Antarctica is a wild and mysterious continent, a place to remind us that awesome is not the synonym of the understated nice but is instead closer to the overwhelming, the tremendous. Known for its famous Midnight Sun—the continent’s season of uninterrupted sunlight—the landscape is just as often submerged in months of darkness. While many envision Antarctica as a flat, featureless expanse, the opaque snowdrift at the bottom of the globe, this is an inaccurate picture. Antarctica is home to a collection of what could just as easily be natural wonders or horrors—Deep Lake, so salty it never freezes, and the McMurdo Dry Valleys, where the wind is so intense and dehydrating that no snow can accumulate. There, only the lichens can survive, hiding deep within the rock. The only true no man’s land, Antarctica has seen only ten births, the first as recent 1979. But it has seen death.
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Nobody owns Antarctica. But there was a lot of commotion over who might claim the discovery. In 1910, a dangerous race to the continent transpired between British Robert Falcon Scott and Norwegian Roald Amundsen, along with their respective crews. Their great ambition garnered both teams a less-than-great response—although Amundsen received funding to explore the North Pole, he kept his true objective a secret even from his own crew. Only once his vessel departed did he reveal his aim: the deadly Southern continent. And it was deadly—just not to Amundsen. Scott and his entire crew would die in the harsh conditions, martyred by their own ambitions. Today, a seller has revealed details of a long-lost journal, written by the man who discovered Scott’s body.
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Through Scott’s own journals, we know of his crew’s devastating fate. Edgar Evans passed away first. Lawrence Oates died shortly after, his last words: “I am just going outside and may be some time.” Scott supposes he sacrificed himself to preserve the team’s dwindling resources—his sacrifice was in vain. It was his thirty-second birthday. Nearing their destination, three crew members remained. They were eleven miles away. But eleven miles becomes a lot further for someone too weak to move. In his last entry, Scott writes: “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.” The crew was on its return trip, the men loaded heavy with the truth: they had completed their journey to the pole, but they were not the first to do it. They had taken their chance at a place in history—it, in turn, had taken them.
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Tryggve Gran, a Norwegian explorer, was part of the 1912 rescue mission to recover Scott’s team. Ultimately, he recovered only their bodies. In his previously unpublished journals, he describes the raw horror:
The frost had made the skin yellow & transparent & I’ve never seen anything worse in my life. [Scott] seems to have struggled hard in the moment of death, while the two others seem to have gone off in a kind of sleep […] We buried them this morning – a solemn undertaking. Strange to sea [sic] 11 men bareheaded whilst the wind blew. I must say our Expedition is not given much luck […] some sleep will do good after such a day as this. The sun shines lovely over this place of death
Gran also recalls using Scott’s skis instead of his own, a weighty gesture on behalf of a man he so clearly reveres. “They must finish the journey,” he writes, “and they will.”
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In November, Gran’s son revealed the previously unknown journals to the world. Now, Herman Gran has sold his piece of history for a steep £150,000. Sophie Hopkins, a manuscript expert at Christie’s Auction House, marvels at the weight of the discovery: “he’s describing one of the most famous scenes in British history.” Further reading on the true account of heroism and horror includes Scott’s own journals, Scott’s Last Expedition; Amundsen’s previously known writings, My Life as an Explorer; and author Roland Huntford‘s non-fiction work, The Last Place on Earth: Scott and Amundsen’s Race to the South Pole.
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