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Edward Adrian Wilson, Robert Falcon Scott, Lawrence Oates, Henry Robertson Bowers and Edgar Evans at the South Pole

7 reasons Captain Scott's Antarctic expedition failed

Image: Edward Adrian Wilson, Robert Falcon Scott, Lawrence Oates, Henry Robertson Bowers and Edgar Evans at the South Pole (colourised) | Public Domain

After failing his first attempt, when Captain Scott finally arrived at the South Pole on 17th January 1912, it should have been a moment of pure pride and joy. However, when he and his four companions reached their destination, they were dismayed to find the campsite remains of the Norwegian team, led by Roald Amundsen, who had beaten them by almost a month.

Their hopes for glory and recognition dashed, Scott and his team were now faced with the return journey through the frozen wastelands. Dying just eleven miles from the next food drop that might have saved their lives, the team of five has gone down in history for all the wrong reasons.

Here are seven reasons why Scott’s Terra Nova expedition was doomed to failure.

1. Lack of Experience

When Captain Robert Falcon Scott was selected to lead his first antarctic expedition at 32 years old, it wasn’t because of his extensive experience with polar exploration. Having had just an average career in the Royal Navy, selected by Sir Clements Markham, not for his skill or experience but for his tenacity and grit, Scott’s leadership of the Discovery Expedition to the South Pole in 1901 was a disaster.

Scott returned to the Antarctic aboard the Terra Nova, bringing with him a larger crew in the hopes that more manpower would mean a more productive expedition. Scott employed a team of 65 men to join him, as well as 34 dogs, 19 ponies, and three motorised tractors to assist with the haulage. Despite the additional resources, the truth was that Scott and his men were still vastly lacking in the basic survival skills and training for life at the South Pole. With many team members learning skills like cross-country skiing and sledging on the fly, the Terra Nova crew relied on what they believed was best practice, rather than working from experience.

2. Bad animal management

While Scott took sledge dogs with him, he and his team were hesitant to use the animals for their intended purpose. Scott’s reluctance to utilise the animals was likely a mixture of sentimentality for the dogs and prejudiced belief that the practice, used by native inhabitants of the Arctic circle, was primitive and outdated.

The tractors also broke down regularly until they eventually stopped, and the ponies, which were noted to be of poor stock, proved to only be useful for their meat. Before long, the team was back to man-hauling their sledges, a slow and exhaustive process for all involved.

While Scott and his team averaged around 6km a day, Amundsen and his elite handpicked team were averaging around 25km per day by working with their sledge dogs.

3. Wrong clothing

It wasn’t just the dismissal of sledge dogs that hindered Scott and his team. Their wardrobes were as equally as ill-prepared for the journey. With furs and animal hides considered primitive, Scott and his team wore woollen clothes that clung to their bodies and froze anytime they started to sweat. Furthermore, their thin-soled short boots did little to protect their feet from frostbite.

In contrast, having spent a winter living with an Innuit community whilst conquering the North West Passage, Amundsen had learned everything he could about life in the Arctic Circle. He studied how their clothes protected them from the cold. While Scott and his team believed they could improve on thousands of years of learning by those indigenous to cold climates, Amundsen chose to learn from them.

4. Poor diet

Scott and his team were burning up to 6,000 calories daily in harsh conditions, which made a high caloric intake a must for survival. Having recovered from scurvy on the Discovery trip, the Terra Nova ship was equipped with 1,000 pints of lime juice, along with hard tack and fatty meats. Despite this, the rationing was a trial and error, and scurvy once again wreaked havoc on Scott and his crew.

Their dogs and horses were quickly sacrificed for food, and any penguins or seals that they could hunt would help bolster their rations. However, the lack of fresh fruit or vegetables led to severe malnutrition, which contributed to the team’s exhaustion and the onset of scurvy.

5. Too many explorers

Compounding the lack of suitable nutrition, Scott had originally planned the ration dumps around the final leg of the expedition consisting of four explorers. A last-minute addition to the team, Henry Bowers, was added under the guise of the team including a representative for the British Army, although it was more likely that Scott invited him out of politeness. However, this meant that they had to limit their rations further, bringing their daily caloric intake down from 6,000 to just 4,500.

As well as the additional member, Scott’s choice of men for the final leg of the expedition was questionable. Lawrence Oates's original purpose on the team had been to care for the horses, but since all the horses had been slaughtered long before, it made little sense for him to join the final leg of the trek. Had Scott picked his final team based on health, fitness, and skill, he likely would have covered more ground and had a greater chance of survival.

6. Geological samples

Following the devastating realisation that Amundsen’s team had beaten them to the South Pole, Scott was desperate for his expedition to have some form of meaning. Throughout their return journey, the team continued to take geological samples at a time when they should have been cutting additional weight from their resources.

7. Bad timing

When Scott and his team finally arrived at the South Pole on 17th January, they hadn’t just been racing Amundsen and his team; they’d been racing the seasons. Trying to outrun the coldest winter on earth, the team was one month behind their Norwegian competitors, meaning they were one month closer to Antarctic winter.

Their return journey was fraught with storms and increasingly cold temperatures. The first crew member to succumb to the elements was Edgar Evans, who collapsed outside the team's campsite. Exhausted and starving, Evans slipped into a coma and died on 17th February.

The remaining members of the team struggled ahead, but Oates’ frostbite and scurvy were so severe that he was slowing the team’s progress massively. On 17th March, his 32nd birthday, Oates left the tent to commit suicide. He told the remaining members of the team, ‘I am just going outside, and I may be some time’.

The three remaining members continued the last march home, but they were caught in a storm eleven miles away from their final cache of food and provisions. Stuck in the blizzard for ten days, the crew exhausted their last provisions before the storm could clear. Their bodies weren’t discovered until the following summer.