South Pole Race, 100 Years Ago Today
As 1911 ended in Antarctica, the fates of Robert Falcon Scott and Roald Amundsen continued to diverge.
From the moment he set out from his base camp on Oct. 20, 1911, Roald Amundsen had a head start on Robert Falcon Scott, his rival in the race for the South Pole. Scott did not begin his journey south until 11 days later, and even before the two parties got under way, the Briton was already 60 miles behind because of the relative location of their respective camps.
But as 1911 drew to a close, Scott and Amundsen were finally on the same latitude. This was not, however, a consequence of Scott making up the enormous gap between himself and his rival, but a sign that the two men were traveling in different directions. Amundsen was returning north after successfully attaining the South Pole on Dec. 14; Scott and his companions were still laboring south, hoping against hope that, for all their struggles, they might be the first to reach the destination.
Much has been written and said in the century since about the reasons Amundsen reached the pole first, and survived, while Scott finished runner-up and failed to make it back alive. Different writers have emphasized different elements, but the general agreement is that a combination of factors came into play. Among them:
Race vs Science: Scott knew full well that the success of his expedition would be judged on whether he reached the South Pole, but the polar assault was part of a broad-based attempt to learn more about the Antarctic. To that end, Scott and his team collected more than 30 pounds of rock samples, which they hauled even as they weakened and their survival seemed progressively less certain.
Base Camp Location and Route Taken: Amundsen chose to establish his base camp by the Bay of Whales on the Ross Ice Shelf - a risky location, for certain, because of the unstable terrain, but one that placed him 60 miles farther south than Scott, who based his expedition out of Cape Evans on McMurdo Sound. The McMurdo Sound area was familiar to Scott, who had based his 1901-03 Discovery expedition nearby, but the route from there to the pole was more demanding than the one followed by Amundsen, not least because of the heavily crevassed glaciers he and his team had to maneuver in the area.
Ponies and Dogs and Motor Sledges: Scott experimented fitfully with the use of motor sledges, and his expeditio team had intended to use ponies to pull their loads part of the way; but the loss of several ponies in early March 1911 curtailed those plans. Scott had little faith in the usefulness of dogs, and he found distasteful the notion of killing a dog when it weakened and feeding it to its fellow canines: "One cannot calmly contemplate the murder of animals which possess such intelligence and individuality, which have frequently such endearing qualities, and which very possibly one has learnt to regard as friends and companions." As a consequence, Scott and his team ended up hauling their own sleds much of the way. Amundsen was less romantic about the canines' fate, and his use of dogs to assist in hauling was likely a major factor in his success.
Depots: Because of the above difficulties in transportation, Scott's main "One Ton Depot" was laid more than 30 miles north of its intended location. That decision would prove to be especially fateful, as Scott and his companions would ultimately die in their tent, trapped by a blizzard just 11 miles south of the depot. Some of his other depots were poorly marked, and on the return from the pole Scott spent a couple of days searching desperately for one, before stumbling across it. Amundsen, in contrast, laid out his depots where he wanted them, at regular intervals, with clear markers every few miles between them.
An Extra Man: Scott's professed intent had been to push ahead on he final leg with three companions: Edgar Evans, Laurence 'Titus' Oates and Edward Wilson. At the last moment, he added one more, Henry "Birdie" Bowers. That required a reassignment of rations - which may already have been insufficient for the task at hand - and also meant that extra fuel would be needed to cook their meals. The latter problem was exacerbated by the fact that poorly fitting seals resulted in leakage of fuel from the cans in which it was stored in the depots.
Weather: Scott is assuredly to blame for the mistakes that his expedition made, but which Amundsen avoided. But he and his companions may yet have survived had it not been for the capriciousness of the Antarctic. In an environment that is preternaturally hostile, the difference between survival and death can be minuscule; in Scott's case, had he and his team not been halted for four days by a blizzard on their way to the pole, they might have reached One Ton Depot ahead of the blizzard that trapped them in their tents just 11 miles short of that goal. At the same time, temperatures on the Ross Ice Shelf during the Briton's journey north were exceptionally low, and their impact was surely exacerbated by the already weakened state of the five men.
Before 1912 was one month old, Amundsen and his companions had returned to their camp, Framheim:
On January 25, at 4 a.m., we reached our good little house again, with two sledges and eleven dogs; men and animals all hale and hearty. We stood and waited for each other outside the door in the early morning; our appearance must be made all together. It was so still and quiet - they must be all asleep. We came in. Stubberud started up in his bunk and glared at us; no doubt he took us for ghosts. One after another they woke up - not grasping what was happening. Then there was a hearty welcome home on all sides "Where's the Fram?" was of course our first question. Our joy was great when we heard all was well. "And what about the Pole? Have you been there?" - "Yes, of course; otherwise you would hardly have seen us again." Then the coffee kettle was put on, and the perfume of "hot cakes" rose as in old days. We agreed that it was good outside, but still better at home. Ninety-nine days the trip had taken. Distance about 1,860 miles.
Eight days before Amundsen's arrival at Franheim, Scott and the others had reached the South Pole, only to find the Norwegian flag already in place. As the Norwegians celebrated the polar party's return, the Britons struggled northward.
"Things beginning to look a little serious," wrote Scott on the 24th. "A strong wind at the start has developed into a full blizzard at lunch, and we have had to get into our sleeping-bags... This is the second full gale since we left the Pole. I don't like the look of it. Is the weather breaking up? If so, God help us."
Robert Scott and his party finally arrive at the South Pole only to discover the tent left by Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen, who had made it there one month earlier. Scott and his party all died on the return trip, but a film about this expedition, 90 Degrees South: With Scott to the Antarctic, was made by Herbert G. Ponting in 1993. Ponting had been on the earlier parts of the trip. (Credit: Corbis).