The Pioneer Who Died for the South Pole A century ago, British Naval Officer Robert Falcon Scott sought to lead the first team to the South Pole. He lost the race by five weeks, but collected scientific data on the Antarctic climate that scientists still use today.
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The Pioneer Who Died for the South Pole

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The Pioneer Who Died for the South Pole

The Pioneer Who Died for the South Pole

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From NPR News, this is WEEKEND EDITION. I'm Liane Hansen.

Now you're going to hear one of the most chilling adventure stories of the Las century. It's about men who risked everything because they wanted to be first at the South Pole. You may have heard of one of those explorers, a British Navy captain named Robert Falcon Scott. He became famous partly because his expedition ended in tragedy. But you may not know that Scott and his men risked their lives partly for science.

We've been reporting from Antarctica this month as part of our series with National Geographic, Climate Connections. And as NPR's Daniel Zwerdling discovered scientists there are doing cutting edge research today because pioneers like Scott paved the way almost 100 years ago.

DANIEL ZWERDLING: It's a gray morning in Antarctica. We're at America's main research base on the edge of McMurter(ph) Sound. And we're just leaving the cafeteria where we had a huge breakfast - omelets with mushrooms and peppers, home fries, turkey sausages, 12 varieties of tea. A little different than what explorers faced 100 years ago only a few hundred yards away.

To get there we walk to a windy promontory, which juts over the frozen sea and there's the famous cabin.

Professor DONAL MANAHAN (Marine Biology and Biological Oceanography, Biological Sciences, College of Letters Arts & Sciences, University of Southern California): We are standing outside one of the most historic buildings, in my opinion, on the seventh continent.

ZWERDLING: Our guide is Donal Manahan. He's a marine biologist at the University of Southern California. He also teaches the staff here in Antarctica about the history of this place. He tells them you might not be here if it weren't for a Robert Scott.

Prof. MANAHAN: This is Scott's hut that he built in 1902. Why does it matter? It matters because we can say for sure that from this site, humans first made the effort to try and get to the South Pole to map the seventh continent, the last place on Earth.

ZWERDLING: The story of Scott's expedition is like a mythic tale. No human had even set foot on Antarctica until 1895. Then over the next 15 years the British government sent Scott on two expeditions to try to tame it. They wanted him to be the first man at the South Pole for the sake of national glory. Scott wanted to advance his career.

Prof. MANAHAN: I have the key so let's go inside. And we open the door to Antarctic history.

ZWERDLING: But it wasn't just about conquering the continent. Scott's expeditions were also about science. He took researchers to do the first studies on Antarctica's geology and climate. They used this hut as their base. It looks like a small vacation cabin in Maine - wood plank walls, wood plank floors.

Prof. MANAHAN: Amazing smell. That's the first thing that strikes you as you walk in is this musty smell.

ZWERDLING: The freezing climate here has preserved everything.

Prof. MANAHAN: What's right behind you is some seal meat. That's where the smell's coming from.

ZWERDLING: Come on. Are you?

Prof. MANAHAN: That is seal meat from the heroic age of Antarctic explorations.

ZWERDLING: That's what the smell is.

Prof. MANAHAN: You can see bones on the back bones, the blubber, it looks a little oily and mucky but this is original seal meat from the seals that they would use for food.

ZWERDLING: And at first the expedition seemed to be going great. Scott's diary describes amazing meals with mutton and cheese and steak and kidney pie, made from seal meat like the stuff oozing next to us.

One of the scientists built a weather station and launched weather balloons. And Scott sounded like he was in heaven.

Mr. ROBERT SCOTT (British Navy Officer): Such weather in such a place comes nearer to satisfying my ideal of perfection than any condition I have ever experienced. The warm glow of the sun with the keen, invigorating cold of the air is inexpressively health giving and satisfying.

ZWERDLING: But then everything started to go wrong. Scott and four men began trudging 800 miles from this cabin toward the South Pole. Their first problem was crippling weather. One of the crew members was a scientist, and he measured temperatures at 77 below 0. Winds were 100 miles an hour. His records show it was some of the worst weather in Antarctica in the last 100 years.

Now, think about this: Donald Manahan and I are each wearing five layers of clothing made out of miracle fibers, we're wearing polar boots that would probably work on the moon and we're cold.

Prof. MANAHAN: Here beside me are some pants, which are grimy, dirty-looking pants.

ZWERDLING: These are the actual cotton trousers that an explorer left behind. And here are some boots made of reindeer fur.

Prof. MANAHAN: They would keep you warm but the problem was when you sweated in your socks that sweat would freeze. And there's some heart wrenching stories of it would take them sometimes two hours to put on a shoe. They would put their toes in a little bit, have to wait for the toes to heat up the shoe and then to move it a little bit, unbelievable.

ZWERDLING: It was so cold that Scott's ponies began to die. Scott had brought almost 20 special ponies to drag the huge sleds, which carried their supplies. The animals were bred to work in freezing weather but eventually they all collapsed from cold and exhaustion or the men killed the weakest ones and ate them. So now Scott and his crew had to drag the sleds themselves.

Manahan points at a dirty canvas harness, which hangs from one of the beams.

Prof. MANAHAN: You just strap it around your waist, put a rope on it, and tie it to the sledge and then you just start walking. The trauma of pulling these thousand-pound sledges with this weighs is I think beautifully illustrated in this writing from Scott's diary, as they were almost getting to the South Pole.

I had never had such pulling?

Mr. SCOTT: All the time the sledge rapts and creaks. We have covered six miles but at fearful cost to ourselves. None of us ever had such hard work before. Miserable, utterly miserable.

Prof. MANAHAN: And the challenge was they couldn't drag enough food with them to supply all the calories they need. They were basically on a starvation diet as soon as they left. They always were hungry.

ZWERDLING: Finally on January 17, 1912, Robert Scott and his crewmates made it to the bottom of the world. But as they dragged themselves to the exact spot they saw the Norwegian flag flapping in the wind. It turned out that an explorer named Roald Amundsen had beat them to the pole. Amundsen even left a letter for Scott in his tent. It was dated five weeks earlier.

Scott and his crew took some more scientific measurements and then they set up their camera.

Mr. SCOTT: It is a terrible disappointment and I am very sorry for my loyal companions. All the daydreams must go. The pole, yes, but under very different circumstances from those expected. We have had a horrible day. Now for the run home and a desperate struggle.

ZWERDLING: Scott knew it would take at least three months to slog back to his cabin. But even though they were desperate they collected 35 pounds of rocks to study Antarctica's geology. Their scientist was especially excited about a fossil of a leaf that hinted that Antarctica used to be warm and lush millions of years ago.

Then exactly one month after they left the pole, one of the men went insane. He ripped off his clothes and died. Then a second man got terrible frostbite - he could hardly walk anymore. He got up in the tent one morning during a raging blizzard. He told his comrades I am just going outside and I may be some time. And they never saw him again.

Scott wrote a final letter to his wife:

(Soundbite of wind howling)

Mr. SCOTT: Dearest darling, we are in a very tight corner and I have doubts of pulling through. If anything happens to me I shall like you to know how much you have meant to me and that pleasant recollections are with me as I depart. We have decided not to kill ourselves but to fight it to the last.

(Soundbite of wind howling)

(Soundbite of music)

ZWERDLING: Today you can hang out at Gallagher's Pub just up the path from Scott's cabin. It's the most popular night spot here at America's base. This modern life at McMurter makes Antarctica seem a little less exotic with rock bands and hot showers and all-you-can-eat buffets. But something serious is going on here.

This has become one of the world's most important centers for studying how the Earth's climate is changing. And just before we arrived here a scientist gave a lecture on the dramatic evidence that shows global warming, and the first reference point on his graph came from the scientists with Robert Falcon Scott.

Daniel Zwerdling, NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

HANSEN: The Antarctic Peninsula is now dotted with scientific outposts. There is even a village of little red houses and a British post offices. You can take a tour with our video, Changing Antarctica, at

Next week I'll be in Egypt doing interviews on climate change in Alexandria and Cairo and you'll hear those reports on WEEKEND EDITION Sunday in late April.

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