Tuesday, November 1, 2011


Scott's daily ration: cocoa, sugar cubes, tea, pemmican, biscuit, cheese and butter

100 years ago on November 1st, 1911, Captain Robert Falcon Scott set out from his base at Cape Evans on his quest to be the first man to reach the South Pole. It was spring in Antarctica, the epic journey designed to take advantage of the 24-hour sunlight and warmer temperatures of the brief antipodean summer.

Motor sledges, the precursors to WWI’s tanks and the first motorized vehicles on the continent, had gone on ahead laden with heavy supplies. They quickly broke down, forcing their drivers to haul them themselves, pulling wooden sledges using a harness, like beasts.

The rest of Scott’s support parties followed on leading ponies who dragged additional sledges full of supplies. At various stages they would leave depots of food and fuel, and turn back, leaving fewer and fewer men to advance south. Scott himself walked at the rear, assessing his crew’s progress.

Ready to go!
They carried with them a meager diet carefully rationed out and designed to provide each man with the right amount of fats, carbohydrates and calories to enable him to drag heavy loads over snow for 15 miles and/or 12 hours per day in very low temperatures and at high elevations. This took the form of hoosh — a thick stew made from chipped pemmican (a rich compression of animal fats and grains) mixed with crumbled dried biscuit and melted snow.

Scott’s daily ration provided roughly 4500 calories and absolutely no vitamin C, an essential nutrient the human body can neither produce nor store for long, a lack of which causes scurvy. The cause of the dreaded and often fatal scurvy wasn't known in 1911, and vitamins weren't identified until 1913. Every now and then they were able to make use of meat from the slaughtered ponies which had been stored at depots to supplement their hoosh.

By the time the ponies had been killed, and the men were manhauling the sledges themselves, they were burning at least 6500 calories per day, with a total daily caloric expenditure nearer 10,000 when one factors in the effects of extreme cold and high elevation. 

Scott and his final party of four companions arrived at the South Pole on January 17th 1912 only to find that Roald Amundsen had beaten them to it by a month. They had to race 900 miles back to camp in order to stay ahead of the encroaching Antarctic autumn, with dwindling light and plummeting temperatures.

While Amundsen relaxed on a beach to begin writing his memoir in March of 1912, Scott’s party succumbed on the great Ross Ice Shelf to “exposure and want”: they froze to death while starving. They were just 11 miles from a depot full of food, and nearly home. The deficit in calories and essential nutrients in their hoosh, along with a lack of fuel to cook it (or even to melt snow for drinking; death by dehydration when surrounded by ice is a distinct possibility because the body cannot generate enough heat to melt enough snow to satisfy thirst, let alone replace fluids lost to sweating, urination and exhalation, and trying to "drink" snow lowers body temperature dangerously) meant that they were too weak to sustain the mileage necessary to beat the season and weather the cold. In addition, the sustained starvation would have meant that their bodies had started consuming themselves. Eating yourself is absolutely the worst meal, ever.

Pin It