& THE MEN WHO MADE THEM
"For a joint scientific and geographical piece of organisation, give me Scott; for a Winter Journey, Wilson; for a dash to the Pole and nothing else, Amundsen: and if I am in the devil of a hole and want to get out of it, give me Shackleton every time," wrote Apsley Cherry-Garrard about exploring the Antarctic.
In the early 20th century no one knew whether Antarctica was a continent. There was, people observed, more information about Mars.
Most of the little that was known had been provided by a few British, Russian, French, Norwegian, and American expeditions in the 19th century. Brit James Clark Ross had located the north magnetic pole in the Arctic with his uncle John Ross in 1833 then led an expedition to Antarctica on the Erebus and Terror (the two ships subsequently destroyed on Franklin's Arctic expedition). Ross avoided the perils of crushing ice while conducting magnetic observations and charting coastline. In 1841 he discovered Victoria Land, the Ross Sea, and the Ross Ice Shelf.
Brits had launched the Royal Geographical Society in 1830 in a quest to explore the whole world. In the early 20th century, they finally turned their sights on Antarctica.
Robert Falcon Scott led the first exploration in 1901 on the British National Antarctic Discovery Expedition. Polar explorers had to possess a fair amount of determination. Robert Falcon Scott had been he so frail as a child he was not expected to live, but he had extraordinary reserves of willpower. Still, Shackleton and Wilson could give him a run for his money.
In 1902, Scott sets out to reach the South Pole on sledge and on foot with Ernest Shackleton and Dr Edward "Bill" Wilson. Shackleton will become a by-word for leadership and endurance. Less well-known is Bill Wilson, a superb field naturalist and painter, who had recently recovered from tuberculosis, and whose health would not make him an obvious candidate for Antarctica.
A boisterous boy who had been exploring and sketching the outdoors since he was three, Wilson announced when he was nine that he would become a naturalist. He started by collecting eggs, a fact that will shed some light on why he will later make one of the most extreme journeys in the world. As a boy he never collected all the eggs in a nest, considering that to be robbery, but took only one in four. At Cambridge he was a rower and peacemaker who was liked for his humour, integrity, and generosity. It is said that he followed a deep Christian code of which he rarely spoke.
Anything that was Bill's was yours if you needed it. He filled his rooms with rocks, bones, and specimens and his notebooks with natural history drawings and watercolours. He earned a degree in medicine, worked tirelessly treating the poor, and contracted tuberculosis. While recovering from TB, he taught himself to perfect his outdoor sketches and colour notes for later recapture in watercolours and paintings. Invited to serve as Junior Surgeon and Vertebrate Zoologist on the Discovery with Scott, he left for the Antarctic three weeks after a blissful honeymoon with his wife.
In 1902, travelling where no one ever had before, Scott, Shackleton, and Wilson discovered a glorious new coastline and mountain ranges. They surveyed three hundred miles of coast. But after sixty days of travel they were approaching the end of their tether: the sledge-dogs were collapsing, and all three men were nearing the end of their strength. Wilson found himself dissecting a dog in the icy wilderness of Antarctica, trying to figure out why the expedition's animals were dying.
They achieved a farthest South of 82°. Scott named the inlet there for Shackleton and the cape for Wilson. By then most of their dogs had died so they man-hauled their sledge. Shackleton was coughing blood. When he couldn't walk, Scott and Wilson hauled him on the sledge. Suffering from scurvy, so bruised and sore it was agony to be touched, they made it back to camp.
They would learn from this expedition, but perhaps not enough.
In England, Wilson had fallen in love with Turner's paintings and their blurred colour boundaries, so prophetic of the soft, shifting colours he found in Antarctica. In turn, Turner had admired the work of William Hodges, the artist on Captain Cook's 2nd Expedition (1772-1775). Like Hodges, Wilson's paintings combined scientific, cartographic and artistic techniques.
THE NIMROD EXPEDITION
Though he had almost died in Antarctica, Shackleton burned with desire to return. Five years later, having recovered his health and raised the money, he launched the Nimrod Expedition of 1907-09. (British expeditions were named after the ships that carried them.)
Shackleton and his team made sledge probes deep into the interior. With them were Aussie Douglas Mawson, who located the south magnetic pole after a 1200-mile journey, and Frank Wild, who had travelled with Scott on the Discovery expedition, and would travel with Mawson on his heroic return to Antarctica in 1911. The quiet but fiercely determined Wild, Shackleton, and two others travelled 1600 miles in an attempt to reach the South Pole.
They were just 97 miles away when Shackleton faced the fact they would die if they continued. He ordered them to turn back. The journey was not a total loss, however. His detailed geographical notes will be carried by members of Scott's subsequent Terra Nova Expedition when they make their attempt on the South Pole. Unfortunately they did not discover his crates of whisky and Shackleton will never be able to return for them. They will be dug out of the ice one hundred years later.
THE TERRA NOVA EXPEDITION
Scott arrived in Antarctica with Wilson, Apsley Cherry-Garrard, a large company of men, and a number of ponies and dogs in 1910 for his second expedition and his second attempt on the South Pole. Scott had been fundraising for eight years to pay his men, lease a ship, and buy enough supplies to cover a two or three-year stay. The ship was carrying the explorers, their food, wood to build a hut and furniture, oil and paraffin, scientific equipment, tents, sledges, the ponies, the dogs, and the dog food. It ran into a gale and almost sank.
Before he boarded, Bill Wilson had been working at a hectic pace diagnosing an epidemic among grouse and painting all the birds and mammals of the British Isles from life studies. He sent off his last report from the deck of the ship. Scott left to conduct last-minute fundraising. When he rejoined the Terra Nova in southern seas, a huge storm swamped the boat.
The pumps weren't working, and waves were smashing through the deck, submerging the furnaces. The dogs, who had been made fast on deck, washed to and fro. Cherry saw Scott, standing on the weather rail of the poop, buried to his waist in green seas. Darkness descended. The ship looked ready to sink, but their spirits remained high.
"It was a weird night's work," wrote Bill, "with the howling gale and the darkness and the immense seas running over the ship every few minutes and no engines and no sail, and we all in the engine-room oil and bilge water, singing shanties as we passed up slopping buckets. . ."
At 11 pm he and Evans and the carpenter finally managed to break through the bulkhead, and repair the pumps. Scott remarked later in his journal, "I was pleased to find that after all I had only lost about 100 gallons of the petrol and bad as things had been they might have been worse. . ." (Scott’s Last Expedition) Until the end, bad as things had been they might have been worse was Scott's philosophy.At last their ship neared Antarctica, and an extraordinary landscape met their eyes -
The morning watch was cloudy, but it gradually cleared until the sky was a brilliant blue, fading on the horizon into green and pink. The floes were pink, floating in a deep blue sea, and all the shadows were mauve. We passed right under a monster berg, and all day have been threading lake after lake and lead after lead. 'There is Regent Street,' said somebody, and for some time we drove through great streets of perpendicular walls of ice. (Cherry-Garrard quoting from his diary in The Worst Journey in the World)
The Antarctic summer held them in a rosy, saffron and pale green spell, but it was not to last -
The position to-night is very cheerless. All hope that this easterly wind will open the pack seems to have vanished. We are surrounded with compacted floes of immense area. Openings appear between these floes and we slide crab-like from one to another with long delays between. . .There could scarcely be a more dreary prospect for the eye to rest upon. (Scott’s Last Expedition)
Slowly the Terra Nova "bumped the floes with mighty shocks, crushing and grinding a way through some, twisting and turning to avoid others. . .like a living thing fighting a great fight". As the ship makes its way toward the thick pack, there was, wrote Wilson, a very cheerful sight -
We saw the little Adelie penguins hurrying to meet us. Great Scott, they seemed to say, what's this, and soon we could hear the cry which we shall never forget. "Aark, aark," they said, and full of wonder and curiosity, and perhaps a little out of breath, they stopped every now and then to express their feelings, and to gaze and cry in wonder to their companions; now walking along the edge of a floe in search of a narrow spot to jump and so avoid the water, and with head down and much hesitation judging the width of the narrow gap, to give a little standing jump across as would a child, and running on the faster to make up for its delay. Again, coming to a wider lead of water necessitating a plunge, our inquisitive visitor would be lost for a moment, to reappear like a jack-in-the-box on a nearer floe, where wagging his tail, he immediately resumed his race towards the ship. Being now but a hundred yards or so from us he pokes his head constantly forward on this side and on that, to try and make out something of the new strange sight, crying aloud to his friends in his amazement, and exhibiting the most amusing indecision between his desire for further investigation and doubt as to the wisdom and propriety of closer contact. . . (Wilson, Discovery Natural History Report)
At last they made landfall. Sledging supplies from the ship, the Terra Nova expedition established camp near the snowy volcano called Mount Erebus. They build a large hut to hold all the men, and bid farewell to their ship, which sailed away before it was crushed in winter pack ice. In the light that remained to them before darkness sets in, they explored, surveyed, sketched, photographed, took meteorological observations, studied leopard seals and penguins, exercised the dogs and ponies (never easy on ice), and prepared for the journey to the South Pole the following summer.
On a good day the view is beautiful-
The sea is blue before us, dotted with shining bergs or ice floes, whilst far over the Sound, yet so bold and magnificent as to appear near, stand the beautiful Western Mountains with their numerous lofty peaks, their deep glacial valley and clear cut scarps, a vision of mountain scenery that can have few rivals. (Cherry-Garrard)
A Halo Round the Moon Showing Mock Moons
The Worst Journey in the World
Winter drew in with dismal cold, fierce storms and perpetual darkness, and it was then, at the very worst time of year, that Bill Wilson, Cherry-Garrard, and Henry "Birdie" Bowers set out on a five-week journey. It was just a few days after Antarctica's midwinter solstice, June 22nd, 1911. They were about to discover why Dante was right when he placed the circles of ice below the circles of fire in Hell.
Their goal was to reach Cape Crozier, because it is there, in mid-winter, that the Emperor penguins incubate their eggs. Standing four feet tall, the Emperors are the world's largest penguin.
Bill, Birdie and Cherry's mission was to collect some of their eggs, and discover whether the embryos contained the missing evolutionary link between birds and reptiles. But reaching the Cape was extremely difficult in summer in daylight, and they were attempting it in the Antarctic winter night.
At twenty-four Cherry-Garrard was the youngest of the three. He had been turned down at first, despite offering to donate a large sum to the expedition, because without his spectacles he was almost blind. When he donated the money anyway, Bill persuaded Scott to take him along. Birdie Bowers was short, tough, cheerful, and a terrific organizer. He has already proved unstoppable when saving several men and ponies who were being carried out to sea on ice floes while surrounded by killer whales. Bill, Birdie, and Cherry hauled 757 pounds of supplies on their sledges, and steered by Jupiter through the frozen dark. The cold, on average -60ºF (-51ºC) and falling as low as -77ºF (-60ºC), was intense. In Cherry's words -
Of course we were not iced up all at once: it took several days of this kind of thing before we really got into big difficulties on this score. It was not until I got out of the tent one morning fully ready to pack the sledge that I realized the possibilities ahead. We had had our breakfast, struggled into our foot-gear, and squared up inside the tent, which was comparatively warm. Once outside, I raised my head to look round and found I could not move it back. My clothing had frozen hard as I stood — perhaps fifteen seconds. For four hours I had to pull with my head stuck up, and from that time we all took care to bend down into a pulling position before being frozen in.
On the trek their feet became numb, and Cherry and Bill suffered terribly from frostbite. Each night they struggled for an hour or more to get into their frozen bags. Every day they took hours to heat up food, take down the tent, and load up – it was impossible to work any more quickly in the stupendous cold. As they marched on toward the cape, they grew colder, their hearts beating more slowly and weakly, and they longed for a hot drink -
. . .tea for lunch, hot water for supper. Directly we started to drink then the effect was wonderful: It was, said Wilson, like putting a hot-water bottle against your heart. The beats became very rapid and strong and you felt the warmth travelling outwards and downwards. Then you got your foot-gear off — puttees (cut in half and wound round the bottom of the trousers), finnesko, saennegrass, hair socks, and two pairs of woollen socks. Then you nursed back your feet and tried to believe you were glad — a frost-bite does not hurt until it begins to thaw. Later came the blisters, and then the chunks of dead skin.
Their diet consisted of 12 ounces of pemmican (dried meat), 16 ounces of biscuit and 4 ounces of butter a day. They were slowly starving, but they went on in the frigid dark, with just enough light between 11am and 3pm to see the holes in the snow made by their feet. When the ground became very rough, and the temperature was minus 61°, the strength of all three men was needed to drag just one sledge, and they had to trudge back in their tracks for the second.
After lunch the little light had gone, and we carried a naked lighted candle back with us when we went to find our second sledge. It was the weirdest kind of procession, three frozen men and a little pool of light.
Cherry's teeth were cracking from the cold. The pus in his blisters was frozen. He was exhausted, and finding it difficult to sleep because his whole body chattered with cold. But he refused to quit, and encouraged himself by muttering a little refrain -
"You've got it in the neck – stick it, stick it – you've got it in the neck – stick it, stick it, stick it."
"Always patient, self-possessed, unruffled," Bill Wilson regularly asked them - "Shall we go on?" Their answer was always "Yes".
They approached the Barrier, which runs for four hundred miles as an ice-cliff up to 200 feet high - and shoves into the land at a rate of about a mile a year. The Barrier piled up the icy chaos called the Pressure. They will have to navigate this in order to reach the small bay where the male penguins stand with their eggs on their feet, waiting for them to hatch. For nine weeks the Emperor penguins are completely dedicated to their eggs. They do not eat, and when they walk, they shuffle, to keep their egg safe on their feet.
Bill, Birdie and Cherry pulled themselves up ridges, and slithered down slopes, making their way under the towering cliffs and the black lava precipices which form Cape Crozier. While running downhill, the sledge catching at their heels, they saw the moon loom from behind clouds. It had appeared in the nick of time to reveal a vast crevasse with a glassy lid into which they were just about to plunge.
Cherry deprecates his own courage and the difficulties of being almost blind half the time since his glasses were always fogging up. He speaks insouciantly of straddling the razor-backed edge of a snow ridge, crevasses to right and left of him, cutting steps when he cannot find a foothold with his crampons, moving step by step towards the Emperor penguins. Then -
. . . we came up against a wall of ice which a single glance told us we could never cross. One of the largest pressure ridges had been thrown, end on, against the cliff. We seemed to be stopped, when Bill found a black hole, something like a fox's earth, disappearing into the bowels of the ice. We looked at it: 'Well, here goes!' he said, and put his head in, and disappeared. Bowers likewise. It was a longish way, but quite possible to wriggle along, and presently I found myself looking out of the other side with a deep gully below me, the rock face on one hand and the ice on the other. 'Put your back against the ice and your feet against the rock and lever yourself along,' said Bill, who was already standing on firm ice at the far end in a snow pit. We cut some fifteen steps to get out of that hole. Excited by now, and thoroughly enjoying ourselves, we found the way ahead easier, until the penguins' call reached us again and we stood, three crystallized ragamuffins, above the Emperors' home.
They built an igloo on Mount Terror to serve as a field laboratory, and triumphantly brought back three penguin eggs in their mitts. That night a blizzard roared in, and their tent and much of their gear blew away. The roof of their igloo was "wrenched upwards and then dropped back with great crashes".
Bill told them that if the roof went their best chance to survive was to roll over in their sleeping-bags until they were lying on the openings. They heaped ice on the roof in a desperate effort to keep the blizzard out and the roof on, but the whole roof flew off with a great roar.
Birdie dived for his sleeping-bag. Cherry, already half into his bag, turned to help Bill. "Get into your own," Bill shouted. The next Cherry knew Birdie had flung himself across Bill's body. "We're all right," he yelled, and they all answered in the affirmative, though it seemed quite clear they were going to die. As the storm raged, and snow piled up over them, they sang songs, and tried to think how they were going to make it back to camp without a tent.
Captain Scott on his last trip to the Antarctic, April 13th 1911. The South Pole is 9,300 ft above sea level, but the rotation of the Earth makes the air so thin it is like being at 11,000 feet.
A BLUE LOOK OF HOPE - ON TO THE POLE
In November, 1911, Scott's Terra Nova Expedition launched its attempt on the South Pole. Roald Amundsen and his team were already advancing on the Pole in the race to be first. Due to lack of communications, Scott was not aware how far ahead of him Amundsen was when he set out.
With Scott were four teams of men laying supply depots. Eventually three teams headed back, and one team – Scott, Bill Wilson, Birdie, Lawrence 'Titus' Oates, and Edgar Evans – headed toward the South Pole.
After a gruelling trip, they reached the Pole on January 17th 1912, only to find that Amundsen had beaten them there. (After a superbly organized journey, Amundsen had arrived on December 14th 1911.)
On the way back, Bill continued to make detailed geological notes and sketches, and they stopped to collect geological samples in the area around Mount Buckley, as had been requested by geologists. Dragging an extra 35 pounds of specimens cannot have been easy, especially when temperatures were dropping. Hauling the sledge over the hard, coarse snow was like dragging it through heavy sand, but they refused to abandon the rocks.
Among them was the first known Antarctic fossil of Glossopteris, an ancient and extinct tree fern that suggested Antarctica had once been temperate and somewhere else. (Continental drift theory will use this rock as evidence.)
They had already covered close to 1500 miles. They were probably suffering from scurvy, and the pemmican, biscuits and tea, never enough for men expending vast amounts of energy every day, were running out. All of them had frostbite, even Birdie, who had never had it before. Descending the Beardmore Glacier, Evans suffered a bad fall, and died. Scott, Bill, Birdie and Titus Oates headed on, trying to reach the supply depot stocked with food and fuel. Then a blizzard roared in and trapped them in their tent for nine days.
On the morning of his 32nd birthday, Oates walked out into the blizzard with the words, "I am just going out and may be some time." He had made a last, gallant bid to save his friends by leaving them his food rations.
Scott, determined to "stick it out to the end," continued to hope the weather would lift. In his journal he wrote that as their troubles thickened, Birdie's "dauntless spirit ever shone brighter and he has remained cheerful, hopeful and indomitable." He wrote to Bill's wife -
My Dear Mrs. Wilson. If this letter reaches you, Bill and I will have gone out together. We are very near it now and I should like you to know how splendid he was at the end – everlastingly cheerful and ready to sacrifice himself for others, never a word of blame to me for leading him into this mess. . .
In a last letter to his wife, written in the pages of a book and only released to the public in 2007, Scott wrote -
What lots and lots I could tell you of this journey. How much better it has been than lounging in comfort at home — what tales you would have for the boy but oh what a price to pay — to forfeit the sight of your dear dear face.
Among his very last written words were "For God's sake look after our people."
His body, and the bodies of Wilson and Birdie, were found in their tent months later, just eleven miles from the supply depot. With them were their geological specimens and papers.
Cherry, who helped to find and bury his friends, was devastated. Years later, when he wrote up the entire expedition, he recalled that through all the long and difficult miles, "I never heard an angry word."
Douglas Mawson, before and after Antarctica. He was twenty-nine when he made a journey back from death.
DOUGLAS MAWSON -DEFYING DEATH
In January of the same fateful year, 1911, the Australasian Antarctic Expedition led by Douglas Mawson arrived to chart the 2000-mile Antarctic coastline directly south of Australia. The Expedition had drawn its team mainly from Australian and New Zealand universities, and raised the indispensable funds from an enthusiastic public. The Australian Association for the Advancement of Science, the British Government, and the Royal Geographic Society also contributed.
The expedition's ship, the Aurora, dropped geologists, cartographers, biologists, magneticians, wireless operators, photographers, mechanics, surgeons, and sledge-masters at three locations, and they set up bases. Unfortunately their Main Base experienced high winds most of the year, some of them as strong as 200 miles per hour.
Despite relentlessly awful weather, the Australasian expedition completed a number of scientific treks, made biological, geological, and meteorological discoveries, mapped more of the Antarctic than any other expedition, and discovered a meteorite. On November 10th 1912, Douglas Mawson set out with his three-man party, intending to make one last exploration before January 15th, when the Aurora would return to pick them up and take them home.
By the end of November, Mawson, and his two companions, Lieutenant B.E.S. Ninnis of the Royal Fusiliers and Dr. X. Mertz, an expert Swiss mountaineer, had crossed the heavily crevassed Mertz Glacier. They started across the "tumultuous and broken" Ninnis Glacier but their progress was agonizingly slow. Then were trapped by a 70 mph blizzard.
When the blizzard ended, they dug themselves, the dogs, and the sledges out of the snow and continued to explore. On December 13th they headed on with just one sledge. On the 14th, Mertz, ahead on skis, signalled that he had spotted another snow-covered crevasse. Ninnis was following Mawson with the sledge and the dogs. Mawson made it across the crevasse easily, and heard a ghastly scream. He turned to see Ninnis, the sledge and all the dogs had vanished. Rushing to the edge of the crevasse, he and Mertz stared down into a deep, gaping hole where, on a ledge 150 feet below, a dog lay crying, its back broken. Beneath the dog was an abyss. They called into the depths for over three hours, and tied together all their rope. There was no answer, and their rope would not even reach the dog.
They grieved for Ninnis, and faced the fact there was little chance they could survive. They were 315 miles from Main Base. They had laid no depots as they had planned to take an easier route back. Ninnis's sledge, pulled by the six fittest dogs, was carrying indispensable supplies, including the tent, and most of their food. The remaining sledge carried only 10 days of rations, and nothing for the six surviving dogs.
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A riveting account of the adventures, deeds, great geographical accomplishments, and brilliant leadership of Shackleton's 1907-09 British Antarctic Expedition, called the Nimrod.
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Cherry-Garrard's account of Scott's Terra Nova Expedition can be read online in all its harrowing and astounding detail HERE.
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Niall Ferguson describes the Brits' global explorations in Empire.
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Wilson's drawings of animals suggest both his understanding and affection for them. His Nature Notebooks can be purchased here
Written by his great-nephew, and featuring many reproductions of his paintings, this biography of Wilson as naturalist, explorer, unassuming hero, and compassionate friend has been called "superb". It includes his last letter to his wife.
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We make no attempt to join the quarrel of Scott / Amundsen supporters by recommending any biography. It seems to us that every Antarctic explorer risked hardship and death, and deserves respect for his courage and his achievements, whether brilliantly reaching the South Pole first, in the case of Amundsen, or attempting to do so while making contributions to science, in the case of Scott. The unedited journals Scott kept on his last expedition recount what the journey was like almost to his last breath.
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Elephant Island, where Shackleton's men awaited his return from an 800-mile journey in an open boat through stormy seas. Part Two of Extreme Journeys
This wonderful book describes Britain's gifts to the world. Adults will refresh their understanding of profound events in British history, and young people will find inspiration. Warning: This book defies aggressive secularism and unthinking multiculturalism. Written by the co-editors of this website, Share the Inheritance is beautifully illustrated with 125 colour images and a timeline. Available at Amazon UK and at Amazon USA.