Scott’s last expedition

January 11th, 2013 at 2:36 pm by David Farrar

Just been to see Scott’s last exhibition at the Canterbury Museum. It is a joint exhibition with the National History Museum and the Antarctic Heritage Trust.

For those interested in and/or the age of exploration, it’s a great exhibition. They have many original artifacts from his last expedition, and have even got a life-size model of Scott’s Hut at Cape Evans where 25 men lived and worked. The Antarctic Heritage Trust maintain the actual hut, which would be an incredible thing to observe.

The exhibition tells the story of the ill-fated Terra Nova exhibition. Most of us know the basic story including Oates saying “I am just going outside and I may be some time.” and Scott’s final words of “It seems a pity but I do not think I can write more. R. Scott. For God’s sake look after our people.“. Oates’ body was never found. There are photos of the burial site and cross for Scott, but they estimate this is now under around 75 feet of ice.

But you also see and hear about other aspects such as the journey to Cape Crozier for Emperor Penguin eggs. In temperatures as low as -60 °C, and blizzards with force 11 winds, they survived in an igloo and tents. Amazing endurance and survival.

The deaths of Scott and the other four are controversial. His reputation was as a hero initially, then as a bungler, and in later years more balanced. For my 2c I think their deaths were a combination of some poor planning decisions but also some of the most extreme weather that the continent has seen.

A very good and interesting exhibition. They also have a permanent more general Antarctica display on their third floor.

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39 Responses to “Scott’s last expedition”

  1. RRM (8,994 comments) says:

    They were probably victims of their times also… good woollen suit and plenty of tea ought to be enough to keep anybody warm during a spot of polar / Himalayan exploration, what?

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  2. Sean (294 comments) says:

    The book by one of the survivors, Apsley Cherry-Garrard, ‘The Worst Jounrey in the World’ is a fantastic read – especially the parts about the journey for the eggs. Also covers the search for Scott and the return. It was actually from Oamaru that the world first heard about the disaster.

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  3. tvb (3,945 comments) says:

    The British seem to have this capacity to try and make a success out of failure. Scott and his men were heroes but they failed. I gave it a pass when I was in CHCH. I prefer success. This is all too maudlin for me.

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  4. ChrisM (91 comments) says:

    The more interesting adventure was the northern party. They were dropped off about 300km north of Erebus to explore the area around Mt Melbourne at the same time as Scott was going South. They had about 3 months food when dropped off for a six week trip. In April, the boat couldn’t get back in to pick them up. The party of six dug a snow cave on Inexpressible Island (the name cames from the near constant gale force winds), slaughtered what seals and penguins they could catch on the beach and hunkered down for the winter. By September, it was light enough for them to self rescue by manhauling back to Cape Evans. The party was then also involved with the search for Scott.
    If it wasn’t for the southern tragedy, this would have been the tale everyone told to match Shackelton’s adventure several years later. As it is, very few know of the exploits of Campbell and Priestley.
    I believe some of their equipment like the manhauling sledge and aluminium bowls/cultlery is now in the museum. As the Terra Nova was coming north at expedition’s end, it left a cache at their snowcave site in case someone else was trapped there. We recovered it seventy years later.

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  5. iMP (2,154 comments) says:

    Have read all this stuff, fascinating. Scott was unlucky, the weather on the return journey killed them, and dragging all the fossils which did a lot to increase scientific knowledge of the area (even today). Their scientific research has still not all been analysed. They were not actually racing, but studying and exploring, so Amundsen’s lark- while successful – was a joke, really (a race of one).

    Switch to North West Passage, recommend “Ghosts of Cape Sabine” and related reads.

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  6. gazzmaniac (2,270 comments) says:

    I think their deaths were a combination of some poor planning decisions but also some of the most extreme weather that the continent has seen.

    Scott was unlucky, the weather on the return journey killed them, and dragging all the fossils which did a lot to increase scientific knowledge of the area (even today)

    Scott’s expedition was NOT unlucky, and they were not killed by the weather/return journey/fossils. They were killed by a poorly planned expedition that should have been abandoned much earlier (like Shackleton’s one in 1908) but wasn’t, for the personal glory of beating Amundsen. Even Oates and (from memory) Wilson’s diaries had entries about how they thought Scott would get the party killed. There were five in the party for the pole, not four as planned. They attempted to use ponies which were useless, instead of dogs like Amundsen, and used up all their energy man-hauling the sleds. The relief team that was meant to meet them never came. They probably should have left earlier in the season. Yes, they were eventually killed by not making the depot because of a blizzard, however they were desperate anyway and the blizzard just topped off a run of bad planning that could only have ended badly but for extraordinary luck which never came.

    My favourite story is that of Douglas Mawson who walked over 100 miles on his own after having lost all his supplies and one of his companions down a crevasse, only to see his ship in the distance having departed only six hours earlier. That, and the fact that he was mostly responsible for the geological evidence proving that South Australia and Antarctica were once joined, which was one of the big clues leading to the later development of plate tectonics.

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  7. Kimbo (398 comments) says:

    @ gazzmaniac

    Scott’s expedition was NOT unlucky, and they were not killed by the weather/return journey/fossils. They were killed by a poorly planned expedition that should have been abandoned much earlier (like Shackleton’s one in 1908) but wasn’t, for the personal glory of beating Amundsen.

    Hmm. I agree with your overall premise, despite more recent Scott apologists like Susan Solomon and Sir Ranulph Feinnes balancing out the trenchant criticism of Roland Huntford.

    Solomon argues that the temperatures on the Barrier on the return journey from mid-February 1912 onwards were a once-in-a-ten year low.

    Ok, that may be so, but it still doesn’t detract from the essential argument that Scott cut his margins too fine (and I’m not sure there was any point in the outward journey where, as you imply, it should have been obvious they has to “pull the plug” like Shackleton did.

    Also Evans did of malnutrition/injury/scurvy/dehydration just BEFORE they had reached the Barrier, in fact he had been slowly declining for about a month since they reached the pole in mid January.

    Finally, as you rightly point out, Amundsen, despite his mistakes (early aborted departure in September 1911), all the unavoidable risks he took getting up onto the Antarctic Plateau, used the right means of transport (dogs), thus minimising the risk of being caught in a “once-in-a-ten-year cold snap. And he did it at the same time. One group lived, while the other didn’t.

    Pretty open-and-shut case.

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  8. David Garrett (5,150 comments) says:

    Kimbo: Spot on…but you fail to mention Scott’s ridiculous (but of its time) class distinctions…Shackleton is the real British polar hero…never lost a man…turned back from the pole rather than risk doing so…and the journey from Elephant Island to the Falklands has got to be one of if not THE most impressive effort in the 20th century…

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  9. Kimbo (398 comments) says:

    @ David Garrett

    “…but you fail to mention Scott’s ridiculous (but of its time) class distinctions…Shackleton is the real British polar hero…never lost a man”

    Hmmm. That is where I though Roland Huntford let his egalitarian neuroses get the better of him (and I though you of all people, David, would have spotted Huntford who is the originator of that critique for a closet socialist!). Scoot was Royal Navy, his men were Royal Navy, Britannia ruled the waves and ultimately were to play a vital role in the next few years after Scott’s death in ensuring newly emergent freedom and democracy still shaped the world…I’m prepared to cut him some slack!

    And contrary to what you say, Shackleton DID lose men – three of them (albeit not under his direct command) in the Ross Sea Party during the 1914-17 Trans-Antarctic expedition, which, by any reasonable assessment turned into a bit of a fiasco due to hasty planning.

    Which doesn’t detract from your primary point that when the shit hit the fan, Shackleton was your guy, every time. Call me a wimp for passing up on the “Look into the face of danger and say, ‘I’ll make mine a double”…” approach. However, I’d still rather travel with a guy like Amundsen who, to use a modern phrase, was an expert at risk assessment and management.

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  10. Komata (972 comments) says:

    Apropos the reasons for Scott’s death: I was told many years ago that one of the reasons for Scott’s failure was his decision to eat his dogs on the way home. At the time it made perfect sense to consume the Huskies, as it reduced the amount of dog-food etc. necessary to feed THEM. However, what was not known at the time was that dog meat contains a very high concentration of Vitamin K. It doesn’t affect the dog of course, but large quantaties if Vitamin k DOES effect humans. It builds up over a period of time, induces lethargy and weakness in the eater, and, in large enough quantities will eventually cause death. These were symptoms which Scott noted in his diaries, and of course he eventually died. I’m not saying that it was the main cause, but certainly Vitamin K poisoning is likely to have been a substantial contributing cause to the demise of Scott, Oates et al.

    In an historical context, it should also be remembered IMHO, that Scott’s expedition was a classic example of the ‘Englishman/Briton can do anything – and do it better than anyone – ESPECIALLY the Continentals’ , dictum which prevailed in the Empire at the time. That Amundsen was a Norwegian was an irrelevance. Amundsen was still one of ‘them’ (a mere relocated German’), and an Englishman was naturally better (superior to) than ‘them’ and anyone else as well. With those sorts of views Scott was typical of his time. ‘Rule Britannia’ and all that. . .

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  11. gazzmaniac (2,270 comments) says:

    Amundsen also ate his dogs and didn’t die.

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  12. gazzmaniac (2,270 comments) says:

    He also fed weak dogs to his other dogs.

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  13. Kimbo (398 comments) says:

    @ Komata

    “Apropos the reasons for Scott’s death: I was told many years ago that one of the reasons for Scott’s failure was his decision to eat his dogs on the way home. At the time it made perfect sense to consume the Huskies, as it reduced the amount of dog-food etc. necessary to feed THEM. However, what was not known at the time was that dog meat contains a very high concentration of Vitamin K. It doesn’t affect the dog of course, but large quantaties if Vitamin k DOES effect humans…”

    Just one problem with that Komata.

    Scott didn’t eat (what few) dogs he had. Although he did eat his ponies.

    Amundsen ate his dogs, they all lived, and the Fleet Street press implied he was nasty and implied he was cheating by eating an animal they thought of as a pet.

    Alse, Scott’s team while indulging in “Rule Britannia” jingoism common for the time (as evidenced by the diaries of his men) did include a Norwegian, and Russian, as well as other members of the Empire, e.g., Australians.

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  14. Sean (294 comments) says:

    No research that I have seen would support that ‘too much Vitamin K was a substantial cause of the deaths of the Scott party’ theory. A simple web search rules it out immediately.

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  15. Kimbo (398 comments) says:

    @ Sean

    What theory do you think accounts for it best, Sean. Exposure exacerbated by frost bite that meant they couldn’t reach One Ton Depot?

    Or the one that is meant to point to Scott’s incompetence: scurvy (as Teddy Evans as part of the last party to turn back suffered?).

    And what accounts for PC Evans’ death a full month before the others were caught in the cold snap on the barrier?

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  16. gazzmaniac (2,270 comments) says:

    What about Scott’s general incompetence with organising an expedition? A opinion that doesn’t require Vitamin K or scurvy to kill everyone.

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  17. iMP (2,154 comments) says:

    Gazzamaniac, you are WRONG WRONG WRONG.

    You need to read more on Scott. More recent research has established the facts about his trip in far more detail. Scott was a very able, meticulous, brave, and hard working explorer. The criticisms of him are all unfair and made in hindsight by armchair explorers. The only reason the Scott party did not reach one ton depo was because the blizzard lasted days and days at a critical moment. Read “Captain Scott” by Sir Ranulph Fiennes who in his 70s, is solo walking across Antarctica and is perhaps the most qualified human to write (and understand) what really happened.

    He goes thru all the criticisms of Scott one by one and adds his incredible first-hand experience. He totally exonerates Scott. I agree.

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  18. iMP (2,154 comments) says:

    That our NZ base at Antarctica is named after him, is a fitting tribute to that incredible man.

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  19. iMP (2,154 comments) says:

    How can you say Amundsen used the “right” method? No one had ever done this before. Amundsen was also racing; Scott’s expedition was completely different. They were hauling scientific equipment, rocks, fossils and all sorts of other heavy paraphernalia, all irrelevant to Amundsen who was simply racing to beat Scott.

    The ponies served their purpose well. They hauled heavy loads to the base of the Beardmore and then were culled.

    Shackleton would have died exactly like Scott if he had got the same atrocious weather as Scott. SHack was lucky. That was all.

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  20. gazzmaniac (2,270 comments) says:

    iMP – the fact that Scott’s expedition was cutting it so fine that a blizzard killed them in the end says something, and that is that there was no room for something to go wrong. If Amundsen had been caught in a blizzard for a week when he was 12 miles from his last depot, he would not have died.

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  21. Binders full of women (4 comments) says:

    My dad brought me up on a steady diet of Antarctic tales.. I can highly recommend two books-
    #1 Cherry (the biography of Apsley Cherry – mentioned above as author of Worst Journey- to get the eggs) fascinating read about a guy who carried a lifetime of guilt for being so close to where Scott ended up and had unclear orders. He was also made to sit at the museum and someone came out and said “okay we’ll take your eggs then” or words to that effect.
    #2 Antarctic Survivor- Thomas Crean- This guy did it all 1st trip was with Scott or Shack (can’t remember) then 2nd trip with Scott he was one of the last three sent back by Scott, when Evans couldn’t go on Crean walked for about 1 1/2 days on a couple of biscuits to get Dimitri and the dogs back to get Evans, 3rd trip- With Shackleton- on the James Caird from Elephant Island to South Georgia with Chips McNeish-(buried in Wellington) and the part Maori? Worsley celestial navigator, and then he was one of the 3 who climbed over and down the mountain to get the Norwegians.

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  22. Kimbo (398 comments) says:

    @iMP

    “The only reason the Scott party did not reach one ton depo was because the blizzard lasted days and days at a critical moment. ”

    Uh huh. And at almost exactly the same time, Amundsen, whom Scott was in a race to the Pole with, was docking in Tasmania, and preparing to telegraph to the world that he had reached the South Pole.

    Which raises the question, “Why was Scott still out on the barrier, where he could be struck, and fatally stalled by a sudden, unexpected, and beyond the normal cold snap?

    Also note “cold snap”, not “blizzard”, which can and do only last a maximum of about four days in Antarctica, and contrary to Scott’s diary entry there could not had been one for about 9 days – see Susan Solomon’s “The Coldest March” which is favourable to Scott on other matters to confirm that point. Blizzard or no, Scott had frost bite by that stage, and what little chance Wilson and Bowers had of making One Ton Depot, they passed up on to die with Scott.

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  23. Kimbo (398 comments) says:

    @ iMP

    “How can you say Amundsen used the “right” method?”.

    Pretty easy: “Wisdom is known by her children”.

    One used only dogs and won the race and lived to tell the tale,

    …while the other, who used different modes of transport, ponies (all shot by the time they reached the bottom of the Beardmore on the outward journey), tractors (one ended up on the bottom of McMurdo sound when it was unloaded, and the other two soon broke down on the outward journey), man-hauling (used by Scott for five sixths of his journey, thus contributing to his need for greater rations than Amundsen), and only dogs as a last minute auxiliary (where they proved their worth, in contrast to Scott’s amateur attempts and the incorrect conclusions he drew on his first 1902-1905 expedition),

    …and came second and died.

    But Shackleton, for all his undoubted genius, made the same mistakes re dogs.

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  24. Kimbo (398 comments) says:

    @ iMP

    “That our NZ base at Antarctica is named after him, is a fitting tribute to that incredible man”.

    Indeed.

    However, while Fiennes did much to correct much of the carping criticism Huntford first made of Scott, all his critique and support of Scott is predicated on what you do if you decide to use man-hauling as the primary mode of transport.

    Which was the fatal error when Scott’s margins were proved too tight when the out-of-statistical cold snap struck – but then Scott had little data to know what was beyond the statistical norm anyway!

    Ponies as a relief for the later man-hauling meant Scott had to leave for the Pole at least two weeks later than Amundsen with his dogs, and by the time he reached the Pole, Amundsen was almost back at the Bay of Whales, safe from harms way.

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  25. duggledog (1,117 comments) says:

    I have read many books on the various expeditions, and some I have re-read more than once!

    I find Ranulph Fiennes’ account of Scott’s expedition a worthy read for context of the times; made me re-think a lot of my thoughts.

    In Apsley’s ‘Worst Journey’ I think he said it was so cold if one opened one’s mouth the blast of -60 into what is around +36 cracked one’s teeth…

    So one kept one’s mouth shut.

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  26. scrubone (2,971 comments) says:

    “How can you say Amundsen used the “right” method?”.

    Pretty easy: “Wisdom is known by her children”.

    One used only dogs and won the race and lived to tell the tale,

    You’re missing the point.

    The accusation is that Scott was incompetent. But that accusation requires that Scott should have known beforehand that dogs would be the better choice. That was only found out by experience, being wise after the fact does not change the quality of Scott’s decision making with the information at hand.

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  27. Kimbo (398 comments) says:

    @ scrubone

    “The accusation is that Scott was incompetent. But that accusation requires that Scott should have known beforehand that dogs would be the better choice”.

    But Amundsen was certain of that before the event, and it was a certainty based on his year’s of experience.

    Despite being advised on the matter by Amundesen’s mentor, Nansen, Scott ignored the knowledge that was available

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  28. gazzmaniac (2,270 comments) says:

    The accusation is that Scott was incompetent. But that accusation requires that Scott should have known beforehand that dogs would be the better choice. That was only found out by experience, being wise after the fact does not change the quality of Scott’s decision making with the information at hand.

    He also needed to give up sooner than he did, especially considering that at least two of his party thought that he’d get them killed. But that would have taken a realisation that he was wrong.

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  29. mikenmild (8,892 comments) says:

    Sounds like almost enough of a reason to consider visiting Christchurch. Almost.
    There was a terrific exhibition at Te Papa a few years ago covering Scott, Amundsen and Shackleton. It featured Shackleton’s boat, which has been preserved at his old school.

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  30. Kimbo (398 comments) says:

    @ gazzmaniac

    “He also needed to give up sooner than he did, especially considering that at least two of his party thought that he’d get them killed. But that would have taken a realisation that he was wrong”.

    Hmm. Those thoughts were privately expressed in diaries, and certainly weren’t said directly to Scott’s face – where they would have been interpreted as mutiny, as it was when Johansen (with good reason!) expressed exactly that sentiment to Amundsen – and he was left back at the Bay of Whales as a result.

    And even after Teddy Evans’ team turned back, and right up until Scott’s team reached the Pole, there was no “obvious point” where they should have turned back – unlike Shackleton in 1909 when it was obvious they would run out of rations if they continued just 97 miles from the Pole. Instead, other than a delay of about a week at the bottom of the Beardmore Glacier on the outward journey, and taking into account Scott was using Shackleton’s 1908-09 journey as the template, Scott reached the Pole right on schedule.

    Put it this way: Where was the exact point at which it was “obvious” they should have turned back?

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  31. gazzmaniac (2,270 comments) says:

    Probably right where Teddy Evan’s party turned back.

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  32. Sean (294 comments) says:

    @ Kimbo

    All I am saying is that too much Vitamin K does not have the effects mentioned in the relevant post. I am not otherwise joining in the debate on what caused the death of the expedition.

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  33. Kimbo (398 comments) says:

    @ Sean

    Ok. Thanks

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  34. Kimbo (398 comments) says:

    @ gazzmaniac

    “Probably right where Teddy Evan’s party turned back.”

    Why?

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  35. gazzmaniac (2,270 comments) says:

    Because that was when it was obvious that they weren’t going to make it there and back safely. It was obvious to Oates and Wilson, and probably the others in the party, and it was probably obvious to Scott as well except we will never know.

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  36. Kimbo (398 comments) says:

    @ gazzmaniac

    “…it was obvious that they weren’t going to make it there and back safely. It was obvious to Oates and Wilson, and probably the others in the party, and it was probably obvious to Scott as well except we will never know”.

    Umm. What can you cite to show it was “obvious”, instead of just a few diary entries. If it is “obvious”, then it should be straight-forward to catalogue the reasons…

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  37. gazzmaniac (2,270 comments) says:

    Kimbo I’m not going to keep going over ground that I have already covered. I’m not interested in putting stuff out there only to be ignored and shot down by someone who believes that Vitaman K was the answer, when there were probably a hundred factors that had more influence.

    You’re welcome to believe that Vitamin K was the answer, but you’ll be the only one. I can’t be arsed arguing with you.

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  38. gazzmaniac (2,270 comments) says:

    FYI natural vitamin K is not toxic in excessive doses.
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Vitamin_K#Toxicity

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  39. Kimbo (398 comments) says:

    @ gazzmaniac

    “You’re welcome to believe that Vitamin K was the answer,”.

    No, wasn’t arguing it was. I was genuinely interested to know what Sean had to say.

    Just as I’m interested to know your reasoning. You seem to be arguing with the wisdom of hindsight in the light of what happened to Scott’s polar party. Fair enough if so, and I did the same with the issue of the dogs, although if Scott availed himself of knowledge available, he would have relied on dogs too – so it wasn’t just hindsight.

    I’m just intrigued, seeing you have made the emphatic statement Scott should have turned back with Teddy Evans, what specific knowledge was available to him that should have led him to that conclusion.

    But if you you can’t be arsed answering, fair enough.

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