Going South

Roald Amundsen and his Norwegian team arrived at the South Pole a hundred years ago today. Amundsen’s diary entry noting his accomplishment expresses relief more than jubilation: “So we arrived, and were able to raise our flag at the geographical South Pole…. Praise be to God!” After a banquet “of what we can manage” — seal steaks, biscuits, pemmican, and chocolate — and then several days of taking measurements, the five men headed north and home.

Their path did not cross that of the rival British team led by Robert Scott, still heading south. It was another month before Scott’s team saw a “black speck” ahead, and realized “the worst has happened”:

We marched on, found that it was a black flag tied to a sledge bearer; near by the remains of a camp; sledge tracks and ski tracks going and coming and the clear trace of dogs’ paws — many dogs. This told us the whole story.… Many bitter thoughts come and much discussion have we had. Tomorrow we must march on to the Pole and then hasten home with all the speed we can compass.

Another month, and progress over the 800 miles of ice had slowed almost to a stop. Scott’s surviving diary entries make grim reading, his team’s hopes for survival dwindling as steadily as their food, one man dead by exhaustion and accident, then another by suicide, Scott’s description of this colored by foreknowledge of his own doom:

Friday, March 16 or Saturday 17 — Lost track of dates, but think the last correct. Tragedy all along the line. At lunch, the day before yesterday, poor Titus Oates said he couldn’t go on…. At night he was worse and we knew the end had come.

Should this be found I want these facts recorded. Oates’ last thoughts were of his Mother, but immediately before he took pride in thinking that his regiment would be pleased with the bold way in which he met his death.… He did not — would not — give up hope till the very end. He was a brave soul.… He slept through the night before last, hoping not to wake; but he woke in the morning — yesterday. It was blowing a blizzard. He said, “I am just going outside and may be some time.”

Daybook is contributed by Steve King, who teaches in the English Department of Memorial University in St. John’s, Newfoundland. His literary daybook began as a radio series syndicated nationally in Canada. He can be found online at todayinliterature.com.