“I May Be a While”

Talk about taking one for the team. On March 16, 1912 Lawrence “Titus” Oates, suffering from an illness and worried he might slow down his fellow explorers on an Arctic expedition, stepped out of his tent and was never seen again, dying (one presumes) a day before his 32 birthday.

Oates was born in London on March 17,1880; his uncle, Frank Oates, was a naturalist and African explorer. When he was 18, Titus joined the West Yorkshire Regiment and saw military service during the Second Boer War. He was promoted to Captain in 1906.

In 1910, he applied to join Robert Falcon Scott’s expedition to the South Pole and was accepted. His job was to look after the ponies that would be used on the first half of the trip for sledge hauling. He was eventually chosen as one of the five-man party who would travel all the way to the Pole.

Titus and Scott didn’t really get along and disagreed on numerous issues regarding the expedition. Titus, in fact, admitted to “dislike[ing] Scott intensely” and said he would “chuck the whole thing if it were not that we are a British expedition.” Patriotism won out, and Oats, Scott, and 14 others set out from their base camp at Cape Evans on November 1, 1911. At various points, members were sent back until only five remained to walk the last 167 miles. On January 18, they reached the Pole, only to find a tent belonging to Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen and his team, which had beat the Scott expedition by just 35 days. Bummer.

The weather made the return trip hell, and the poor food supplies, injuries from falls, and effects of scurvy and frostbite didn’t help. The first of the five-man team, Edgar Evans, died on February 17, possibly from a blow to the head from falling into a crevasse a few days earlier. Oates was weakening too, suffering from severely frostbitten feet. He was making slow progress, and the rest of the team was unwilling to just leave him, so they started falling behind schedule, which made the food situation more dire, since they weren’t reaching food drops when they were supposed to. On March 15, Oates told his companions to just leave him, which they refused to do. He realized he was going to have to take matters more fully into his own hands.

On March 16, Oates stepped outside the tent with the immortal words: “I am just going outside and may be some time.” He walked out into a blizzard and -40 degree weather, never to be seen again. In his diary, Scott admitted they all knew what Oates was doing, and that they tried to dissuade him, but it was no good. “We knew it was the act of a brave man and an English gentleman,” he wrote. Tragically, Oates’s sacrifice did not save the rest of his team. The remaining three were trapped by a blizzard on March 20 and died nine days later. Their bodies were found, frozen, on November 12. Oates’s body was never found.

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