Some of the first Antarctic explorers had four legs.
All of a sudden, the ground fell away under the huskies’ feet and their harnesses snapped taut. Howling, they dangled over the abyss. The dog team had run over a crevasse, hidden beneath a blanket of soft snow. Now, they were suspended between lead dog Osman, who had made it to the other side, and the sledge, which had stopped just in time to avoid a nosedive.
Osman’s harness strained at his neck, but he held his ground. Finally, he was cut free, and Robert Falcon Scott and his men hauled the 12 remaining dogs, two by two, from the icy void to safety.
“Scott didn’t like to admit to having favourites,” says Jill Haley, human history curator at the Canterbury Museum, “but Osman was his favourite.”
Osman was born in Siberia, and on his first job, he worked as a mail delivery sledge dog. In 1910, he was one of 30 Siberian huskies recruited for Scott’s second attempt to reach the South Pole, the Terra Nova expedition. Before Osman’s paws touched Antarctic ice, he had become a media darling. “Osman is a dog of importance,” proclaimed the Otago Witness. “His heart would break if he were made other than a leader.”
Osman nearly didn’t make it to Antarctica. As the expedition traversed the Furious Fifties, a fierce storm lashed the ship. One powerful wave broke Osman’s chain and swept him into the ocean. The next wave whisked Osman back on board, where he was seized by one of the crew. He lay “utterly exhausted” for days afterwards. “The gale nearly lost us our splendid leader Osman,” wrote Scott in his diary. “Life was very nearly out of him.”
Osman survived his Antarctic odyssey—unlike Scott, who perished in 1912 on the return trek from the South Pole. Osman returned with dog handler Dimitri Gerov to New Zealand, where the pair lived in a hut on the cliffs above Sumner in Christchurch. When Gerov returned home to Russia in 1916, Osman ended up at Wellington Zoo, where he lived out his days as ‘Osman the Great’.