Down by the Beardmore Glacier, after more than 500 miles hauling across the Ross Ice Shelf, the men came up against the Transantarctic Mountains. This was the route Scott (and Shackleton before him) had selected to climb from basically sea level up to the 10,000-foot-high central Antarctic plateau. The mountains around were several thousand feet taller still. Bowers remarked:
The mountains surpassed anything I have ever seen: beside the least of these giants Ben Nevis would be a mere mound.
Ben Nevis is the highest point in Britain: about 4,400 feet. Bowers’s amazement is revealing of the whole Victorian mindset of the men. First, to throw themselves against things entirely out of scale with their prior experience; and second, to compare it all to something in Britain, however incomparable.
Part of that mindset was the assumption that Englishmen had the substance to survive anything, if they could only muster the endurance. You see it in everyone. For instance, Wilson, facing treacherous seas trapping a landing party on a remote Atlantic island:
When we first got down to the shore and things were looking nasty, Wilson sat down on the top of a rock and ate a biscuit in the coolest possible manner. It was an example to avoid all panicking, for he did not want the biscuit.
Bowers was something of a superhero even in this, the Heroic Age of Exploration. He found the tent a day after it blew away in the blizzard on Crozier. On that trip his feet were the only ones that stayed warm, and he never even used the eiderdown insert for his sleeping bag (he donated it to frozen Cherry on the way back). Snow blindness? Pshaw…
I am afraid I am going to pay dearly for not wearing goggles yesterday when piloting the ponies. My right eye has gone bung, and my left one is pretty dicky.
Bowers meticulously planned and packed the food and gear for all the expeditions – he even cooked the books to hide away surprise rations for Christmas Dinner 1911 at the top of the Beardmore, 700 miles from the hut.
Then came 2 1/2 square inches of plum-duff each, and a good mug of cocoa washed down the whole. In addition to this we had four caramels each and four squares of crystallized ginger. I positively could not eat all mine, and turned in feeling as if I had made a beast of myself.
Christmas was Lashly’s 44th birthday, which he took rather well, all things considered:
I had the misfortune to drop clean through [a crevasse], but was stopped with a jerk when at the end of my harness. It was not of course a very nice sensation, especially on Christmas Day and being my birthday as well. While spinning around in space like I was it took me a few seconds to gather my thoughts and see what kind of a place I was in. It certainly was not a fairy’s place.
Lashly was on the last support sledge to turn around before reaching the pole. He, Lieutenant Evans, and Crean started back strongly, but the toll quickly began to show. Lashly wrote:
Crean has become snow-blind today through being leader, so I shall have the job tomorrow, as Mr Evans seems to get blind rather quickly, so if I lead and he directs me from behind we ought to get along pretty well.
Lt. Evans came very close to dying of scurvy: “This morning we were forced to put Mr Evans on his ski and strap him on, as he could not lift his legs.” But 13 days later, with Evans essentially incapacitated, he was still capable of displaying his Englishness: Lashly had a frostbitten foot and Evans, worn out and strapped onto the sledge, warmed it against his stomach.
In the end, Crean left Lashly tending Evans in a tent, and struck out for help carrying three biscuits and two sticks of chocolate for a 30 mile journey. In the end, they saved him. Back at the hut, after a supper of seal meat, Lashly wrote:
We are looking for a mail now. How funny we should always be looking for something else, now we are safe.
On the way back from the pole, Wilson kept getting snow-blind. Cherry thinks it’s because he was unable to resist whipping off his goggles at a spare moment to sketch the landscape. (The icon above is one of Wilson’s.) Then he hurt his leg:
My left leg exceedingly painful all day, so I gave Birdie (Bowers) my ski and hobbled alongside the sledge on foot. The whole of the Tibialis anticus is swollen and tight…. But we made a very fine march with the help of a brisk breeze.
Scott noted the party weakening, but hoped (somewhat blindly) for the best:
Wilson’s leg still troubles him… but the worse case is Evans, who is giving us serious anxiety. This morning he suddenly disclosed a huge blister on his foot…. Sometimes I feel he is going from bad to worse, but I trust he will pick up again when we come to steady work on ski like this afternoon.
This was five weeks before their final camp. Seaman Evans was the first to die.
Oates, who was the expedition’s horse whisperer, believe it or not, was the next to go, his foot and then his hands horribly frostbitten and swollen black. On March 17th, Scott wrote:
Should this be found I want these facts recorded. Oates’ last thoughts were of his mother, but immediately before he took pride in thinking that his regiment would be pleased with the bold way in which he met his death. We can testify to his bravery. He has borne intense suffering for weeks without complaining, and to the very last was able and willing to discuss outside subjects. He did not – would not – give up hope till the very end. He was a brave soul. This was the end. He slept through the night before last, hoping not to wake; but he woke in the morning – yesterday. It was blowing a blizzard. He said, ‘I am just going outside and may be some time.’
Twelve days later Scott still had his chin up:
We are in a desperate state, feet frozen, etc. No fuel and a long way from food, but it would do your heart good to be in our tent, to hear our songs and the cheery conversation as to what we will do when we get to Hut Point.
We are very near the end, but have not and will not lose our good cheer. We have four days of storm in our tent and nowhere’s food or fuel. We did intend to finish ourselves when things proved like this, but we have decided to die naturally in the tracks.
At the time, Britain was the greatest nation in the world (according to Britain, anyway), and you can hear it in the unwavering voices of these men. This is why Scott’s tragedy came as such a shock to the nation. It was simply inconceivable that good English men could not triumph through sheer fortitude and good breeding.
It was the first crack in a sorrowful awakening, of England learning that the world was bigger and stronger than it. In the next few years came the First World War. And the twentieth century was just getting started.
Since then, we’ve realized how foolish it all was. Monty Python ridiculed it over and over again (the Black Knight’s “it’s only a flesh wound” is perhaps the pinnacle). And yet, as soon as they let reality intrude on their plans it took over. And now we live in a world where we obsess over our hydration status, stockpile our ClifBars, bicker over backcountry campsites, shrink from the rainwater that creeps up our jacket cuffs, and call in the helicopters when we notice the sun unexpectedly setting on us. It’s enough to make a guy wistful.
Not that I would let on, of course. That’s just not cricket.