Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Freezing To Death In Antarctica

Taylor and Wright and the Terra Nova
One of the guys in this photo, I'm pretty sure it's the one on the right, is Sir Charles Seymour Wright. He was born in Toronto in the late-1800s, grew up in Rosedale, went to Upper Canada College, studied physics at U of T and then headed off to England on a scholarship to study cosmic rays at Cambridge.  But while he was there, he met a man who had just returned from Antarctica,  where he had spent two and a half years climbing mountains and glaciers and nearly freezing to death on an expedition with one of Britain's most famous explorers, Sir Ernest Shackleton. They hadn't made it all the way to the South Pole, like they'd hoped to, but they'd gone farther than anyone else ever had before. And soon, there would be a new attempt, led by Sir Robert Falcon Scott, another one of the Empire's great Antarctic heroes.

Wright was determined to be part of Scott's expedition. He applied and when his application was initially rejected, he walked into London to make his case in person. From Cambridge. A hundred kilometers away. This time, he was accepted; when Scott's team sailed south from New Zealand in 1910, Wright was on board as part of the scientific contingent.

But things got off to a rough start. Before their ship, the Terra Nova, had even made it to Antarctica, they ran into storms and got stuck in the ice for twenty days. One of their sled dogs drowned, the pack ponies they'd brought along were weak and dying and not cut out for the cold. When they did finally arrive and started unloading their equipment, some of it sank into the water. And, worst of all, they'd learned that Roald Amundsen, the Norwegian explorer who had been the first to make it through the Northwest Passage, was already there, camped closer to the Pole, planning to beat them to it.

For the next year and a half, Wright and the other men lived out of an insulated hut in some of the coldest, harshest conditions on Earth, preparing for the months-long journey from their camp to the South Pole. Occasionally, some of them would set out across the ice for weeks and months at a time, studying geology and wildlife or laying down supplies along the route they planned to take south. Each trip was an ordeal. There were blizzards and there were dangerous accidents. More dogs and ponies drowned. Some froze to death or keeled over from exhaustion. Back at camp during the winter, the men would try to keep from going crazy in the darkness, giving lectures and playing football in the faint light outside the hut.

Finally, in November of 1911, Scott lead 16 men, including Wright, out onto the ice and headed for the South Pole. His plan was to send men back in teams the closer they got, taking sled dogs and ponies and motorized sledges part of the way. The sledges died within the first 80 kilometers and after running into a blizzard, all the ponies had to be shot. But the men soldiered on, across the ice shelf, up one of the biggest glaciers in the world and onto the Antarctic plateau, which stretched for hundreds of kilometers between them and their goal. Wright and most of the other men, along with the dogs, headed back to replenish the supply drops, while Scott and four others set off on foot to become the first people to have ever stood on the planet's most southern point.

On January 17, 1912, two weeks later and two and a half months after they'd left camp, having traveled 1300 kilometers in that time, the five men made it to the Pole. Amundsen's flag was already there. The Norwegian had beat them by five weeks. They'd lost.

And the return trip would be an even worse disaster. They spent a month trudging back over the plateau and down the glacier, starving, exhausted and severely frostbitten. Toes turned black. Fingernails were lost to the cold. They kept falling. Getting lost. When they reached the bottom of the glacier, one of them collapsed and died.  And after a few more weeks suffering through some of the worst weather ever recorded in that part of the continent, another simply walked out of the tent to die. "I am just going outside," he said, "and may be some time."

Scott and his last two surviving men struggled on for a few more days, but ran into another blizzard just a few kilometers from their supplies. They couldn't go any further. "We shall stick it out to the end," Scott wrote in the last entry in his diary, "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. R. Scott. For God's sake look after our people."

It would be Charles Wright, as part of a search party months later, who be the first to spot the tent. Inside, their frozen bodies lay beside their letters, photos and journals. The  survivors buried them in snow, erected a cross and headed back home, to civilization, for the first time in years.

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The hut that Wright and the others lived in is still there, full of supplies, nearly a hundred years later. The Scott Polar Research Institute has tons of incredible photos from the expedition, including many of Wright, and some he took himself, here. There's one he took of some pengiuns. And some he took of the other men, surrounded by snow and snow and more snow. Here's what Wright looked like with frostbite. And here's what he looked like standing beside one of the ponies. There's a map of their route to the Pole here. And here's their ship, stuck in the ice. Here are Scott and his men at the South Pole, standing beside Amundsen's tent and flag. A couple of weeks ago, a collection of Wright's photos and other artifacts from the voyage were sold at auction for a crapload of money, which is how I first learned about him. You can read about that, in the Star, here.



A version of this story will appear in
The Toronto Book of the Dead

Coming September 2017 from Dundurn Press
Available for pre-order now

This post is related to dream
41 The Waiting Winter
Charles Seymour Wright, 1903

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