No place for the Intrepid

EXACTLY 100 years ago this weekend, Robert Falcon Scott and a group of hardy explorers set out from Cardiff on the ill-fated Terra Nova expedition to conquer the South Pole.

After a hazardous two-year journey, they finally arrived at 90S to discover that they had been beaten to the world's most remote geographical point by five weeks, by Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen.

Weak, downcast and exhausted, using inappropriate equipment and running out of food, Scott and his four companions were overcome by the elements and perished in March 1912, just 20 miles from safety. Now 45,000 tourists visit a year.

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Here, Emma Cowing looks at just how much things have changed in Antarctica in the century since Scott's journey, and asks whether life is any easier in the continent often nicknamed "the deep freeze".


"Great God! This is an awful place," Scott wrote in his diary upon arriving at the South Pole on 17 January 1912, only to find Norway's national flag planted in the snow, the tell-tale sign that Amundsen and his party had beaten him to it by five weeks.

These days, you'll find a lot more than a Scandinavian flag waving in the wind. There are now two South Poles: a ceremonial one, surrounded by the flags of the Antarctic Treaty signatory states and featuring a metallic sphere on a plinth, as well as the true, geographical South Pole, which stands quietly a few metres away.

There is also a human population – in the summer at least, when around 260 scientists stay at the democratically named Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station.


Scott's 1910 trip was funded to the tune of 50,000 – equal to at least 1 million today. Much of the money was raised by businessmen and residents of Cardiff, which is why Scott chose to launch the expedition from the Welsh capital.

Today, although Antarctica isn't quite a budget holiday destination, it is nowhere near as expensive, with Antarctic cruises of around ten to 12 days provided by companies such as Discover The World costing around 3,000. Prices start to spiral however, if visitors wish to explore more of the continent, or take visits to specific areas. Costs rise to around 25,000 for those who want to fly to the South Pole on a day trip.

A handful of adventure companies offer tailor-made, two-month expeditions covering the 1,100km journey across the ice to the South Pole. Participants ski for eight to ten hours a day, live in tents, endure 60 knot winds and -40C temperatures, and pay around 44,000 for the privilege.


Scott's only luxury was his diary, which he kept religiously, and extracts of which can now be read in their original form on the British Library website. Food was sparse – he made no allowances for delays, and dogs and horses were killed for their meat. There was no chocolate for boosting energy, just cups of cold, watery tea. A lack of fruit and vegetables meant the party developed scurvy.

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Today's explorers can bring iPods, iPads and personal DVD players to keep them entertained, and for more basic comforts, "pee bottles" are available, for those caught short in -40C winds.

At the bigger research stations you'll find libraries, pool tables, gyms, bars and restaurants – the cook at Palmer Station is a classically trained French chef – and at the South Pole station, vegetables and herbs from aubergines to jalapeos are grown in a small greenhouse, using water and nutrients rather than soil.

These days, if you make it to the South Pole, you'll get an "official" certificate.


Out on the ice, Scott's team wore woollen and animal-skin clothing, with boots of reindeer skin. Although warm, their outfits couldn't dissipate sweat, meaning they became soaked during the day and, because of a lack of fuel, couldn't dry out at night. It is thought to be one of the contributory factors in their deaths.

Today's explorers have no such concerns. Those lounging on Antarctic cruises have boots and jackets provided, and adventure clothing companies specialise in polar gear, including knee-high boots that withstand temperatures of -60C. Those on full polar expeditions or who are posted there on research missions arrive with Gortex tops, wind-resistant trousers, neck gaiters, face masks, synthetic underwear and even anti-fog goggles.


The South Polar Times, a magazine started by Scott when the ship Discovery was ice-bound in McMurdo Sound in the winter of 1902-3 and edited by Ernest Shackleton, jocularly speculated that one day tourists might reach the South Pole by plane.

That day came in 1987. Now, a handful of companies make tourist trips during the summer season, flying in for the day from Antarctica's Patriot Hills. It's becoming a rapidly more popular trip: 40 tourists reached the Pole during the 2003-04 season – last year it had quadrupled to 164.

Altogether there are now 20 airports in Antarctica – including three at the McMurdo Station. At Patriot Hills, a naturally occurring blue ice runway allows wheeled cargo jets to land. There are also 27 helicopter pads, although Twin Otter ski planes are the most popular aircraft.


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Scott's goal was not just to conquer the South Pole, but to carry out research on the Antarctic environment. When the party's bodies were found eight months later it was discovered that they had dragged 14kg of rock samples from the Beardmore Glacier across hundreds of miles of ice.

Much of the research carried out today is devoted to astrophysics. The hi-tech research station at the South Pole cost more than 100m to build and contains several powerful telescopes and a separate observatory building.

Other topics include glaciology, geophysics and biomedical studies, and much work has been done recently on the low moisture content of polar air. It has also become a centre for studies into the effects of global warming.

But perhaps Scott's greatest research legacy is not in the Antarctic but at the University of Cambridge, home to the respected Scott Polar Research Institute.


Analysis of Scott's trip has shown he was let down badly by his choice of transport: motors, dogs and horses – and eventually, five exhausted men walking.

Today, snowshoes or skis are the norm for travel by foot (most expeditions to the South Pole are by ski), while for short distances snow mobiles and bulldozers are used. A handful of dog sleds are also run.

In 2005, a team of six travelled in a special six-wheel drive vehicle the 670 miles from Patriot Hills on the Antarctic coast to the South Pole – in just 69 hours.


Scott's tents were basic and the floors were not snow-tight. The men slept in sleeping bags made from reindeer fur, which while warm, did not dry out.

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Explorers today sleep in tents of hi-tech nylon and aluminium, with zippered doors and plywood floors. More luxurious polar treks even provide bed linen and mattresses, and a dining tent where tired trekkers can sip wine of an evening.

Patriot Hills, a private base camp, has a heated mess hall. Most tourists, however, stay on their cruise ships - although on the smaller ones, horror of horrors, they may have to share a bathroom.


When Scott arrived in Antarctica for his second expedition, the continent was almost untouched by humans. The ecology of Antarctica is now widely debated, not least because of the discovery by the British Antarctic Survey in 1975 of an ozone hole above the continent. This led to the realisation that there was a dangerous thinning of the ozone layer worldwide.

In the past, some research stations have been criticised for their lack of environmental awareness, but over the past ten years attitudes have changed dramatically. Today, the Antarctic Treaty and its accompanying amendments call for continuous assessment, using monitoring tools to minimise human impacts on fragile ecosystems.

Only a limited number of transport movements can take place in Antarctica, and tourism firms are bound by strict rules to safeguard this unique environment.