March 16th 1912: Lawrence Oates dies

On this day in 1912 Lawrence Oates, a member of Robert Falcon Scott’s British team to the South Pole, left his tent never to be seen again. Scott’s Terra Nova Expedition was his second attempt and aimed to become the first group to reach the South Pole. The group succeeded in reaching the Pole on January 17th 1912, only to discover that they had been beaten by Roald Amundsen’s Norwegian expedition. Sadly, Scott’s entire party of five men died on the return journey. Oates was one of those who died first. He was suffering from severe frostbite and, in an apparent act of self-sacrifice, simply walked out of his tent into a blizzard. He had asked them to leave him behind as his condition worsened, and it is likely he felt that he was holding his group back and limiting their chances for survival. Thus on March 16th he walked out of the tent saying: “I am just going outside and may be some time.” The others died soon after and their bodies were found by a search party in November, along with some of their equipment and personal effects. Oates’s body was never found, but he and his companions are remembered as brave men and national heroes.

“We knew that poor Oates was walking to his death, but though we tried to dissuade him, we knew it was the act of a brave man and an English gentleman.
- Entry in Scott’s diary about Oates


Curious Fact of the Week: Shackleton’s Whiskey Cache

Ernest Shackleton’s stash of hundred-year-old booze was discovered buried in the ice under the explorer’s Antarctic base camp.

In January 2010 workers from the New Zealand Antarctic Heritage Trust successfully extracted the cases from the ice and now one of them is being slowly thawed to see if the whisky can be saved.

The hut served as the base of operations for the British 1907-1909 Nimrod Expedition, an early attempt in the race to the geographic South Pole led by a young Ernest Shackleton.

Upon leaving Antarctica to go back home, Shackleton wrote:

“We all turned out to give three cheers and to take a last look at the place where we had spent so many happy days. The hut was not exactly a palatial residence … but, on the other hand, it had been our home for a year that would always live in our memories…. We watched the little hut fade away in the distance with feelings almost of sadness, and there were few men aboard who did not cherish a hope that some day they would once more live strenuous days under the shadow of mighty Erebus.”

Shackleton was knighted upon his return to England. Five years later he made his most famous attempt at the pole. The Endurance Expedition, in which his ship became trapped and sunk in ice, was another technical failure, but an epic success story of survival against all odds.

For the full version of Shackleton’s lesser-known expedition to the South Pole, keep reading on Atlas Obscura…


Staff Pick of the Week

This week, Anna chose three small books about polar exploration published by the USSR for the 1939 New York World’s Fair. These books celebrate the first-ever manned drifting ice station, which began operations in May of 1937 near the North Pole and ended in February of 1938 when the ice floe broke up near the coast of Greenland. The station provided valuable information about the arctic region, including meteorological observations, ocean depth soundings, wildlife observations, and more. The expedition organizer, Otto Schmidt, and the four explorer/scientists who stayed on the ice floe, Ivan Papanin, Pyotr Shirshov, Yevgeny Fyodorov, and Ernst Krenkel, were all awarded the title Hero of the Soviet Union.

Each of the books takes a slightly different approach to discussing the expedition, which might have made them appeal to a larger audience at the World’s Fair. The Conquest of the Arctic is the most text-heavy and establishes the USSR’s work in the Arctic as part of the larger scientific, economic, and cultural progress of the global community. Scientific Work of Our Polar Expedition, as you might guess, focuses on the expedition’s scientific observations but is not overly technical and includes a fair number of illustrations showing the scientists at work. Camping at the Pole is the shortest and most heavily illustrated of the three books. It focuses on the preparations for the expedition and the explorers’ daily lives while they were on the ice floe.

The three books can be found in the catalog as follows:


Welcome to Polar Week 2014 on Atlas Obscura

This week is Polar Week at Atlas Obscura! We’ll be celebrating all things Arctic and Antarctic, from the North to South Pole, through curious stories and fascinating locales. If you are in certain parts of the world you may already feel like you’re in an ice kingdom, so grab a warm drink and join us for tales of two of the frigid extremes of our planet.

Have any tips for Polar Week? Drop us a line by email or Twitter with the hashtag #PolarWeek, or join in the frozen fun on FacebookGoogle+, and Kinja!

In the meantime, visit some of our favorite polar places, plus more of Frank Hurley’s stunning photographs from Shackleton’s expedition to Antarctica…

(Images courtesy the State Library of New South Wales)


When Neil Armstrong and Edmund Hillary Took a Trip to the North Pole

It sounds like the plot of a comic book — Sir Edmund Hillary and Neil Armstrong at the North Pole — but in fact it was one of those spectacular crossroads of history. In the lonely, desolate arctic, these two great explorers — who had never met before — got in a tiny bush plane and took off for the top of the Earth in 1985. Here’s how it happened.

One morning in the mid–1980s, professional expedition leader Mike Dunn decided he wanted to take the day’s greatest explorers to the North Pole. According to Sir Edmund Hillary’s son Peter, himself an accomplished mountaineer who came on the trip, Dunn was a colorful character, the kind of man who didn’t mind ringing up people like first man on the moon Neil Armstrong and saying, “How about this?” 

Hillary, legendary for being the first to scale Mount Everest with teammate Tenzing Norgay, was on board, and Armstrong was, too, saying he was curious to see what the North Pole looked like from ground level, as he’d only seen it from the moon. Astronaut problems.

The party also included Steve Fosset — the first man to fly a balloon around the world — and Patrick Morrow — the first person to climb the highest peaks of all seven continents. 

Read the complete tale of how Armstrong/Hillary North Pole expedition played out, over on Atlas Obscura…

“Sea Leopard Chasing Emperor Penguins”

Edward A. Wilson accompanied Ernest Shackleton to the Antarctic in 1902. Together they produced an illustrated newspaper, The South Polar Times , which reported the expedition’s scientific discoveries. Wilson died in 1912 while returning from another South Pole expedition.

Wilson’s illustration from 1902 is a part of the Gerald F. Fitzgerald Collection of Polar Books, Maps, and Art at the Newberry.