The destination for history

The death of Robert Falcon Scott


When, on 29 March 1912, Captain Robert Falcon Scott wrote his last exhortation, ‘For God’s sake look after our people’, two members of his Polar Party, ‘Titus’ Oates and ‘Taff’ Evans, were already dead, and Scott, ‘Doc’ Wilson and ‘Birdie’ Bowers had just a few hours left to live.

The surviving trio had used the last of their fuel to make two cups of tea apiece on the 20th, and they had consumed their remaining food sometime between then and the date of Scott’s final journal entry. All were suffering from frostbite and their lack of fuel meant that they could no longer even melt snow to drink, let alone cook food or keep warm. ‘We shall stick it out to the end,’ Scott noted, ‘but we are getting weaker, of course, and the end cannot be far. It seems a pity but I do not think I can write more’.

In the 106 years since Scott pencilled his final words debate has raged over what caused the tragedy that overwhelmed his party. In turn, the spacing of the depots, the quantity and quality of the food, the late start, the selection of five men instead of four, the distractions of an extensive scientific programme, the timing of Oates’s suicide, Scott’s leadership, and his choice of ponies and manhauling as his main means of locomotion have all been analysed and argued over ad nauseam. In reality, of course, while many of these factors may have played a part in the disaster, ultimately none of them single-handedly determined the fate of the Polar Party. But, as Susan Solomon has cogently argued in her book, The Coldest March, one factor did make all the difference between life and death. According to Solomon, a comparison of the detailed meteorological data collated by George Simpson, Scott’s meteorologist, with information gathered over the last decades of the twentieth century from an array of automated weather stations in Antarctica, ‘points not to errors made by men but toward the capriciousness of nature as the stunningly decisive blow to the survival of Scott, Bowers, Wilson, and Oates’.

Scott anticipated that, when his party descended the Beardmore Glacier to reach the Great Barrier on their return journey, they would experience a welcome rise in temperature. This comparative warmth – or lesser cold – would play a vital role in enabling them to maintain the daily mileages that they knew to be essential if they were to reach their winter quarters before the end of the sledging season. Initially, reality matched their expectations, and analysis first published by Solomon in 1999 ‘reveals that the minimum daily temperatures experienced by Scott and his men from about February 10 through 25, 1912, while on the southern end of the Ross Ice Shelf were comparable to the climatological average’.

Of course, this does not mean that the journey up to this point was trouble-free. On 11 February, for instance, Scott recorded that his party had endured the ‘worst day we have had during the trip’; the following day, another navigational error resulted in their arriving ‘in a horrid maze of crevasses and fissures’, leaving them in a ‘very critical situation’. Then, on 17 February, ‘Taff’ Evans, whose poor health had been giving increasing cause for concern, collapsed. ‘[I was] shocked at his appearance’, recorded Scott; ‘he was on his knees with clothing disarranged, hands uncovered and frostbitten, and a wild look in his eyes…. He died quietly at 12.30 a.m.’ Wilson believed the cause of death to be brain damage sustained in an earlier fall.

Although the rest of the party were now relieved of the burden of a dying man, their progress remained disappointing, largely due to poor surface conditions. ‘I am anxious about the Barrier surfaces’, Scott admitted on the 18th. ‘The surface was every bit as bad as I expected’, he recorded the following day; ‘Same terrible surface’ on the 20th; and ‘really terrible surface’ four days later. Then, at last, the surface began to improve and with it the daily averages: ‘Day yields 11.4 miles [18.3km]’, he noted with evident relief on 25 February, ‘– the first double figure of steady dragging for a long time’, and, on the 26th, ‘Nine hours’ solid marching has given us 11½ miles [18.5km]’. However, in the same entry he made the ominous observation that the day had been ‘cold, very cold. Nothing dries and we get our feet cold too often’. Between 10 and 24 February, the temperatures recorded by the Polar Party had ranged between -11˚C and -27˚C, normal for the season. But during the night of 26/27 February the temperature dropped precipitously, to an extraordinary -38˚C. The following night the mercury fell to below -40˚C and it was still -36˚C when the day’s march began. Matters did not improve over the coming days and, to all intents and purposes, from the night of 26/27 February, the fate of Scott and his companions was sealed.

The immediate effects of this drop in temperature were twofold. First, it became ever more difficult for the remaining four men to propel their sledge. On 3 March, having covered a mere 7km in 4½ exhausting hours, Scott observed that ‘One cannot consider this a fault of our own’, and his assessment was fair. Though their growing debility would inevitably reduce their pulling-power, the fault did not lie with his men. Instead, the plunging temperature prevented the formation of lubricating meltwater between the sledge runners and the snow surface, making pulling extraordinarily arduous.

The second effect of the cold was a substantial increase in the dual risks of frostbite and hypothermia. We now know that the calorific intake of Scott’s party fell woefully short of what they required to fuel the colossal exertion of manhauling with the result that, by the time they descended to the Great Barrier, they had burned off a considerable amount of body fat, and even muscle. On their slim rations, the more they struggled across a worsening surface, the more weight they lost, and the more exhausted they became, leaving them ever more susceptible to the increasing cold.

The devastating impacts of cold and malnutrition soon became apparent. On 2 March Oates revealed the condition of his feet to his companions, ‘the toes showing very bad indeed, evidently bitten by the late temperatures’. Three days later, Scott described the soldier’s feet as being ‘in a wretched condition’. By 6 March, Oates could pull only occasionally and his morale was failing fast. The crisis came on the morning of either 15 or 16 March (Scott had lost track of dates): ‘[Oates] slept through the night before last, hoping not to wake; but he woke in the morning – yesterday. It was blowing a blizzard. He said, “I am just going outside and may be some time”. He went out into the blizzard and we have not seen him since’. Although Scott opined that Oates’s suicide was ‘the act of a brave man and an English gentleman’, by this point he knew that it would make no material difference to the chances of the remaining trio: ‘assuredly the end is not far…. though we constantly talk of fetching through I don’t think any one of us believes it in his heart’. On the 18th, he recorded that ‘My right foot has gone, nearly all the toes’ and the next day he and his companions pitched their tent for the last time, with further movement prevented by the onset of a blizzard. The temperature was -40˚C.

Solomon’s comparison of George Simpson’s data with that gathered from the automated weather stations set up in the 1980s proves beyond any reasonable doubt that Scott and his men experienced a lengthy period of abnormal cold that they could not have predicted. Scott was convinced that the weather had brought about his downfall, and in his ‘Message to the Public’, written around the time of his last journal entry, he insisted that ‘our wreck is certainly due to this sudden advent of severe weather, which does not seem to have any satisfactory cause’.

While cold created the conditions that brought about the tragedy, the actual cause of the deaths was almost certainly hypothermia, complicated by frostbite, vitamin deficiencies, malnutrition and dehydration. In the words of Henry Guly, an expert on Heroic Age medicine and illness, ‘Three types of accidental hypothermia are recognised. Acute hypothermia (often called immersion hypothermia) is caused by sudden exposure to cold such as immersion in cold water or a person caught in a snow avalanche. Exhaustion hypothermia is caused by exposure to cold in association with lack of food and exhaustion such that heat can no longer be generated. Chronic hypothermia comes on over days or weeks and mainly affects the elderly’. Evans’s head trauma would have made him particularly susceptible to hypothermia, and his reported delirium and coma all appear to be absolutely typical of the condition. In their turn, Scott, Bowers and Wilson were almost certainly victims of exhaustion hypothermia, caused by excessive and protracted cold. Only Oates’s death varied from this pattern. Though he, too, exhibited all the symptoms of exhaustion hypothermia, his final decision to leave the tent meant that, ultimately, he died of acute (or immersion) hypothermia amid the whirling snows of the blizzard that raged outside.

It is one of the great ironies of Antarctic exploration that the deaths of Scott and his party have become such potent symbols of its dangers and of the disasters that lie in wait for the unwary, the ill-prepared and the unlucky. An irony because, in reality, the circumstances of their deaths were absolutely unique in the annals of Antarctic exploration and wholly unrepresentative of the ‘Heroic Age’ or, indeed, of any other epoch. Scott, Wilson and Bowers expired at a point approximately 79.6˚S, 170˚E; they had been on the trail for nearly five months; they had already trudged more than 2500km; and they were still about 270km from their hut at Cape Evans. Scott admitted that ‘we took risks’, but, ultimately, the last members of his five-man team, malnourished and exhausted, fell victim to a highly unusual and sustained period of intense cold which drastically reduced their progress and massively increased their exposure to the twin spectres of frostbite and hypothermia. In stark contrast, practically every other cold-related death in the Antarctic has occurred during a local excursion, usually on well-trodden paths and often just a matter of metres from the warmth and security of a base hut. Those who have died in this fashion have been fit and well-fed and they have fallen victim to predictable local conditions. In many cases, their deaths have been entirely avoidable, in a way that the deaths of Scott and his men – at least according to the persuasive analysis of Solomon and Simpson – were not. The deaths of men like Alistair Forbes (1952), André Prud’homme (1959), Shin Fukushima (1960), John Noel and Tom Allan (1966) all conform to this pattern: all were undertaking brief, local expeditions and were overwhelmed by a sudden and catastrophic – but far from abnormal – deterioration in weather conditions. The contrast with the sustained and almost unbelievably gruelling conditions suffered by Scott and his party for weeks on end could hardly be more extreme.

By Stephen Haddelsey

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