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Time Travel: the race for the South Pole

In December 1911, exactly 111 years ago, a team of Norwegian explorers led by Roald Amundsen reached the South Pole, making them the first known people to set foot on the Earth’s southernmost point. While the Amundsen voyage was a success, the story of the other explorers in the race for the South Pole – a British team led by Robert Falcon Scott – was one of tragedy, ending with their deaths. What happened in this competition, and why did Amundsen triumph? 

It was one of the last prizes in exploration, and it would have been a phenomenal coup 

Despite being termed a race by the newspapers, the two teams did not at any time acknowledge or plan a competition. Both Amundsen and Scott had planned expeditions that had ambitions of becoming the first man to reach the South Pole – it was one of the last prizes in exploration, and it would have been a phenomenal coup. 

Scott began his career in the Royal Navy, before being appointed leader of the British National Antarctic Expedition in 1901 (better known as the Discovery expedition) despite a general lack of Arctic experience at that time. Despite challenges, the expedition was generally viewed as a success, and Scott returned to England a hero. One of his Discovery crew, Ernest Shackleton, had begun to launch his own attempts to fund Antarctic expeditions, but after Shackleton’s Nimrod trip failed to reach the pole, Scott launched his own effort “to reach the South Pole, and to secure for the British Empire the honour of this achievement”.

Amundsen also had Arctic experience – he had been first mate on the Belgian Antarctic Expedition (1897-99), and learned valuable lessons about polar exploration and preparation. He led the first expedition to successfully traverse the fabled Northwest Passage in 1903, picking up advice from the local Inuit people on how best to survive in the freezing conditions. On his return home, he tried to raise funds for an expedition to reach the North Pole – however, after hearing rumours that the Americans may have already succeeded after he had set off, he changed his objective to the South Pole instead. 

Both Scott and Amundsen began their voyages in June 1910 – Scott for the South, Amundsen for the North – and the Englishman learned that his counterpart had changed course after receiving a telegraph in October. The two men had different approaches in terms of planned voyages and their kit. Amundsen landed at the Bay of Whales, 60 miles closer to the pole than Scott’s landing site of the McMurdo Sound, giving him an immediate advantage. This difference was explained, in part, by the differing objectives of the expeditions – Amundsen was focused only on the Pole, while Scott also had scientific obligations. 

Scott came with horses, dogs, and motorised equipment, but only the dogs were of any real use in the Antarctic climate. Amundsen created supply depots and brought 52 dogs, which would pull sleds and in some cases be sources of fresh meat, along with seals and penguins. He also opted for animal skins to keep his men warm, drawing on the guidance of the Inuits he had met earlier in his career – the skins were better at repelling water, while the woollen clothes favoured by the British never dried out in the conditions and became extraordinarily heavy when wet. 

Amundsen’s group ultimately had a relatively uneventful trek, with extreme temperatures the only real problem. They reached the South Pole on 14 December 1911, and they left a note to declare their achievement in case they failed to return home. They managed – they reached their ship a little over a month later, and their success was announced publicly in March 1912, when they landed in Hobart. Amundsen went on to establish a shipping business which did well during the war years, and had a few more polar adventures before dying in a plane crash in June 1928. 

They were meant to be met by a support team, but they did not arrive on time

By contrast, Scott’s trek was fraught with misery and difficulties, and the team’s spirits were knocked when they reached the pole on 17 January 1912 and discovered that Amundsen had beaten them. They had an 862-mile return journey, and they flagged on the way as a result of bad weather, hunger, exhaustion and a lack of supplies. They were meant to be met by a support team, but they did not arrive on time. By this point, many of the team (including Scott himself) were suffering from severe frostbite. They were trapped in their tent due to blizzards – the remaining men wrote their farewell letters before dying, to be discovered eight months later. 

Scott’s ill-fated voyage became the thing of legend in the immediate aftermath, but over the course of the 20th century, he came under increasing fire for his lack of preparedness and an amateurish approach which cost the lives of his men. A key legacy of the trek is the fact that Scott’s team had recovered 16kg of Antarctic fossils, an important geological discovery which would ultimately help prove the theory of continental drift. Amundsen, meanwhile, has a quieter legacy despite his two major successful expeditions. But, in a pleasing manner, the names of these two pioneers have now been honoured in the name of a permanent research facility, the Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station. 


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