Robert Scott: The Amateur

Scott's Hut, Cape Evans

Scott’s Hut, Cape Evans

With our friend, Vilmar Tavares, updating us on his adventures from Way Down Under, and our cover story on Professor Graham Collier, chronicling his Antarctic excursions, it is only fitting that our Explorer of the Month is the man who inspired the world with his pioneering Antarctic explorations — Robert Falcon Scott.

An officer of the British Royal Navy, Scott was chosen to lead the first polar expedition on the specially built ship, the Discovery. The mission — reach the South Pole. Determined to succeed in the undertaking and a bit egocentric, Scott wrote in his acceptance letter, “I must have complete command of the ship and landing parties. There cannot be two heads.” Agreeing to those terms, the Discovery set sail on August 6th, 1901, with fifty men and nineteen Greenland huskies.

It was a heroic expedition, as the continent was still unknown and Scott knew very little about traveling in sub-zero conditions. Scientists today say that the Discovery crew was terribly naive and ill-prepared. They faced frostbite, scurvy (caused by lack of vitamin C), hunger and scarcity of fuel. But Scott’s fierce courage made up for his lack of arctic experience. For instance, while sledding across the Ross Ice Shelf a dog had fallen down a sixty-foot deep crevasse and Scott insisted on being lowered by rope to save him. Although Scott did not reach the South Pole on this first expedition, he discovered Edward VII Peninsula, charted 1,200 miles of coastline and collected important samples for biological and geological studies.

Upon his return, Scott was promoted to Captain and began organizing his second polar expedition, the Terra Nova, which launched in June of 1910. Pulling sledges by hand, and delayed by bad weather, the group of five men reached the South Pole on January 18, 1912, only to find that Norwegian Roald Amundsen had gotten there a month earlier. But Scott refused to see his expedition a failure. He remained at the South Pole for several days gathering samples for scientific research.

Arctic supplies in Robert Scott’s Hut

On their return, one petty officer suffered continual frostbite and died in February; another committed suicide by walking out into a blizzard (he was no longer able to pull a sledge, and sacrificed himself to ease the burden on his colleagues); and, the three remaining men, including Scott, were found frozen to death in Scott’s hut 150 miles away from base camp.

What can be celebrated about Scott beyond his unquestionable bravery is, as Professor Collier put it, “his enthusiastic English amateurism.” Unlike Amundsen who was a professional, with years of experience in polar regions, Scott preferred the British way of “muddling through.” Scott, along with other Brits of the Edwardian Era believed that the greater reward comes to those who have greater difficulties, then overcomes them. Rather than preparing or researching, Scott subscribed to the notion that one finds self-worth in tackling difficult and unfamiliar problems head-on. With preparation, one is simply making the job easier, and that, to Scott would have been unthinkable.

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