Scott vs. Amundsen: History of the Conquest of the South Pole

The rivalry between British and Norwegian expeditions, each of which intended to be the first to get to the center of Antarctica, is one of the most dramatic events in the history of discoveries.

In 1909, the South Pole was the last of the great geographical challenges. A fierce battle for its control was expected between the US and the British Empire. However, the leading American Polar explorers Cook and Peary at the time focused on reaching the Arctic. Meanwhile, during the British expedition to Terra Nova, Captain Robert Falcon Scott’s ship temporarily gained a head start. Scott was not in a hurry. His three-year program involved extensive research and methodical preparation for the trek to the North Pole.

After hearing about the conquest of the North Pole, Roald Amundsen, from Norway, decided to change routes, and secretly drove his ship, Fram, toward Antarctica. As early as in February 1911, he hosted British officers in a camp on the Ross Ice Shelf. “There is no doubt that Amundsen’s plan is a very serious menace to ours,” Scott wrote in his diary. The race began.

{“img”: “/wp-content/uploads/2014/12/polar_01.jpg”, “alt”: “Captain Scott”, “text”: “Captain Scott”}

{“img”: “/wp-content/uploads/2014/12/polar_02.jpg”, “alt”: “Roald Amundsen”, “text”: “Roald Amundsen”}

A love for the arts and sciences is one of the few positive qualities of Robert Scott that we know of with certainty. His literary talent most clearly manifested in his diary, which became the basis for the myth of his life which fell victim to circumstances.

Sullen and unsociable, Roald Amundsen was created to achieve results. This maniac of planning considered adventure a sad consequence of poor preparation.

The crew

Scott led a group of 65 people, a stunningly big expedition in that time, including the crew of Terra Nova, twelve scientists and the photographer/cinematographer, Herbert Ponting. On the journey to the pole the captain started with four more people: the cavalryman Oates, the head of scientific program Wilson, Scott’s assistant superintendent Evans and the sailor Bowers, who joined the crew at the last moment. This spontaneous decision, many experts believe, was fatal. The amount of food and equipment was enough only for four people.

{“img”: “/wp-content/uploads/2014/12/polar_03.jpg”, “alt”: “Captain Scott”, “text”: “Captain Scott’s crew. Photo by the National Library of Norway.”}

Amundsen’s team could win any of the modern winter marathon. Nine people landed with him in Antarctica. Not intellectuals, they were primarily physically strong men with a set of skills necessary for survival. They skied well, were qualified navigators, and many were able to handle dogs; only two of them had no polar experience. Five of the best of them went to the pole. Amundsen also recruited a champion skier as the front runner.

{“img”: “/wp-content/uploads/2014/12/polar_04.jpg”, “alt”: “Roald Amundsen”, “text”: “Roald Amundsen’s crew. Photo by the National Library of Norway.”}

The equipment

Like other Norwegian polar explorers of the time, Amundsen became closely acquainted with the Eskimos’ adaptation to the rigors of extreme cold. His expedition wore anoraks and fur boots. “I will call any expedition … without fur clothing, inadequately equipped,” Amundsen noted. On the contrary, the cult of science and progress and the imperial “white man’s burden” didn’t allow Scott to use the experience of aboriginal people. The British wore wool and rubberized fabric clothing.

Modern research – in particular blowing in the wind tunnel – did not reveal a significant advantage to one of the options.

{“img”: “/wp-content/uploads/2014/12/polar_05.jpg”, “alt”: “Roald Amundsen”, “text”: “On the left: the equipment used by Roald Amundsen; on the right – by Robert Scott. “}

The transportation

The tactics of Amundsen were both efficient and brutal. His team set off with 52 Greenland husky dogs pulling four 400-kg sleds with food and equipment. As they moved toward the goal the dogs were gradually killed for food.  That is, as the load gradually lightened, the transportation they no longer needed turned into a meal. Only 11 huskies returned to the base camp.

{“img”: “/wp-content/uploads/2014/12/polar_10.jpg”, “alt”: “Roald Amundsen”, “text”: “Sled dogs used by Amundsen’s expedition. Motorized sleds used by Scott’s expedition.”}

Scott’s complex transportation plan involved the use of motorized sleds, Mongolian ponies, and some Siberian huskies as a backup; and the final effort was made by members of the crew. It was an easily predictable failure – the sleds quickly broke down, the ponies died of cold, and their weren’t enough huskies. For many hundreds of kilometers, Scott and his men pulled their own supplies on sleds with shoulder harnesses; each of them carried about a quintal. Scott thought it was an advantage – in the British tradition the researcher had to reach the goal unassisted. The suffering turned achievement into a feat.

{“img”: “/wp-content/uploads/2014/12/polar_09.jpg”, “alt”: “Roald Amundsen”, “text”: “Motorized sledge in the Scott’s expedition.”}

{“img”: “/wp-content/uploads/2014/12/polar_13.jpg”, “alt”: “Roald Amundsen”, “text”: “On the top: Mongolian ponies used by Scott’s expedition. On the bottom: the British pulling their supplies on sleds. “}

The food

Scott’s failure in transportation strategy led his people’s starvation. Pulling the sleds by themselves meant a significant increase in the journey’s duration and the number of calories needed for so much physical activity. And, they were not able to transport the amount of food needed.

“It is a terrible disappointment and I am very sorry for my loyal companions. All the daydreams must go; it will be a wearisome return,” Scott wrote in his diary.

Malnutrition also played a part. In contrast to the Norwegian biscuits made of whole-meal flour, oats and yeast, the British were made of pure wheat flour. Before even getting to the pole, Scott’s team suffered from scurvy and nervous disorders due to deficiency of vitamin B. They didn’t have enough food for the way back and didn’t have enough strength to reach the nearest warehouse.

Regarding the Norwegians’ nutrition, on the way back they began throwing away the excess of food in order to lighten the load.

{“img”: “/wp-content/uploads/2014/12/polar_20.jpg”, “alt”: “Roald Amundsen”, “text”: “A stopover. Roald Amundsen’s expedition. Photo by the National Library of Norway.”}

To the pole and back

The distance from the Norwegian base to the pole was 1380 km. It took 56 days for Amundsen’s team to cover this distance. The dog sleds carried more than a half-ton of payload and created storage reserves for the way back. On January 17, 1912 the Norwegians reached the South Pole and left a tent, Polheim, which contained a letter to the King of Norway, and a note from Amundsen asking Scott if he would be so kind as to deliver it. For Amundsen’s team the way back was faster. They managed to get to the base in 43 days.

{“img”: “/wp-content/uploads/2014/12/polar_16.jpg”, “alt”: “Roald Amundsen”, “text”: “Roald Amundsen’s crew at the South Pole. Photo by the National Library of Norway.”}

A month later the tent was found by the British, who covered 1,500 km in 79 days. “It is a terrible disappointment and I am very sorry for my loyal companions. All the day-dreams must go; it will be a wearisome return,” Scott wrote in his diary. Frustrated, hungry and sick they headed back to the coast. After wandering for 71 more days, Scott and two of his last surviving companions died from starvation in a tent just 40 km from the next warehouse.

The defeat

In autumn 1912 the tent with bodies of Scott, Wilson and Bowers was found by other crew members of the Terra Nova expedition. Their last letters and notes together with Amundsen’s letter to the King of Norway were found next to the bodies. After publishing Scott’s diaries an anti-Norwegian campaign began in his homeland. Only imperial pride prevented the British from directly calling Amundsen a murderer.
Nonetheless, the literary talent of Scott turned defeat into victory, and the agonizing death of the British was considered nobler than the carefully planned dash for the pole of the Norwegians. The victory of “the blunt Norwegian sailor” was explained by his unexpected arrival to Antarctica that ruined the training plans of the British expedition, and by the cruel eating of his sled dogs. The death of gentlemen from Scott’s crew, which were, by default, considered stronger in body and spirit, was seen as an unhappy accident.

Only in the second half of the 20th century were the tactics of both expeditions critically reviewed, and in 2006 the equipment and nutrition used by both crews were tasted in a realistic experiment conducted in Greenland. The British polar explorers didn’t succeed this time either – their physical condition was so bad that doctors insisted on evacuation.

{“img”: “/wp-content/uploads/2014/12/polar_18.jpg”, “alt”: “Roald Amundsen”, “text”: “Scott’s expedition: the last photograph. “}

Translation by Ruth Borshevsky.

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