March 1, 2011

Wednesday, 1 March 1911


Scott, Oates, and Gran turned out early in order to catch up with Bowers and the rest of the ponies, and struck out on ski for the forage depot a half-mile onto the Barrier southeast of Hut Point. As they approached, they saw with horror that the ice had broken up at the edge of the Barrier.

"My thoughts flew to the ponies and dogs," Scott wrote the next day, "and fearful anxieties assailed my mind. We turned to follow the sea edge and suddenly discovered a working crack. We dashed over this and slackened pace again after a quarter of a mile. Then again cracks appeared ahead and we increased pace as much as possible, not slackening again till we were in line between the Safety Camp and Castle Rock." [1]

"My orders were to push on to Hut Point over the sea-ice without delay," wrote Bowers later, "and to follow the dogs; previously I had been told to camp on the sea-ice only in case of the beasts being unable to go on. We had four pretty heavy sledges, as we were taking six weeks' man food and oil to the hut, as well as a lot of gear from the depôt, and pony food, etc. Unfortunately the dogs misunderstood their orders and, instead of piloting us, dashed off on their own. We saw them like specks in the distance in the direction of the old seal crack. Having crossed this they wheeled to the right in the direction of Cape Armitage and disappeared into a black indefinite mist, which seemed to pervade everything in that direction." [2]

Thinking that if they gave Cape Armitage a wide enough berth, they could get around to Hut Point safely, Bowers carried on with the ponies and sledges, Cherry, and Crean. "However, about a mile farther on I began to have misgivings; the cracks became too frequent to be pleasant, and although the ice was from five to ten feet thick, one does not like to see water squelching between them, as we did later. It spells motion, and motion on sea-ice means breakage." This was too much even for Bowers, and they turned back, going as far as they could with the exhausted ponies before setting up camp.

"We had only the primus with the missing cap and it took over 1 1/2 hours to heat up the water; however, we had a cup of pemmican. It was very dark, and I mistook a small bag of curry powder for the cocoa bag, and made cocoa with that, mixed with sugar; Crean drank his right down before discovering anything was wrong."

Two hours later Bowers was disturbed by a noise. Thinking that a pony had got into the oats, he went out of the tent. "I cannot describe either the scene or my feelings," he wrote, "I must leave those to your imagination. We were in the middle of a floating pack of broken-up ice. The tops of the hills were visible, but all below was thin mist and as far as the eye could see there was nothing solid; it was all broken up, and heaving up and down with the swell. Long black tongues of water were everywhere. The floe on which we were had split right under our picketing line, and cut poor Guts' wall in half." The pony had disappeared, and they were on a floe about 15 yards across, drifting to open sea.

They managed to retrieve two of the sledges from a nearby floe, before packing up their tent and the other two sledges and harnessing the ponies, and striking off across the moving ice, jumping from floe to floe, or using a sledge as a bridge across the leads, and making their way with agonizing slowness because Bowers was determined that they should not separate. A group of killer whales surfaced nearby, hunting seals in the broken-up ice.

Sea ice, both floes and brash, here in the Arctic in August 2009. [3]

Seeing a large floe that seemed to slope upwards to the Barrier's edge, they made a rush up it to find the sea between them and the Barrier open for some thirty or forty feet, filled with brash ice and killer whales. It was decided that Crean, because Cherry was too short-sighted to see and Bowers would not leave the ponies, would make a dash for help. "It was not a pleasant day that Cherry and I spent all alone there," Bowers noted later, with the sea wide open behind them, the edge of the Barrier calving as they watched, and killer whales blowing sometimes only inches away.

Fourteen hours later -- "I suppose there is no doubt we are in the devil of a hole," Cherry wrote in his diary as they waited [4] -- Crean appeared on the edge of the Barrier with Scott and Oates.

"Scott, instead of blowing me up," wrote Bowers, "was too relieved at our safety to be anything but pleased. I said: 'What about the ponies and the sledges?' He said: 'I don't care a damn about the ponies and sledges. It's you I want, and I am going to see you safe here up on the Barrier before I do anything else.'"

They dumped the gear from two of the sledges and used them as ladders to get across. Bowers was determined to rescue the ponies he had got this far, and Scott agreed, however reluctantly. "Titus [Oates] dug down a slope from the Barrier edge in the hope of getting the ponies up it. Scott knew more about ice than any of us, and realizing the danger we didn't, still wanted to abandon things. I fought for my point tooth and nail, and got him to concede one article and then another, and still the ice did not move till we had thrown and hauled up every article on to the Barrier except the two ladders and the ponies."

The shifting ice, though, kept them from getting the ponies, and they could only make camp and watch as the three ponies slowly drifted westwards. Some time later, the floe came up against a spur of the Barrier, and soon Bowers, with Cherry and Oates, was leaping across floes towards them. Cold and stiff, Punch shied at the first jump off, and went in, floundering in the brash ice. Rather than watch him be devoured by the killer whales, Oates finished him off with a pick. They got Nobby up onto the Barrier, but as he jumped between two floes, Bowers' pony Uncle Bill slipped and went in. They managed to drag him out, but, exhausted and done for, the pony could not get to his feet. "I said: 'I can't leave him to be eaten alive by those whales.' There was a pick lying up on the floe. Titus said: 'I shall be sick if I have to kill another horse like I did the last.' I had no intention that anybody should kill my own horse but myself, and getting the pick I struck where Titus told me. I made sure of my job before we ran up and jumped the opening in the Barrier, carrying a blood-stained pick-axe instead of leading the pony I had almost considered safe."

Like Wilson, reflecting upon it afterwards, Bowers felt that there was a greater hand than theirs at work. "Six hours earlier we could have walked to the hut on sound sea-ice. A few hours later we should have seen open water on arrival at the Barrier edge. The blizzard that knocked out the beasts, the death of Weary, the misunderstanding of the dogs, everything, fitted in to place us on the sea-ice during the only two hours of the whole year that we could possibly have been in such a position. Let those who believe in coincidence carry on believing. Nobody will ever convince me that there was not something more. Perhaps in the light of next year we shall see what was meant by such an apparent blow to our hopes. Certainly we shall start for the Pole with less of that foolish spirit of blatant boast and ridiculous blind self-assurance, that characterized some of us on leaving Cardiff." [5]

Looking back from six months later, Oates, though, was still bitter. "We lost 6 ponies including mine (Punch) which was a long way the best pony we had I was very upset the more so as I think he could have been saved if Scott had not been fussing to the extent he was, this pony was one of the ones drowned, the loss of the ponies was Scott's fault entirely." [6]


[1] R.F. Scott, diary, 2 March, 1911, quoted in Scott's Last Expedition, v.1.
[2] H.R. Bowers, in a letter quoted by Apsley Cherry-Garrard in The Worst Journey in the World, ch.5.
[3] Wikimedia Commons.
[4] Apsley Cherry-Garrard, diary, 1 March 1911, quoted by Sara Wheeler in Cherry : a Life of Apsley Cherry-Garrard (New York : Modern Library, 2003, c2001), p.98.
[5] H.R. Bowers, quoted by Apsley Cherry-Garrard in The Worst Journey in the World, ch.5. Bowers not only singled out Cherry and Crean for praise in his report to Scott, but took full responsibility for underestimating the danger signs of the previous day, and for his own inexperience.
[6] L.E.G. Oates, letter?, [22 October, 1911], quoted by Sue Limb and Patrick Cordingley in Captain Oates : Soldier and Explorer (London : Batsford, c1982), p.120.

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