Fate, sacrifice and death in an unbearable cold. The discovery of the sixth continent. Two leaders and two countries in a fierce competition. “For God’s sake look after our people”.

The story of the race to the South Pole has evoked strong emotions over the past century. Heroism and scientific endeavour, tragedy and patriotic pride play together and have made the Antarctic expedition of the British Royal Navy Captain Robert Falcon Scott into a legend.

The Terra Nova expedition – named after Scott’s ship – celebrates its centenary this winter.

In September 1911, Scott and sixteen men set out from their Antarctic base camp to reach the South Pole; on 17 January 1912, Scott and four companions, after having parted from the group, reached the South Pole – one month after the Norwegian Polar explorer Ronald Amundsen. At the end of March 1912, Scott and his men died of cold and exhaustion, only a day’s walk away from their next food depot.

One of the last photos of Scott's (centre back) final expedition team

Having been both celebrated as a hero and deemed an incompetent leader, it is now time to take a fresh look at Scott and his expedition. Scott’s last diary entry ends with the sentence: “For God’s sake look after our people” – what else can we gain from looking at the happenings other than the upwelling of strong emotions?

Failure, it often seems, can be attributed to factors that fall into the categories of circumstances or competence. The Terra Nova expedition, however, was “a fatal combination of circumstances”, as Heather Lane, librarian and keeper of collections at the Scott Polar Research Institute puts it. Most researchers nowadays agree that what made Scott fail was beyond his control; but the nagging “what if” question nevertheless remains.

Take their diet as an example. “We now think that each man consumed between 3000 to 4000 calories too little every day, as moving at an altitude of 3000m consumes more energy than being at sea level,” Ms Lane explains. Scott simply could not have known this in advance, as no one else had been on that territory before.

What if Scott had calculated food rations more generously?

However, unlike Amundsen’s team which had their sledges pulled by dogs, Scott and his men mostly moved the sledges themselves. Scott wanted to save the dogs for scientific explorations after their return from the Pole.

What if Scott had abandoned his scientific interest in favour of the security of more dogs?

“If anything, the fact that Amundsen was first had an impact on their morale,” Ms Lane thinks. “Maybe they would otherwise have moved just a bit faster on their way back, and reached safety before complete exhaustion.”  Surely, Scott had broader objectives than being the first on the South Pole. He wanted to contribute to science, and did not move particularly fast towards the South. Instead, he stopped to map and take probes.

What if Amundsen had not been first?

For Scott, polar expeditions were jobs that would benefit his career in the navy. For Amundsen, the only thing that counted was being first on the Pole – any Pole.

Initially, his expedition was headed for the North Pole. While he was preparing it, however, two American explorers, Frederick Cook and Robert Peary, announced to have been the first men on the North Pole in 1909. Amundsen quickly decided to go south instead. It was only once he was on the sea, that he made his changed plans public to his backers – and to Scott. As Heather Lane puts it: “It was only when Amundsen landed on the continent that it became a race.”

What if Amundsen had not changed his plans?

Scott’s return from the South Pole was exacerbated by bad luck. He faced the worst weather in a hundred years. Enduring temperatures of up to –50°C, they had 850 miles to cover until they would reach their winter camp. Getting weaker and weaker, they realised that the fuel they had left at their depots at 100-mile intervals had largely evaporated. “This meant no hot meals, no heating for the tents, and no melted water,” Ms Lane explains.

What if they had stored the fuel in another material?

Two of Scott’s men had already died. One of them, barely able to walk, had left the tent one morning with the words: “I am just going outside and I may be some time.” He never returned.

About a day’s walk from the next depot, the remaining three men were halted by a fierce blizzard. It is now known to have been the worst in a hundred years. Unable to continue the journey, they wrote farewell letters. Scott’s diary ends on 29 March 1912 with the words: “For God’s sake look after our people.”

Undeniably, this story is moving. Imagining freezing to death in a tent makes us shiver. It also tells a tale about human sacrifice and heroism. When the news about the expedition spread to the public in pre-WWI Britain, Scott became the hero people needed.

During the war, film clips of Scott were shown to soldiers. This practice was continued during the Second World War. His reputation, however, shifted after the publication of Roland Huntford’s 1979 biography, “Scott and Amundsen”, in which he blamed the former of bad leadership – rightly?

“All the quotes were taken out of context,” Ms Lane defends Scott. “Reading the entire diaries from his men it becomes clear that they liked him, and thought he was competent.”

Does it actually matter whether circumstances or competence played the greater role? If anything, it is a fascinating story that has captured the fantasy and emotions of generations – and created a controversial hero to boot.