Why did Captain Robert Falcon Scott and his team die on the way back from the South Pole?

What went wrong for Captain Scott and his team to die on
the way back from the South Pole?

Terra Nova Expedition:
The pole – p.1 – Preparations |
The pole p.2 – Journey |
The wider Terra Nova expedition |
Time-line and info graphic
| Crew of the Terra Nova |
What went wrong for Scott
to die? |
What did Scott’s team die of?

Race to the pole Amundsen and Scott |
Northern Party

This page:
The Slow Effects of Insufficient Food | Scurvy | Leaking
Fuel Cans | 4, then 5 in the Polar Party | The Role of Amundsen
| Misunderstood orders? | Transportation Choices | Weather on
the Return Journey

British Antarctic Expedition 1910-13 – Captain Robert Scott
and four others tried to be the first to reach the South Pole,
Roald Amundsen beat them by just over a month, while Amundsen
and his men came back safely, Scott’s party all died on the
return from the pole – what led to the death of Scott’s party?

Captain Scott's grave

A large snow cairn built
over the final camp and the
bodies of Scott, Bowers and
Wilson on the Great Ice
Barrier (now called the Ross
Ice Shelf), 12th November
1912. The poles were removed
and the bodies
covered by the tent, it became buried
drifting snow.

The last entry in Scott’s diary was on the 29th of
March 1912, it is assumed but not certain that this was the
date on which he died.
His body and those of Edward
Wilson and Henry “Birdie” Bowers were found in their tent nearly
eight months later on the 12th of November 1912. They had made
camp for the last time ten days earlier on the 19th of March.
Scott continued to write his diary and letters in this final
camp. It seems that he was the last of the three to die.

Of their other two companions, Edgar “Taff” Evans had died
on the 17th of February and Captain Lawrence Oates “The Soldier”
had walked out of the tent to his death on the 17th of March.

The final camp was just 11 miles from a large depot of food
and supplies “One Ton Depot”. After all they had been through,
this distance was just too far to continue pulling the sledges,
to compound matters, temperatures were unseasonably cold and
a blizzard had arrived, they had a very good idea of exactly
how far away the depot was. Instead of reaching sufficient food
and supplies to keep them going, they ran out of both food and
fuel becoming weaker until they could no longer leave the tent.

There was no particular one overriding factor that
led to the mens’ deaths, as they came so close to surviving.

Lots of individual factors could have pushed them along for
that final stretch and saved them. What is very difficult to
quantify is how great an effect each had, though it is perhaps
not fanciful to suggest that any one of them may have made the
difference between life and death, if those last 11 miles could
have been made before the blizzard sealed their fate, the polar
party may have survived.

The deaths of Scott and his party delivered a great many
lessons on survival in the Polar Regions, as did the comparisons
with Amundsen and his team with their survival and success.
While we can look back now and see what may seem obvious things,
at the time they were far from obvious and only just being discovered,
in part by men like Scott and his party, doing things the hard

    Let us come back to Cape Evans
    after the return of the First Supporting Party. Hitherto
    our ways had always been happy: for the most part they had
    been pleasant. Scott was going to reach the Pole, probably
    without great difficulty, for when we left him on the edge
    of the plateau he had only to average seven miles a day
    to go there on full rations. We ourselves had averaged 14.2
    geographical miles a day on our way home to One Ton Depot,
    and there seemed no reason to suppose that the other two
    parties would not do likewise, and the food was not only
    sufficient but abundant if such marches were made.
    Apsley Cherry-Garrard – The Worst Journey in the World

Contributory Factors
to the Deaths of Scott and the South Pole Party


Rations for one man for one
day while manhauling

The Slow
Effects of Insufficient Food

Scott and his men were supplied with rations of pemmican,
sledging biscuits, sugar, butter, tea and cocoa powder that
provided about 4,500 kilocalories per man per day on the way
to the Pole and about 3,800 kilocalories on the return journey.
We now know that they were expending in the region of 7,000
kilocalories per day, greater than athletes in training and
for months on end. This amounted to a slow starvation diet where
they were losing body mass, initially as fat and then later
muscle. Fat is used by the body as an energy store and also
as insulation against the cold. With reduced insulation in a
very cold climate, the body would have to work even harder and
burn more fuel in the form of food and then body fat and muscle
to stay warm.

    We are getting more hungry, there
    is no doubt. The lunch meal is beginning to seem inadequate.
    We are pretty thin, especially Evans, but none of us are
    feeling worked out.
    Scott’s diary – January 28th

Better rations would have meant better progress and less
susceptibility to cold including frost bite and hypothermia.

As Scott and his party returned from the pole, they were
managing to cover much less distance each day and were finding
even this harder than it had been.

    We did 4 1/2 miles this morning
    and are now 8 1/2 miles from the depot – a ridiculously
    small distance to feel in difficulties, yet on this surface
    we know we cannot equal half our old marches, and that for
    that effort we expend nearly double the energy.
    diary – March 8th 1912

While Scott puts this down to the surface over which they
are hauling the sledge, the distance they covered fell as time
went on. The loss of muscle mass must have been making hauling
the sledge more difficult along with less insulation from body
fat meaning more of their food energy was going towards maintaining
body temperature.

The rations carried were thought at the time to be the best
balance of nutrients, they were 24% fat and 29% protein, similar rations
today would have about twice the fat and a third of the protein.
Fat has nearly twice the energy density (calories per gram)
as protein. More fat for the same overall weight of rations
would have meant about 20% more energy for sledge pulling,
maintaining condition  and less susceptibility to cold.


Scott’s rations were low in vitamin C and those of the B
group. The length of time the party were exclusively eating
sledging rations was not enough to develop scurvy fully, though
was long enough to start to develop some of the debilitating
effects of running low on these vitamins, another negative effect
to deal with.

Leaking Fuel Cans

food carried on expeditions is low in water to save weight,
water is easily added at mealtimes by melting snow and ice,
though heating all that food, snow and ice from well below freezing
to boiling point for cooking and hot drinks takes a lot of fuel.
Fuel for cooking is therefore almost as important as food in
polar environments.

The standard expedition cooking equipment at the time of
Scott’s expedition (and still frequently used today) was the
Primus stove, fuelled by kerosene (sometimes called paraffin, Scott simply refers
to it as oil) and pre-heated with methylated spirits. Primus
stoves are efficient and more importantly than anything else,
dependable, especially in extreme environments. There is an
issue however in that the kerosene fuel undergoes a somewhat
odd process called “creep”, slowly flowing up and over containers.
This happens to a greater degree in very cold environments to
the point where kerosene can flow up the inside of a can and
out through the tightly screwed on cap. Also, if the can is
heated by the sun during the day, this produces kerosene vapour
at the top of the can which escapes more easily.

    Found store in order except shortage
    oil – shall have to be  very saving with fuel
    Scott’s diary Feb 24th 1912

From this date onwards, Scott’s party had less fuel at each
depot than they had expected due to losses which limited the
degree to which they were able to warm up with hot food and
drinks and also raise the temperature in the tent. Some of the
food will have had to be eaten cold, perhaps even part frozen.
The lack of ability to melt snow and ice will also have led
to dehydration which reduces physical efficiency.

4, then 5 in the Polar Party

Antarctica and the Southern Ocean

The South Pole party from
left to right – Oates,
Bowers, Scott, Wilson, Evans.
They reached the Pole
oon the 18th of Jamuary 1912.

In all of his planning Scott had intended there to be four
men in the final party that reached the pole. He set off on
the 1st of November 1911 with sixteen men and various methods
of transport, they laid depots of food and supplies, and were
turned back in small groups as they got closer to the pole.
Scott hadn’t announced who his Polar Party would be until the
last group were due to turn back. At the last minute, he decided
that Henry “Birdie” Bowers should join the four. This meant
that all the planned rations and fuel for four now needed to
supply five. Edgar Evans died on the 17th of Feb 1912 which
reduced the party to four again, though after 6 weeks of five
men using rations for four.

On the plus side, it meant an extra man to pull the sledge,
though Bowers didn’t have skis, the other four had them as planned
but he had to trudge through deep soft snow by walking.

The Role of Amundsen

South Pole party aboard the Fram

Amundsen and his South Pole
party aboard
the Fram on arrival at Hobart

During all his planning of the British Antarctic Expedition
on the Terra Nova, Scott had intended that the main
was “to reach the South Pole, and
to secure for the British Empire the honour of this achievement”.

He announced this publically well in advance in 1909 and was
not made aware that any other expedition would be in Antarctica
at the time making an attempt on the Pole. He was not told of
Amundsen’s attempt until he received a telegram from Amundsen
in September 1910 when the Terra Nova was in Melbourne, Australia.

    Telegram from Amundsen to Scott,
    September 9th 1910

Amundsen later claimed he thought Scott’s expedition was scientific only with the Pole being a side issue, despite Scott’s
clear earlier announcement.

Scott’s plans were to set off on November the 1st when the
weather was suitable for the Siberian ponies he had taken which
was later than if only dog teams were used as dogs are more
resilient to the cold. Amundsen effectively contrived a race
with Scott and surprised Scott with the news knowing that his
dogs probably gave him an advantage though was concerned Scott
might beat him to the pole with his motor sledges. Scott at
no point sought or entered into a race and decided not to let
Amundsen force him into changing his plans.

Amundsen had originally planned an expedition to be the first
to reach the North Pole, a plan that was in ruins when Cook
and Peary claimed to have already reached it separately in 1908 and 1909 respectively. Facing financial ruin if he couldn’t
produce something to satisfy his backers and generate money
from a success, he decided to go to the South Pole. When his
ship, the Fram left Norway, only 3 other men including the captain
were told of the real destination, Amundsen thought his backers
might object if they knew in advance, the rest of the crew were
told when they reached Madeira under the guise of being there
on an oceanographic cruise. He was between a financial rock
and a hard place largely of his own making and needed a way
out, a Race to the Pole was the answer.

This aspect is sometimes portrayed as the manners
of a by-gone age, a defunct code of honour amongst gentlemen,
outdated arcane rules broken by Amundsen who became the winner
in his own race.
The interpretation of this is very
subjective, personally I feel that Amundsen did behave badly
and hoped that he would get away with it. Knowing he would not
get permission, he hoped for forgiveness instead, and all the
easier to forgive the transgression of etiquette of someone
who had achieved a heroic “First”. Had Scott and his men returned
alive, Amundsen’s act would probably have largely been forgiven
and things would mostly have been well, however they didn’t.

The impact of Amundsen comes in the form of the blow to the
morale of Scott’s party on finding out that they were beaten
to the South Pole after all their planning and efforts.

The mood of Scott’s diary changes like a switch being flipped
after the 15th of January 1912:

    It is wonderful to think that
    two long marches would land us at the Pole. We left our
    depot to-day with nine days’ provisions, so that it ought
    to be a certain thing now, and the only appalling possibility
    the sight of the Norwegian flag forestalling ours. Little
    Bowers continues his indefatigable efforts to get good sights,
    and it is wonderful how he works them up in his sleeping-bag
    in our congested tent. (Minimum for night -27.5°.) Only
    27 miles from the Pole. We ought to do it now.
    diary – Jan 15th 1912

    The worst has happened, or
    nearly the worst…….. The Norwegians have forestalled
    us and are first at the Pole. It is a terrible disappointment,
    and I am very sorry for my loyal companions. Many thoughts
    come and much discussion have we had. To-morrow we must
    march on to the Pole and then hasten home with all the speed
    we can compass. All the day dreams must go; it will be a
    wearisome return.
    Scott’s diary – Jan 16th 1912

From this entry onwards there is virtually no optimism, none
of the former joy or enthusiasm for the task in hand, just an
increasingly desperate tale of a slow walk and battle for survival
that ends in tragedy.

Amundsen didn’t physically make anything difficult for Scott,
he didn’t interfere in his journey, send him the wrong way,
slow him down or do anything else that directly made his journey
more arduous.

If Amundsen hadn’t got to the pole first though, and if Scott
and his party had been buoyed up with an eagerness to get home
to tell the world of their success, would the cumulative effect
have been enough to push them over that final 11 miles between
life and death?

Amundsen took the criticism of the manner in which he “won
the race” to reach the Pole first badly. He is said to have
been much troubled by Scott and his men dying and was described
as being unhappy after the south polar expedition and that his
life after that was an anti-climax. He had won, but it was not
a clean win and he knew it.

Misunderstood orders?

South Pole party aboard the Fram

Scott writing at his desk
in the expedition hut

    About the first week of February
    I should like you to start your third journey to the South,
    the object being to hasten the return of the third Southern
    unit.. aim at meeting the returning party about March 1
    in Latitude 82 or 82.30
    Scott’s orders left at Cape
    Evans, 20 Oct 1911

One Ton Depot, where Cherry-Garrard and Dimitri Girev (usually
referred to as Dimitri) reached on the 4th of March was at 79°
29′ S, this was about 35-70 miles north of where Scott said
he wished to be met. Cherry-Garrard thought he was too early,
he thought if they continued further south, there was a good
chance that because the weather was windy with poor visibility,
they may simply not see Scott and the Polar Party and he had
orders not to risk the dogs by proceeding further south, a lack
of dog food would have meant killing some dogs as food for the
others. On March the 1st Scott was at about latitude 81.30,
a little further on than he thought he would be and starting
to get into serious difficulties.

Cherry-Garrard remained at One Ton Depot until the 10th of
March when he had no further rations to stay any longer and
returned to the expedition base. He thought the Polar Party
had plenty of food and fuel and didn’t imagine them to be in
difficulties. He had received his orders from Edward Atkinson,
the expedition surgeon who was in command at the base. Atkinson
had used the men on base to unload the Terra Nova recently arrived
with fresh supplies at the time when they should have been setting
out to meet Scott rather than getting the ships company to do
the job. He also sent out Cherry-Garrard as he was less important
to the scientific element of the expedition than was senior
physicist Charles Wright, a much more skilled navigator who
could have ventured further south with confidence.

Cherry-Garrard, just 24 at the time, held himself responsible
for the rest of his life for not going further south when Scott
was so close. It contributed to a mental breakdown and he suffered
from what we now know as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
for the rest of his life.

Transportation Choices

Antarctica and the Southern Ocean

William Lashley,
with one of the motor

Much has been written about Scott’s choice of transportation
for his South Pole attempt. He took motor sledges which were
a new technology that was at an early point in development anywhere in the world and almost untried in Antarctica, though
he had learned lessons from Shackleton’s attempt at taking the
first car in Antarctica on his 1907-09 expedition. There was
no reason not to try this technology as no-one knew how it would
cope without experimentation and his sledges were tracked whereas
Shackleton’s car had wheels.

Other than man-hauling, Scott’s main means of transportation
was Siberian Ponies. These were small cold-hardy animals, though
not really suited for Antarctica. He also took dog teams, though
didn’t train his men sufficiently in their use and didn’t use
them as much as he could. Man-hauling was seen as a more noble
means of transport with a long naval tradition in the Polar Regions
(Scott was very much a Navy man). While motor sledges, ponies
and dog teams were used to help pull supplies and lay depots,
the last stretch to the Pole and most of the return journey
was always going to be manhauled.

Discomfort aside, the biggest problem with using manhauling
was that the amount of energy and therefore food needed to do
so to the pole and back was significantly underestimated leading
to the slow and inevitable starvation mentioned above. While
Scott has had his transport choices and the way he deployed
them dissected endlessly, somewhat ironically modern explorers
and adventurers have gone back to the more “pure” method of
manhauling with some even considering that using sails or kites
is an unacceptable level of “support”.

Weather on the Return Journey

South Pole party aboard the Fram

Heavy hauling in difficult
surface conditions

There is now much evidence to suggest that the weather that
Scott encountered on his return journey from the Pole was unusual.
The daily minima from late February until the final camp were
an additional
-10 to -20F below what would normally be expected in that area
at that time of year. The particularly cold conditions that
Scott experienced in 1912 can be expected about once every 15
years. These unusually low temperatures had several effects:

  • It made the ice surface over which the sledge was pulled
    less slippery and more difficult to haul over. A loaded
    sledge can be pulled over a hard flat surface with surprisingly
    little extra effort above walking. If the surface is of
    the fine crystalline “sandy” texture that Scott frequently
    reports, it becomes hugely more difficult.

  • Food and snow for cooking and drinking was colder and
    so needed more fuel to warm it up, fuel that was already
    running out in the latter stages as canisters in depots
    had leaked. It is likely that some of the food they ate
    would not have been fully warmed up, so using their reserves
    of body heat.

  • It placed greater stress on the physiology of the men
    as they tried to stay warm in the extreme cold so contributing
    substantially to exhaustion.

  • It made frostbite far more likely, Oates in particular
    suffered from frostbitten feet and later hands, Scott had
    a frostbitten foot that would have kept him in the tent
    in the final camp even if Bowers and Wilson had been able
    to continue.

  • Setting up camp, breaking camp in the morning, putting
    on clothes and especially boots that were stiff with frost
    and icily cold all take longer when it is cold and are taxing
    on morale.

The unusual weather also had other effects in that it brought
blizzards such as the one that pinned Scott down in the tent
for 4 days on the way to the pole, consuming rations and fuel
and making no progress. It likely had an effect on the wind
whereas Scott could have expected a tail wind to help him on
his way home, it was mostly absent or there was a head wind

Without the exceptional weather encountered by Scott late
in the season, his party may well have survived. Amundsen in
setting out and returning earlier avoided the worst effects
of these weather conditions.

Conclusion and Further Thoughts

Scott’s offical photgrapher,
Herbert Ponting’s pictures, one taken from a cave inside an
ice berg and the other from outside looking in. Charles Wright
and Thomas Griffith Taylor are pictured with the expedition
ship, the Terra Nova in the distance.

Because Scott came so close to returning successfully
with at least most of his party alive, the failure to do so
can be potentially attributed to almost anything or everything
he did or didn’t do that was less than perfect.

Unfortunately some have taken Scott’s failure to indicate
that he was clueless from start to finish and he is sometimes
spoken or written about in quite undeserved derogatory terms
(especially it seems by inexperienced “armchair
Conversely Amundsen with his success is sometimes spoken of
as if he was a master strategist who could do no wrong.

On the 8th of September 1911, Amundsen made a too early start
on the Pole against the advice of one of his most experienced
men. This resulted in a shambolic failure with the party returning
piecemeal in disarray with many frostbites and accusations of
some of the men being abandoned without food or fuel and left
to their own devices to get back to Framheim many hours later.
This failure about 6 weeks before the successful attempt is
rarely mentioned. The men were so cold at night that they barely
slept, some dogs paws became frostbitten and by the day of return
some of the dogs had frozen to death or were so weak they had
to be carried on the sledges. The reason for setting off so
early was to be sure to beat Scott who wasn’t racing, though
Amundsen had staked his financial solvency on reaching the South
Pole first. He was lucky he got away with it.

The successful are often keen to dismiss any aspect of good
luck in their success and equally keen to point out the lack
of planning and preparation by others as being the most important
factor in their lack of success rather than any aspect of bad

    I may say that this is the
    greatest factor – the way in which the expedition is equipped
    – the way in which every difficulty is foreseen, and precautions
    taken for meeting or avoiding it. Victory awaits him who
    has everything in order – luck, people call it. Defeat is
    certain for him who has neglected to take the necessary
    precautions in time; this is called bad luck.

The reality is somewhere in-between, of course planning and
preparation are vital for success, but sometimes the unforeseen
thwarts the objective, at other times the unforeseen makes life
easier and delivers an easy or exaggerated success. At some
point we must stop the planning and actually go out and do things,
sometimes we may find ourselves in the 1st or the 99th percentile
of the range of conditions we expected and cruise home easily
or fail gracelessly.

Scott would almost undoubtedly have returned safely with
most or all of his men with some better planning or some better
luck. The irony is that Scott’s failure, the success of reaching
the pole being taken from him, also became Amundsen’s failure.
Amundsen’s rather sneaky tactics to save his fortunes depended
on beating Scott, though in beating him in the way he did, he
sealed his own fate, celebrations of his success sometimes came
rather grudgingly.

    I almost wish that in our
    tribute of admiration, we could include those wonderful,
    good-tempered fascinating dogs, the true friends of man
    without whom Capt. Amundsen would never have got to the
    Pole. I therefore propose three cheers for the dogs.
    Lord Curzon – Britain’s Royal Geographic Society dinner
    in London to celebrate Amundsen’s achievement

Scott helped Amundsen in that he confimed that he had indeed
reached the South Pole. Without Scott, there would have been
no independent confirmation that Amundsen had been there, possibly
in the manner of the uncertainty of Cook and Peary each claiming
to have reached the North Pole (though as it transpired in all likelihood, neither of them actually reached the
North Pole).

Scott and Amundsen both independently reaching and deterrmining
the same spot to be the South Pole, along with Scott taking
photographs and bringing back the letters Amundsen had left
confirmed that both men had been there.

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