British explorer Robert Falcon Scott's second South Pole expedition was his last. He and his team reached the bottom of the world on January 17, 1912, only to discover that Norway's Roald Amundsen had beaten them by five whole weeks (prompting Scott to pen the now-famous words: "The worst has happened"; "All the day dreams must go"; "Great God! This is an awful place"). On the 800-mile return journey to the edge of Antarctica—and to safety—his entire party perished.
Scott, 44, was one tough guy, and he outlasted even the youngest members of his team—and, because of it, suffered the anguish of losing each and every one of them. Before he died, though, Scott wrote a handful of letters to family and friends, most of which have become public record over the years. One of the last ones, written to his former commanding officer, Admiral Sir Francis Charles Birdgemann, was recently purchased by the Scott Polar Research Institute at the University of Cambridge, and was made public last week, exactly 101 years after the ink dried.
Scott's words show that, even through the end, he maintained a "stiff upper lip," concerned not for himself, but for his family and for the doomed expedition's legacy. In the end, too, he wrestles with his ill-fated decision to try keeping the team together, rather than leaving ill members behind on the ice. It ultimately cost them all their lives. Scott writes:
My Dear Sir Francis
I fear we have shipped up—a close shave. I am writing a few letters which I hope will be delivered some day. I want to thank you for the friendship you gave me of late years, and to tell you how extraordinarily pleasant I found it to serve under you. I want to tell you that I was not too old for this job. It was the younger men that went under first. Finally I want you to secure a competence for my widow and boy. I leave them very ill provided for, but feel that the country ought not to neglect them. After all we are setting a good example to our countrymen, if not by getting into a tight place, by facing it like men when we were there. We could have come through had we neglected the sick.
Good-bye and good-bye to dear Lady Bridgeman
Excuse writing—it is -40, and has been for nigh a month
For more on Scott's final letter, click through to Cambridge University.