Captain Robert Falcon Scott lay cold, frostbitten and dehydrated in a tent in Antarctica. He was accompanied by two companions – Edward Wilson and “Birdie” Bowers. Knowing death was near, he lay in his frigid sleeping bag and scrawled final messages to his friends, loved ones, and supporters.
“These rough notes and our dead bodies must tell the tale,” he wrote in his Message to the Public.
Setting out 110 years ago, the original team of British explorers had hoped to be the first men to set foot on the South Pole. But when they arrived on January 17, they found that a party led by Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen had beaten them there. They headed home disheartened but still hopeful they would survive. By the end of March 1912, all five were dead.
Petty Officer Edgar Evans died from a probable brain injury from a fall into a crevasse on February 17. Next was Captain Lawrence Oates, who suffered from frostbite as he crossed the Ross Ice Shelf. Scared of holding up the party further, he walked out into the snow on the March 17 with the now famous line, “I’m just going outside and may be some time”.
The three remaining men struggled on. On March 21, they camped for the last time, dying around March 29. They lay, their tent covered by snow and ice, until their bodies were found by a search party in November 1912.
Ultimately, Scott’s death was the result of bad decisions and bad luck. He made choices that left him with a small margin for error. But if his luck had been just a little better, he may well have survived, and we’d probably view the risks he took in more positive terms.
Ponies, motor tractors, and ‘man-hauling’
Scott’s cumbersome and complex transport plans were an underlying cause of the disaster. They involved a team of dogs, 19 Manchurian ponies, and three experimental (and expensive) motor sledges.
Ponies are unsuited to Antarctica. They suffered in the cold weather, delaying the start of Scott’s journey. Worse still, many of the animals purchased were old and worn out. Two never reached Antarctica and six died on a preparatory journey in 1911.
The motor tractors were even more unsuccessful: one sank through the ice when the explorers were unloading. The others broke down near the start of the journey to the South Pole.
Consequently, the British explorers travelled much of the way to the pole, pulling their sledges without any help. This put tremendous strain on their bodies. Modern research suggests that the men were burning anything up to 6,000 calories a day, while their rations provided them with only 4,500. In contrast, Amundsen travelled to the pole with much of the work done by a team of dogs. The men actually gained weight on the return journey.
Another major problem was the fact that Scott’s team’s rations were deficient in various nutrients, such as vitamin C. As my previous research has shown, this substance had not yet been discovered and Edwardian understandings of the disease were very different from today.
Writer Roland Huntford argues that scurvy may have killed Scott and his companions. The evidence for this is far from clear cut, however.
Scott and Wilson had both suffered from scurvy before (and reported their experiences in their published accounts), but neither wrote about it in their diaries leading up to their death. Nor did any of the explorers who found Scott’s body in November 1912 mention any scurvy symptoms. Nutritional deficiencies certainly didn’t help Scott, but they probably weren’t the direct cause of his death.
Changes of plan
On his journey south, Scott made decisions that caused further problems. He had originally planned to travel to the pole with three other men. At the last minute, he took an extra person – Bowers. This made the tent cramped and increased the time it took to cook meals. It also caused logistical complications, as all the food supplies had been packed for groups of four. On the other hand, an extra man did add pulling power and meant the party had two navigators.
Scott’s original plans also involved a support party meeting him on the way back from the pole. However, due to further last minute changes of plan, miscommunication, and an array of unforeseen events at base camp, the relief journey was badly delayed. When a party was sent out, it lacked the supplies or experience to travel as far south as Scott had hoped. If a better equipped party had been sent, it might have made all the difference.
Leaking fuel cans
Antarctica is a desert. Almost all water on the continent is frozen. To get a drink, Scott and his companions had to melt ice and snow on their paraffin-burning stove. Fuel supplies were thus vital to keeping explorers hydrated.
To reduce weight, the explorers left much of their fuel in cans in depots on their way to the pole, planning to pick these up on the way back. The problem was that the cans leaked, due to faulty seals. On the way back from the pole, Scott found that many contained much less fuel than expected. Without enough water, the explorers became increasingly dehydrated, hampering their physical and mental performance.
Despite all these issues, some of Scott’s party may well have survived. One thing sealed their fate: the weather. As the climate scientist Susan Solomon has argued, the polar winter came early in 1912. The explorers experienced far colder temperatures than they were expecting. This made it harder to pull their sledge (as cold snow produces greater friction) and caused injuries through frostbites.
A final storm on March 21 trapped the explorers in their tent a few days before they died. Had the weather been different, Scott, Wilson and Bowers may have squeaked through.