March 16, 1912 marks the passing of Lawrence Oates. This relatively unknown explorer was a member of the ill-fated Scott Expedition to the South Pole, which we briefly mentioned back in December when discussing Roald Amundsen. Amundsen’s discovery of the bottom of the Earth was accompanied by a successful return and an incredible story to tell, but those with Scott faced a much grimmer outcome.
The Scott Expedition indeed reached the South Pole on January 18, 1912. But having discovered the tent and note left by Amundsen the month before, there was little to do but make the disappointing return trip. Now it’s reasonable to assume that Antarctic weather conditions are brutal all year round. But Scott’s group encountered weather that was terrible even by Antarctic standards, with “unseasonably cold” temperatures of -40°F and blizzards, bringing progress to a crawl. In mid-February, the first of the five men died from injuries sustained when falling down a crevasse.
From there, progress slowed further as the extremely poor weather continued, and as poor health began to rear its ugly head. Oates, a wounded veteran of the Boer Wars and no stranger to hardship, suffered through badly frostbitten feet, which really slowed him down. He began to realize that he was endangering the team, which wasn’t progressing fast enough to keep up with rate of food consumption. On several occasions, he told his 3 companions to simply leave him behind, which they steadfastly refused to do.
The crisis point came on the March 15th, when poor Lawrence said he could go no further, but still his companions remained. In the morning of the 16th, Oates took matters into his own hands. Robert Scott himself describes it best when he wrote:
He took pride thinking that his regiment would be pleased with the bold way he met his death. We can testify to his bravery. He has borne intense suffering for weeks without complaint… He slept through the night before last, hoping not to wake; but he woke in the morning yesterday. It was blowing a blizzard. He said ‘I am just going outside and may be some time.’ He went out into the blizzard and we have not seen him since.
And so the passing came of Lawrence Oates, who sacrificed himself in the hope that others would survive. But even that was not to be. Advancing another 20 miles, the remaining three men would be trapped by yet another ferocious blizzard, just 11 miles from one of their food depots, and would perish in their tents on the 29th.