New Evidence Reveals Treachery May Have Doomed Scott's Antarctic Expedition

Scott and his team at the pole, with the Norwegian flag indicating Amundsen had beaten them there, before the real tragedy struck. Lawrence Oates (1880-1912) (Lawrence Oates) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

More than a century after it occurred, the tragedy of Robert Scott's expedition to the South Pole remains Antarctica's most famous story. It's sad fate is usually attributed to a combination of bad luck and blundering. However, previously unstudied expedition documents lend weight to a different theory; that Scott and his men died because of the actions of his second-in-command Lieutenant Edward Evans, who survived but was never questioned about his role.

Scott's team was racing Roald Amundsen to be the first to the South Pole. Amundsen won, but Scott became more famous, his death making him an exemplar of a tragic explorer, dying in the quest to map the world. The Royal Geographical Society (RGS), which supported the expedition, ensured the tale had lasting fame, but never inquired too deeply into what went wrong.

On the return journey from the pole, Captain Lawrence Oates realized his frostbite and exhaustion were slowing the rest of the team. Oates' last words before walking into a blizzard – “I'm just going outside and may be some time” – have become emblems of self-sacrifice and British understatement. Oates' heroism influenced the image of everyone else involved, as did Scott's refusal to abandon their haul of rocks and fossils in an effort to lighten their load.

However, according to Professor Chris Turney of the University of New South Wales, not everyone deserved so much honor. Scott sent Evans, not to be confused with Edgar Evans, the first member of the team to die, back before the final push to the pole. He survived, but according to Turney, contributed to the disaster through failing to follow orders and taking more than his fair share of food supplies.

Turney's own research is focused on the icy continent's climate over the last 130,000 years, but he has also written books about the history of Antarctic exploration.

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