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Explorers’ Last Words and Technology: From Robert Falcon Scott to Rob Hall

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Members of the Robert F. Scott expedition standing in front of Roald Amundsen's tent at the South Pole, 1912. Photograph courtesy of Library of Congress

“Great God! This is an awful place,” wrote Robert Falcon Scott in his diary on January 17, 1912. Just hours before, Scott and his four companions had reached the South Pole, only to discover that Roald Amundsen’s team had beaten them there by a month.

Nine weeks later, doomed by a combination of starvation, scurvy, and hypothermia, Scott and his last two surviving teammates lay marooned in a tent. A nine-day storm prevented their sledging the last eleven miles to a food depot that might have saved their lives. Scott knew he was going to die, and he kept writing in his diary until the very end. He prepared a “message to the public” that closed, “Had we lived, I should have had a tale to tell of the 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 . . . .”

The last to die, Scott was determined to leave the best record possible of his team’s gallant and tragic adventure. Today, March 29, marks the centenary of his final entry. He closed the passage thus: “I do not think we can hope for any better things. We shall stick it out to the end, but we are getting weaker, of course, and the end cannot be far.” Then, with the pencil almost falling out of his hand, he wrote, “It seems a pity, but I do not think I can write more.” Yet he added a final cry of despair:  “For God’s sake look after our people.”

More than three weeks earlier, the ship that had come down to Antarctica to pick up the expedition personnel had to steam out of McMurdo Sound, bound for England, for fear of getting frozen into the late-summer ice. By then, the rest of Scott’s Terra Nova team in the hut at Cape Evans were all but certain that the polar party had perished. Yet thirteen of those men volunteered to stay on, spend another nightmarish winter in Antarctica, and search for the bodies the next spring.

Heroism of this sort—and the eloquence of Scott’s diary—are in short supply today. Indeed, the race for the South Pole seems now to have a quaint, period flavor. At Scott’s “awful place,” a two-story building complex stands—the Amundsen Scott South Pole Station, complete with cafeteria, fitness center, sauna, and full-length basketball court.

In Graham Greene’s novel The End of the Affair, published in 1951, the protagonist, Maurice Bendrix (very much Greene’s alter ego), takes down a copy of Scott’s diary from the shelf of his dead lover’s cherished childhood books. “That had been one of my own favourite books,” Bendrix muses. “It seemed curiously dated now, this heroism with only the ice for enemy, self-sacrifice that involved no deaths beyond one’s own. Two wars stood between us and them.”

Indeed, the hundred years since Scott’s demise have changed the exploration game forever. Technological advances in connectedness have replaced Scott’s “message to the public” with Neil Armstrong’s “That’s one small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind.” Canned, broadcast live to the world, an instant sound bite—yet in 1969, had anything gone wrong with Apollo 11, Armstrong and his two crewmates on the moon would have been as far beyond hope of rescue as Scott was on the polar plateau.

In 1996, as Rob Hall lay dying just below the summit of Mount Everest, out of reach of any rescuers, other climbers on the mountain managed to patch Hall through via radio to his wife, Jan Arnold, in New Zealand, seven months pregnant with the couple’s first child. Their last exchange had a terrible poignancy of its own, and there was nothing canned about what Hall said in his last moments alive. But dozens of others in various camps on Everest listened in live, and within days a transcript of the radio conversation was available to the public.

There was an odd note about the exchange, as Arnold, who had climbed Everest herself and knew better, said, “I’m looking forward to making you completely better when you come home,” to which Hall replied, “Sleep well, my sweetheart. Please don’t worry too much.” Denial? Or Arnold’s desperate last effort to get Hall to pull himself together and try to descend on his own?

During his own last days in Antarctica, Scott wrote a letter to his beloved wife, Kathleen. There was no attempt in it to sidestep the grim truth. “You know I have loved you,” Scott wrote, “you know my thoughts must have constantly dwelt on you and oh dear me you must know that quite the worst aspect of this situation is the thought that I shall not see you again. The inevitable must be faced.”

Scott had no certainty that his last camp would ever be found. Many another polar explorer has vanished forever, leaving no last words to explicate his fate. The diary was a message in a bottle, thrown into the vast ocean of the frozen continent.

It was not until November 12, 1912, more than seven months after Scott’s last entry, that a search party came upon the tent, in which the bodies of Scott and his two teammates still lay in their sleeping bags. The searchers collapsed the tent without removing the bodies, built a cairn of snow over it, and erected a memorial cross. It was, as one of the party, Apsley Cherry-Garrard, later wrote, “a grave which kings must envy.”

And the searchers retrieved Scott’s diary. In 1973, I paid my first visit to the British Library in London. Browsing in the main exhibit hall, I lingered for several minutes over the only extant copy of William Shakespeare’s signature, until a glass case in the center of the hall caught my eye. Inside the case, propped open to the last page, I found Scott’s diary. As I read the words I knew by heart, a frisson, the likes of which I had never before felt in a museum or library, crept up my spine and settled in my shoulders.

“Period” Scott’s heroism may seem today, but for me the frisson is still there. On that smudged final page, Scott managed to put down what are surely the most moving last words any explorer ever wrote. One hundred years later, they still pierce the heart.