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  • Writer's pictured. i. richardson

Hereabout Lies A Gallant Gentleman

The world was awash in slanted light. The midnight sun beamed from every direction, catching the glint of a million snowflakes, swirling in the frigid air. Five British men wandered into the icy depths in pursuit of being the first men to ever set eyes and foot on the southernmost pole of this planet Earth.


Draped in winter garb so thick as to restrict movement, boots that crunch the snow with every step taken. The air rushes by, whistling in the emptiness. "To be first," the men cheered, "is our destiny." The cold bit their tongues when they spoke. "To go where no man has gone," they said, "is our destiny." The ice built up along their lashes and beards. The breath swirled back into their mouths in hurried fervor to escape the chill.


The day was January 17 of that good year 1912.


The men reached their destination through the icy wasteland. The south pole approached. Or rather, these men approached it. With unrelenting determination as their destination grew near, the men were certain they had made it. The bottom of the world. The first men to reach the southern pole.


Except... they were not the first men to reach this feat.


Upon their arrival, they are greeted by the remnants of Polheim. They had been beaten by a Norwegian expedition by just 34 days. The black flag of another expedition team was swaying in the breeze above them.


One of the five men remarked, "The Pole. Yes, but under very different circumstances from those expected. Great God! This is an awful place and terrible enough for us to have laboured to it without the reward of priority. Well, it is something to have got here."


"Here, here!" And the men adjourned their journey. It was time to begin a tiresome trek back to the base camp, defeated and dismayed.


Another one of the men spoke, "Now for a desperate struggle to get the news through first. I wonder if we can do it."


"That's not a bad idea," the first man said, wondering now if they could be close enough behind the other expedition to win the race back home.


For three weeks at great speed, having made excellent marches, the fatigue and wear of this unforgiving wasteland began to creep into the party of men. The leader of this expedition began to worry about this more and more, especially the condition of one man with severe frostbite.


One man, Oates, had gangrene and frostbite developing on his feet, and this became a growing cause of concern for the expeditionary men. During a descent from a summit and a break during a resting period, the men took stock of their growing list of ailments. Another man began to have issues with a hand injury and frostbite. Head injuries from slipping on ice became a concern for some men. One man, Evans, collapsed and died on the 17th of February, just a month after making it to the South Pole.


The men, now nearing a depot of food, pressed forward. The men were ahead of schedule still and found themselves doubting if they would make it there at all.


The men were met with a shortage of supplies in the depot, no dog-sled team for rescue, and a sudden, severe drop in the temperature. If the world was inhospitable prior, it was now to such a point that a word has not been invented to describe it. The air became vicious and indifferent to the men's poor, meager will to live. The air became cold enough to affect the snow piled on the ground, turning it to wooly fluff that was hard to walk over, causing the men to struggle with yet another obstacle.


Oates' foot continued to grow worse. And he knew this too. They all did. Each of the four remaining men had the thought in their minds.


The captain had written that the men were nearly there. Had the men missed the teams? Overshot the meeting place? The men rested in their tents on this night.


Oates stood up and took a breath before he spoke, "I am just going outside and may be some time."


The man stepped into the storm and fastened the tent behind him. The blur of his silhouette quickly fading in the storm that swallowed him whole. The man weakly stepped forward into the great snowy wasteland.


The world blurred around him. The cold bit down to his bones. The pain in his foot and hands like nothing he had ever experienced before. So much cold and warmth all at once. He may have closed his eyes and walked gently into that good night. The man had acknowledged his ailments were slowing his team too much for them to make it back home safely.


We may wonder what his last thoughts were as he walked, freezing to death in the cold, cold hellscape of Antarctica. Were his last thoughts of home? Did he think about, in those frozen moments, the last time he felt the warmth of someone's embrace? Did he think about the last time his mother had made him soup? Or his father had lit the fireplace in their living room during the winters? Did he flood his mind with thoughts of his lovely wife, waiting for him to return, wishing he could have felt her hand brush his cheek one last time as he collapsed into the snowy heaps surrounding him? Did he lie on his back to make peace with an unforgiving sky, a God no longer watching him?


"God," he whispered, "if not me, at least let the others make it."


Perhaps he took one last breath and fell asleep.


And for a moment, if only brief, perhaps he felt peace.


A gallant gentleman, who had sacrificed himself in a desperate plea to save the lives of three more men.


The men in the tent realized Oates' intent and did not protest sharply. Perhaps due to their understanding or because of their fatigue. "We knew," the captain had written, "we tried to dissuade him, but we knew."


These three men marched for 20 more miles before they settled in. Their progress had been halted by a most fierce blizzard. The men, too weak and too cold, became trapped in their tents just 11 miles from their destination. Their tired bodies aching and freezing in the harsh winds. These three men who had a life given to save theirs perished just days later. Their frozen remains left in place to be found by a search party.


Oates' body was never found, likely buried by the dunes of snow.



There is a spot in the Antarctic where the body of Laurence Oates lies. A place where he had his last thoughts. The harrowing story of Oates and his ultimate sacrifice is beautiful to me in a haunting way. The man truly wanted to do what was best to save the lives of his comrades. Not only had the group failed in their desire to be the first to the South Pole, but they failed to be the first to return news, and all five of these men lost their lives as a result of their epic pursuit of the grand and alluring.


Stories like this make me wonder so much about the thoughts behind them in their final hours alone at the bottom of the world. Did they try to make light of it to keep the mood? Did they try to fight it? Did they realize the futility and lay in silence in that sent until one by one the sound of breathing stopped?


While steeped in controversy about who to blame, it is important to remember that these were men still and all of us are fallible. These men still exemplified the human spirit of adventure; the spirit of doing the hard things because they are hard.




as always, have a good wander!

love y'all,

-dr


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