Scott: Journals

February 15, 2011

Scott of the Antarctic
The Journals of Scott’s Last Expedition
Robert Falcon Scott (Prospero Books)
521 p.

These are the journals which Robert Falcon Scott kept during his last, heroic, disastrous expedition to the South Pole. Late in 1910 he and his crew departed New Zealand amid much fanfare. The expedition was planned to last until 1913, through two Antarctic winters, and had a wide-ranging scientific mandate to study the geology, meteorology, and biology of Antarctica. At the heart of the expedition, however, was a heroic quest: Scott intended to be the first man ever to reach the South Pole.

His journals begin by telling of the various hardships that they endured as they sailed to Antarctica, landed, established a camp, and began their work. Scott was a regular diarist, writing nearly every day, and though of course much of what he recorded was routine — co-ordinates, weather, and so on — he was also a keen observer of his fellows and of the spectacular environment in which they worked. He was a fine writer too; though the journals were never meant to see the public eye in this rough form, they read well and better than well most of the time.

It was Scott’s second time leading an expedition to Antarctica, but they still had much to learn, and a great many things went wrong in those first months. They were struck by a hurricane en route and nearly sank. They were lodged in the pack ice, which surrounds the Antarctic ocean like a ring, for three full weeks before breaking through. (Shackleton, a few years earlier, had taken just a few days.) When they landed, they lost one of their three motorized sleds through the ice. Ponies, which were supposed to pull the heavy supply sleds, died at an alarming rate. Scott maintained an optimistic attitude, but it was clear that not all was going according to plan.

Perhaps the greatest blow, upon arrival, was the discovery that Roald Amundsen, the great Arctic explorer, had also landed in Antarctica, also with the intention of reaching the Pole. Scott’s ship discovered Amundsen’s camp just a few hundred miles down the coast from Scott’s camp. They knew that he was a formidable challenger, as, of course, he turned out to be. Scott responded in his journal quite calmly and prudently though:

The proper, as well as the wiser, course for us is to proceed exactly as though this had not happened. To go forward and do our best for the honour of the country without fear or panic.

The trek to the Pole began late in 1912, as the Antarctic summer began. Their task was formidable: to walk over 800 miles through ice and snow, taking down their camp each morning and setting it up again each evening, pulling their supplies of food and clothing with them. I think that it is difficult for us today to imagine how dangerous this trek was. They had no radio contact; if something went wrong, no-one would know, and there would be no help. The route they followed was not entirely uncharted, for they followed the path Shackleton had made a few years previously on his abortive effort to reach the Pole, but nonetheless they had no-one to rely on but themselves.

A large group started the trek, pulling many supplies, and periodically along the south-bound route they would establish a supply depot for the return journey. At each depot, a certain number of the group turned back, so that the ranks grew fewer as they progressed. At the final depot, just five went forward to the Pole.

The story is well-known, so I hope I am not giving anything away. After walking for over two months, they did, on 18 January 1913, finally reach the Pole, only to discover a Norwegian flag planted in the snow: Amundsen had beat them.

At the South Pole, 18 January 1912. L to R: (standing) Wilson, Scott, Oates; (seated) Bowers, Evans

Exhausted, they turned around and began the return journey. At this point one detects a change of tone in the journals. Scott remarks more often about their being tired, or discouraged. It is easy to understand that they were disheartened; it would have been one thing to return home as heroes, but to face that long march knowing that their thunder had been stolen must have been terribly demoralizing. They struggled.

As summer wore on, Scott began to worry about the onset of winter and their slow progress. The ice conditions made their sledges very difficult to pull, such that they were frequently scraping, like dead weight, behind them. They began to develop frost-bite, and terrible blisters. It began to get cold. They managed to maintain a pace that brought them back to the depots before they exhausted their food supply, but just barely.

The last weeks of their journey are heart-breaking to read. One of the five, Edgar Evans, began to deteriorate and kept falling behind, his feet terribly frost-bitten. One day he collapsed in the snow, throwing off his gloves and hat, in a kind of frenzy. They took him into the tent, but he died in the night. They continued, and another man, Titus Oates, began to weaken. One night, as a blizzard raged around them, he left the tent, saying, “I may be some time”. He never returned, and they all understood that he had sacrificed his own life in an attempt to save theirs.

The final three — Scott, Edward Wilson, and Birdie Bowers — carried on, but slowly and falteringly. There was a major depot of food 130 miles from home, and the party got within 11 miles of it. They had two days of food remaining, and could probably have made it, but a blizzard hit. For eight days the storm raged, and they could not, and finally did not, move any further.

The closing pages of the journal are remarkable for their pathos. There, in that tent, awaiting death, Scott wrote a series of letters, in the hopes that someday they would be discovered and delivered. Most moving are those to his wife, and to the wives and mothers of the men who died at his side. They reveal Scott as a man of great integrity and courage, and they were difficult to read without tears.

I have done a fair bit of reading in the ‘adventure and exploration’ literature. These journals of Scott rank with the very best.


The British Library has made excerpts from Scott’s journals available online for viewing through their “Turning the Pages” site.

One Response to “Scott: Journals”

  1. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Doris, Aaron King and Philip Hatfield, Dead Explorers. Dead Explorers said: Review of Scott's expedition journals, including his final (written) words […]

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