In the depths of winter, the sun never rises in Antarctica. For weeks on end the skies remain dark, inland temperatures plummet to -70˚C and here, on the shores of Ross Island in the McMurdo Sound, the salt waters freeze solid to a depth of 10ft. This is the world’s coldest, highest, most windswept continent and it is brutally unsuited to human habitation. Some 14 months after the picture on the left was taken, five crew members of the ship Terra Nova -- seen here idling in the Sound’s summer waters -- were dead.

At first glance, this celebrated picture by Herbert Ponting conveys nothing of Antarctica’s murderous power. But if you look closely, the impression of a benign winter wonderland is dispelled. The berg in the foreground is in the last stages of decay and the ice floes on which Ponting was standing would have been dangerously unstable. One false step and he would have plunged through the fragile ice crust into the freezing waters.

Ponting was the first official photographer and film-maker to join a polar expedition, and this picture was taken on January 7, 1911, shortly after Robert Falcon Scott’s British Antarctic Expedition had disembarked from the Terra Nova. For seven months, the 34 seamen and ­scientists had journeyed from Cardiff through raging storms and treacherous pack-ice, and now, as Ponting photographed the landscape, they set to the task of ­unloading the ship and constructing their winter quarters at the base they had christened Cape Evans.

Their mission was to be the first in the world to reach the South Pole -- in Scott’s words, “to secure for the British Empire the honour of this achievement”. That the five who made the final push to the pole would be beaten by the Norwegians is the stuff of history, and their terrible return journey -- conducted in the jaws of defeat and ­atrocious weather -- has entered the realms of legend.

At the moment Ponting’s shutter fell, however, the mood at the new camp would have been optimistic. Three years previously, in January 1908, Ernest Shackleton had come within 97 miles of the pole and Scott’s team -- benefiting from hindsight and their predecessors’ mistakes -- would have glowed with optimism. They knew that the Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen was racing them to the pole but their trip had been generously supplied by various benefactors and their route had been painstakingly planned.

For all their high spirits, however, the enormity of their undertaking was becoming apparent. As Ponting worked, two men plunged through the ice and a precious sledge motor sank without trace.

In such inhospitable conditions the ­challenges facing Ponting, who worked with glass plate negatives, were extreme. Even in summer, temperatures rarely rose above freezing -- and, besides the difficulties of transporting chemicals and heavy equipment across the ice, there was the impossibility of operating camera mechanisms while wearing enormous mittens. Frostbitten fingers, and other body parts, were a hazard, as Ponting discovered when he accidentally touched his camera with his tongue. “It froze fast instantaneously,” he said later, “and to release myself I had to jerk it away, leaving the skin at the end of my tongue sticking to my camera.”

These circumstances make Ponting’s technical brilliance all the more extraordinary. His achievement, says the UK’s Royal Photograph Collection curator Sophie Gordon, “was to record the landscape and the life of the expedition with the eye of an artist who was also a member of the team. In telling the story, these pictures have far greater impact than any ­written account. You really feel the grandeur, isolation and sheer power of what these men were up against”.

Perhaps, by showing Antarctica’s ­bewitching beauty, these photographs also help answer one of the most vexing questions associated with polar exploration. What leads people to abandon the security of home and family, and head off into the cruellest, most desolate places on Earth?

Contemporary explorer David ­Hempleman-Adams admits he struggles to explain the attraction. When pressed, he cites a love of adventure, the beauty of those harsh white landscapes and the unique quality of the Antarctic light. The isolation is another factor, and Hempleman-Adams admits that he envies those early pioneers, who travelled with “complete white maps”.

“To have gone into the unknown like that would have been like going to the moon for the first time,” he says. “The astronaut Buzz Aldrin talked of ‘magnificent desolation’, and that’s exactly what the Antarctic is. Coming within sight of the pole for the first time would have been like stepping out of a lunar module”.

For Scott and his team, that journey would have to wait until summer. As winter closed in, the shore party settled into their hut at Camp Evans, where they concentrated on observations, experiments and preparing for the following season’s travails.

Shortly after the midwinter solstice, the team caught a glimpse of the hardships that were in store for them. Unlike Amundsen, whose mission was simply to be first to the pole, Scott also wanted to gather scientific knowledge about this uncharted geographic region. The party’s scientific leader, Edward Wilson, was determined to test a theory that the emperor penguin constituted a vital evolutionary link between dinosaurs and birds, and on June 27 he led a three-man egg-hunting team across the island to the penguins’ colony at Cape Crozier. The winter departure -- timed to a crucial point in the birds’ egg-laying cycle -- meant trekking 67 miles in darkness at temperatures down to -60˚C. For five weeks, Wilson, Henry Bowers and Apsley Cherry-Garrard endured cold so intense that their teeth shattered, their balaclavas were soldered to their heads with ice, and they suffered agonising frostbite and frozen blisters. ­“Sometimes,” wrote Cherry-Garrard, “it was difficult not to howl.”

Amazingly, they returned to camp alive and bearing three eggs, which Cherry-Garrard would one day deliver to London’s Natural History Museum, unbelievably attracting the ire of a grumpy custodian who snapped: “What do you want? This ain’t an egg shop.” As for Wilson and Bowers, they would never make it home to the UK. For they had been selected, along with Lawrence “Titus” Oates and Edgar Evans, to accompany Scott on his final trek to the South Pole.

The expedition started later than intended, on November 1, chiefly because Scott was determined to use ponies for transportation and had been advised they wouldn’t survive an earlier journey. As a result, Amundsen -- who had departed with his dog teams on October 20 from a base camp closer to the pole -- already had a clear advantage. And, disastrously, Scott’s ponies proved hopelessly ill-suited to pulling sledges through snow. On December 9, the last of the exhausted animals was shot and the team began to manhaul their provisions up the 100-mile ascent of the Beardmore Glacier, which Shackleton had pioneered as a route to the pole.

On January 9 they passed Shackleton’s “furthest south” and must have felt confident of reaching their goal. Eight days later, however, Scott’s diary recorded the following: “The worst has happened … About the second hour of the march, Bowers’s sharp eyes detected what he thought was a cairn … Half an hour later he detected a black speck ahead. Soon we knew that this could be no natural feature. We marched on, found that it was a black flag tied to a sledge bearer; nearby were the remains of a camp … This told us the whole story. The Norwegians have forestalled us and are first at the Pole.”

That, says David Hempleman-Adams, was the moment those men died.

The following day, the bitterly disappointed explorers went through the motions of pitching their flag on a spot they calculated to be the South Pole. Bowers recorded the moment using photographic techniques learned from Herbert Ponting, and the result is one of the most haunting photographs ever taken.

Although lacking the technical brilliance of Ponting’s images, Bowers’s shot is perhaps the most affecting of the pictures that will go on display in Edinburgh next month, as part of an exhibition of Antarctic photography called The Heart of the Great Alone. It is, says curator Sophie Gordon, almost unbearably sad. “Knowing what they went through to get to this point, it’s heartbreaking to think of them gradually coming to the realisation that Amundsen had got there before them.

Yet they all sat down in a group in front of the flag and took the picture that says, ‘We made it.’ Their faces show that they were utterly psychologically defeated. But still, they wanted to show the world that yes, they got there.”

Had Scott succeeded in winning the race to the pole, Hempleman-Adams is convinced that this picture would have been very ­different -- and so would the party’s chances of survival. “In Amundsen’s photographs,” he says, “they are all smiling and slapping each other on the back. There was none of that for Scott and his party. Theirs is a picture of complete dejection. And I am 100% convinced that if they hadn’t suffered the blow of ­witnessing the Norwegians’ flag, they would have made it back.”

As it was, the return journey was one of the most desperate ever attempted. The weather was unseasonably bad and the surface conditions atrocious. On February 17, “a very ­terrible day”, as Scott recorded, Evans, who had been injured in a crevasse fall, succumbed quietly to cold and fatigue. Oates, meanwhile, was suffering appalling frostbite. “Poor Titus Oates said he couldn’t go on,” wrote Scott on March 17. “He proposed we should leave him in his sleeping bag. That we couldn’t do.” The following day (or perhaps the one after; the diary-keeping was becoming muddled), Scott recorded one of the most famous exits in history, as Oates took his fate in his own hands: “He went out into the blizzard, and we have not seen him since.”

On March 29, 11 miles short of their depot and salvation, a starving, frostbitten Scott made his final diary entry. “Outside the door of the tent it remains a scene of whirling drift. I do not think we can hope for any better things now. We shall stick it out to the end, but we are getting weaker, and the end cannot be far. It seems a pity, but I do not think I can write more.”

The three men’s frozen bodies -- along with Scott’s diaries and the negatives bearing witness to their arrival at the pole -- were discovered in their tent eight months later. When news of their deaths reached Britain

in February 1913, the shock was compounded by the fact that Ponting’s film footage of the expedition’s early days had recently been shown for the first time. “People had been seeing Scott alive, happy, healthy, being the great leader,” says Sophie Gordon. “And then this shocking news. Reconciling these two very different pictures was really upsetting to the public.”


Ponting’s Antarctic photographs were exhibited in London the following December and the photographer -- whose later work never surpassed his Terra Nova portfolio -- made it his life’s mission to honour his dead colleagues by disseminating the images that portrayed their achievements.

Less palatable to 21st-century sensibilities, perhaps, is King George V’s expressed desire that the pictures be shown to “every British boy” in order to “promote the spirit of adventure that had made the Empire”. Nor is it easy to stomach the appropriation of Ponting’s film footage for First World War propaganda, as British troops were urged to adopt the spirit of self-sacrifice attributed to Titus Oates.

In recent years the Boy’s Own Adventure-style admiration for Scott’s Empire-advancing achievements has given way to a brand of sneering, mocking revisionism, as Monty Python comedy sketch-writers lampooned his pomposity and ridiculed his errors of ­judgment. But a century after the British Antarctic Expedition was first announced, David Hempleman-Adams thinks it is time Scott’s “magnificent” feat was recognised. “The pressure on him to succeed was enormous,” he reminds us. “And it’s very wrong to compare him with Amundsen. For me, Scott’s abiding legacy was to show that there’s no such thing as failure. These guys achieved their goal. OK, they didn’t get there first, but that’s not a failure. The person who fails is the person who wants to do something but never goes out there and tries.”

Today, the world’s polar landscapes are in a state of flux. The Antarctic ice is melting and by 2100 the population of emperor penguins -- whose eggs Wilson’s party went through hell to retrieve -- could be reduced by 95%, from 400,000 to around 20,000, creating havoc with the area’s food chain. At the other end of the globe, the polar bear is threatened with ­extinction and the scramble for Arctic mineral resources could devastate that region’s ecological balance. By opening up those uncharted territories, did Scott and his contemporaries pave the way for their destruction?

Explorer Richard Sale, author of The ­Scramble for the Arctic, agrees that, unwittingly, Scott and his contemporaries may have “opened the door” to the greedy speculators who have since exploited the lands. “Polar exploration,” he says, “represents a pinnacle of what it is to be human -- the desire to explore, to reach the next Everest, the next South Pole. But behind the people who have that wonderful ethic, there are others who are just seeking to make a few bob. And in the end, they always win.”

Herbert Ponting’s photographs offer a window into a gentler era, and in Edinburgh next month the works will be shown exactly as the photographer intended them to be seen: as huge, beautiful prints that reveal the raw splendour of Antarctica and the bold but ­fragile humanity of the men who risked everything to reach its frozen heart.

Alongside the pictures will be the flag that was found in Scott’s tent. Preparing it for the exhibition was, says Sophie Gordon, almost like handling a sacred relic. “On one level,” she says, “it’s just a piece of fabric.” But that piece of cloth was carried for 800 miles across the world’s most treacherous terrain. And when visitors see it, Gordon hopes they will get a peculiar feeling in the pit of their stomachs. For they will be looking at an object that once flew at the very end of the Earth.


The Heart of the Great Alone: Scott, Shackleton and Antarctic Photography

opens at the Queen’s Gallery, Palace of Holyroodhouse, on October 2. For more information visit

A book accompanying the exhibition, with commentary by Sophie Gordon and David Hempleman-Adams, is published by Royal Collections Publications. Richard Sale’s book, The Scramble for the Arctic, will be published by Frances Lincoln Ltd in November.