Captain Scott's Antarctica, January 17, 1912: The Pole, yes, but not as expected

Posted: Jan 17, 2012 02:27 pm EST

(ExplorersWeb) January 17th, 1912 a British party of exhausted men reached the southernmost tip of the earth - only to find that someone else had been there before.

Instead of glory, Captain Robert F. Scott's diary entry on Jan 17, 1912 has become one of history's most brutal lessons in disappointment.

Scott's arrival at the South Pole was less than triumphant, and the Britons had already got a first glimpse of the tracks left by Amundsen’s expedition, foretelling how History would be written.

Foreboding dogs' paws

“The worst has happened, or nearly the worst,” Captain Scott wrote the previous evening. “About the second hour of the March Bowers' sharp eyes detected what he thought was a cairn; he was uneasy about it, but argued that it must be a sastrugi."

"Half an hour later he detected a black speck ahead. Soon we knew that this could not be a natural snow feature. 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. We are descending in altitude—certainly also the Norwegians found an easy way up.”

January 17 and 18

On Wednesday, January 17, 2012, Robert F. Scott poured all his frustration into his diary. “The Pole. Yes, but under very different circumstances from those expected. We have had a horrible day—add to our disappointment a head wind 4 to 5, with a temperature -22°, and companions labouring on with cold feet and hands.”

“We started at 7.30, none of us having slept much after the shock of our discovery. We followed the Norwegian sledge tracks for some way […] Then the weather overcast, and the tracks being increasingly drifted up and obviously going too far to the west, we decided to make straight for the Pole according to our calculations."

"At 12.30 Evans had such cold hands we camped for lunch—an excellent 'week-end one.' We had marched 7.4 miles. Lat. sight gave 89° 53' 37''. We started out and did 6 1/2 miles due south. To-night little Bowers is laying himself out to get sights in terrible difficult circumstances; the wind is blowing hard, T. -21°, and there is that curious damp, cold feeling in the air which chills one to the bone in no time […] Great God! this is an awful place and terrible enough for us to have laboured to it without the reward of priority.”

The day’s entry ended with a final tought about what lay ahead: the long way back. “Now for the run home and a desperate struggle. I wonder if we can do it,” Scott wrote.

A letter for King Haakon

It was in the morning of January 18, as dated in Scott’s diary, that the British team reached the neat tent left by Amundsen's team.

“We have just arrived at this tent, 2 miles from our camp, therefore about 1 1/2 miles from the Pole. In the tent we find a record of five Norwegians having been here, as follows:
Roald Amundsen
Olav Olavson Bjaaland
Hilmer Hanssen
Sverre H. Hassel
Oscar Wisting.
16 Dec. 1911.”

The tent is fine—a small compact affair supported by a single bamboo,” Scott noted. Then he found something else: “A note from Amundsen, which I keep, asks me to forward a letter to King Haakon!” (Ed note: Amundsen asked for the letter to be forwarded in case his party perished, he also wrote Scott to feel free and use the supplies left in the camp, including a sled).

Scott listed all items left in the tent, mainly clothes and measurement tools. Then reportedly left a note to report that he “had visited the tent with companions. “

The British mark, and the End

As for their own polar mark, Scott wrote:

"We built a cairn, put up our poor slighted Union Jack, and photographed ourselves—mighty cold work all of it—less than 1/2 a mile south we saw stuck up an old underrunner of a sledge. This we commandeered as a yard for a floorcloth sail. I imagine it was intended to mark the exact spot of the Pole as near as the Norwegians could fix it. (Height 9500.)"

"A note attached talked of the tent as being 2 miles from the Pole. Wilson keeps the note. There is no doubt that our predecessors have made thoroughly sure of their mark and fully carried out their programme.”

“We carried the Union Jack about 3/4 of a mile north with us and left it on a piece of stick as near as we could fix it,” Scott ended up. “Well, we have turned our back now on the goal of our ambition and must face our 800 miles of solid dragging—and good-bye to most of the daydreams!”

The team headed northwards, towards home – or rather, fate. Exactly one month later, Evans would die of exhaustion. Oates would follow on March 16. The rest found death in their last camp sometime during the two last weeks of March.

Royal Navy Captain Robert Falcon Scott (6 June 1868 – 29 March 1912) led two expeditions to the Antarctic regions: the Discovery Expedition, 1901–04, and the ill-fated Terra Nova Expedition, 1910–13.

Scott's final trip to the South Pole comprised men, motorized trucks, dogs and ponies hauling loaded sledges. The expedition began on 1 November 1911 from Cape Evans by the Ross Ice Shelf, and progressively reduced in numbers. January 4, Scott ordered half of his men back and continued on only with Edward Wilson, Henry Bowers, Lawrence Oates and Edgar Evans. The five men reached the Pole on 17 January 1912, only to find that Amundsen had preceded them by five weeks.

None of them would made it back alive. Evans died on February 17; Oates, barely able to walk due to exhaustion, frostbites and gangrene, left the tent to face death on his own on March 16.

The three remaining men made their final camp on 19 March, 11 miles (18 km) short of One Ton Depot, but 24 miles (38 km) beyond the original intended location of the depot. A storm kept them stuck for some time and, afterwards, they were simpy unable to move on. Scott's final entry on his diary was written on March 29,1912.


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Scott and his men by the tent left by Amundsen at the South Pole 5 weeks before.
SOURCE
Robert Falcon Scott's expedition team at the Pole. L/R: Oates (standing), Bowers (sitting), Scott (standing in front of Union Jack flag on pole), Wilson (sitting), Evans (standing). Bowers took this photograph, using a piece of string to operate the camera shutter. (image info: Wikipedia)
Image by Henry Bowers courtesy Wikimedia Commons, SOURCE
Captain Robert Falcon Scott, in 1905.
courtesy Wikimedia Commons, SOURCE
Captain Robert Falcon Scott, in 1905.
courtesy Wikimedia Commons, SOURCE
2011-12 Antarctica ski routes.
courtesy ExplorersWeb.com