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  • Dora Ollivier Alarcon

Fighting for the Pole

In 1911, the British explorer Robert Falcon Scott and the Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen both tried to reach the geographic South Pole first, organizing separate expeditions. At that time many nations wanted to conquer Antarctica, which is why this time is known as the heroic age.

At the beginning, Scott and Amundsen weren’t planning on doing a race. Scott, born on the 6th of June 1868, believed that he was the only party heading to the South Pole, because Amundsen had kept his expedition plans a secret.

In fact, Amundsen’s idea was to be the first man on the North Pole, but after the American Robert Peary claimed to have reached the pole in September 1909, the Norwegian explorer changed his mind. Before the American had reached it, Amundsen was given a ship by Fritjof Nansen to attempt to reach the North Pole. Generously he paid the supplies and wages but asked for financial backing. So, when the American reached the pole, his plan was ruined. There was a risk that he couldn’t pay the money back and so he would have been financially destroyed. Since no man had yet set foot on the South Pole, he saw a chance of saving his finances and took it. Just one year later, in 1910, Scott publicly announced his attempt to the pole.

Scott, a man who had lived a comfortable childhood, was sent to the British Marine when he was 13 years old. Later he became an officer in the British Marine and from 1901-1904, he was the leader of the Discovery Expedition to Antarctica. Since he was quite the establishment man, he was chosen to command the official British Antarctic Expedition.

The British man had never really had ongoing training to use equipment or techniques such as dog sledding or skiing, which would later be a big disadvantage for the race to the pole. In his head he had two main aims for the expedition to Antarctica; 1.To be the first person to reach the South Pole (which he prioritized so he could secure the honor of this achievement for the British empire) 2.Do a wide-ranging program of scientific measurements, experimentation, and discovery. On the other hand, Amundsen had only one aim: to be the first party to reach the South pole.

The Norwegian man was born on the 16th of July 1872 in Ostfold, Norway in a family of shipowners and captains. His mother wanted him to avoid maritime trade and encouraged him to become a doctor. But after she died when he was 21, he quit university for life at sea.

As an explorer, Amundsen, had a lot of experience in the Arctic, using dogsleds and skies, in contrast to Scott. Most of those skills he picked up in the 3.5 years of sailing in the North-West passage in Gjoa from 1903 to 1906, where he was often in contact with Inuit and learnt how to survive in the cold temperatures.

Until the last moment, Amundsen had kept the change of plans secret and hadn’t even told his crew that they were heading to Antarctica. Only the captain and two other crew members had been told on the day of the departure in June 1910. The rest wasn’t informed until the ship arrived at south Madeira (supposedly to do an archeological research). Later the crew reached the Antarctica and positioned their base at the bay of Whales.

Ready for the journey, Scott located his base at Cape Evans on Ross Island, which was better for the scientific exploration, although he was 60 miles further away from the pole then Amundsen, which gave the Norwegian advantage of making the trip more over the Ross Ice Shelf, meaning less of the journey on the Polar Plateau. Like that his men could function more efficiently for longer.

Everything had been planned with precision from both parties for the upcoming expedition. It took years to prepare all that was needed.

Due to Amundsen’s practice with sled dogs, he decided to only bring those well-trained, powerful, and agile animals on the journey. His plan was to use many of them in the early part of the trip with heavy loads to get onto the Polar Plateau (the glacier on which the geographical North Pole is placed) and then kill the weaker ones to feed them to the rest of the dogs and to the men. All the Norwegians knew how to ski very well, and Amundsen had also recruited Olav Bjaaland, a champion skier to take the lead on the ice. With the speed of the dogs and the skiers, this meant, that they could have longer rests. These were all very strategic and intelligent choices, that Amundsen took.

Often criticized by his transport choices, Scott embarked three motor sleds, ponies, few dogs, and an expert skier, Tryggve Gran, to teach his men how to ski, although he was used poorly.

The largest of the three motor sleds was lost while being brought ashore and the other two stopped functioning soon because of the cold temperatures. So, the ponies didn’t sink into the soft, snowy floor, Sott had prepared snow boots, which turned out not to work well. The lack of experience with sled dogs only brought them more problems, because they couldn’t make the animals work effectively, and even if they would have had the capacity to control them, there weren’t enough dogs. Scott tried to encourage his team to learn how to ski, but they were reluctant. So, he was left with the slowest and most exhausting method. Man hauling the sledges.

The year of the expedition was a one in fifteen temperature lows, which neither explorers expected. Luckily Amundsen began his journey earlier and avoided the severe weather conditions. But especially on the return way, Scott’s team suffered through the blizzards, while Amundsen had already returned by then.

Not only in the transport, but also in the food supplies and the depot placing, Amundsen had maneuvered more efficiently. When his team came back home, they had even gained weight. The depots (places of storage for food for the way back and to mark the route) were marked precisely so the team could travel in poor visibility conditions, which meant they also had more places to stop for food. Amundsen deposed 3 times more food than Scott. What he had brought was mostly oatmeal and pemmican with peas, which gave them vitamins. In the low temperatures it was also necessary to heat up the food and ice (you had to heat up ice to be able to drink it). For that fuel was needed. The cold temperature paraffin fuel used for stoves, usually leaks out of the screw on the top and evaporates. Aware of that, Amundsen sealed them closed.

Shown by theoretical measurements modern experimentation, Scott’s team had insufficient food supplies. Even though the man had made calculations, he was not aware of larger need of food when man hauling in altitude. Scott also ignored the already known issue of the leaking fuel. So, the British were short of fuel and hence suffered from dehydration. The food supplies they brought with them didn’t have enough vitamins, so they also suffered from scurvy.

With the Inuit clothing, completely made of fur, that the Norwegians wore, they kept warm and yet were not too sweaty, because the clothes were worn quite lose, allowing the body to ventilate. More modern, Scott’s team wore woolen underwear and windproof outer layers. The problem was that they were too tight, and the sweat froze in the clothing that hindered them from moving freely.

The first attempt to reach the pole for Amundsen’s team took place on the 8th of September 1911. Amundsen was worried that Scott would arrive quicker with his motor sled. To access the Polar Plateau, he and his team were going to cross the Heiberg Glacier (an unexplored route). Not like Scott, who was going over Bearmore Glacier already used be Shackleton (another explorer)

Ignoring the fact that the weather was still too cold, Amundsen and his team took off from the base camp and started travelling through the Ross Ice shelf. But the nights were too cold, they barely even slept. On the 12th of September the temperature sank to -56 degrees Celsius. That was when they decided to turn back to the ship. Some of their dogs died of frostbite.

On the second attempt on the 19th of October 1911, Amundsen set out with five men, four sledges and 52 dogs. They made good progress and stuck to the same route as before. When they arrived at the Glacier, 7 dogs died and on the Plateau, another 18 were killed. Soon they reached the pole, on the 14th of December, 56 days after setting off. A tent and a letter addressed to the king of Norway with a request for Scott to deliver it was left on the pole by the Norwegians.

Finally, they arrived back on the ship after 99 days on the 25th of January 1912, recovering from the 3,440 km they had fought through. They had left with 5 men and 52 dogs and had come back with 5 men and 11 dogs.

Scott’s journey began later, was longer and spent more time in altitude. When the British departed on the 1st of November 1911, they left the camp with motor sledges, dogs, ponies and on foot. Only four men were supposed to reach the pole (the others would go back to the ship). Although Scott thought of only bringing 4 people to the pole, he changed his mind and decided to bring five. This caused many problems with the food.

In a deteriorated state, the team arrived at the South Pole on the 17th of January 1912 and found out that Amundsen had beaten them by five weeks. Soon after, they set off with a bad morale on the 18th making good progress. But soon the first man died near the foot of the glacier.

By that time Scott had already ordered dog teams to come and meet them at the depot where they were. But no one ever arrived to rescue them. They still had 400 miles left to go.

That day another man, Captain Lawrence Oates, walked out of the tent in the middle of a storm and let himself die. The rest of them walked 20 miles and made their last camp on the 19th of March. Ten days later the 3, including Scott died in their tent. If they had walked 18 km more, they would have reached the depot with food, which would have saved them.

After his victory, Amundsen returned home in triumph receiving praises for his achievement. Although later his life was made difficult. He was wounded by the accusation of not having maneuvered fairly.

Even though Scott hadn’t reached the Pole first nor come back alive, he became the national hero. With Scot being held as the major national hero, Amundsen was put aside. No one ever questioned Scott for half a century, being the hero. But towards the end of the 20th century the failings he made in his planning began to be pointed out and criticized.

So, the clear winner of this challenging race to the South Pole was the Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen!

The routes from Scott (green) and Amundsen (red) from their base camps to the South Pole

Amundsen and his party at the South Pole, 14th December 1911

Scott and his party at the South Pole by the Norwegians tent, 18th January 1912

Robert Scott

Roald Amundsen

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