One hundred years ago today, on November 1, 1911, Robert Falcon Scott and a party of sixteen men, dogs, ponies, and motor sledges left their temporary Antarctic home at Cape Evans to begin the march to the South Pole.
Scott had known since January of that year that rival polar explorer Roald Amundsen was also on the Antarctic continent, preparing for an expedition to the pole. What Scott had originally intended as primarily a scientific expedition was now, clearly, a race.
The story is a famous and tragic one: The “polar party”, comprising Scott and his chosen four companions (Oates, Wilson, Bowers, and Evans), made it to the pole, only to find that Amundens’s Norwegian team had arrived there first. Humiliated and dispirited, they took a photograph to record the moment, and then headed back north to rejoin the rest of the party.
After a series of disasters, including blizzards and extreme temperatures they could never have anticipated, Scott and his men perished, just 11 miles from a depot that contained enough food and fuel to save them.
The story of the Race for the Pole has intrigued me since I first saw the PBS miniseries, The Last Place on Earth, as a teenager. My interest in polar exploration actually started a few years before that, when I came across another PBS show, one lazy weekend afternoon, about the equally tragic Franklin Expedition to discover the elusive Northwest Passage.
Something about these stories–the obstinate men; the sometimes madly unpractical plans (ponies? on Antarctica?); the ferocious, unpredictable weather; the reckless bravery; the patriotism; the desire to discover and be the first–I can’t help myself. It’s melodrama of the highest order and I can’t turn my head away.
No matter how many times I read Scott’s journal and his final farewell letters to his family and the general public, I hope for a happier ending, knowing full well how it inevitably ends: Scott, and all of his dreams, freezing to death in a tent in the middle of a Antarctic blizzard, effectively alone in the world, just a few miles away from safety.
Believe me, I don’t want to live Scott’s story. I don’t even want to go out in the cold most days. But I do sometimes wish I had even a little of that unrelenting, focused drive to do something purely amazing, crazy, daring; to do something that no one else has done, or dared to do, or even thought to do. Just because it’s there to do.
But that’s not me. I’m a watcher and waiter. I weigh the options and let others go first. I ponder and worry and second-guess myself.
And I root for Scott every single time.
To read more about Scott and Amundsen’s expeditions to the South Pole, and to follow the day-by-day journal entries of the expedition party members, see the wonderful Race For The Pole site.