Antarctica 1911-12: The Journey That Killed a Great Explorer

Of all the journeys that have been undertaken, few have been as tragic as the “race to the pole” between Britain’s Robert Scott and Norwegian Roald Amundsen. Both Scott and Amundsen were reputed explorers and each wanted to be the first human being to set foot on the South Pole. It was a bitter race and one that was tinged with controversy – many supporters of Scott claimed that Amundsen had not revealed his plans of setting out for the South Pole in an attempt to ensure he got there first. Both men used different techniques of travel in the dodgy snow – Scott and his team preferred using man-hauling techniques to get their sledges across the snow while Amundsen had no qualms in using dogs.

After arriving on the frozen continent, Amundsen and his team set out for the Pole on October 19, 1911, with five men and 52 dogs. Scott’s team was a larger one and started out on November 1, 1911, but was trimmed down to five men with sleds for the final push to the pole. As this was a time when communications were primitive and both teams had started out for the Pole from different parts of the continent,  neither knew how well or poorly the other was doing. It was a bleak landscape with nothing other than vast stretches of snow to see. Food was in short supply and breathing far from easy as the temperature dipped below zero time and again.

It was perhaps the greatest race in human history with two teams attempting to claim a prize without knowing where the other was, using different techniques. Scott’s team made it to the Pole after travelling through some very bad weather on January 17, 1912, only to find Amundsen’s team’s tent there with a letter in it, announcing that the Norwegians had reached the Pole 35 days earlier. “The worst has happened,” a distraught Scott wrote in his diary, adding “Great God! This is an awful place.”

It was a place through which he and his teammates had however to trudge more than a thousand kilometres, pulling heavy sleds . As the weather worsened, they found themselves moving at a very slow pace and using up supplies much faster than they had planned. Their odds of surviving were reducing. One of the team members, Lawrence Oates, was so badly affected by frostbite that he could barely walk. Knowing that he was slowing down the team, he suddenly walked out of the tent on 16 March, telling his teammates, “I am just going outside and may be some time.” He would never return, having opted to sacrifice himself to give his team a better chance of survival.

His sacrifice would be in vain. On March 19, Scott and his friends found themselves trapped in a snowstorm, still 11 miles from a depot that contained fuel and food. They tried to start out every day but were kept inside by roaring winds and as their food finished, they literally froze to death. On March 29, Scott made the last entry in his diary: “Last entry. For God’s sake look after our people.” He is believed to have perished shortly thereafter, a mere eleven miles from safety. The weather was so bad that those of his team who were on the other part of the continent could not even form a rescue party to save him.

The bodies of Scott and his friends were discovered on 12 November 1912, when a team finally made it to their tent. It was more than a year since he had started out on the race that had claimed his life. There has been a lot of subsequent analysis of the tactics followed by Scott and Amundsen, with some blaming Scott for using too heavy sledges and others accusing Amundsen of being unfair by starting out early and using dogs, but the fact remains that the race to the Pole in Antarctica in 1911-12 was one of the most dramatic – and tragic – journeys in its history.

Amundsen won in the end, but at a great cost. The world had lost a great explorer.

Suggested Reading: Books

* Scott and Amundsen: The Last Place On Earth by Roland Huntford
* The South Pole: An Account of the Norwegian Expedition in the Fram, 1910-1912 by Roald Amundsen
* Journals: Scott’s Last Expedition by Captain Robert Scott
* The Worst Journey in the World by Apsley Cherry-Garrard
* The Coldest March: Scott’s Fatal Antarctic Expedition by Susan Solomon
* Captain Scott by Sir Ranulph Fiennes

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