Remembrance: 1912 South Pole Trip Ends Tragically

Jan 21, 2012
Originally published on January 21, 2012 9:27 am

One hundred years ago this week, British explorer Robert Falcon Scott reached the South Pole with a small crew of men. They all perished on the return trip. In 2008 on Weekend Edition, NPR's Daniel Zwerdling reported from the South Pole on Scott's tragic journey. To mark the 100th anniversary, we reprise that story.

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This week marks the 100th anniversary of another polar adventure that ended in tragedy - this time at the South Pole. January 17, 1912, British Captain Robert Falcon Scott reached that Pole with a small team of men, but they perished during their trek back to base camp.

Four years ago on WEEKEND EDITION, NPR's Daniel Zwerdling reported from Antarctica on that expedition. And today, to mark the anniversary of Capt. Scott's reaching the Pole, we're going to play an excerpt.

Our story begins in the hut at base camp when all seemed to be going well for the expedition and where to day, supplies remain preserved, even seal meat hanging on a hook. Danny's guide is marine biologist and Antarctic historian Donal Manahan.

DONAL MANAHAN: That is seal meat from the heroic age of Antarctic explorations.


DANIEL ZWERDLING, BYLINE: Yeah. That's what the smell is.

MANAHAN: The blubber, it looks a little oily and mucky.

ZWERDLING: Scott's diary describes amazing meals with mutton and cheese and steak and kidney pie, made from seal meat like the stuff oozing next to us.

One of the scientists built a weather station and launched weather balloons. Scott sounded like he was in heaven.


UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: Such weather in such a place comes nearer to satisfying my ideal of perfection than any condition I have ever experienced. The warm glow of the sun with the keen, invigorating cold of the air is inexpressively health giving and satisfying.

ZWERDLING: But then everything started to go wrong. Scott and four men began trudging 800 miles from this cabin toward the South Pole. Their first problem was crippling weather. One of the crew members was a scientist, and he measured temperatures at 77 below zero. Winds were 100 miles an hour. His records show it was some of the worst weather in Antarctica in the last 100 years.

Now, think about this: Donal Manahan and I are each wearing five layers of clothing made out of miracle fibers. We're wearing polar boots that would probably work on the moon, and we're cold.

MANAHAN: Here beside me are some pants, which are grimy, dirty-looking pants.

ZWERDLING: These are the actual cotton trousers that an explorer left behind. And here are some boots made of reindeer fur.

MANAHAN: They would keep you warm but the problem was when you sweated in your socks, that sweat would freeze. And there's some, oh, heart-wrenching stories of it would take them sometimes two hours to put on a shoe. They would put their toes in a little bit, have to wait for the toes to heat up the shoe and then to move it a little bit. Unbelievable.

ZWERDLING: It was so cold that Scott's ponies began to die. Scott had brought almost 20 special ponies to drag the huge sleds, which carried their supplies. The animals were bred to work in freezing weather but eventually they all collapsed from cold and exhaustion. So now Scott and his crew had to drag the sleds themselves.

Manahan points at a dirty canvas harness, which hangs from one of the beams.

MANAHAN: You just strap it around your waist; put a rope on it, and tie it to the sledge and then you just start walking. And the trauma of pulling these thousand-pound sledges with this weight is I think beautifully illustrated in this writing from Scott's diary, as they were almost getting to the South Pole.

I had never had such pulling? All the time the sledge...

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: All the time the sledge rapts and creaks.


ZWERDLING: We have covered six miles but at fearful cost to ourselves. None of us ever had such hard work before. Miserable, utterly miserable.

MANAHAN: And the challenge was they couldn't drag enough food with them to supply all the calories they need. They were basically on a starvation diet as soon as they left. They always were hungry.

ZWERDLING: Finally, on January 17, 1912, Robert Scott and his crewmates made it to the bottom of the world. But as they dragged themselves to the exact spot they saw the Norwegian flag flapping in the wind. It turned out that an explorer named Roald Amundsen had beat them to the pole. Amundsen even left a letter for Scott in his tent. It was dated five weeks earlier.

Scott and his crew took some more scientific measurements and then they set up their camera.


UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: It is a terrible disappointment and I am very sorry for my loyal companions. All the daydreams must go. The pole, yes, but under very different circumstances from those expected. We have had a horrible day. Now for the run home and a desperate struggle.

ZWERDLING: Scott knew it would take at least three months to slog back to this cabin. But even though they were desperate they collected 35 pounds of rocks to study Antarctica's geology. Their scientist was especially excited about a fossil of a leaf that hinted that Antarctica used to be warm and lush millions of years ago.

Then, exactly one month after they left the pole, one of the men went insane. He ripped off his clothes and died. Then a second man got terrible frostbite - he could hardly walk anymore. He got up in the tent one morning during a raging blizzard. He told his comrades I am just going outside and I may be some time. And they never saw him again.

Scott wrote a final letter to his wife:


UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: Dearest darling, we are in a very tight corner and I have doubts of pulling through. If anything happens to me I shall like you to know how much you have meant to me and that pleasant recollections are with me as I depart. We have decided not to kill ourselves but to fight it to the last.

ZWERDLING: Eight months later, a search team found their bodies. They died 150 miles short of this cabin. Scott and two colleagues were lying in their sleeping bags, frozen like Antarctica's ice.


SIMON: The bodies of Robert Falcon Scott and his men have never been retrieved. They remain out on the ice.

Daniel Zwerdling's story, produced by Peter Breslow, was originally broadcast in 2008.


SIMON: This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.