The words conveyed an unmistakable pain, the deep hurt and disappointment of having battled for weeks in the most inhospitable place on Earth, only to be beaten to the ultimate goal.
"Great God!" wrote Robert Falcon Scott as he surveyed the area around the South Pole, "this is a terrible place."
Two days earlier, on January 15, 1912, Scott and his four companions – Edward Wilson, Henry 'Birdie' Bowers, Laurence 'Titus' Oates, and Edgar Evans – were within 30 miles of the Pole, and despite the hardships they had endured, and the difficulties they had experienced, in battling south, Scott's journal conveyed a rare moment of qualified optimism: "It is wonderful to think that two long marches would land us at the Pole," he wrote, before adding ominously that, "it ought to be a certain thing now, and the only appalling possibility the sight of the Norwegian flag forestalling ours."
A Norwegian team led by Roald Amundsen had, of course, done just that, becoming the first humans to reach the Pole a month earlier; on January 16, Scott and companions discovered their defeat, after Bowers spied a black mark ahead of them:
The following day, January 17, they did indeed reach the Pole (or so they believed; based on their measurements it is actually possible they just missed the spot itself), and on the 18th, as they surveyed the area, they came across the tent that Amundsen had erected, complete with note to Scott and a request to convey a letter to Norway's King Haakon. Scott was puzzled by the latter, which Amundsen had left in case he did not return alive. After sitting for a photograph next to their "poor slighted Union Jack," they set out on their journey north.
"I'm afraid the return journey is going to be dreadfully tiring and monotonous," wrote Scott. It would be worse than that.
Evans was the first to deteriorate: as the largest of the men, he needed more nourishment than the others, but had to make do with equal rations. On the journey north, he stumbled and fell a couple of times, and as he became weak and seemingly disillusioned, his declining state was noted with increasing irritation in Scott's journal. On February 17, he fell far back from the others, who, when they eventually turned back to retrieve him, were "shocked at his appearance; he was on his knees with clothing disarranged, hands uncovered and frostbitten, and a wild look in his eyes." Shortly after midnight, he died.
By early March, Oates was troubled with such severe frostbite in his feet that he could barely continue. By March 11, all four remaining men were so weak that Scott ordered Wilson, the team's doctor, to hand out opium tabloids so that each of them could bring things to an end if he so chose. Oates was the first to do so, but in a different manner: on or about the morning of March 16 (Scott, in his journal, is uncertain whether he is writing on the 16th or 17th), Oates, having had enough of his suffering, stood up in the tent, said "I am just going outside and may be some time," and walked off into a raging blizzard. He was never seen again.
By March 19, Scott, Wilson and Bowers had closed to within 11 miles of their final depot. But they would not make it any further. A raging blizzard pinned them in their tent; and on either the 22nd or 23rd, Scott, knowing that death was certain, wrote that they had "decided it shall be natural – we shall march for the depot with or without our effects and die in our tracks."
In the event, they would never leave the tent. Somehow, Scott found the wherewithal to write a series of letters, including to his wife, urging her to take care of their infant son Peter and to "make the boy interested in natural history"; this she did to such good effect that the future Sir Peter Scott founded the Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust and co-founded the World Wildlife Fund.
"Had we lived," Scott wrote on March 28, "I should have a tale to tell of the hardihood, endurance, and courage of my companions which would have stirred the heart of every Englishman."
The next day's entry was his last:
"It seems a pity, but I do not think I can write more.
For God's sake look after our people."
IMAGE: Laurence Oates, H.R. Bowers, Robert F. Scott, Edward A. Wilson and Edgar Evans at the South Pole. (Corbis)