Tuesday, June 06, 2006

Con Scott

"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." -- Scott’s last diary entry, March 29, 1912.

Antarctic explorer Robert Falcon Scott was born on this day in 1868 in Devonport, England.

Con Scott’s conquest of the South Pole is one of the most brutal and heartbreaking stories of modern exploration. While he took greater risks, showed more grit and suffered through greater hardships than most of his contemporaries, he was unfortunately given less recognition for it in his day; today, however, one can scarcely talk about the successes of his chief rivals, Roald Amundsen and Ernest Shackleton, without pausing to give tribute to Scott’s tragic record and lamenting his naive belief in his own invincibility.

An officer in the British Royal Navy, at 32 Scott was given the command of the National Antarctic Expedition, which was to be an exploration of the ice barrier discovered by Sir James Clark Ross in the Antarctic Sea in 1841. During the 1901-04 expedition, Scott led his crew (which included Shackleton) into Antarctic waters further than any explorer before him and spotted the Antarctic continent. Despite dropping anchor and waiting for the summer thaw, Scott was unable to go any further due to the build-up of pack ice; an attempt to cross the Ross ice shelf resulted in a grueling, unsuccessful 59-day dogsled trek.

As the man who had gotten closest to the South Pole, Captain Scott was welcomed as a hero when he returned to England, but he was not satisfied -- and neither was his spirited fiancee/later wife, the beautiful young sculptor Kathleen Bruce. They both determined that Scott should go back and find the South Pole. On June 1, 1910 -- 2 years after Shackleton’s unsuccessful attempt, and a year or so after Commander Peary reached the North Pole -- Scott set out with a crew of eleven on the ship Terra Nova to become the first man to reach the South Pole. Upon reaching Melbourne, Australia in October, Scott received word that a Norwegian party, led by Roald Amundsen, was also on its way to the South Pole, racing him to become the first to reach the South Pole.

Scott landed at his Ross Island base camp in January 1911, and spent the winter setting up supply depots; Amundsen did the same from the Bay of Whales, a much better starting point as it turned out. Amundsen left his base camp for the Pole in mid-October 1911. Scott’s party left 2 weeks later, traveling on dog sleds, Siberian ponies and experimental motorized vehicles. Within a few days into the continent, however, in the midst of ferocious blizzards, the vehicles had worn out and the ponies had died, leading Scott somewhat smugly (and calamitously) to prefer man-hauling over dog-hauling for the rest of the trek.

With 7 of his men turning back due to exhaustion and frostbite, Scott pressed on with 4 of his crew: Lawrence Oates, Edward A. Wilson, Henry Bowers and Edgar Evans. Scott and his party arrived at the South Pole on January 18, 1912, only to discover the Norwegian flag planted there by Amundsen on the previous December 14. Utterly discouraged after the brutal journey, Scott wrote in his journal, "This is an awful place, and terrible enough for us to have laboured to it without the reward of priority." Along the 800-mile return trek, Scott decided to collect as many geological specimens as he could, perhaps in hopes of achieving at least some scientific distinction for his efforts, but in the course of doing so delayed the return by several weeks.

Evans was the first to crack under the strain; he died a short distance before reaching the last supply camp on the Beardmore Glacier. After traversing the Queen Maud Mountains, the badly frostbitten Oates knew he could go no farther and announced he was going to leave the tent for a few minutes. He was never seen again, leading Scott to speculate that Oates sacrificed himself so as not to be a burden on the others. Less than 11 miles from the last supply depot and 200 miles away from base camp, on March 20, 1912 Scott, Wilson and Bowers were stopped by another violent white-out. Scott and his comrades died in their sleeping bags after using up all their food and fuel, and were not discovered until the following November. Meanwhile, the surviving members of Scott’s team (the ones who turned back early) waited in a snow cave at base camp, subsisting on penguin and seal meat, until they were finally rescued in October 1912.

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