The Terra Nova Expedition

1910 – 1913

Captain Robert Falcon Scott’s second expedition to the South Pole is a world famous story of exploration and endurance. Leaving England in June 1910, the Terra Nova set sail for the Antarctic.Upon reaching Melbourne, Australia, Captain Scott left the ship to finalize expedition plans. Waiting for him as he disembarked was a telegram from Roald Amundsen, who the world believed was headed for the North Pole. The telegram informed Scott that in fact, he was headed south. Amundsen would be in direct competition with Scott in the race to the South Pole.

Scott was not wholly in favor of using animals for hauling sledges, believing that his plans shouldn’t rely upon the suffering of animals. His competitor, Amundsen, was solely relying on dogs, a detail Scott derided him for. Scott knew that dogs were undoubtedly good for hauling loads further than men, but his experience taught him they were unreliable and suffered in such conditions. He knew that Shackleton had achieved the furthest south using ponies, and believed that more ponies and more supplies could take him to the pole, even if it meant a later start. Unfortunately, Captain Oates, his most knowledgeable horse man, wasn’t sent to select the ponies. This meant the ponies chosen weren’t suited to the Terra Nova expedition.


Above: Terra Nova, photographed in December 1910 by Herbert Ponting

The ship arrived at Ross Island on 4th January,and it was decided base camp would be Cape Evans, fifteen miles from his previous Discovery camp, Hut Point. The men spent their first season in Antarctica laying depot stations filled with supplies. Scott’s South Pole expedition could use these to restock along the way, and avoid pulling over laden sleds. Scott had also brought along motorized sledges, with the intention for them to travel ahead towards the mountain barrier. Scott’s rival, Amundsen, spent his Antarctic winter worrying about the effectiveness of the new motorized sledges. He feared if they were successful, Scott’s team would beat him to the pole. However both motor sledges failed after only 50 miles, and the men were forced to man haul the supplies the remainder of the way. In contrast, the few dog hauled sleds were moving quickly and easily, whereas the ponies were struggling with the conditions.

Above: Grotto in an iceberg, photographed during the British Antarctic Expedition of 1911-1913, 5 Jan 1911. Photographer: Herbert Ponting, Alexander Turnbull Library

The race to the Pole

On 1st November, Scott’s party began heading south. They had support teams on the route to the Beardmore Glacier, and here Scott would select the men who would accompany him to the pole. Reaching the glacier, Scott selected Laurence Oates, Edward Wilson, Edgar Evans and Henry Bowers. At the foot of the glacier, the final surviving ponies were shot, and the meat left for the return journey. After the motorized sleds failed and the ponies were shot, Scott made the decision to send the dog teams back to base. The party would man haul the sledges to the pole.

The five men pushed across the polar plateau, originally Scott had only planned a four man team, not five, and provisions were stretched. They were averaging between five and thirteen miles a day towards the South Pole. On inadequate rations the men began to suffer. After passing Shackleton’s previous furthest distance of 88° south, the men were showing signs of scurvy. They pushed on despite this, the victory of being the first to reach the South Pole enough to spur them forward.

After days trekking through frozen conditions, they spotted a black object on the horizon. As they got closer, the realization dawned on them; the object they could see was the Norwegian flag. They had lost the race to the South Pole.


"The Pole. Yes, but under very different circumstances from those expected ... Great God! This is an awful place and terrible enough for us to have laboured to it without the reward of priority."

Captain Robert Falcon Scott

Captain Scott’s party reached the pole on 17th January 1911. In 78 days they had travelled over 800 miles, and arrived at the South Pole thirty-five days after Amundsen. They discovered the tent, and letters left by Amundsen and his men, including a note asking Scott to deliver a letter to the King of Norway. Scott and his men were despondent.

With no choice but to accept their defeat, the men now faced the 800 mile journey back to base camp, with their optimism gone. They were malnourished, exhausted and in bad spirits. Hauling their sled became more difficult, and each day their pace slowed. Once they reached the Beardmore Glacier, Scott ordered half a day’s rest, concerned with the condition of the men. Edward Wilson was encouraged by Scott to use this time to collect geological samples. These samples were added to the sled, increasing the weight the men were already struggling to haul.

Above: Scott and his men at Amundsen's base, Polheim, at the South Pole. Left to right: Scott, Bowers, Wilson, and PO Evans. Picture taken by Lawrence Oates.

These rough notes

Edgar Evans was suffering the most, and had dropped behind the party. They retraced their steps to look for Evans, and found him lying in the snow. He died on 17th  February, after collapsing at the foot of the Beardmore Glacier.

With hundreds of miles still to travel, Oates was rapidly deteriorating. The four remaining men were running low on food and fuel, and struggling to reach the next supply depot. All were suffering from frostbite, and Oates’ foot was completely frozen. Oates cut a hole in his sleeping bag, leaving his foot exposed to the cold each night; the pain of it beginning to thaw was too much. He had lost all hope of surviving, and urged the men to leave him behind, but they forced him to continue, not wanting to leave him to certain death.

There had been hopes of meeting up with relief teams using dog sleds, but as they continued Scott lost hope of this. Oates had deteriorated, now both feet and both of his hands were badly frostbitten. He realized the men would have a better chance, and more food rations, without him. On 17th March, Lawrence Oates voluntarily left the tent, and walked into the night. Scott recorded the final words of Oates in his diary.

“I’m just going outside and may be some time.”

Lawrence Oates, last words

The three remaining men, Scott, Bowers and Wilson, struggled on for a few more miles before a blizzard hit and confined them to their tent. The men began writing farewell notes to loved ones, they had no food left, and no fuel for warmth. Scott wrote his diary, knowing they would not make it home, as a final narrative of their expedition.

"We are setting a good example to our countrymen...we could have come back through had we neglected the sick."

Captain Robert Falcon Scott

The last entry in Scott’s diary is dated 29th March 1912.

"I do not think we can hope for any better things now. We shall stick it out to the end, but we are getting weaker, of course, and the end cannot be far. It seems a pity, but I do not think I can write more."

Captain Robert Falcon Scott

The three men died in their tent. They were not found until November, eight months after Scott made his final diary entry. Their tent was pitched only eleven miles away from their next supply depot, had they reached this, their story could have been different.

"Had we lived I should have had a tale 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."

Captain Robert Falcon Scott’s Message to the Public

Above: Grave of the Southern party