Science, Exploration, and the Race to the Pole

Spectrum's Glenn Zorpette reports from Antarctica

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This is part of the series:
Antarctica: Life on the Ice

Transcript: Science, Exploration, and the Race to the Pole

[period music, Antarctic sounds]

Glenn Zorpette: The race to the South Pole began 109 years ago with the first Antarctic expedition of Robert Falcon Scott, a British naval officer. His men built a hut on the edge of the continent. They called it the Discovery hut, named after the boat that carried the 47 men to Antarctica from England.

Donal Manahan: When you come here, you can’t help but notice there’s a hut just a couple hundred yards away from where we’re talking that was where some of the first biologists and chemists and glaciologists and physicists worked.

Glenn Zorpette: That’s Donal Manahan, a biology researcher and amateur historian who’s been coming to Antarctica since 1983.

Donal Manahan: Scott came down here in January 1902, built the hut, which we can walk to after a very warm dinner here in McMurdo station.

[sounds of trekking to dinner]

Glenn Zorpette: In fact, after dinner one night at McMurdo, the main U.S. base in Antarctica, we did just that. Our hostess was Dana Topousis, a public affairs official with the National Science Foundation.

[sounds of people entering the hut]

Dana Topousis: Let’s see if I can open the door…yeah. And I have flashlights because it’s probably not very bright.

Glenn Zorpette: OK, so here we are opening the door to the Discovery hut.

Dana Topousis: It’s icy…

Glenn Zorpette: It’s dark and it’s small and it smells…

Dana Topousis: Like old horse straw.

Lee Hotz: I believe that Scott actually never lived here…this was one of their secondary buildings.

Glenn Zorpette: Lee Hotz is a columnist for The Wall Street Journal and a veteran Antarctic traveler.

Lee Hotz: It’s actually where they had their jollies. They used it as a theater ….So its purpose was as a kind of secondary storage area but also as a shelter.

[music]

Glenn Zorpette: Here’s the race to the Pole in a nutshell. Robert Scott’s Discovery expedition—between 1901 and 1904—came within 480 miles of the Pole. His main purpose was actually scientific and geographic research. Among other things, Scott and his men discovered the Dry Valleys, an ecologically remarkable area not far from present-day McMurdo base. The next expedition was Sir Ernest Shackleton’s; he had been on the Discovery expedition but had had a falling out with Scott. On January 9, 1909, Shackleton got within 97 miles of the Pole before being forced to turn back.
Finally, in the greatest race of the great era of human exploration, Scott and the Norwegian Roald Amundsen raced to the Pole starting in 1911. Amundsen and his team left in October and got there first, at 3 in the afternoon on Friday, December 14, 1911. Scott and four men left in November and got there on January 18, 1912, a month after Amundsen. On the return trip, Scott and his four men all died of starvation, illness, and hypothermia. Scott and two of the men perished just 11 miles from a food depot that would have saved their lives. But a terrible blizzard confined them to their tent for nine days. Diaries found in that tent described pain and hardship and endurance almost beyond human imagining.

Donal Manahan: A typical day, if you read the diaries, are: Wake up early in the morning. Your boots are so cold that it can take you one to two hours to get your foot into your boot. You have to—Scott writes about this toward the end of his life as he was coming back—that the sweat and accumulation in your boots are such that your boots are stiff and iced up, so you put your already cold feet in an inch or so, wait for that tiny amount of heat from your foot to thaw out the boot, move in another bit. Then when you get your boots on, and the rest of your clothing, you then strap yourself to a sled that might be roughly 1000 pounds, and there’s four men pulling it, and you pull that thing for maybe 12 hours a day. And at the end of that 12 hours, you stop, you put up your tent, and then even to get inside your frozen sleeping bag can also take hours, because you have to rely on the tiny amount of heat from your body to melt the sleeping bag so you can slide into the sleeping bag. Do you sleep? No. They shiver the whole night sometimes. And then the next day, you start all over again. Month after month after month.

Glenn Zorpette: Amundsen, who was first to the Pole, is regarded as a cunning, implacable competitor. Scott was until recently thought of as a courageous man whose poor judgment led four men to their deaths. More recent reviews have emphasized Scott’s dedication to science and his terrible luck at the end of his trek. Shackleton will be forever remembered as a charismatic leader whose fortitude and daring led to the rescue of 24 of his men stranded on an ice floe during a failed 1914 expedition.

Donal Manahan: There’s a great, great quote from the geologist who was with Shackleton and Scott, Raymond Priestley, who in the 1950s said the following, and he summed it up just beautifully: “For science, give me Scott. For rapid and efficient transport and exploration, give me Amundsen. But when things seem hopeless, get down on your knees and pray for Shackleton.”

[music]

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