The Bottom of the World
Frozen. Temperatures may plummet minus one hundred and twenty-six degrees. Five and a half square million miles of ice, containing ninety percent of the world’s freshwater, frozen. One of the driest climates in the world. The atmosphere, so clear and pure visibility can be projected two to three hundred miles, but there are no landmarks it is impossible to gauge. Antarctica.
Antarctica intrigued and fascinated Robert Scott, an explorer, so much that he froze to his death to probe one of the “harshest and most unforgiving environments on earth” (Great). Scott and his crew braved extreme unpredictable dangers of frostbite, ship-sinking icebergs, collapsing crevasses or glacial ice. The danger of loosing their life was constant. What drove Scott and his crew to endure yet embrace the severe conditions of the frozen continent? The courage of these men was displayed as the brutal territory ravaged them. These polar explorers courage contributed significantly to science and revealed the endurance of the human soul.
The South Pole lures men with its splendor. It has only has one surreal sunset and sunrise that illuminates the horizon per year. The summer months are mid October through mid February. The sun makes an almost perfect circle in the sky above and there are twenty-four hours of daylight. Summer temperatures average twenty to minus forty degrees. In June, the winters adamantly oppose summer, with “the death of the sun and an eerie darkness […]” (Nielsen) enveloping the land of ice.
Temperatures plunge from seventy to one hundred degrees below zero. The desolate continent has a allure of its own and a “fierce seductive beauty” (Nielsen) that is magnetic. Scott, the early Antarctic explorer, illuminates his journals with this beauty: “The northern sky was gloriously rosy and reflected in the calm sea between the ice, which varied from burnished copper to salmon pink; bergs and pack to the north had a pale greenish hue with deep purple shadows, the sky shaded to saffron and pale green. We gazed long at these beautiful effects” (20).
Robert Falcon Scott was born into an upper-middle class family on June 6, 1868, in Davenport, England. When he was 19 he joined the Navy and trained to be a torpedo officer. In 1899 he met Sir Clemmins Markum, who had a deep obsession for Antarctica exploration. Markum raised enough money for an expedition and hired Scott to lead it (Great).
On August 6, 1901 the Discovery set sail from New Zealand for this compelling journey to Antarctica, with the ultimate goal of the South Pole, the very bottom of the world. After landing it was apparent that the dogs, untrained and unmanageable were becoming a persistent problem. The weather challenged man and beast. The crew lost one man to a blizzard. A team was assembled to accompany Scott to the Pole. Wilson, who was a physician and was a good friend of Scott, and Shackleton, who had an enthralling attraction to the icy land. Shackleton carried a torn page from his bible where God is sharing with Job “From whose womb comes the ice? Who gives birth to the frost from the heavens when the waters become hard as stone, when the surface of the deep is frozen?” from Job 38:29 (qtd. in Nielsen). The raging blizzards, the wind biting at their faces, and blinding visibility proved to be more powerful than man, and conquered them in their attempt to reach their destination. The men “barely crossed the 82nd parallel and had to race death back to their ship” (Harris 1).
After the Discovery expedition, a deep passion consumed Scott for polar exploration. Scott worked determinedly to raise funds for the next Antarctica expedition. The Terra Nova, an old whaling ship, set sail November 29th, 1910. She started this journey with sixty-five men, 17 ponies, and 34 dogs on board. Traveling to the bottom of the world was rough and cruel to the animals and the crew. There were immense storms. One storm on December 2nd, 1910 was so brutal that the men had to bail water from the boat for forty-eight hours straight. Two ponies died that day (Scott 12).
“It took the Terra Nova three weeks to push its way through the ice pack in McMurdo Sound” (Chang 1). Arriving January 4th, 1911, the crew built a hut at Hut Point in Cape Evans. On January 25th the depot-laying party, consisting of twelve men, eight ponies, and two dog teams left the cape. They distributed supplies at depot points 65 miles apart for the returning party from the Pole. “We left more than a ton of stores at this point, which we named One Ton Camp, and should be a great help to us this season” (New York 1).
While exploring the region, an entire dog team fell into a crevasse. Many of the dogs hung from their harnesses for hours until they could be hauled up. Scott describes the dangers of the crevasses in the terrain. “[…]-the crevasse, Nature’s pitfall-that grim trap for the unwary-no hunter could conceal his snare so perfectly-the light rippled snow bridge gives no hint or sign of the hidden danger, its position unguessable till man or beast is floundering, clawing and struggling for foothold on the brink” (116). The constantly shifting and erratic unpredictable ice flows were treacherous throughout the journey. Traveling this land was brutally dangerous. As the long dark winter approached, they took shelter at Hut Point.
After the endless darkness, November 2, 1911 a selected group of eight men broke away to head towards the South Pole (Scott). They took most of the sound ponies and dogs for this important phase of the journey. There was an undercurrent of excitement as the men set out for the much-anticipated mission. The journey to the bottom tip of the world was eight hundred miles in the most cruel and unwelcoming climate a man could attempt to conquer. The men divided into two teams for the ascent.
The assault party included (Edward) Evans, Lassley and Crean (Great). The assault party advanced 15 miles ahead of the polar party to create a trail. The polar party would accompany Scott the last one hundred and fifty miles to the South Pole. Members of the polar party were Oates, Wilson,(Edgar) Evans, and Bowers. Caption Lawrence Oates took care of the ponies. Edward Wilson was chief of the scientific staff. Edgar Evans, a Petty Officer was thought to be the strongest man of the party. Henry Bowers was included as at the last minute because of his great strength and skills.
The men traveled through six hundred and fifty miles of the roughest country imaginable. All of the ponies and dogs died from exhaustion from sinking in soft snow. January 4th, one hundred and fifty miles from the Pole, the Assault party turned back for Cape Evans. The polar party was on the last piece of the journey to the long awaited South Pole. January 10th Scott, Wilson, Bowers, Oates, and Edgar Evans were eighty-five miles from the Pole were delayed and stressed in a severe blizzard. January 16th the polar party trudged with much anticipation to the Pole. They were bitterly disappointed to find a black survey flag signifying someone else had arrived first. Scott and his team were beaten to the Pole. (Great).
Roland Amundsen, a Norwegian, was scheduled to explore the North Pole. Robert Perry arrived at the North Pole before Amundsen could. Amundsen, at the last moment had decided to sail out on the Fran and conquer the South Pole instead. He had one hundred and fourteen well-trained dogs, and unlike Scott, had extensive experience with dogs and sleds. His trip was quick and clean, with no interest in scientific exploration to drag him down. Amundsen arrived at the pole December 14th, 1911, just one month prior to Scott’s arrival (Great). It is speculated that Amundsen’s competitive drive was different than Scott, who was seeking scientific achievement and personal fulfillment while in pursuit of South Pole.
Scott, Evans, Wilson, Oates, and Bowers descended from the Pole to start their eight hundred mile destination back to Cape Evans. Wilson struggled with snow blindness. Evans's health started to deteriorate in early February, possibly from malnutrition, the high altitude and injuries from a fall into a crevasse. He died on Feb.18, midway back to Cape Evans. The journey was extensive and left the men vulnerable to the attacking elements. The weather was abnormally cold this season. “From late February through March 19, temperatures for every day except one dipped below minus 30 Fahrenheit -- 10 to 20 degrees colder than Scott had anticipated” (Chang 2).
March 9th they arrived at a depot in Mount Hoover, where they were expecting men and dogs. Scott had previously ordered that if these men’s lives were in danger they were to turn back, which they did due to severe weather. At this point, the polar Party was so devastated and desperate that Scott gave permission for any man to end his own life, and ordered Wilson to distribute thirty opium tablets each. Oates's feet became severely frostbitten. Oates gallantly attempted to save the others, because he knew he couldn’t continue. He said, ''I am just going outside and may be some time'' and walked out to his death on March 17th. He was twenty-five miles from safety, and one hundred and twenty-five miles from their final destination. Hope had faded for Scott, Bowers, and Wilson. (Scott)
On March 21st, the remaining three men were eleven miles from One Ton Depot, where safety lay. Stopping at each previous depot, they found a shortage of oil, used for heat and cooking. The extreme cold and strong sunlight desiccated the washers on the canister, evaporating the oil (Scott). They were ready to proceed to One Ton Depot, when a blizzard ragged for days, stopping them in their tracks. Badly frost bitten, physically exhausted, and freezing without any heat, their fate was sealed while in their tent. On March 29th, 1911, Scott made his last journal entry. He declared he did not regret the journey. On November 12, 1912, after the winter relented, Atkinson, a Surgeon with the Terra Nova Expedition, found them sitting frozen where they had died (Great).
Why did this tragedy occur? There is much criticism as well as praise for Scott’s efforts. Some say he failed when he “[…] took ponies on his trek, animals that are horribly unfit for polar travel”, and this had cost them their lives (Harris 1). The dogs were thought to be a better option. Critics gave disapproval about the last minute decision to take Henry Bowers along, believing that his presence had used too many valuable resources. Historians question whether Scott was adequately prepared for the frigid cold. “Dr. Solomon said, Scott had ''very good scientific reasons'' for expecting the weather to be warmer during that fateful March of 1912” (Chang 4).
If Scott’s party was exhausted and dying, why did they lug thirty-five pounds of geological rock specimen with them? This confirms that Scott’s intent was not a race. “It was not to win in such a contest that he made his expedition, but to carry out an elaborate plan of scientific research” (Harris 1). His wife agreed to that it was not his purpose to win a race. “He stuck to his original plans, and in almost every detail has carried out a programme that was drawn up more than two years ago” (Mrs).
Even with good planning, there were things that Scott could not have possibly known with the technology and knowledge available at that time. High elevation can be devastating. Nielsen, a physician who wintered at the South Pole, shares: “Studies show in Antarctica a thirteen percent decrease in short term memory during the winter at sea level.” The pole sits on top of a huge glacier at an elevation of 10,000 feet above sea level. At this altitude, the body burns 300 to 500 more calories a day (qtd. in Chang). High Altitude causes an intense shortage of oxygen. Other side effects of altitude sickness are headaches, fatigue, shortness of breath, nausea, and inability to sleep. Thinking and judgment may become impaired (Barnas). This information was not available to Scott, so he was not adequately prepared. He made legendary contributions with his heroic endeavor.
The astonishing perseverance of these courageous Polar explorers like Scott have contributed significantly to the current knowledge of scientists, zoologists, and geologists. They were also compelled with a passion for the study, research and surveying of exotic virgin land. These ice voyagers also have contributed comprehensive records of the polar region. They were willing to die for it, [...] the disasters that ended their lives became the foundation for their myths” (Harris 3).
The pull of the pole, the last place on earth, free from sensory overload to tranquil reality; away from the pollution and corruption of industrialized mankind. There is sheer and unadulterated beauty where a pristine solitude stills the soul.
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