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Powering the Adventure Revolution

Captain Scott took cocaine to the South Pole and may have succeeded if he'd had a modern understanding of nutrition

EC CommunityJames HipkissComment

Both Scott and Shackleton took cocaine pills with them on their expeditions to the south pole, the pills were to be used for medicinal purposes to help them get through long treks. A poorer understanding of the drugs side effects led to the belief that cocaine would be effective in reducing fatigue. Lewis Halsey, a nutrition expert and Mike Stroud, a doctor and polar explorer have conducted an analysis into the diet and energy expenditure of Captain Robert Falcon Scott's Ill fated South Pole expedition.

Scott led a party of five which reached the South Pole on 17 January 1912, only to find that they had been preceded by Roald Amundsen's Norwegian expedition. On their return journey, Scott and his four comrades Edward Wilson, Henry Bowers, Lawrence Oates and Edgar Evansall perished. Their findings suggest that Scott was on a starvation diet. The team's rations consisted of biscuits, butter, sugar, chocolate, cocoa, cereals, raisins and ground meat mixed with fat - known as pemmican. This almost certainly lacked sufficient fat which is vital to generate energy, contributing to a slow trek towards starvation which ultimately resulted in Scott's vital organs being eaten away and suffering a heart attack in March 1912, just 11 miles form the next food depot. An analysis of the teams' diet concluded that they were probably receiving 4,000 calories per day - twice the amount recommended for the average man during an average days work.

Hauling the heavy sledges which the team took to the south pole however in temperatures as low as minus 70C requires many more calories. Studies done by Dr Stroud on polar expeditions with Sir Ranulph Fiennes have shown that the body needs up to 10,000 calories per day under such conditions. Cocaine is known to increase heart rate and blood pressure while constricting the arteries supplying blood to the heart. The result can be a heart attack. Is it possible that under extreme fatigue members of Scott's party may have taken cocaine which in their weakened and emaciated state could have contributed to a heart attack? The answer will probably never be known.

Some manufacturers of modern caffeine supplements market them to athletes as a cure for fatigue - have any members of Explorers Connect ever taken caffeine as a pick-me-up while on an arduous expedition - what were the effects and would you recommend it to others?