Polar explorers are a rare breed.
From Scott to Shackleton, they’ve been willing to risk life and limb to trudge to the ends of the earth in impossible conditions across the decades.
But the lure of Antarctica still remains in the 21st Century despite huge advances in exploration.
Today there was remarkable news that the British explorer Sir Ranulph Fiennes will attempt to conquer one of the frozen continent’s last frontiers.
Fiennes will lead the first team on foot across Antarctica during its winter season when temperatures can drop as low as -70 to -90C.
Dubbed the ‘Coldest Journey’, it looks set to be a remarkable trip to one of the world’s most inhospitable places.
Sir Ranulph will ski ahead of the team with a colleague, followed by bulldozers pulling industrial sledges with three containers with living quarters, supplies, and a laboratory.
Whilst early polar explorers had old-fashioned sledges and dogs, Sir Ranulph will have the benefit of radar and modern technology.
Scott’s last stand
It’s 100 years since Scott and his heroic team reached the South Pole, a remarkable achievement in 1912.
But their success quickly turned into tragedy. Not only had they been beaten to the Pole by Norwegian explorer, Roald Amundsen, the men experienced the most appalling weather conditions on their journey back.
They were never to see their homes or families again.
Every one of Scott’s team paid the ultimate price for taking the risk of conquering one of the world’s frozen frontiers.
They started the 1,500 km journey back to base but one by one they died of starvation and exposure in the cruel conditions and sub-zero temperatures.
Eight months later, a search party discovered the tent, the bodies and Scott’s diary.
Scott’s final diary note remains chilling: “We shall stick it out to the end, but we are getting weaker, of course, and the end cannot be far…
“Last entry. For God’s sake look after our people.”
Following the footsteps
Although I’ve always been moved by the story, I’ve never really taken in the full magnitude of Scott’s journey.
Last month I visited the RRS Discovery, the ship on which Scott and his team made his first major journey to the Antarctic.
Standing on the deck of the small ship you get a palpable sense of how the men must have felt when they left for Antarctica on their 1901 trip… their hopes, dreams and fears.
Discovery spent more than two years on the frozen ice whilst the expedition collected important biological, zoological, meteorological and geological research.
They collected the first Emperor Penguin eggs, mapped unknown coastlines and mountain ranges, and made important magnetic measurements and seismic recordings.
But would you or I take the risks these men took with little equipment and only sledges and dogs to rely on?
Scott returned to the Antarctic in 1910 on the Terra Nova for one last fateful trip, bitten by what some called “Pole mania”.
The trip was marred by a series of misfortunes and problems.
“Great God! This is an awful place,” wrote Scott in 1912, not long before his death.
‘Scott of the Antarctic’
Scott, Wilson, Oates, Bowers and Evans will be remembered in history for their heroic failure.
News of Sir Ranulph Fiennes’ excursion rekindles memories of that golden age and highlights the risks of polar exploration, even with modern technology.
Fiennes and his team aim to traverse 2,000 miles in six months, crossing the polar plateau which rises to heights of 10,000 feet above sea level.
Their goal – to conquer this final frontier of polar exploration and examine the impact of climate change on the poles.
Fiennes is no stranger to the dangers of Antarctic and Arctic exploration. He lost most of the fingers on one hand as a result of frostbite on a previous excursion.
It’s proof that these men are really a special breed… and their endeavours continue to be pretty amazing.
The RRS Discovery is located in Dundee on the north side of the Tay Road Bridge. It is within 90 minutes drive of Edinburgh and Glasgow. The Discovery Point museum is opposite Dundee railway station. Take the tour of Scott’s Discovery ship as well as visiting the museum which has special exhibitions and events.
For those interested in archives and polar history there’s the Scott Polar Research Museum at the University of Cambridge, England.
When in London look out for Scott’s 1904 house at 56 Oakley Street in Chelsea where you’ll find a blue commemorative plaque. The site of Scott’s birthplace – Outlands House in Stoke Damerel, Devon – also has a plaque, but can be hard to find.