Photo by Herbert Ponting/Scott Polar Research Institute, University of Cambridge/Getty Images
People often talk about space as the final frontier. We conquered the land, the sea, and almost everything in between. The only voyages left are those that take us to the stars. But in the modern era, many of us have forgotten about just how perilous it was to conquer the penultimate frontier: the Poles.
The penultimate frontier was that of the North and South Pole. And here, some of the most epic tales of discovery would be spun. One of the most stultifying of these was that of Robert Falcon Scott and his crew of intrepid men. In 1910, they would venture toward Antarctica’s South Pole in a journey that would culminate in some of the greatest scientific discoveries known today. But the journey would also cost them their lives.
What followed was a mixture of science and adventure. These men were scientists and explorers caught in the fever of wanderlust.
Upon the sea
The journey to the South Pole would start out rough. Scott and his team departed from the shores of Christchurch, New Zealand and made their way south toward Ross Island, a small, frigid landmass off the Antarctic coast. They would arrive around January 3, 1911. While en route, however, they hit some unanticipated swells.
“The wind freshened with great rapidity on Thursday evening,” writes Scott, “and very soon the ship was plunging heavily and taking much water over the lee rail.” At one point, the waves were so strong as to wash aside one of dogs, break him from his chains, and sweep him into the arctic sea. Miraculously, writes Scott, “the next wave washed him back on board.”
The ferocity of this particular segment of the voyage was so tumultuous that the crew had lost a total of “two ponies, one dog, ten tons of coal, sixty-five gallons of petrol,” and, what some might consider the most disheartening loss of the trip, a case of spirits.
But more troubles were to come.
Telos Terra Nova
The aim of the Terra Nova, the ship that carried Scott and his crew southward, was primarily scientific. Evidence had been growing since the late 19th century that there used to exist a giant landmass that has only recently — at least in terms of geologic time — broken apart. This landmass was called Gondwanaland.
Initially proposed by Eduard Suess in 1861, the landmass was hypothesized to compose what is today South America, Africa, India, Australia, and — yes — Antarctica. While evidence had already been found to suggest continuities between the other continents, the evidence that would bring Antarctica into the fold was still scarce. And, you guessed it, the reason for this lack of evidence was that so few people had actually traveled to the Antarctic continent.
But there was another aim of the Terra Nova’s voyage: to be the first to reach the South Pole. Scott had wanted to secure for Britain what others had a few years prior secured from reaching the North Pole: the honor of being the first to reach one of the most inhospitable and unexplored places on Earth. This aim of the journey would ultimately cost Scott his life.
After having circumnavigated the tumultuous Ross Sea, the Terra Nova made it to Ross Island — an island connected to the Antarctic landmass by a massive ice sheet. This island would serve as the area in which Scott and his crew would set up base. Shortly after landing, however, they would be met by more problems.
The first of these initially appeared to be a novelty: “Some six or seven killer whales, old and young, were skirting the fast floe edge ahead of the ship; they seemed excited and dived rapidly, almost touching the floe.”
Two of the sled dogs, however, were tethered to some equipment on the floe (a giant chunk of ice) that the whales were swimming near. Scott hadn’t yet put together the pieces.
Amused by the display, Scott shouted down Herbert Pontine, the photographer he had hired to help document the expedition. Pontine quickly “seized his camera and ran towards the floe edge to get a close picture of the beasts, which had momentarily disappeared.”
Soon, however, “the whole floe under him and the dogs heaved up and split into fragments. One could hear the ‘booming’ noise as the whales rose under the ice and struck it with their backs. Whale after whale rose under the ice, setting it rocking fiercely; luckily Ponting kept his feet and was able to fly to security.”
The whales were trying to wash Pontine and the dogs into the sea. Fortunately, they did not succeed.
The crew’s next plan was to set up camp. From there, they would head southward toward the Antarctic Pole, a voyage that would bring them through glaciers, crevasses, and blistering arctic temperatures that would get as low as -80 degrees Celsius — a temperature that would, if permitted, induce frostbite almost instantly.