January 17, 1912 in Hammered History – R.F Scott’s Terra Nova Expedition reached the South Pole (about 32 days too late)


Scott, Bowers, Wilson, and PO Evans at Polheim, Amundsen’s base at the South Pole. General mood: abject disappointment and probably hunger.

For many of us, adventurous exploration comes when trying to find a shoe store for the first time or when you’re heading to a bar that isn’t next to your house. And since we all carry around a global mapping system and a GPS in our pocket, it’s pretty hard to get lost. Still, if you’re like me and somehow manage this feat of disorientation, you can just google map it back to a main road or use your phone to call your mommy for help. It’s hard to imagine a time when people took trips without the aid of some technology, let alone explored the uninhabited and unexplored reaches of the world.    

Amazingly, the Heroic Age of Antarctic Exploration was only 100 years ago. It’s generally agreed that it lasted from 1897 to 1922 and saw 17 expeditions from 10 countries. The explorers undertook expeditions in hideous conditions, with basic equipment, and with virtually no technology. The men of the Heroic Age of Antarctic Exploration sought the poles for national honor, for drama, and for the romance of freezing to death while an emperor penguin pecked at their liver.

One such man was British naval officer R.F. Scott, who led the Discovery expedition to the Antarctic in 1901-1904. Scott, evidently killing time waiting for World War I to start, decided to put together another expedition in 1910 – the Terra Nova Expedition.

Right out of the gate, things did not go well. In the first place, they were beset by storms in New Zealand and lost time, supplies, motorized sledges, and even a man (who drowned off New Zealand). Their ponies began dying off at a rate only matched by red-shirted ensigns in Star Trek 50 years later. One doesn’t want to encounter bad luck, especially in Antarctica where it could be argued you wouldn’t be unless you had already encountered some bad luck in your life. But such was the case for Scott’s Terra Nova expedition. And the bad juju was exacerbated by urgency caused by one man.

That man was Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen, who abruptly changed his plans from exploring the North Pole to exploring the South Pole. And so, Scott’s expedition was now racing Amundsen’s to the South Pole.

Scott was right to be a little nervous about Amundsen. Amundsen was the first to conquer the Northwest Passage by ship and had done so, more importantly, without eating any of his crewmates. While there he spent winters with the Netsilik Inuit, from whom he learned arctic survival skills, such as using dog sledges, wearing animal skins to keep out the wet cold and the wind, and having a hobby you can do in the dark while crying. Amundsen was both Norwegian and from a shipowner family, which meant he was right at home in the water and in arctic climes. His portrait depicts a stoic man in wolfskins.

Scott’s five-person sledge party reached the South Pole on January 17th, 1912 and must have been rather disappointed to see a tent there left by Amundsen. In the tent was equipment for Scott and a box with a letter. In what must have been a wee bit of insult to injury, Amundsen had asked Scott to deliver it.  

“Dear Captain Scott – As you probably are the first to reach this area after us, I will ask you to kindly forward this letter to King Haakon VII. If you can use any of the articles left in the tent please do not hesitate to do so. With kind regards, and a wish for your safe return. Yours truly, Roald Amundsen” (The tent and box are still at the South Pole at an approximated 15-18 meters below the surface.)

Scott wrote that day: “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. Well, it is something to have got here.”

Unfortunately for Scott (and to a much lesser degree, Amundsen’s letter), their last push towards home saw more bad luck and even worse conditions. The weather was terrible, low temperatures made travel even more difficult, and the men were succumbing to frostbite and physical deterioration. One of his party members, Lawrence Oates was in bad shape “with hands as well as feet pretty well useless.” On March 16 he stood up in the tent and in an epic case of taking one for the team, walked outside to his death, but not before uttering a movie-perfect last line: “I am just going outside and may be some time.”

Scott’s last diary entry on March 29 read “Last entry. For God’s sake look after our people.” He also wrote letters to the mothers of the men dying with him. He seemed content about his fate, which must have been clear to him. He died with the stiffest of upper lips, which is both a credit to his Britishness and almost certainly literally true.   

Why is this history hammered? Well, the heroic explorers brought a lot of booze with them on their Antarctic adventures. This included champagne, beer, cider, madeira, whiskey, and, favored above all, brandy. Explorers packing alcohol for voyages was nothing new. Christopher Columbus brought fortified wine (wine to which a distilled spirit, usually brandy, has been added) to the New World. But this also might be why Columbus thought Cuba was China and Hispaniola was Japan.

The Antarctic expeditions labelled their stores of alcohol “medical comforts.” This usually meant they were prescribed by a doctor, and indeed, medical studies of the day suggested alcohol as a “therapeutic agent” for a variety of ailments, both physiological and psychological. Physically it could aid appetite, help cure insomnia, or work as a digestive stimulant. It could be used as a carminative in cases of severe flatulence in that it completely prevented gas or caused you to expel all gas, making carminative agency an all or nothing game. Additionally, alcohol was considered food. In Antarctic climates 6,000-7,000 calories a day are needed to sustain a person so they had to find calories everywhere. This was even accomplished by adding butter to everything, which suggests I’ve been prepping for an Antarctic expedition since I was eleven. In any event, one of the reasons Scott’s party was doomed was a diet high in protein instead of fats and carbs.

Psychologically, alcohol helped men cope with four months of darkness, cabin fever, and overly-curious emperor penguins. Amundsen himself said that alcohol did what a cup of coffee couldn’t in the Antarctic. He also thought it useful to help men relax and patch up differences, which is important when you live in a hut on a glacier and one of you is using alcohol as a carminative. Amundsen is recorded as having given one of his crew “… a glass of cherry liqueur on the doctor’s advice” for “exhaustion, mixed with madness.”

So, how to celebrate authentically? Well, that depends. The Norwegian Amundsen seemed to like hot chocolate. So, you could fortify yourself against the cold January day and “madness and exhaustion” by adding a shot of cherry liqueur to a cup of hot cocoa. And please comment about how that tastes, because it sounds great.

Most of the British Antarctic explorers seemed to consider brandy above all in terms of medical comforts. So you could do calvados or plum brandy and be well on your way to celebrating the intrepid explorers and a heck of a good evening. However, if you really wanted to be authentic to the Antarctic explorers, you should drink what they considered the top brandy, which is pure grape brandy. You can do this expensively, moderately, cheaply, or so cheaply that you should probably not put it in your body. Nikka “Alambic” Pure Grape Brandy goes for about 235 Euro, Victor Fauconnier Napoleon X.O. Pure Grape Brandy is at 55 Euro, Hobsons XR Pure French Grape Brandy is at about 20 Euro, and Emisaria has a bottle for a super disconcerting 2 Euro.

It seems to be a consensus that Ernest Shackleton’s Quest Expedition (and Shackleton’s death during it) is the dividing line between the Heroic Age of Antarctic Exploration and the Mechanical Age. So, it would have ended with Shackleton. In 2010 archaeologists found a few bottles of Mackinlay whisky that Shackleton had left in Antarctica during his 1907-1909 Nimrod expedition. A recipe was generated from the remaining liquid and Shackleton’s Whisky was subsequently created. You could buy a bottle of that and drink roughly what they drank, but it’ll cost you $157. However, five percent of the price of every bottle sold goes back to the Antarctic Heritage Trust, to help fund their work.

To paraphrase Amundsen’s tribute to Scott upon learning about his demise. “Captain Scott left a record, for honesty, for sincerity, for bravery, for everything that makes a man.” So drink to that and to those brave people. And while you are under no obligation to wear wolfskins as you drink, we advise wearing a good wool sweater as a nod to those intrepid Antarctic explorers.   

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