May 16, 2012
For Lawrence Oates, the race to the South Pole had a portentous start. Just two days after the Terra Nova Expedition left New Zealand in November 1910, a violent storm killed two of the 19 ponies in Oates’s care and nearly sank the ship. His journey ended almost two years later, when he stepped out of a tent and into the teeth of an Antarctic blizzard after uttering ten words that would bring tears of pride to mourning Britons. During the long months in between, Oates’s concern for the ponies paralleled his growing disillusionment with the expedition’s leader, Robert Falcon Scott.
Oates had paid one thousand pounds for the privilege of joining Scott on an expedition that was supposed to combine exploration with scientific research. It quickly became a race to the South Pole after the Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen, already at sea with a crew aboard the Fram, abruptly changed his announced plan to go to the North Pole. “BEG TO INFORM YOU FRAM PROCEEDING ANTARCTIC—AMUNDSEN,” read the telegram he sent to Scott. It was clear that Amundsen would leave the collecting of rock specimens and penguin eggs to the Brits; he wanted simply to arrive first at the pole and return home to claim glory on the lecture circuit.
Born in 1880 to a wealthy English family, Lawrence Oates attended Eton before serving as a junior officer in the Second Boer War. A gunshot wound in a skirmish that earned Oates the nickname “Never Surrender” shattered his thigh, leaving his left leg an inch shorter than his right.
Still, Robert Scott wanted Oates along for the expedition, but once Oates made it to New Zealand, he was startled to see that a crew member (who knew dogs but not horses) had already purchased ponies in Manchuria for five pounds apiece. They were “the greatest lot of crocks I have ever seen,” Oates said. From past expeditions, Scott had deduced that white or gray ponies were stronger than darker horses, though there was no scientific evidence for that. When Oates told him that the Manchurian ponies were unfit for the expedition, Scott bristled and disagreed. Oates seethed and stormed away.
Inspecting the supplies, Oates quickly surmised that there was not enough fodder, so he bought two extra tons with his own money and smuggled the feed aboard the Terra Nova. When, to great fanfare, Scott and his crew set off from New Zealand for Antarctica on November 29, 1910, Oates was already questioning the expedition in letters home to his mother: “If he [Amundsen] gets to the Pole first we shall come home with our tails between our legs and make no mistake. I must say we have made far too much noise about ourselves all that photographing, cheering, steaming through the fleet etc. etc. is rot and if we fail it will only make us look more foolish.” Oates went on to praise Amundsen for planning to use dogs and skis rather than walking beside horses. “If Scott does anything silly such as underfeeding his ponies he will be beaten as sure as death.”
After a harrowingly slow journey through pack ice, the Terra Nova arrived at Ross Island in Antarctica on January 4, 1911. The men unloaded and set up base at Camp Evans, as some crew members set off in February on an excursion in the Bay of Whales, off the Ross Ice Shelf—where they caught sight of Amundsen’s Fram at anchor. The next morning they saw Amundsen himself, crossing the ice at a blistering pace on his dog sled as he readied his animals for an assault on the South Pole, some 900 miles away. Scott’s men had had nothing but trouble with their own dogs, and their ponies could only plod along on the depot-laying journeys they were making to store supplies for the pole run.