On December 9, 1911, five ponies stood in a group at the foot of a glacier, less than five hundred miles from the South Pole. They had come from the far north, from Siberia and Manchuria. They had traveled nearly the whole length of the world to reach that spot. No pony — and only a handful of men — had ever been farther south.
At about 10’clock that night, with the sun swinging low in the sky, a soldier loaded his pistol and shot the ponies one by one.
Among them, perhaps the last to die, was a white pony named James Pigg.
We know that he was born in Asia, though no one can say exactly where or when. It’s not clear how he ended up at a horse fair in China. But there he was bought by an Englishman who was outfitting an expedition to the South Pole. Along with eighteen others pony – all white as snow– James Pigg was shipped south to New Zealand in the summer of 1910.
The ponies were landed at Quail Island, a quarantine station in Lyttelton Harbour. Their stables can still be seen, preserved by the government of New Zealand as an historical site.
In the southern hemisphere, it was already spring. The ponies had gone straight from the end of one summer to the beginning another. But they practiced for winter work, learning to haul sledges. They drags logs back and forth on the sandy beaches of Quail Island.
In late October of 1910, a ship called Terra Nova arrived at the island. It had the masts and the sails of a frigate. But in the hull was a steam engine that burned three tons of coal an hour, turning a good part of it into black smoke that belched from a tall, thin funnel.
The Terra Nova picked up the ponies and carried them off to Antarctica, across the world’s most stormy ocean. The ship nearly sank in enormous waves.
It rolled so badly that two of the ponies were battered to death in the stalls. Their bodies were cast to the sea. The seventeen others, without enough space to lie down or turn around, stayed on their feet for 39 days as the Terra Nova forced a path to the south. The ice floes were heavy that year, and there were days when the ship moved ahead by mere inches. On the fourth of January, 1911, the seventeen surviving ponies were unloaded at Ross Island, below a smoking volcano called Mt. Erebus.
The ship discharged tons of supplies, a fleet of sledges, and a pack of dogs. Then it sailed away, leaving all of that and the thirty-four men of the British Antarctic Expedition.
The leader of the expedition was Robert Falcon Scott, a navy captain determined to be the first man to reach the South Pole. In charge of the ponies was an army, Captain Lawrence “Titus” Oates, who had traveled even farther than the ponies for the honor of serving with Scott.
It was the height of the southern summer. But all around was a world of snow and ice. There were floes along the shore. Beyond them was a floating glacier towering a hundred feet above the sea, a great shelf of ice bigger than many countries. Known as “The Barrier,” it was laced with crevasses, with ridges of ice, and waves of snow that were swept along by endless blizzards. There was not a single tree on that snowy wasteland. There was not even a blade of grass. Only at the edge of the Barrier could anything stay alive. Penguins ate fish, and seals ate penguins, and killer whales ate seals, and flocks of black birds picked over the remains.
There, Captain Scott built a hut for the men, a stable for the ponies. He built the stable out of straw, and heated it with a stove that burned the blubber of seals.
Four hundred miles to the east, a group of Norwegians led by Roald Amundsen was setting up its own camp on the edge of the Barrier. They knew the Englishmen were somewhere nearby, and the Englishmen knew of them. And each was aware that a race to the Pole had begun.
But it would not be that year. It was a thousand miles from the sea to the Pole, too far for the explorers to travel on the food they could carry. They had to plant depots along the way, caches of food and supplies that would support their polar parties the following year. Amundsen used teams of dogs to do the work. Scott picked out seven of his ponies, including three of the worst.
Among the worst ponies was James Pigg. No one believed he could work very hard, or last very long, least of all Captain Oates. Only one man had faith in the little pony: Patrick Keohane, an Irish sailor. It was Keohane’s duty to lead James Pigg across the snowy Barrier.
James Pigg surprised the men with his determination and his strength. He went lame very early in the trek. But he had recovered, and tried his best to keep up with the others. He was quiet and gentle, not a fighter like some, not as stubborn as others. And so he became the pet of the expedition, rewarded with many treats of biscuits and oil cakes.
Captain Scott had set a goal of reaching 80 degrees south latitude, meaning to plant a hundred tons of supplies there. But the weather was atrocious. The ponies bogged down in deep snow, and they froze in the blizzards that howled across the Barrier. When he saw that they were dying, Scott abandoned his goal, falling short by thirty miles. He buried his supplies and turned back to the hut, racing the ponies to safety.
Two of them dropped in their traces, dying of cold and exhaustion. Three others fell through the ice as they crossed the floes along shore, on the last days of their journey. But Patrick Keohane led his pony on, and Mt. Erebus towered slowly up in front of them.
Then, with only a few miles to go, James Pigg fell into a crevasse. He broke through the layers of fresh snow and plummeted down, into a crack through the ice a hundred feet deep.
All that saved him were the biscuits. James Pigg had become so fat that his belly jammed in the crevasse. He stuck there, his legs dangling down into blue darkness. The men got a rope around him, and hauled him out. And a few days later, James Pigg trekked down the last little slope and into his stable made of straw.
Winter lasted for months. The men watched the sun go down before the middle of May, and they didn’t see it again until nearly the end of August. But the aurora flared through the sky, and the ponies were taken out for daily exercise in temperatures to sixty below.
As spring returned, Scott prepared for his trek to the Pole. He left on the 26th of October, terrified that the Norwegians were already ahead of him. It was a small army that he led, equipped with two motors sledges, two teams of dogs, and ten ponies, including James Pigg.
The motor sledges didn’t last very long. Both were abandoned on the Barrier. The men pressed on with their ponies and dogs.
Not all of the men understood what Scott had in mind. His ponies were not just the haulers of sledges. They were dog food as well. As each sled was emptied of its supplies, the pony that pulled it was shot, butchered on the ice, and fed to the dogs. Scott selected the ponies, choosing first the weakest and smallest. But he always passed over James Pigg.
On December 9, the last five ponies stood at the edge of the Barrier. They had come four hundred miles across that huge expanse of snow and ice, pulling thousands of pounds of supplies. But they couldn’t climb through the mountains ahead, up to the Polar Plateau that stretched on to the Pole, still nearly five hundred miles away.
The men who had walked with those five ponies stood by them now. One by one, they gave up their charges to Captain Oates, who led each pony away from the camp. His gunshots echoed back from the mountains. Scott kept meticulous journals of the entire expedition. But he made only one brief note about the shooting of the ponies, and did not record the order of their deaths.
Scott sent the dogs back next. From the top of the mountains, on the Polar Plateau, most of the men followed. Only Scott, Oates, and three others kept marching, all harnessed to one sled.
They arrived at the Pole on January 16, only to find they had been beaten by the Norwegians.A tent and a black flag stood flapping at the Pole. The men took photographs of themselves, then turned around and started back. They had a thousand miles to travel.
Winter was coming quickly. Supplies were short. Scott again encountered weather far worse than he’d bargained for. He and his men suffered from frostbite and hunger. But all of them made it down from the Plateau, past the place where the ponies had been shot. Then one collapsed and died. And another – Captain Oates – the most frost-bitten of all, wandered away to his death in a blizzard, so as not to slow the others down. But his gallant gesture didn’t help. Scott and his last two companions froze to death in their tent.
They were eleven miles from a depot stuffed with food and cooking fuel.
They had struggled past the line of 80 degrees, where Scott had planned to build his depot. If he had pushed his ponies harder in the first year, he would have survived to tell his tale. He had gambled his safety against the lives of James Pigg and the other ponies. And he had lost.
The ponies had given their lives for Scott. And he gave up his own for their comfort.