Scott, Wilson and Bowers of the Antarctic: 11 miles, so near, yet so far

Posted: Mar 23, 2012 06:08 pm EDT

(Correne Coetzer) Robert Falcon Scott kept a gripping diary every day on his South Pole journey, but this week, hundred years ago he either didn’t write or wrote only a few short phrases.

Sitting out a blizzard a mere 11 miles from a depot, their food and fuel were nearly finished and he, Wilson and Bowers could hardly keep body and soul together. Desperately Scott decided that they will die a natural death:

Wednesday, March 21.— Got within 11 miles of depôt Monday night; had to lay up all yesterday in severe blizzard. Today forlorn hope, Wilson and Bowers going to depot for fuel.

Thursday, March 22 and 23.— Blizzard bad as ever — Wilson and Bowers unable to start — tomorrow last chance — no fuel and only one or two of food left — must be near the end. Have decided it shall be natural — we shall march for the depot with or without our effects and die in our tracks.

These entries were written only one week before the end. Who were Wilson and Bowers then? Here a few words about them.

Henry Robertson (Birdie) Bowers

Lieutenant Bowers was from Scottish descent. He had no polar experience when he joined Scott’s Terra Nova expedition, but was recommended by Sir Clements Markham, who had a big influence on Scott. Sir Clements was at the time ex-President of the Royal Geographical Society.

Red haired and at 5’4” the shortest in the team, Bowers’ first role was that of shopkeeper on the ship the Terra Nova. His organizational skills and good memory earned him promotion and Scott decided to take him as a member of the shore team to Cape Evans.

The worst journey in the world

On Antarctica during the winter-over of 1911, Bowers together with Edward “Bill” Wilson and Apsley Cherry-Garrard undertook a five-week, 60 miles (97 km) journey to the far side of Ross Island to collect penguin eggs. They travelled in almost total darkness and temperatures plummeting down to -70°F (nearly -60°C).

During the journey the three men were stopped in their tracks by a blizzard, which blew their tent away leaving them in the blowing snow only in their sleeping bags. Later they found the tent half a mile away between rocks. Cherry-Garrard referred to this experience as “the worst journey in the world”.

Capacity for work

In his book, which Cherry-Garrard named after this journey, he said about Bowers, “There was nothing subtle about him. He was transparently simple, straightforward and unselfish. His capacity for work was prodigious, and when his own work happened to take less than his full time he characteristically found activity in serving a scientist or exercising an animal.”

As time proved his capacity Scott left one thing after another in Bowers' hands, recalled Cherry-Garrard. “The two ways in which Bowers helped Scott most this winter [1911] were in the preparation of the plans and the working out of the weights of the Southern Journey, and in the routine work of the station, for which he was largely responsible, and which ran so smoothly.”

Cherry-Garrard wrote Bowers had the bunk above him in the hut at Cape Evans, and that when he was going to sleep he was generally standing on a chair and using his own bunk as a desk, doing administrative tasks and making lists.

Joining Scott’s South Pole team

Originally Bowers was not chosen as a member of Scott’s final polar team. He was a member of the last support team that accompanied Scott, Wilson, Oates and Evans till January 4, 1912. When the support team turned back, Scott decided to take Bowers with to the Pole even though they had prepared food for only four men.

A few days earlier Scott ordered the support team to leave their skis behind which resulted now that Bowers had to walk while the rest of the polar team had skis. Scott admitted it slowed him down. The team was within 150 miles from the Pole.

Although Scott didn’t give a reason for his decision in his diary it was probably because Bowers was a good navigator and he was eventually the one who took the readings at the Geographic South Pole.

Edward Adrian (Bill) Wilson

Since a young age Wilson would draw pictures of the wildlife and plants from the fields around the farm where he and his parents lived. He first studied Natural Sciences and later qualifying as a medical doctor.

Wilson was a close friend of Scott. He joined Scott on the 1901-1904 Discovery expedition to Antarctica in an attempt to discover the South Pole. Three weeks before this expedition he got married.

During the Discovery expedition, on November 2nd, 1902, Wilson, Scott and Ernest Shackleton set off from Cape Evans on a journey that, at the time, was the southern-most journey ever by man; on December 31st they reached 82°17'S, only 480 miles from the pole. They had travelled 960 miles in 93 days.

Terra Nova Expedition

During the 1911-12 Terra Nova South Pole expedition, Wilson played a valuable role as geologist and doctor. He took great interest in the animal and plant life as well as rock sampling.

As Scott wrote on February 9th, 1912 at an altitude of 5210 ft. they kept along the edge of moraine to the end of Mt. Buckley and stopped and “geologized”. He added that Wilson got a great find of vegetable impression in a piece of limestone, but “too tired to write geological notes.”

On this polar journey Wilson suffered from a torn leg muscle and snow blindness. Fellow team mate Titus Oates suffered from severe frostbite and constantly turned to Wilson for advice and encouragement.

Scott described Wilson as “quick, careful and dexterous, ever thinking of some fresh expedient to help the camp life; tough as steel on the traces, never wavering from start to finish.”

The South Polar Times

During their stay at Cape Evans, with both the Discovery and Terra Nova expeditions, Scott encouraged his men to contribute to what he called, The South Polar Times, a magazine about their daily life on the ice.

They would type stories, songs, poems and jokes and read them out loud to everybody. The writings were illustrated with paintings and sketches by the men and photographs printed by Herbert Ponting in his Antarctic darkroom.

Wilson typed the following poem during the Antarctic winter of 1911 and sent it in anonymously:

'The Barrier Silence'

The Silence was deep with a breath like sleep
As our sledge runners slid on the snow,
And the fate-full fall of our fur-clad feet
Struck mute like a silent blow
On a questioning 'Hush?' as the settling crust
Shrank shivering over the floe.
And the sledge in its track sent a whisper back
Which was lost in a white fog-bow.
And this was the thought that the Silence wrought,
As it scorched and froze us through,
For the secrets hidden are all forbidden
Till God means man to know.
We might be the men God meant should know
The heart of the Barrier snow,
In the heat of the sun, and the glow,
And the glare from the glistening floe,
As it scorched and froze us through and through
With the bite of the drifting snow.

The British Terra Nova polar team with Robert Falcon Scott as leader set off from Cape Evans on November 1, 1911 on their quest to discover the South Pole. The polar party who arrived at the already discovered South Pole on January 17, 1912 was Henry R. Bowers, Edward A. Wilson, Lawrence E.G. (Titus) Oates and Edgar Evans (Petty Officer Evans died on the way back, February 17, 1912 and Oates a month later).
#Polar #topstory

Moon halo and seals, Antarctic winter-over 1911. A drawing by Dr. Edward “Bill” Wilson
Image by Edward A. Wilson
See life in the Ross Sea, 1911.
Image by Edward A. Wilson
Scott's route.
courtesy National Library of Scotland
A blizzard, Antarctica 1911.
Image by Edward A. Wilson
Mount Patrick as drawn by Wilson.
Image by Edward A. Wilson
Wilson drawing.
Image by Herbert Ponting
Bowers in Antarctica.
Image by Herbert Ponting courtesy SPRI, University of Cambridge