the greatest test of human character. If so, it is a test that Scott passed with flying colours.
- Is scientific discovery more important than patriotic glory?
- Is there ever such a thing as a glorious death? Or is that just a foolish concept?
- In the form of a diary entry, write a creative piece describing one or two days of a difficult journey through extreme weather.
- As part of a group discussion and with reference to Scott’s and Amundsen’s experiences, come up with five ways in which a journey across the Antarctic would be different now.
Some People Say...
“There is nothing glorious about a failure.”
What do you think?
Q & A
- How have Scott’s discoveries actually helped science?
- The most important discovery was part of a fossilised tree. The same species was known to have grown in Africa, South America and Australia, proving that the Earth’s landmass was once joined into one massive continent. It also shows that even this far south, the climate was warm enough to support plant life of this sort. Knowledge of this history of climate change and tectonic shifts still affects how we are trying to protect the environment today.
- Doesn’t tramping around all over the Antarctic damage the environment?
- Scientific exploration shouldn’t if it is properly planned. There is an argument that ‘extreme tourism’ where people pay lots of money to be taken on treks through remote and extreme places is having a real effect on local ecologies. The peak of Everest, for instance, has a real litter problem.
- Captain Robert Falcon Scott
- Also known as ‘Scott of the Antarctic’, he had been a naval officer before he started his career as an explorer. Though friends of his said he would have been a scientist if he hadn’t joined the navy.
- Southernmost Tip
- There are technically three South Poles: Magnetic South (This moves with the Earth’s magnetic field); Ceremonial South (This is where all the flags are, but the ice sheet moves around on top of the land, so it changes position); Geographical South (This is the southernmost point on the land underneath the ice). Because Amundsen and Scott were the first to arrive, geographical and ceremonial south were in the same place.
- Terra Nova
- Meaning ‘New Land’ in Latin, this was Scott’s second Antarctic expedition. He had been on the Discovery expedition from 1901-04.