After an even earlier false start, Amundsen finally set off across the ice shelf on 19 October 1911, with 48 dogs, 5 men, and 4 sledges. Scott was unable to follow him out as his much larger team had immediate problems with the donkeys which were having difficulties in dealing with the intense cold. He finally set out on 2 November 1911 and the pressure this delay caused never allowed him and his team to find a way to catch up.
Of course Amundsen never knew when Scott had set off and throughout the push for the Pole, Amundsen remained unaware of where Scott’s team were. He was terrified that they might somehow have got ahead of him. In that vast landscape, mists, fogs and blizzards blanketing everything all around them, each team could have passed within a hundred metres of the other and still not have been seen. Amundsen, in order to move faster, even decided to shoot the weaker of his dog teams and feed them to the others. Eventually he and his four colleagues, 16 dogs and two sledges reached the South Pole on 14 December 1911. Their return to the Fram was relatively uneventful and was achieved in record time, so fast in fact that those waiting for them thought they hadn’t made it and at first were frightened to ask the question, ‘Have you been there?’ It was only 25 January 1912.
The struggle against the elements had proved a nightmare scenario for Scott and he and four others had eventually reached the South Pole only on 17 January 1912. He had fought so hard to reach there first and was shattered to find the black tent with the Norwegian flag flying. Inside was a note from Amundsen confirming his success and sending his ‘good wishes’ to take back to the King of England. On the return journey, Scott and his team, demoralised and physically exhausted, encountered even more severe and extreme weather conditions; they all perished.
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In the tent with Scott, at the bitter end, were the last two surviving members, both barely hanging on, Edward Wilson and Henry Bowers. Edgar Evans had earlier fallen to his death and Lawrence Oates had a few days earlier walked out into the blizzard to die. Oates was suffering from severe frostbite and gangrene and he knew he was delaying the others and limiting their already slim chances of surviving. He decided to sacrifice himself and left the tent declaring, ‘I am just going outside, and I may be some time.’ Meticulously, even when he knew he would not survive, Scott kept a detailed diary and the words he left behind have since inspired many, ‘Had we lived, I should have had a tale to tell of hardihood, endurance and courage of my companions, which would have stirred the heart of every Englishman. These rough notes and our dead bodies must tell the tale.’ Scott’s last diary entry was 29 March. Those poignant and emotive words of Scott are, as Humphrey Bogart would express so many years later in one of his classic films, The Black Falcon, ‘The stuff which dreams are made of.’ They certainly helped to fuel my childhood dreams, decades later. 1912 was a year of great triumph and incredible disaster. Scott and his men would never know of the catastrophic encounter between the Titanic and the giant iceberg on 14 April 1912 which was to cost so many hundreds of lives. Yet Scott’s death and those of his four very brave companions, in a uniquely and perhaps peculiarly British tradition, created a special kind of personal victory and he has for evermore been acknowledged as one of Britain’s greatest heroes.
Shackleton found it very difficult to accord the primary role in Antarctic exploration to Scott and was still as determined to enter the history books. His stark, brutal advertisement for possible crew members couldn’t have put it more plainly: ‘MEN WANTED FOR HAZARDOUS JOURNEY Small Wages, Bitter Cold, Long Months of Complete Darkness, Constant Danger, Safe Return Doubtful. Honour and Recognition in Case of Success.’ In August 1914 he set off from Plymouth to attempt an Antarctic crossing from the Weddell Sea to McMurdo Sound in the Ross Sea, via the South Pole. In January 1915 his ship, rather poignantly called the Endurance, became trapped in the pack ice for ten months. It drifted slowly with the ice and finally broke up in November. The whole crew then had to live on the floating ice floes for five months before Shackleton eventually got his men to the deserted Elephant Island. He left most of them there and set off with three of his strongest members in one of the lifeboats, the James Caird, to cross 1,300 km of extremely perilous ocean in order to reach the whaling station of
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