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  • Everyone in this photo died soon after it was taken.

  • These are British explorers standing at the South Pole in January 1912.

  • The photo marks the finish line of a race into the unknown.

  • Two teams, one British, one Norwegian, trekked 900 miles into brutal territory and had to get back to safety before winter hit.

  • And at first glance, this looks like a victory photo for the British.

  • Except that is the Norwegian flag.

  • And it only gets worse from here.

  • Robert Falcon Scott was a meticulous planner, and his dream was to be the first person to reach the South Pole.

  • He and his English team of explorers and scientists had been conducting research in Antarctica, and collected years of data on seasonal cycles on the continent.

  • These lines show what they estimated average temperatures would be throughout the year,

  • with summer ranging from around 30 to negative 10 degrees Fahrenheit, and huge drops beginning around April.

  • Remember this chart because later, it will help us understand Scott's decision-making.

  • Scott planned to use pony transport for the first 425 miles across the Ross Ice Shelf, shoot them at the base of the Beardmore Glacier, and finish the rest of the journey on foot.

  • Which included a 125-mile hike across the top of the glacier, 350 more miles to the pole, and all the way back again, all while hauling hundreds of pounds of equipment.

  • Using ponies and brute strength made sense to Scott at the time: British explorers had used this method to haul equipment during an earlier attempt on the South Pole.

  • Plus, the English didn't have experience with the other good option: dog teams.

  • And they believed man-hauling was the surest way to make the tricky climb up the glacier and on to the Polar Plateau, where the South Pole sits.

  • It was hard, slow work, but the route they were on had reached the plateau before, and it seemed to be worth the effort.

  • But Scott's team wasn't alone.

  • Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen was camped nearby, and he wanted to get to the pole first.

  • The Norwegian team, all of them expert skiers, knew how to travel in cold conditions.

  • And to make matters worse for the English, Amundsen had dogsand he knew how to use them.

  • News of the Norwegians' last-minute bid worried Scott, but he was still optimistic.

  • Amundsen had started about 60 miles closer to the pole but was taking a route not yet proven to be passable.

  • Coming against an unknown obstacle or falling into an unmarked crevasse could end his attempt prematurely.

  • But that's not how it happened.

  • By the time Scott reached his goal, Amundsen's flag was there waiting for him.

  • The Norwegians and their dogs had comfortably reached the pole five weeks earlier, and were almost back to their starting point by the time the English arrived.

  • Scott and his team were heartbroken.

  • They took this photo outside of Amundsen's tent the day they started their long journey back.

  • Scott wrote: "Left a note to say I had visited the tent with companions. Bowers photographing and Wilson sketching.

  • We have turned our back now on the goal of our ambition and must face our 800 miles of solid draggingand good-bye to most of the daydreams!"

  • This is where the trouble really begins.

  • It's mid-January in this photostill the height of the Antarctic summer. Told you this chart was coming back.

  • According to their research, the team had about 3 months left before temperatures on the Ross Ice Shelf, the last leg of the journey back, would drop to deadly levels.

  • That left plenty of time to make the long trek on foot.

  • But this isn't what happened in 1912.

  • This is that average line again, and these are the temperatures Scott's party endured that summer: consecutive days of temperatures around minus 40 degrees Fahrenheit.

  • Those conditions, at prolonged exposure, are not survivable.

  • The first man died herehe collapsed and soon went comatose following several falls on the glacier.

  • The next man died about a month later, after crippling frostbite in his hands and feet began hurting the team's progress and their chances of survival.

  • Nearly unable to walk, he left the tent and sacrificed himself to a snowstorm.

  • The last three, including Scott, made it here before getting trapped in their tent by a blizzard, just 11 miles from the supply depot that would have saved their lives.

  • The tent, along with the bodies, journals, and photographs, was found 8 months later by a search team.

  • As time went on, Scott's legacy vacillated between fearless explorer and bumbling fool who tried to take ponies into the Antarctic.

  • But the thing is, his plan should have worked.

  • Measurements from modern weather stations along his route show the predictions he was relying on were impressively accurate.

  • What Scott couldn't have known is that 1912 was an anomalythe temperatures his party suffered through occur roughly once every 15 years, turning an already risky venture into a hopeless one.

  • The photo they took outside of Amundsen's tent was meant to be a gentlemanly admission of defeat at the end of a long race.

  • But instead, it was the starting line of a race they didn't see coming: a desperate attempt to escape from the coldest place on Earth.

  • Darkroom is a new series I'm working on where each episode tells a story based around a single photograph.

  • Here's a quick look at some upcoming episodes.

  • And you should also check out our new YouTube membership program, the Video Lab.

  • For a monthly fee, subscribers get access to tons of special features.

  • I'll be sharing stuff there that I come across while making Darkroom, so if you're interested, head on over to Vox.com/join and sign up.

  • See you there.

Everyone in this photo died soon after it was taken.

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The deadly race to the South Pole

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    Jeff Chiao posted on 2022/02/20
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