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Robert Falcon Scott and the Last March to the Antarctic

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March 29th: One hundred years ago today, British polar explorer Robert Falcon Scott perished in the Antarctic during his harrowing march back from the South Pole. Two months earlier, his party of five had reached the bottom of the world, only to discover that it had already been claimed by the Norwegian Roald Amundsen:

"The Pole. Yes, but under very different circumstances from those expected," wrote Scott after seeing the Norwegian flag blowing in the polar winds. "Great God! This is an awful place and ... to have labored to it without the reward of priority."

Amundsen had arrived 33 days earlier. Traveling by dog sleds, he was nearly three times faster than Scott's party who walked, man hauling all their gear behind them.

Broken-hearted, perhaps Scott already sensed that they would not make it back: "All the day dreams must go ... Now for the run home. I wonder if we can do it." Ahead of them lay another grueling 800 miles: "I have never pulled so hard, or so nearly crushed my insides into my backbone," wrote one of the team members.

Burning over 7,000 calories a day, their food rations were too small to match their strenuous efforts. They most likely already had scurvy. Amidst the bitter cold, their health slowly deteriorated, and as temperatures plunged below -30°C , they all suffered from terrible frostbite.

After losing two men, the remaining three made their final camp on March 19th after getting caught in an unrelenting blizzard a mere 11 miles from their last food depot. According to atmospheric scientist Dr. Susan Solomon, Scott's team were extremely unlucky to get caught not in one, but two raging blizzards which made it bitterly cold for that time of year.

But, it was the location of their last food depot that proved to be their greatest downfall. It was pitched 30 miles further north than they had originally planned -- poor weather conditions the year before meant that they couldn't push that far south.

As author of Dead Men Richard Pierce points out: "11 miles in the Antarctic are more like 50 miles in a temperate climate ...11 miles for three undernourished, starving men, was 11 miles too far." Without food, fuel and now hope, Scott made his final diary entry on March 29th:

"We have been ready to start for our depot ... but outside the door of the tent it remains a scene of whirling drift. 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. For God's sake look after our people."

Shortly afterwards, the three men all died from cold, starvation and dehydration. The Antarctic is the world's largest desert and in their final week, they only had a bit of food, and two cups of tea as they ran out of fuel to melt the ice around them.

Some say that the trio died from broken hearts. "An irrationalist such as myself might say that they had their hearts broken by the most fierce, most beautiful, most cold of all mistresses," says Richard Pierce. Not only did the Antarctic take away their two best friends, but it gave the South Pole victory to Amundsen who was originally venturing North.

The Norwegian only decided to head south when he learned that the North Pole had already been claimed by the Americans. Scott was not aware of Amundsen's plans until he already was on route to Antarctica.

So, by the time the race began, the two men were involved in two very different types of expeditions. For Amundsen, it was purely a competition to become the first person in history to reach the South Pole. His team was thus made up of world class skiers and over 50 dogs. For Scott however, it was largely about mapping out the frozen world and creating a scientific legacy.

Although Amundsen beat Scott to the pole, some people argue that through dying out on the white continent, it was Scott who ultimately triumphed by winning over the hearts of the people.

When news of his death finally reached the world a year later, it inspired one of the biggest media events of the 20th century: "One of the greatest tales of heroic adventure from any age was born, with success and achievement overshadowed by failure and tragedy," writes Steve Parker in Scott's Last Expedition.

In the aftermath of his death, Scott became an iconic hero in Britain -- his story of self-sacrifice was used to galvanize young men to give up their lives in the two world wars that followed.

Towards the end of the last century however, there was a brutal backlash against him. As David Crane in Scott of the Antarctic points out, using Scott's name for the sake of imperialism meant that "when the reaction came it would be bitter and violent." But, in recent years, there have been more measured portrayals of Scott which have restored his place amongst the great giants of the Heroic Age of Exploration.

"We are weak, writing is difficult, but for myself, i do not regret this journey ... We took risks, we knew we took them; things have come out against us, and therefore we have no cause for complaint, but to bow to the will of Providence ... 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." -- Robert Falcon Scott (1868-1912)