Mules in Antarctica

In 1910, Captain Robert Scott began his second and final expedition to the Antarctic on the ill-fated Terra Nova Expedition. His use of horses and dogs is well known, but did you know that mules also played a vital role in this tragic event?

This is not a happy story, though I’ve tried to include moments of warmth. You may wonder why I’m telling it at all, but I believe whole-heartedly in recording the stories of gallant mules such as these – and, rather depressingly, there aren’t a lot of historical mule stories that do end happily for the poor beasts. They had names, and personalities, and their handlers loved them. They don’t deserve to be forgotten.

So please, hold them in your thoughts while you read this article.

Nineteen ponies to blaze the trail

The ponies used during Scott’s journey suffered horrific hardship. Two died before they’d ever set foot in Antarctica, having broken their legs on board Terra Nova during a storm despite the incredible efforts of their handler, Captain Lawrence Oates (Oates is known for his self-sacrifice by choosing to walk out into a blizzard in an attempt to lighten the burden on his companions, but during that sea crossing he spent sixty hours on his feet in an attempt to keep his ponies safe).

The surviving ponies were not of ideal quality and, un-acclimatised to the conditions, they struggled on the initial depot-laying journey. Oates recommended that they be pushed as far as they could go and then killed for food, but Scott refused and four more ponies died in the following days. Another three died when sea ice disintegrated underneath them and men and ponies were stranded on ice floes; the men could jump from floe to floe, but the ponies could not be persuaded to do the same.

After over-wintering at Cape Evans, five members of the team set off on 1st November 1911 on their first attempt to reach the Pole. The remaining ponies carried supplies on the first stage of the journey, with the idea that they would be shot when they reached the foot of the Beardmore Glacier.

Should this first attempt fail, Scott had already made arrangements for a second attack on the Pole which would take place the following year in 1912. Concerned that they would once again end up in the same position by taking on more unsuitable ponies, Oates persuaded Scott to choose Indian mules for this next, potential, journey. He had been impressed by the ability of the mules while on a trip to Tibet and wrote to his friend, Colonel Haig, asking him to inquire with his uncle, General Douglas Haig, head of the British army in India.

The request was granted and seven mules with experience of Himalayan travel were specially selected. They were given basic training in the art of pulling a sledge at an altitude of 7,300ft in Landour and then, in August, were sent to Calcutta where they boarded the Aparima and were sent to rendezvous with the Terra Nova in New Zealand. Their names were Lal Khan, Khan Sahib, Pyaree, Gulab, Begum, Abdullah, and Ranee (some sources spell her name as ‘Rani’, including Tryggve Gran, but Apsley Cherry-Garrard spells it Ranee – I’m assuming he would know).

From The Graphic, 1911: “Lieutenant G. Pulleyn training a mule to draw a sledge for the South Polar Expedition.” I do not think this was one of the seven selected mules who travelled to Antarctica. Photo via the National Newspaper Archives.
From The Graphic, 1911: “SEVEN SELECTED MULES WHICH THE INDIAN GOVERNMENT IS SENDING TO CAPTAIN SCOTT IN THE ANTARCTIC. It is a far cry from India to the Antarctic regions, but still not far enough the prevent the Indian government from seeking part in preparation for the attack on the South Pole. Lieut-General Sir Douglas Haig, Chief of the Indian General Staff, is sending Captain Scott, as a gift from the government, seven specially selected mules which were trained at Landour for sledge work by Lieutenant G. Pulleyn, of the Indian Supply and Transport Corps. Mules of the Indian Transport have done wonderful work in Northern India and in Tibet, where the cold is very severe, so there seems little doubt that these animals will do well in the Antarctic, while they can draw greater loads at a more uniform pace than coulc be expected from ponies.” Photo via the National Newspaper Archives.


From The Sphere, 1911: INDIAN MULES WHICH ARE STRENGTHENING CAPTAIN SCOTT’S EQUIPMENT IN THE ANTARCTIC. These mules were trained for sledge work at Landour, India (altitude 7,300 ft.). by Lieutenant G. Pulleyn, Supply And Transport Corps, to accompany the South Pole Expedition under Captain R. F. Scott. They recently reached Lyttelton, New Zealand, whence they left for McMurdo Sound on December 1st.” Photo via the National Newspaper Archives.


Four of the mules on board Terra Nova, where they were able to be exercised on deck.

Seven mules in the polar night

The seven mules arrived in Lyttelton, New Zealand in September 1911. Among the equipment sent with the mules were felt-lined rugs and leg wraps, eye shades, and tethering chains covered with felt and leather. There were also snowshoes for the mules, which the team had discovered – too late – greatly improved the ponies’ ability to cross snow.

On December 1st, they boarded the Terra Nova along with fourteen dogs, new sledges, and a year’s worth of stores. The crossing was much better than it had been for the ponies, and the mules were able to be exercised on deck during the voyage. The mules and the rest of the cargo landed three miles to the north of Cape Evans on February 5th, 1912. The Terra Nova then left to try and collect the Northern Party from Terra Nova Bay, but was unable to reach them due to ice. With winter closing in, and the risk of being trapped a dangerous possibility, the ship finally left on March 5th and would not return until spring.

During the Antarctic winter (June to September), the mules stayed at camp with the members of the team who had not returned home or gone with the Polar Party. There was scientific work that needed to be carried out – meteorological observations, marine biology, zoology and geology – and seven men were each allocated a mule who they had to exercise daily: Khan Sahib to Edward Nelson, Lal Khan to Tryggve Gran, Pyaree to Charles Wright, Ranee to Tom Crean, Gulab to Thomas Williamson, Begum to Patrick Keohane, and Abdullah to Frederick Hooper.

This was not an easy task in the darkness of the polar night (the sun sets in April and does not rise again until August), with strong katabatic winds and mules who were feeling rather ornery and out of sorts. “Much credit is due to the mule leaders that they were able to exercise their animals without hurt,” writes Apsley Cherry-Garrard in The Worst Journey In The World. “Cape Evans in the dark, strewn with great boulders, with the open sea at your feet, is no easy place to manage a very high-spirited and excitable mule.”

Each mule had their own personality and the men grew to love them, foibles and all. Gulab had the doubtful honour of being the most difficult to handle; Lal Khan was exceedingly playful (she once stole Gran’s hat, led him a merry chase, and then returned herself to her stall); Khan Sahib yawned so much it was suggested he was suffering from “polar ennui”; and Pyaree, after being confined to her stable for a few days due to a swollen knee, took revenge upon her companions by biting every single one of them as they passed her door on their way out for exercise.

In his diary, Gran writes the following description of his mule on the 29th March 1912: “My animal, Lall-Khan [sic], is a real high-stepper. She is lively and intelligent, strong and easy to handle, and seems to enjoy exercise thoroughly. To begin with she was a bit unsure of the snow underfoot, but it used to it now and we were round Cape Evans in a jiffy.” He was clearly very fond of her – “She’s a wonderful animal, so clever and beautiful” – and even chose her as a subject during the lectures the men held to pass the time.

When daylight returned, the mules’ exercise regime increased and they began pulling loaded sledges. Gran notes that the mules had clearly had good training and took to sledge pulling quite naturally; even the snowshoes didn’t disturb them. Gulab, however, caused trouble again by being extremely nervous about the oddest things. He could be harnessed, and once hitched to a sledge pulled it well, but during the process of attaching his traces something as small as the movement of woollen mitten could spook him and away he’d go. On another occasion, when they had taken the mules out for a long ride, he also stumbled and threw Williamson “on his head in a snow-drift, and then ran off home on its own”.

Their feed rations were based on what Scott had arranged for the ponies on the previous year’s mission: eleven pounds of oats mixed with oil cake, and at first they did well on it.

“Mule camp”. Photo via FreezeFrame.

“Mule with Emperor Penguins.” Possibly Abdullah? Photo via FreezeFrame.

Seven mules on their final march

On October 29th 1912, at 10:30am, eight men and seven mules – Abdullah in the lead – set out from Cape Evans to begin their journey south. They were followed by three men and two dog teams two days later, leaving another two men behind. By this point it was already assumed that the Polar Party had perished, but the remaining team members felt they owed it to their comrades and the men’s families to try and locate their bodies and see if they had perhaps made the Pole after all.

Depots had previously been laid, and so the mules were travelling relatively light with the aim of covering twelve miles a day. They were fit and eager to work, and the men reported no trouble with them during the early stages of the journey.

On November 2nd, Khan Sahib fell into a crevice and had to be pulled out again with a rope. Charles Wright noted that the mules moved fast during the first half of the day but became more likely to stop as the day wore on. However, all stayed together very well, except for Khan Sahib who was slower than the rest.

The dog team caught up with the mule party on November 4th. By this stage Gulab was suffering badly with chafing, despite having had both his collar and breast harness tried. Khan Sahib was still dragging behind, Lal Khan was pulling well but eating little, and Pyaree was struggling to lift her previously damaged leg when in soft snow. A small benefit of the mules over the ponies used previously was that the mules were dark, whereas the ponies were grey, and therefore the mule camp was much easier to see from a distance.

Cherry-Garrard notes, “[The mules] are terrible rope-eaters, cloth-eaters, anything to eat, though they are not hungry. And they have even learnt to pull their picketing buckles undone, and go walking about the camp. Indeed [Edward] Nelson says that the only time Khan Sahib does not cast himself adrift is when he is ready to start on the march.”

By November 8th Lal Khan appeared to have got her appetite back, but many of the mules seemed to be suffering from snow blindness and were now all wearing their blinkers. The temperature was recorded that day at -29°C; what a change for a desert animal, born and bred in India! Two days later Abdullah and Khan Sahib were also off their feed, and Lal Khan, though eating a little, had slimmed down dramatically. Their feed allowance had been decreased to nine pounds of oats and they were not finishing it. In order to help them out a little, some of the weight they carried was transferred to the dog teams. Despite these problems, Cherry-Garrard says that a visit to the mules always cheered him up as they seemed “very fit as a whole” and their handlers were in good spirits.

Gulab continued to pull well despite his harness sores, and Khan Sahib continued to drag regardless of his handler’s inventive styles of walking in an attempt to keep warm while leading him (“One step forward and one hop back”). Only Lal Khan matched him for slowness, as the mule’s appetite had waned again and she was doing very poorly.

On November 12th, near to midday, the search party found Scott’s tent and the bodies of Scott, Wilson, and Bowers. That same day both Lal Khan and Khan Sahib were put down due to poor condition; rather grotesquely, Gran notes with regret that it took five bullets to kill Khan Sahib. Begum and Abdullah deteriorated on the return march owing to bad weather, and were shot on the 30th November after return to Cape Evans. Pyaree, Ranee, and Gulab made it back to Cape Evans but were shot just before the party’s final departure from Antarctica on 19th January 1913.

“Lal Khan with snowshoes.” October 25th 1912. Photo via FreezeFrame.

“Mule team members.” 1912. Photo via FreezeFrame.

“Pyaree with Lashley.” 1912. Photo via FreezeFrame.

“Mules ready to start.” 1912. Photo via FreezeFrame.

Twenty-six equines lost to the snow

Despite the apparent failure of the mules in Antarctica, Edward Atkinson, a Royal Navy surgeon, said that “the mules covered nearly 400 miles and were in such good fettle they could have done it again … They were obviously stronger and better trained than the ponies and would have done even better than the ponies and pulled longer distances.” Cherry-Garrard disagrees with him, and penned a specific section in his book on their suitability.

“There was really only one thing against them,” he writes, “but that is a very important one – they would not eat on the Barrier. From the time they went away to the day they returned (those that did return, poor things) they starved themselves, and yet they pulled biggish loads for 30 days.” They would not eat the carefully prepared oat and oilcake rations, but ate tea leaves, tobacco ash, ropes, cloth, their leather traces, and saennegrass, which was used for insulation. Supplies for these were obviously limited and so the men offered them dog biscuits, which the mules ate when no one was looking – but immediately went back on hunger-strike as soon as they realised they were supposed to eat them.

In other ways, he considered the mules were a superior choice. They travelled faster than the ponies and – apart from Khan Sahib – kept together better. However, he adds “On the whole the mules failed to adapt themselves to this life, and as such must at present be considered to be a failure for Antarctic work. Certainly those of our ponies who had the opportunity to to adapt themselves went furthest, such as Nobby and Jimmy Pig, both of whom had experience of Barrier sledging before they started on the Polar Journey.”

Wright, also, was not enamoured with the choice – on the 13th November, just before the Search Party set out, he is recorded as saying that “Mules are a poor substitute for ponies. Not many will see Hut Point again, I think. Doubt if any would have got much farther than this if surfaces had been as bad this year as last.”

“Gulab with Williamson.” 1912. Photo via FreezeFrame.

“Khan Sahib with Nelson.” 1912. Photo via FreezeFrame.

“Begum with Keohane.” 1912. Photo via FreezeFrame.

“Abdullah with Hooper.” 1912. Photo via FreezeFrame.

“Pyaree with Wright.” 1912. Photo via FreezeFrame.

“Ranee with Crean.” 1912. Photo via FreezeFrame.

“Mule Camp.” 1912. Possibly Lal Khan? Photo via FreezeFrame.

Three mules who got so far

The death of the three remaining mules, after all they had been through, is heartbreaking; but it is possible that they simply could not get them back on the ship, and shooting them was a far greater kindness than leaving them to starve.

I haven’t been able to ascertain how the ponies and mules were loaded and unloaded, so if anyone has more information I’d love to hear it. Cherry-Garrard says that the ponies were put into a horse-box before being taken off the ship, but what this horse-box was or how it was unloaded I don’t know (possibly via block and tackle, which would have been fairly easy to unload and much harder to get back on board – if indeed it hadn’t already been recycled for other purposes). There were no loading ramps suitable for equines and my assumption is that the mules would have been hoisted on board Terra Nova via sling, as witnessed during WWI.

As I said in my intro, this article serves as a way to remember these seven Indian mules. When we read about them, Lal Khan gets to play again; Abdullah leads the way; Pyaree makes sure no one leaves without her; Begum remains the dutiful background worker; Ranee enjoys her handler’s gentle touch; Gulab causes trouble once more; and Khan Sahib gets to yawn over the tedium of it all.

They were good mules.


The Worst Journey In The World
by Apsley Cherry-Garrard
I Am Just Going Outside: Captain Oates – Antarctic Tragedy by Michael Smith
Encyclopedia of the Antarctic, Vol. 1 by Beau Riffenburgh
The Norwegian With Scott: Tryggve Gran’s Antarctic Diary1910-1913


Comparison of the Scott and Amundsen Expeditions – Wikipedia
Terra Nova Expedition – Wikipedia
Polar Ponies – The Long Riders’ Guild
A History Of Transporting Horses – The Horse Museum
FreezeFrame: Historic Polar Images

The British Newspaper Archive
– Aberdeen Press and Journal, Wednesday 03 April 1912
– The Sphere, Saturday 23 December 1911

Edit 12/04/20: I spoke to Sarah Airriess (Twitter, Patreon), who is working on a graphic novel adaptation of The Worst Journey In The World, and she said that Pyaree was assigned to Charles Wright – I had previously written that Lashly was Pyaree’s handler. Lashly actually tended to all the mules in the stable. Sarah also shared this footage of how they unloaded the ponies.

1 thought on “Mules in Antarctica

  1. Olivia says:

    I knew about the ponies, but had never heard about the mules. Poor things. All of them. One thing I discovered this year in the 0 degree F(-17 C) weather we had here was that despite Nilla’s appearance of a thick winter coat, it was all guard hairs and not actual insulation and she was cold when other, lighter-coated by appearance horses were fine. I bet those poor mules were cold. It’s a sad story, but it is cool to see all the pictures so thanks for sharing.


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