Arts, Culture & Media

Doomed South Pole expedition remembered

By Eric Niiler

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On the coast of Antarctica, at a rocky point called Cape Evans, sits a large wooden hut.

"It's pretty flimsy, but it's withstood a hundred years," said Al Fastier as he walked through the door.

Fastier pointed to century-old boxes of cocoa, lentils, biscuits, cabbage, and 23 kinds of canned meat sat stacked inside the kitchen pantry. There were also remains of penguins and seals that had been eaten. Fastier is program manager for the Antarctic Heritage Trust, a New Zealand group fixing up the hut and restoring its contents to commemorate the South Pole expedition of British explorer Robert Scott.

A century ago, Scott and his team lived in the hut as they prepared for an historic 800-mile trek to the pole. They aimed to be the first people ever to reach the planet's southernmost point. But when Scott arrived at the South Pole on Jan. 17, 1912, he discovered that Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen had reached the same destination a month earlier.

On their return journey, Scott and his four companions froze to death just short of reaching food and supplies. Although the British explorers ultimately lost the race to the pole — and lost their lives — they remain heroes to many of the people who work in Antarctica today.
Stiff upper lip

"I think there's something about the way [Scott] did it — he did it with a lot of the Englishman's stiff upper lip style," said David Washer, who runs New Zealand's Antarctic research station. It's called Scott Base.

"I think that really caught the imagination certainly of the British people at that time, and I think that carries on in a strange way today."

During his journey, Scott faced blinding blizzards, his men suffered frostbite, his dogs and snow ponies died. Still, the Englishman kept going.

Scott recorded all of these obstacles in an eloquent diary that was published after his death. Washer said Scott's writings revealed his English pride, his determination in the face of great odds, and a willingness to accept the consequences of his own decisions — good or bad.

"Some of the last words that Scott wrote more or less said that," said Washer. "He knew that he was going to die."

Some modern historians have cast a different light on Scott, criticizing his judgment and his preparation. Scott made a last-minute decision to take five men on the final push to the pole when he only had provisions for four. He used his men instead of dogs to pull the sleds, which made the trip slower and more exhausting.
Supply depot

And while Scott prepared for the return trip by placing supplies of food and fuel to be picked up on the way back, he put a critical supply depot too far north. He and his men died 11 miles short of that depot.

"There is no doubt that Scott made mistakes," said Nigel Watson, executive director of New Zealand's Antarctic Heritage Trust. But Watson added that Scott's expedition was also plagued by bad luck.

"He's certainly a character that has been subject to revisionist history over the last hundred years," Watson said. "And that will continue."

Although the Norwegian explorer, Amundsen, beat Scott to the pole, Watson said it's the Englishman who gets more recognition. Watson noted that there are more than 50 biographies of Scott, as well as statues and institutes named after him. Watson said that's probably because Amundsen's expedition went smoothly. He was well prepared. Scott's story is one of tragedy.

"I think what ultimately has captured people, particularly in the Western world, is that heroic failure," said Watson.

Today, those who work in Antarctica don't face the hardships Scott did. America's largest Antarctic base, McMurdo Station, boasts central heating, movie nights, yoga classes, and two frozen yogurt machines in the cafeteria.

Cheryl Parker, an American researcher at McMurdo, said Scott may have made mistakes, but she respects what he did.

"When you work here for six months at a time, sometimes you don't really think about what it was like a hundred years ago," she said. "It must have been miserable and hard to be here. And why did they do it, you know?"
Research pioneer

Scott and his men did it, in part, for science, and many say that is the Englishman's lasting legacy. Scott was not just an explorer. He pioneered research in Antarctica. Scott's team collected penguin eggs for study back in England. The men recorded climate data that scientists still use today to track global warming.

In fact, Scott and his men were so committed to science that when their frozen bodies were found, so too were more than 30 pounds of fossils. The men had refused to leave the rocks behind even when it looked like they might not make it home alive.