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The Captain Scott Epic


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The name of Captain Robert Falcon Scott is inseparable from the story of the conquest of the Antarctic and glorious in the annals of heroism. His place among the immortals of exploration is secure. His life was an example, his death an epic. Now he lies for ever among the frozen solitudes that he loved, a tomb as regal as any carved in abbey or cathedral walls. Brave and strong and true, no man ever challenged the menace and mystery of the polar regions with such fortitude, or blazed so eager a trail across the white wastes that roof the world. Scott was a born pioneer, with an insatiable appetite for adventure and discovery. His motto was that there was no corner of the earth to which man, with determination, could not penetrate. Risk and adversity thrilled him. When death came to him in a tiny tent on the ice face he went out upon the last exploration of all with a courage unsurpassed in history.

With Scott died several brave companions. Together they had aspired to claim for their country that vast, silent land of ice and snow that is the South Pole. Of the disappointment that almost broke their hearts, and of the disaster that stole their gallant lives, this story sets out to tell.

Scott's expedition of 1910 stirred the imagination of brave and adventurous men everywhere. Eight thousand volunteers offered their services. But Scott was more worried by the problem of money than of men. The Government had made a grant of only 20,000, and but for the generosity of private individuals and business houses the expedition would have been impossible.

This was Scott's second voyage to the Antartcic. In his earlier adventures he had discovered many islands and the vast Victoria Mountains which run for hundreds of miles in the path to the Pole. It was to complete his work that he now set out again for the world of ice. While, of course, the more spectacular objective of the expedition was to plant the Union Jack at the Pole, the scientific aspect was of singular importance. Scott's ship, the Terra Nova, was splendidly equipped, and the ship's company included zoologists, geologists, biologists and physicists.

The Terra Nova flying the burgee of the Royal Yacht Squadron, sailed first for New Zealand, arriving early in November, 1910. And here the final preparations for the great adventure were made. Every inch of space aboard the little vessel was utilised. The deck cargo alone included over two tons of petrol, 30 tons of coal, 3 motor sledges, an ice house to hold 150 carcasses of frozen mutton, bales of fodder, 19 ponies in their stalls, and over 30 dogs. Scott's second in command was Lieut, (now Admiral Sir) Edward Evans, R.N., and his other officers included Lieut. Victor L. A. Campbell, R.N., Lieut. Henry R. Bowers, R.I.M., Captain Lawrence E. G. Oates, 6th Inniskilling Dragoons, and two Naval Surgeons, G. Murray Levick and Edward L. Atkinson. The chief of the scientific staff was Dr. Edward Adrian Wilson, and the total strength of the ship's company was over 60.

On November 26, New Zealand was left behind. Mountainous seas were encountered on the voyage, and the little Terra Nova was terribly battered. The deck cargo shifted, the ponies were thrown from their feet, water penetrated to every part of the vessel, precious gallons of petrol were lost, and day after day the men manned the pumps. So critical was the situation that even hand-buckets were used in the desperate struggle to save the ship. Many went without sleep for sixty hours or more. Several dogs were lost. Often, as he stood on the poop, Captain Scott was up to his waist in water. Ponting, the expedition's cameraman, clinging precariously to the rigging, secured some incomparable pictures of that perilous drive through gale and pack ice. His courage reflected the dauntless spirit of all on board.

On the last day of 1910, the explorers sighted Mount Erebus as it rose in awe-inspiring majesty from the sea, and a few days later they reached the Barrier, south of Ross Island. This colossal curtain of ice, over 400 miles wide, bars the seaway to the Pole. In the clear sunshine its tints of blue and white and gold sparkle like a million jewels. In all the world there is probably no other spectacle of such sheer beauty as the radiance of the Barrier. It represents the lure of the Antarctic that draws men back again to these silent and desolate places of the earth.

It was here, on his previous voyage in the Discovery, that Scott had built a hut at a point he christened Cape Armitage, a name he now changed to Cape Evans as a splendid tribute to his second in command. A week was spent in landing sledges, ponies, dogs, stores, instruments and other necessities; building operations began, and plans were laid for a chain of twelve depots southward to the Pole. The scientists got to work, and the expedition settled down to ten months of preparation for the great adventure, far from the beaten track of men.

Late in February, 1911, Scott received a shock. A message from Lieut. Campbell, who was prospecting in the Bay of Whales - towards the other end of the Barrier - informed him that he had encountered a Norwegian expedition under Captain Amundsen, who was determined to be first at the Pole. Amundsen, moreover, had over 100 dogs and had succeeded in landing them, against odds, at a starting point which gave him an advantage of sixty miles over Scott.

"There is no doubt that Amundsen's plan is a very serious menace to ours," declared Scott, who was now confronted by a very delicate problem. Should he make a race of it? Should he sacrifice carefully laid plans in order to defeat the Norwegian? Or should he, realising that this was primarily a scientific expedition backed by other people's money, resist any such temptation? "One thing fixes itself upon my mind," he said. "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."

Scott's plan of campaign had been arrived at only after long contemplation. "The future is in the lap of the gods; I can think of nothing left undone to deserve success," he wrote in his diary. The first move towards the Pole was to be made by the motor sledges. When these had gone as far as they were able, the explorers would rely on ponies, and then on dogs. Finally, on the last lap to the goal, a single sledge would be pulled by a small party with Scott himself in the lead. Dogs and supplies were to be left at the depot for collection on the return journey.

The distance to the Pole from the base was 923 miles, which Scott planned to cover in four stages. From Cape Evans to the base was 21 miles; from the base across the Barrier, 424 miles; the climb over the Beardmore Glacier, 125 miles, and the journey from the glacial summit to the Pole, 353 miles.

Scott left Cape Evans on November 1, 1911. The party were in the best of spirits, happy and confident, with Scott himself a tower of optimistic strength. With ponies and dog-drawn sledges - the motor sledges having gone ahead - they made an imposing-looking procession across the snow.

"The march is a real pleasure," wrote Scott. "One gained confidence every moment in the animals; they brought along their heavy loads without a hint of tiredness. Every one is as fit as can be."

One Ton Depot, about 130 miles from Cape Evans, was reached in November 15, by twelve men, ten ponies and the teams of dogs. And from this point onwards the luck of the expedition changed. The motor sledges were abandoned, their cylinders cracked. The ponies began to lose health and strength, despite all the efforts of Captain Oates, who nursed them like human beings. One by one they were shot and their bodies fed to the dogs. The weather became atrocious, with variations of stinging, blinding blizzards of powdery, snow that soaked clothes and tents and even sleeping bags, and glaring sun that brought on snow-blindness. Every inch of the trail had to be fought. Valuable hours were being lost in forced confinement in the tents. The early days of December were as depressing and threatening as those of November had been full of promise.

When only 12 miles from the Glacier they were forced to a standstill by a raging, howling blizzard. For days they remained at Camp 30, which Scott appropriately called the "Slough of Despond." It was impossible to venture from the tents without being covered from head to foot by the driving snow and driven back by the force of the tempest. The plight of the ponies was pitiful. Their heads, tails and legs - which could not be covered with rugs - were coated with ice, and they stood deep in snow. Huge drifts had almost hidden the sledges from view.

Those days at Camp 30 must have seemed like years. The interminable waiting got on Scott's nerves, and he was really depressed. He confessed in his records that a hopeless feeling seemed to overwhelm him. What riled him most was the fact that the weather was most unusual for this time of the year - real, unexpected hard luck. By December 7 only one small feed remained for the ponies. Either they had to march the next day or sacrifice the animals. Another serious reverse was that they were eating their own rations in advance of the planned time. The gale was still raging on the 8th, but Scott, on the advice of Captain Oates, extended the reprieve of the ponies for just another day, in spite of the fact that the situation was growing critical. It was an inspired decision. That night the wind changed, and the hopes of those prisoners in the tents began to rise. Scott himself was certain that, although nothing could recompense them for the lost days, there was hope for the morrow.

Scott was right. They were able to leave Camp 30 early the next morning and by 8 p.m. they had reached the Beardmore Glacier Depot. Here it was decided that the remaining ponies must be shot, and for this reason the depot was given the rather sinister name of Shambles Gamp. From this stage three man-drawn sledges now went forward, nearly a week behind schedule. By December 21 they had attained to the summit of the Beardmore Glacier, 8,000 feet up. It was a desperate climb. When ice was not caking on the runners of the sledges and impeding their progress, both men and sledges were sinking into patches of soft snow left in the wake of the recent storm. Sweating, stumbling, cutting a zigzag course, the explorers pushed on, some suffering from severe attacks of snow blindness. On one day they covered only four miles. Nevertheless, idleness had made them eager, and man for man they were undaunted by their difficulties.

Scott sent back the first supporting party on December 22, the two remaining sledge parties being in charge of himself and Lieut. Evans. Those who were to return to the ship were bitterly disappointed. "I dreaded the necessity of choosing; nothing could be more heart-rending," wrote Scott. "We made our depot this morning, then said an affecting farewell to the returning party, who have taken things very well - dear, good fellows as they are."

Christmas Day found Scott and his men making steady progress. They were covering between eight and ten miles a day, troubled only by an occasional deep crevass. Monotony, if anything, was the most depressing feature of this stage of the journey. The Christmas dinner came to warm and cheer them, as strange a Yuletide meal, and yet as jolly, as any ever eaten. There was horse-meat savoured with onion, plum pudding, biscuits, arrowroot, sweetened hoosh, cocoa, ginger, caramels, raisins and chocolate. The best night's sleep of all followed, with dreams, perhaps, of a Union Jack flying at the Pole.

On January 3, 1912, Scott re-organised his men for the assault on the Pole, selecting as his companions Dr. Wilson, Captain Gates, Lieut. Bowers and Petty Officer Evans. Again there were sad scenes at the parting of the way. Lieut. Evans did the best he could to disguise his emotion when Scott made his decision, but W. Lashly, a chief stoker, and Thomas Crean, a petty officer, wept openly. They were now but 145 miles from their objective. History was about to be made, and after all these months of struggle and adversity they were to miss the greatest moment in an explorer's life. In the silence and space of the Antarctic comradeship becomes almost a sacred thing. It is not difficult to imagine how these brave men felt as they shook hands and turned in their opposite directions, the one party towards civilisation, the other towards the loneliest spot on earth. Lieut. Evans handed to Bowers a silken Naval Ensign, requesting that he should leave it at the Pole. In exchange he received from Gates a letter for his mother. Scott said very little. Again he had had to make a hard choice, but he had been guided only by the needs of the expedition. His regard and admiration for every man under his command was uniform.

Lieut. Evans, Lashly and Crean accompanied Scott and his party just a little way, and then turned back, waving to each other until both parties were blotted out by the grey distance.

The return of Evans, Lashly and Crean is in itself an epic. Only by forced marches could they hope to win through. On the strength of each depended the lives of the three of them. Blizzards whipped them with ferocity, and in the Beardmore they were compelled by restricted rations to take a dangerous short cut, risking the perils of broken ice-falls. Here it was that they encountered one of the most tremendous thrills in the history of Antartic exploration. As they were descending a steep and treacherous slope the sledge to which they were clinging suddenly took command of the situation and raced away out of control, the clutching men making wild efforts to steer it with their feet as it fled.

"The speed of the sledge at one point must have reached sixty miles an hour," Evans has written since, "and there was danger of our end being in sight. The sledge seemed suddenly to spring in the air. We had left the ice and shot over a yawning chasm; then we crashed on to the ridge of ice beyond and below. The sledge capsized and rolled over and over, dragging us three with it until it came to a standstill. How we ever escaped entirely uninjured it is beyond me to explain."

That mad escapade saved them something like three days of hard tramping on foot, but the advantage thus gained was quickly lost, for Evans developed an attack of scurvy. He had been one of the hardest and most untiring workers since the expedition had set out, but the pace had begun to tell.

With incomparable grit and stamina he carried on. One Ton Camp was reached, with Evans still guiding and hauling, but it was now obvious that he was nearly a beaten man. For days he stumbled on, covering another 50 miles, and walking only with the aid of ski-sticks. Eventually he was compelled to surrender. He begged his companions to leave him in his sleeping bag, with a little food, and to hurry on for help. Lashly and Grean, certain that they would be leaving him to his death, refused. Instead, they laid him on the sledge. Of their self-sacrifice and courage Evans has written:

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