How the story ends

If you were reading this blog last year this time, you’ll remember that we followed Robert Falcon Scott in his journey to the South Pole and back (or nearly).

100 years ago today, eight months after Scott and the polar party perished, just 11 miles from One Ton Depot, where extra fuel and food was cached, the bodies of the polar party were found.

The polar party had never returned to Hut Point from their attempt on the pole the previous year. Those remaining at Hut Point waited, not knowing if Scott and his party had reached the pole or not. As winter came on, they began to worry, but continued under order to resupply One Ton, hoping to meet Scott there (perhaps delayed by storms or illness). They made at least two other attempts that winter to find Scott’s party before determining that the pole party likely had perished.

On October 29, 1912, a search party set out with a team of mules. On November 12, they came upon the snow-covered tent that contained the frozen bodies of Scott, Wilson, and Bowers. In the tent, they also found letters and journals that detailed the horrible journey, up until the expedition’s last hours.

In addition to the letters Scott wrote to the public, there was this heartbreaking letter of farewell to his wife, Kathleen.

You can read the transcript of this letter here, at the wonderful blog, Letters of Note.

Equally moving is Apsley Cherry-Garrard’s account of the discovery of the bodies. Cherry-Garrard, as a member of the Antarctic expedition and search party, recorded the events in his book, The Worst Journey in the World:

November 12 [1912]… Nearly mid-day. 11-12 miles south of One Ton. We have found them—to say it has been a ghastly day cannot express it—it is too bad for words. The tent was there, about half-a-mile to the west of our course, and close to a drifted-up cairn of last year. It was covered with snow and looked just like a cairn, only an extra gathering of snow showing where the ventilator was, and so we found the door.

It was drifted up some 2-3 feet to windward. Just by the side two pairs of ski sticks, or the topmost half of them, appeared over the snow, and a bamboo which proved to be the mast of the sledge.

Their story I am not going to try and put down. They got to this point on March 21, and on the 29th all was over.

Nor will I try and put down what there was in that tent. Scott lay in the centre, Bill on his left, with his head towards the door, and Birdie on his right, lying with his feet towards the door.

Bill especially had died very quietly with his hands folded over his chest. Birdie also quietly.

Oates’ death was a very fine one. We go on to-morrow to try and find his body. He was glad that his regiment would be proud of him.

They reached the Pole a month after Amundsen.

We have everything—records, diaries, etc. They have among other things several rolls of photographs, a meteorological log kept up to March 13, and, considering all things, a great many geological specimens. And they have stuck to everything. It is magnificent that men in such case should go on pulling everything that they have died to gain. I think they realized their coming end a long time before. By Scott’s head was tobacco: there is also a bag of tea.

Atkinson gathered every one together and read to them the account of Oates’ death given in Scott’s Diary: Scott expressly states that he wished it known. His (Scott’s) last words are:

“For God’s sake take care of our people.”

Then Atkinson read the lesson from the Burial Service from Corinthians. Perhaps it has never been read in a more magnificent cathedral and under more impressive circumstances—for it is a grave which kings must envy. Then some prayers from the Burial Service: and there with the floor-cloth under them and the tent above we buried them in their sleeping-bags—and surely their work has not been in vain.[291]

That scene can never leave my memory. We with the dogs had seen Wright turn away from the course by himself and the mule party swerve right-handed ahead of us. He had seen what he thought was a cairn, and then something looking black by its side. A vague kind of wonder gradually gave way to a real alarm. We came up to them all halted. Wright came across to us. ‘It is the tent.’ I do not know how he knew. Just a waste of snow: to our right the remains of one of last year’s cairns, a mere mound: and then three feet of bamboo sticking quite alone out of the snow: and then another mound, of snow, perhaps a trifle more pointed. We walked up to it. I do not think we quite realized—not for very long—but some one reached up to a projection of snow, and brushed it away. The green flap of the ventilator of the tent appeared, and we knew that the door was below.

Two of us entered, through the funnel of the outer tent, and through the bamboos on which was stretched the lining of the inner tent. There was some snow—not much—between the two linings. But inside we could see nothing—the snow had drifted out the light. There was nothing to do but to dig the tent out. Soon we could see the outlines. There were three men here.

Bowers and Wilson were sleeping in their bags. Scott had thrown back the flaps of his bag at the end. His left hand was stretched over Wilson, his lifelong friend. Beneath the head of his bag, between the bag and the floor-cloth, was the green wallet in which he carried his diary. The brown books of diary were inside: and on the floor-cloth were some letters.

Everything was tidy. The tent had been pitched as well as ever, with the door facing down the sastrugi, the bamboos with a good spread, the tent itself taut and shipshape. There was no snow inside the inner lining. There were some loose pannikins from the cooker, the ordinary tent gear, the personal belongings and a few more letters and records—personal and scientific. Near Scott was a lamp formed from a tin and some lamp wick off a finnesko. It had been used to burn the little methylated spirit which remained. I think that Scott had used it to help him to write up to the end. I feel sure that he had died last—and once I had thought that he would not go so far as some of the others. We never realized how strong that man was, mentally and physically, until now.

We sorted out the gear, records, papers, diaries, spare clothing, letters, chronometers, finnesko, socks, a flag. There was even a book which I had lent Bill for the journey—and he had brought it back. Somehow we learnt that Amundsen had been to the Pole, and that they too had been to the Pole, and both items of news seemed to be of no importance whatever. There was a letter there from Amundsen to King Haakon. There were the personal chatty little notes we had left for them on the Beardmore—how much more important to us than all the royal letters in the world.

We dug down the bamboo which had brought us to this place. It led to the sledge, many feet down, and had been rigged there as a mast. And on the sledge were some more odds and ends—a piece of paper from the biscuit box: Bowers’ meteorological log: and the geological specimens, thirty pounds of them, all of the first importance. Drifted over also were the harnesses, ski and ski-sticks.

Hour after hour, so it seemed to me, Atkinson sat in our tent and read. The finder was to read the diary and then it was to be brought home—these were Scott’s instructions written on the cover. But Atkinson said he was only going to read sufficient to know what had happened—and after that they were brought home unopened and unread. When he had the outline we all gathered together and he read to us the Message to the Public, and the account of Oates’ death, which Scott had expressly wished to be known.

We never moved them. We took the bamboos of the tent away, and the tent itself covered them. And over them we built the cairn.

I do not know how long we were there, but when all was finished, and the chapter of Corinthians had been read, it was midnight of some day. The sun was dipping low above the Pole, the Barrier was almost in shadow. And the sky was blazing—sheets and sheets of iridescent clouds. The cairn and Cross stood dark against a glory of burnished gold.