February 2008

It Could Be Worse

Author: Craig Hysell

Being the first person to explore something can be as frightening as it can be riveting. Imagine the first person to walk into the black depths of a cavern, dive to the bottom of the sea with an untested breathing apparatus or eat an oyster. What virtues must one possess to do such things? Courage? Faith? Insanity?

Of course, expanding our knowledge base is what most human beings yearn for, and many of us admire these crazy, brave adventurers for the discoveries and information they bring to humanity’s proverbial table. But what happens when you run into trouble on your expedition to the coldest place on earth? What happens when someone beats you to your goal and you still have to make the long trek home with dwindling supplies while already near death from frostbite and malnutrition?

Well, you guessed it; that’s when things couldn’t get any worse.

Captain Robert Falcon Scott
Antarctica is one of the most severe and brutal environments on earth. Ninety-eight percent of the continent is covered with snow and ice that does not absorb sunlight, but reflects it. The air is extremely dry and does not insulate heat. At 8200 feet it has the highest average elevation of all the continents and is known for fierce and screaming storms buffeted by 200 mph gale-force winds. (Hurricanes become Category 5 at 155 mph.) It has a coldest recorded temperature of minus 129 degrees Fahrenheit, not considering the wind chill. That kind of cold is almost incomprehensible.

Captain Robert Falcon Scott’s second trip to Antarctica began in June of 1910. In less than a year, he would be dead. A hardy English Navy man, Scott’s competence on his journey south has been widely contested. But how exactly does one prepare for the unknown and get everything right?

After returning from a preliminary and chilly visit to the Antarctic in 1902, Scott began raising money for a second voyage; which was to be as much a scientific journey as an English flag planting/tea party at the Pole. Eight years later, Scott had enough financial backing to venture forth and a new son to hurry back to. As if getting to the South Pole and coming back alive wasn’t enough pressure, Scott would be racing Norwegian Roald Amundsen to the end of the earth.

Scott’s ship could not penetrate through the ice as far as Amundsen’s, giving the Norwegian what amounted to a 100 km head start. Amundsen, having studied the Inuit people of the North, also used dogsleds, while Scott, still not sold on a dog’s worth in such extreme conditions, used ponies to pull his supplies. The horses quickly died in temperatures that averaged -20 degrees Fahrenheit. Scott and the four other men he had handpicked for his push to the pole had to drag the sled by hand—a task equivalent to dragging a bathtub full of water across the Sahara.

Laborious work at 0 degrees requires meals of about 7,700 calories, most of which the body burns to keep warm—nutritional information which didn’t come to light until much later. Scott’s men worked below 0 degrees with significantly less caloric intake. Their bodies began to feed on their fat and muscle, further weakening the men and causing severe dehydration as well as other vitamin-deficient infirmities such as scurvy. And then frostbite set in.

Frostbite is the human body shouting, “Get indoors, stupid!” It is the constricting of blood vessels in its extremities in order to keep its core temperature at an operating level. Wikipedia aptly explains frostbite as a “discoloration of the skin, along with burning and/or tingling sensations, partial or complete numbness and possibly intense pain.” After a few hours, the skin darkens, turns black, looks loose or flayed and may require amputation due to gangrene.

Scott and his crew reached the South Pole only to find that Amundsen had already been there. Demoralized, they turned around to trudge more than 800 miles home. The first to die from the elements (and possibly head trauma from a fall) was Petty Officer Edgar Evans, just after midnight on February 18, 1911. On March 17, suffering from severe frostbite, Captain Titus Oates no longer wished to be a burden to his friends. He told his crew, “I’m just going outside and may be some time.” He walked out into a blizzard and was never seen again.

On March 29, holed up against yet another blizzard and more than a week without food, Robert F. Scott wrote his last wishes in his journal. He and his crew were found dead by a search party a few months later. They were just eleven miles from camp.

Note: In his final letter to his wife, Scott asked that his son be encouraged to study natural history. Peter Scott went on to found the Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust as well as the World Wide Fund for Nature.

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