This Week in History: Robert Falcon Scott reaches the South Pole in tragic quest in 1912
Jan. 17, 1912, should have been a triumphant day for the intrepid British explorer Captain Robert Falcon Scott and his four colleagues—Captain Lawrence Oates, Petty Officer Edgar Evans, Lieutenant Henry Bowers and Edward Wilson. After weeks trekking across hazardous frozen terrain, they believed they were the first people to reach the last unexplored land on Earth—the South Pole. But Scott’s greatest fear came true when Bowers spotted a flag at the pole. The flag had been placed by the Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen, whose team had reached the spot five weeks earlier, on Dec. 14, 1911. Scott, his spirit crushed, wrote in his diary “The POLE. Yes, but under very different circumstances from those expected. Great God! this is an awful place and terrible enough for us to have laboured to it without reward of priority.”
The race to the South Pole was one of the most reported events of the 1900’s. Scott set out with 15 men on Nov. 1, 1911, from Cape Evans, Ross Island, at the northwestern corner of the Ross Ice Shelf. This location was about 800 miles (1,300 kilometers) from the pole, about 60 miles (100 kilometers) farther than Amundsen’s journey, which had begun on Oct. 11. Scott tried using motorized sleds to carry some supplies and using ponies as well as dogs to pull other sleds. But the ponies and motor sleds bogged down in the soft snow. Eventually, the men had to drag the sleds, and food soon ran low. In mid-December, the dog teams turned back. By January 1912, only Scott and his four fellows remained. They reached the pole on Jan. 17, only to find Amundsen’s flag, along with a note from the explorer and some provisions he had left for them.
Although severely disappointed, Scott did not consider the mission a failure. The dejected team dutifully set about with various scientific studies and measurements—something Amundsen’s team ignored on their race to be first. After taking a few last photographs of the team, the explorers began their return. But cold, hunger, and exhaustion severely weakened the explorers as bad weather set in. Evans died on February 17, a few weeks after he was injured in a fall on the trail. By March, Oates was suffering from severe frostbite. Knowing he could not last much longer, he walked out of the tent one night as the men were sheltering from a raging snowstorm. Stoic to the end, his last words to his colleagues as he left never to be seen again were “I’m just going outside, and may be some time.”
Late in March, a blizzard forced Scott and his two remaining assistants to make camp only 11 miles (18 kilometers) from fresh food and supplies. Trapped by the weather as heating oil and food ran low, the survivors knew the fate that awaited them. Scott’s final letter, dated March 29, read, “It seems a pity, but I do not think I can write more. R Scott … For God’s sake look after our people.” A search party found their frozen bodies 8 months later along with the scientific data and diaries the men had recorded to the end. The searchers covered the remains of the tent and built a cairn of rocks, snow, and ice to mark the location. Today, Scott’s doomed expedition is remembered as an example of courage and fortitude in the face of great adversity.