Scott’s attempt to reach the South Pole

by Robert C. Brears Blog

When Captain Robert Falcon Scott embarked on his second and final expedition to Antarctica in 1910 he was already a famous Antarctic explorer. He had led the major National Antarctic Expedition (1901-1904) during which he reached a record 82°11’ south.

Regions: Antarctica

Destinations: Ross Sea

Highlights: Scott's Hut, Cape Evans, Ross Island

Scott’s attempt to reach the South Pole

When Captain Robert Falcon Scott embarked on his second and final expedition to Antarctica in 1910 he was already a famous Antarctic explorer. He had led the major National Antarctic Expedition (1901-1904) during which he reached a record 82°11’ south.

Aware of how close Shackleton had come to reaching the Pole, Scott set about planning his British Antarctic Expedition (1910-1913) with the ultimate goal being the attainment of the Geographical South Pole for Britain.

Shackleton’s failed bid to the Pole

Just 18 months before Scott’s second expedition departed, Sir Ernest Shackleton’s British Antarctic Expedition 1907-1909 had made a significant number of firsts. In March 1908, a party of five was the first to climb the world’s southernmost volcano (Mt Erebus). In late 1908 Shackleton led a party of four in an attempt to be the first to reach the Geographic South Pole and in January 1909 Professor Edgeworth David led a part of three to be the first to reach the Magnetic South Pole.

However, the expedition failed in achieving its main goal of reaching the South Pole. After man-hauling for two and a half months, Shackleton came within 97 miles of the South Pole. Considering his party’s failing supplies and exhaustion, Shackleton made the decision to turn back, having gone further south than anyone before. Shackleton received a hero's welcome on his return home in 1909 and was subsequently knighted. The expedition also discovered over 800km of new mountain ranges and pioneered the way to the Antarctic Plateau.

Scott’s British Antarctic Expedition (1910-1913)

In 1909 Scott resigned from the Royal Navy to concentrate on planning and raising money for his British Antarctic Expedition. The British Government pledged £20,000 with the governments of New Zealand and Australia also contributing along with various business people and private donors. Scott even sold places in the expedition to raise money. In total, the Expedition had a budget of £40,000.

In addition to reaching the Pole a comprehensive scientific programme was planned with Dr Edward Wilson, appointed as senior scientist, assembling a competent group of professionals for the shore party with fields including meteorology, magnetism, glaciology, geology, marine biology and cartography. The ship selected for the Expedition was the Terra Nova: originally built as a whaler in Dundee and served as the relief ship on the National Antarctic Expedition.

The race to the Pole

The Terra Nova left London on 1 June 1910 while Scott took a fast steamer to Cape Town where he joined the ship before it departed for Melbourne on 2 September. While in Melbourne, Scott received news that Norwegian polar explorer Roald Amundsen, supposedly beaten to the North Pole by American Robert Peary, had now switched his goal to being the first to reach the South Pole.

Despite this, Scott remained undeterred continuing his preparations for the expedition as they sailed for New Zealand. On 29 November, the Terra Nova finally set off from Lyttelton, New Zealand heading south. On board the ship was a vast quantity of supplies needed for the race to the Pole:

  • 162 carcasses of mutton and three carcasses of beef
  • Cheese and butter
  • Three Wolseley motor tractors
  • Drums of Shell petrol
  • 2 Siberian and 17 Manchurian ponies
  • 33 Siberian dogs
  • Medical supplies, clothing, tools, photographic equipment, sledging equipment and surveying, navigating and scientific instruments.

Also on board the ship was a prefabricated hut made in London. The building, designed for winter conditions, was 15 metres by 8 metres in plan with a roof rising to a central ridge 4.3 metres high. A trial erection of the hut took place in Lyttelton, which led to additional supplies of timber being sought to improve the structure.

Scott’s hut at Cape Evans

The expedition arrived on Ross Island in January 1911 with the idea of setting up base. Thick sea-ice prevented the Terra Nova from getting through to the old Discovery hut at Hut Point so on 4 January Scott landed around 25 kilometres north at the ‘Skuary’ – named by Scott in 1902 on account of the large number of skuas living there – to investigate establishing his winter quarters there. Scott renamed it to Cape Evans after the expedition’s second-in-command Lieutenant Edward ‘Teddy’ Evans.

From here there are views east over McMurdo Sound to the Trans-Antarctic Mountains and south to the Dellbridge Islands. After inspecting the site, Scott, Evans and Wilson began constructing the hut immediately. Nine days later the hut was finished, the largest building constructed in Antarctica during the heroic age. According to Scott, the hut was not the most fitting title for the building as it was ‘’the most comfortable dwelling-place imaginable…within the walls of which peace, quiet and comfort remain supreme’’.

Inside the hut, 16 officers and scientists were allocated to the ‘wardroom’ at the east end while nine other men including the seamen were quartered at the west end, the ‘messdeck’. The wardroom was dominated by a large table which on Sunday’s was covered with a dark blue cloth for meals. There was also a piano and a gramophone in the wardroom. Meanwhile, at the eastern end, a separate darkroom was built by Ponting, and workbenches were built for the physicists and biologist.

Cubicles with bunks were built around the perimeter of the wardroom with Scott’s ‘Den’, partially enclosed by a timber partition, contained his bed, chart table and bookshelves for the expedition library. Adjacent to Scott was an alcove occupied by Lieutenant Evans and Wilson. In the messdeck, there were nine beds for the men, along with two tables for dining and food preparation.

Over the winter the men conducted scientific observations, prepared sledging equipment and supplies and exercised the dogs and ponies. During the winter elaborate dinners were held including Scott’s birthday on 6 June and a mid-winter celebration dinner on 22 June in which seal soup, roast beef with Yorkshire pudding, fried potatoes and brussel sprouts were served along with flaming plum-pudding, mince pies and savoury of anchovy and cod’s roe.

Scott’s final push for the Pole

When spring finally came, the start of the journey to the Pole began with the team employing motor sledges, ponies and dogs to haul the sledges and set up supply caches. The first team was dispatched on 24 October with two motor sledges. Scott followed with a larger party including 10 ponies on 31 October. The various teams relayed supplies and laid depots, progressively turning back to leave the Polar Party on their own.

On 4 January 1912, the last support party turned back and Scott along with Edward Wilson, Lawrence Oates, Edgar Evans and Henry Bowers made the push for the Pole. The party finally reached the South Pole on 17 January 1912, only to find the small green tent that Amundsen and his team had left at the Pole some 35 days earlier.

On their journey home the Polar party, faced with blizzards and tragedy, perished just 11 miles from a supply depot. Scott’s lasting words in his diary read ‘’We took risks, we knew we took them; things have come against us, and therefore we have no cause for complaint, but bow to the will of Providence, determined still to do our best to the last’’. 

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