Robert Falcon Scott

February 12, 2011

Robert Falcon Scott is one of the two or three greatest figures associated with Antarctic exploration. Born in 1868, he was a British Navy man who had a fairly conventional career until, when in his thirties, his imagination was captured by news of an Antarctic expedition in the works. He applied for a position, and in the end was chosen to lead the effort. Eventually he was to go to Antarctica twice, at the helm of two celebrated expeditions.

The first is known as the Discovery Expedition; it lasted from 1901-4. This was the largest and most ambitious expedition to Antarctica up to that time, and is one of the centerpieces of the “heroic age” of Antarctic exploration. Like Scott, most of the crew had no experience in polar regions, and they had to learn quickly how to survive in the harsh conditions. One crew member, George Vince, was swept over a precipice to his death shortly after the expedition landed. Another, holding the post of third lieutenant, was a young Ernest Shackleton, the man who would become one of Scott’s few rivals in the quest for Antarctic greatness.

The Discovery, temporarily beset by ice.

The Discovery Expedition had a wide-ranging scientific programme, and conducted surveys and studies in meteorology, geology, and zoology. Its base was established on Ross Island, at the southern tip of Hut Point Peninsula. The hut in question was constructed by the expedition, and remained a touchstone for later expeditions as well.

The expedition passed two summers in Antarctica, from 1902-3 and from 1903-4. During the first the expedition made an attempt to reach the South Pole. Three men — Edward Wilson, Ernest Shackleton, and Scott himself — with supply support from other expedition members, set out for the Pole. They used dogs to pull the supply sledges and they tried to travel on skis, but their lack of experience was an impediment, and they made slow progress. After nearly two months of trekking they had covered about 480 miles, but were still over 500 miles from the Pole. Faced with a shortage of food, they turned back. On the homeward journey they began to show signs of scurvy, and limped into base camp weakened, but safe. Though they had fallen far short of their chief objective, they had nonetheless been further south — to latitude 82°17′ — than anyone before them.

During the second summer Scott led another group, consisting of William Lashly and Edgar Evans, west from Ross Island, over the mountains and, for the first time, onto the Polar Plateau. They marched out, pulling their own supplies this time in a system that came to be called man-hauling. They covered several hundred miles before turning back. At some point they lost their navigational tables and in consequence were forced to make careful, and slow, progress homeward. Both Scott and Evans once fell into a deep crevasse, and were lucky to survive. They eventually returned to camp after about two months on the trail.

Man-hauling (Source: Natural History Museum, UK)

Scott’s experiences on these two journeys convinced him that dogs were more trouble than they were worth, and he favoured man-hauling as a means of transporting supplies. This decision, rooted (as Amundsen later demonstrated) in a lack of relevant experience, was to have fateful consequences when Scott returned for his second attempt at the Pole.

After returning to England, Scott wrote a book about the expedition called The Voyage of the Discovery, and it made him a household name. Regrettably, I have not read the book myself.

Aboard the Terra Nova.

The second expedition, called the Terra Nova (these expeditions are all named after their ships), was launched about a decade later, lasting from 1910-13. Again the expedition was well-stocked with scientists and had numerous scientific objectives, but the central challenge was to reach the South Pole. Supplies were laid in the early months of 1911 and, after wintering again on Ross Island, they set out late in 1911 for the Pole. The trekking party was initially large, but at predetermined stages small groups of men would drop supplies and turn back, so that the party thinned as it proceeded, leaving in its wake supplies for the return journey.

The story of what transpired is well known: five men, including Scott, did succeed in reaching the South Pole — only to find a Norwegian flag planted in the snow. Roald Amundsen, who had made a name for himself as an Arctic explorer, had beat them to the goal by several weeks. Understandably, they were disheartened as they turned to face the 900 mile return journey, and they made slow, and increasingly slow, progress, pulling their supplies behind them every step of the way. They began to suffer the accumulated weight of frostbite, malnutrition, intermittent snow blindness, and poor snow conditions. Eventually their progress stopped altogether. The bodies of Scott, Edward Wilson, and Birdie Bowers were discovered the following summer by a search party; the others, Titus Oates and Edgar Evans, lay dead some distance further south and were never found. Scott’s journals from this journey are justly famous, and not only because of their tragic finish.

Scott’s reputation as a great Antarctic explorer has been challenged by those who allege that his death was brought about by his own incompetence. There may be something to the allegation, but for me the amateur aspect of Scott’s expedition is part of the appeal. They were not seasoned professionals like Amundsen, but ordinary men chasing extraordinary ends. That, it seems to me, is reason enough for admiration. Scott is one of the most admirable figures in the annals of Antarctic exploration.

The monument raised over the bodies of Scott, Bowers, and Wilson.

One Response to “Robert Falcon Scott”

  1. […] first taste of Antarctica came as a member of the Discovery Expedition, under the leadership of Robert Falcon Scott. Shackleton held a fairly minor post in the expedition’s roster — third lieutenant […]

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