South Pole anniversary 100 years ago: Three bodies in a snowed-up tent

South Pole anniversary 100 years ago: Three bodies in a snowed-up tent

Posted: Nov 12, 2012 07:20 am EST

(Newsdesk) On the morning of November 12th, 1912 the search team found what they sought—Scott's tent, snowed up and presenting a cairn-like appearance with three men in their sleeping bags.

This tent was set up before the start of the Antarctic winter on March 19th, only 11 miles from One Ton Depot; the depot with the much needed food and fuel. The three remaining members of the British 1910-1913 Terra Nova South Pole party, Robert Falcon Scott, Henry (Birdie) R. Bowers and Edward (Bill) A. Wilson had two days' food left and barely a day's fuel.

A blizzard kept them prisoners in their tent. Scott's men at Hut Point made two desperate efforts to find the polar party, but when they saw no sign of them, they could do nothing but to wait-out the Antarctic winter.

Search for Scott

Terra Nova member Edward Evans writes in his book South with Scott (first print 1938), "The sun returned after its four months' absence on August 23 and found the little [winter-over] party in excellent health and cheerful spirits. The mules and dogs had been carefully exercised to be ready and fit for the new journey South."

"A depot was laid 12 miles south of Corner Camp in mid-October, and another by the dogs soon after. On October 29 Wright, Nelson, Gran, Lashly, Crean, Williamson, Keohane, and Hooper left with six mules, sledges, and a considerable provision store to search for Captain Scott and the Polar Party. Atkinson followed with Cherry-Garrard and Dimitri on 1st November, taking the best available dogs in two teams."

"Without any great trouble they reached One Ton Camp on November 10, having joined forces with the mule party. Atkinson notes that here he found, as we had done before, an oil shortage from paraffin tins in the depot leaking, although there was no hole discernible. Some stores had been spoilt in consequence."

"On the morning of 12th November the party found what they sought—Scott's tent, snowed up and presenting a cairn-like appearance."

Inside the tent were the bodies

"On the night of the 11th and morning of the 12th," Atkinson reported, "after we had marched 11 miles due south of One Ton, we found the tent. It was an object partially snowed up and looking like a cairn. Before it were the ski sticks and in front of them a bamboo which probably was the mast of the sledge..."

Atkinson went in first and saw three men in their sleeping bags. He recognized Scott in the middle, but the other two had their faces covered with their sleeping bags. After taking the diaries, letters and other documents, Atkinson read through them and informed the men what had happened.

"Inside the tent were the bodies of Captain Scott, Doctor Wilson, and Lieutenant Bowers. They had pitched their tent well, and it had withstood all the blizzards of an exceptionally hard winter."

"Wilson and Bowers were found in the attitude of sleep, their sleeping-bags closed over their heads as they would naturally close them."

Scott probably died later. "He had thrown back the flaps of his sleeping-bag and opened his coat. The little wallet containing the three notebooks was under his shoulders and his arm flung across Wilson."

Geological specimens

Atkinson added, "We recovered all their gear and dug out the sledge with their belongings on it. Amongst these were 35 lb. of very important geological specimens which had been collected on the moraines of the Beardmore Glacier: at Doctor Wilson's request they had stuck to these up to the very end, even when disaster stared them in the face and they knew that the specimens were so much weight added to what they had to pull…."

Record left by the search team at burial site

November 12, 1912, Latitude 79 degrees, 50 minutes, South. This cross and cairn are erected over the bodies of Captain Scott, C.V.O., R.N., Doctor E.A. Wilson, M.B., B.C., Cantab., and Lieutenant H.R. Bowers, Royal Indian Marine—a slight token to perpetuate their successful and gallant attempt to reach the Pole.

This they did on January 17, 1912, after the Norwegian Expedition had already done so. Inclement weather with lack of fuel was the cause of their death. Also to commemorate their two gallant comrades, Captain L.E.G. Oates of the Inniskilling Dragoons, who walked to his death in a blizzard to save his comrades, about eighteen miles south of this position; also of Seaman Edgar Evans, who died at the foot of the Beardmore Glacier.

The Lord gave and the Lord taketh away; blessed be the name of the Lord.

This was signed by all the members of the party.

Search for Oates

The search party carried on another 20 miles South to search for Oates’ body. For half the day they proceeded south, as far as possible along the line of the previous season's march, said Atkinson. "On one of the old pony walls, which was simply marked by a ridge of the surface of the snow, we found Oates's sleeping-bag, which they had brought along with them after he had left."

"The next day we proceeded thirteen miles more south, hoping and searching to find his body. When we arrived at the place where he had left them, we saw that there was no chance of doing so. The kindly snow had covered his body, giving him a fitting burial."

"Here, again, as near to the site of the death as we could judge, we built another cairn to his memory, and placed thereon a small cross and the following record: Hereabouts died a very gallant gentleman, Captain L.E.G. Oates of the Inniskilling Dragoons. In March, 1912, returning from the Pole, he walked willingly to his death in a blizzard, to try and save his comrades, beset by hardships. This note is left by the Relief Expedition of 1912."

Final farewell

Atkinson: "On the second day we came again to the resting place of the three and bade them there a final farewell. There alone in their greatness they will lie without change or bodily decay, with the most fitting tomb in the world above them."

Gran, the young Norwegian in the British team, wrote in his diary they have built a 12-foot cairn and put a cross made of a pair of skis on it. He added, "When I saw those three poor souls the other day, I just felt that I envied them. They died having done something great. How hard death must be for those who meet it having done nothing."

The British ‘Terra Nova’ polar team with Robert Falcon Scott as leader set off from Cape Evans on November 1, 1911 on their quest to discover the South Pole. The polar party who arrived at the already discovered South Pole on January 17, 1912 was Henry (Birdie) R. Bowers, Edward (Bill) A. Wilson, Lawrence E.G. (Titus) Oates and Edgar Evans (Petty Officer Evans died on the way back, February 17, 1912 and Oates a month later). The rest of the team will meet their end with the last word from them on March 29, 1912.

October 20, 1911 Roald Amundsen and his Norwegian team, Olav Bjaaland, Oscar Wisting, Helmer Hanssen and Sverre Hassel, set off from The Bay of Whales to discover the Geographic South Pole (90°S) on December 14, 1911. Kristian Prestrud, Jørgen Stubberud and Hjalmar Johansen stayed behind at Framheim (Bay of Whales) with the cook, Adolf Lindström.

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Wilson and Bowers had their sleeping-bags closed over their heads. Scott had thrown back the flaps of his sleeping-bag and opened his coat.
Image by Trygvy Gran
Scott's route.
courtesy National Library of Scotland