Amundsen & Scott: The Race To The South Pole & Its Discovery
- Background to the Race to the South Pole
- Varying Experience in Polar Exploration
- Amundsen’s 1910-1912 Fram Expedition: The Great Switcheroo
- Scott’s 1910-1913 Terra Nova Expedition
- The Base Camps & Routes
- Amundsen: The First Explorer to Reach the South Pole
- Scott’s Doomed Trip to the South Pole
- Assessment & Legacy
- Retracing the Footsteps of Amundsen & Scott
Along with Ernest Shackleton’s nearly unbelievable Endurance voyage, the Amundsen and Scott race to the South Pole is the most iconic story in the annals of Antarctic exploration. Indeed, it’s one of the most iconic stories in the history of human exploration, period.
We’re talking, of course, of Roald Amundsen of Norway and Robert Falcon Scott of Britain, who found themselves both aiming to be the first people to reach the South Pole during the austral summer of 1911-1912. Both ended up reaching that coveted geographic landmark; only one survived.
Amundsen’s and Scott’s expeditions did effectively engage in a race for the South Pole, but that wasn’t necessarily intended nor even really articulated. In fact, Amundsen originally was aiming not for the South Pole, but the North.
Amundsen had quite an impressive share of polar experience under his belt, backed up by strong all-around passion for high-latitude exploration. He’d been a member of Adrien de Gerlache’s 1897-1899 Belgica voyage to the Antarctic, which charted new territory along the Antarctic Peninsula and became the first party to overwinter in the Antarctic when the ship became trapped in sea ice in the Bellingshausen Sea.
And from 1903 to 1906, Amundsen led the crew of the Gjoa through the first successful sailing traverse of the Northwest Passage in the Canadian Far North. That expedition held great significance for his later success on the White Continent, as he learned much about polar survival and travel from the native Inuit peoples of the Arctic.
Scott, a highly regarded captain in the British Navy, had somewhat less of a polar résumé than Amundsen, but he did already have one unsuccessful attempt at the South Pole to his name: From 1901 to 1904 he’d headed the National Antarctic Expedition, a hugely important British venture using McMurdo Sound as its base that not only collected a treasure trove of geographic and scientific data, but also completed the southernmost overwintering yet attempted, and saw the first foray onto the Antarctic Polar Plateau that encompasses the South Pole and dominates much of the White Continent’s landmass. The expedition, despite traveling some 300 miles further south than anyone before them, ultimately fell short, 460 miles short of the Pole in fact, reaching 82°17′ South before party sickness and hunger scuppered the attempt.
The great Ernest Shackleton had been a member of Scott’s 1901-1904 expedition, and it came to light after the expedition account was released that Scott considered Shackleton’s illness a key factor in his failed attempt on the Pole. This, along with Shackleton reputedly being sent home on the relief ship against his will, led to a break in relations between the two men, a schism made all the worse when, a few years later, Shackleton decided to use McMurdo Sound as a base for his own Antarctic expedition aboard the Nimrod after promising Scott he would not do so.
Indeed Scott would end up recruiting some of the men from Shackleton’s crew for his renewed attempt at the Pole—Shackleton, however, was unsurprisingly not invited.
His sights initially set on the North Pole, Amundsen had obtained a ship with plenty of polar action under its belt: the Fram, built for fellow Norwegian explorer Fridtjof Nansen’s 1893 unsuccessful attempt on the North Pole. The schooner had been specially designed to withstand ice, given Nansen’s plan was to see it frozen into sea ice to drift over the pole.
Amundsen intended to try for the same goal, and marshaled not only use of the ship but plenty of funds from financial backers. In the midst of preparations, he heard the news that American explorers Frederick Cook and Robert Peary both were attesting to reaching the North Pole (in 1908 and 1909, respectively). The claims of both men would come under major scrutiny, but at the time Amundsen believed the chance to be the first at the North Pole to be off the table. He further figured he was facing a pickle of a financial situation unless he came up with an alternative exploit of similar magnitude.
And that’s how Roald Amundsen came to steer the Fram ship to Antarctica in 2010. Initially only his brother knew Amundsen’s true intentions when the expedition embarked from Norway in June; his crew and patrons still believed he was going for the Arctic. Upon reaching the island of Madeira, Amundsen—who had subsequently told the Fram’s captain—finally informed his crew of their real destination. All of the men agreed to stick with the expedition.
Aware of Scott’s plans for the South Pole, Amundsen sent his now-rival a straight-to-the-point telegram: “Beg leave to inform you Fram proceeding Antarctic. Amundsen.”
Amundsen’s Norwegian Antarctic Expedition was purely focused on being the first to the South Pole. That was one goal of Robert Falcon Scott’s British Antarctic Expedition, to be sure, but Scott also intended his voyage—announced to the world in September 1909, and launched from Britain in June of the following year—to be a scientific one as well, aiming to chart new territory and gather data.
In October 1910 Scott received Amundsen’s telegram while in Melbourne, Australia, en route to Antarctica.
Scott originally aimed to set up shop at Hut Point on Ross Island in McMurdo Sound, the camp pioneered by his Discovery expedition. Ice conditions prevented this, so the Terra Nova expedition established itself at a less-ideal, but more accessible site on Ross Island: Cape Evans. This was some 60 miles farther away from the South Pole than the Ross Sea base camp Amundsen’s party used on the Bay of Whales.
To reach the South Pole, both parties had to first cross the Ross Ice Shelf—widely known as “the Barrier”—to reach the mainland coast of Antarctica and ascend onto the high, ice-sheet-clad Polar Plateau via valley glaciers of the Transantarctic Mountains. To attain the ice sheet, Scott intended to follow the route pioneered by Ernest Shackleton on his Nimrod expedition, which climbed to the Polar Plateau by the Beardmore Glacier.
Aware of that route but also Scott’s intentions, Amundsen would seek a different approach to the Antarctic Polar Plateau from his Bay of Whales starting point. This became a glacier he and his men discovered and named after a patron of the expedition: the Axel Heiberg Glacier.
You can get a sense for the starting points and routes Amundsen and Scott used in this fantastic map/timeline video, showing the course of both expeditions side by side.
Both expeditions laid supply depots upon arrival in the Antarctic and overwintered. Given their express scientific purposes, Scott’s team conducted fieldwork during that preparatory period, including a rather remarkable wintertime sled journey by three men to gather a few eggs for research purposes from the emperor penguin colony at Cape Crozier.
Amundsen’s route from the Bay of Whales, up the Axel Heiberg Glacier, and across the Polar Plateau to the South Pole shook out to more time spent on the comparatively friendly Ross Ice Shelf and less time on the harsh, cold, high-elevation Polar Plateau than Scott’s party.
Amundsen did face an early setback, one resulting from his overeager schedule, which saw a first departure to the South Pole in September. This was the austral spring, and temperatures were still brutally cold—too cold, in fact, forcing Amundsen and his party back to base camp.
On October 19, 1911, Amundsen and four companions set out again. Their main modes of transport were sled dogs and skis, with which his men had plenty of experience. The team departed with 52 dogs; the idea was to use them to muscle sleds across the ice shelf and up onto the Polar Plateau, then kill and eat some of them to supplement the food supply. (Several dogs died en route to the Axel Heiberg Glacier, and more were intentionally killed for food upon reaching the Polar Plateau, leaving 18 dogs to strike out with the men for the South Pole. Eleven would ultimately return.)
Dogs and skis made for fast travel, and dogmeat contributed to the South Pole party’s well-planned, well-staged rations, which included vitamin-rich pemmican. Amundsen and his companions reached the South Pole on December 14, 1911. After a few days spent confirming their location to eliminate any doubt—and leaving a tent, a Norwegian flag, and a letter detailing their accomplishment—they struck off on the return journey, arriving back at the Bay of Whales on January 25, 1912, after a 99-day adventure.
Scott had sled dogs as well, but only 23. He also had skis, but his men were not well-trained in skiing compared to the Norwegians. He’d hoped to rely heavily on motorized sleds (along with traditional sledges) and ponies, but these quickly proved problematic. One of the motor sleds had been lost off the bat upon arrival at Cape Evans, plunging through the ice during unloading. A number of ponies had died during the laying-out of depots.
And during the initial march toward the Pole, the two remaining motor sleds ended up breaking down, and the team shot the remaining ponies upon reaching the Beardmore Glacier.
Scott had set out with 16 men, but the idea had always been for some of the party to turn back along the way after helping bring supplies to depots. Those sent back included the dog teams, which Scott instructed in writing to meet the final polar party “about March 1 in Latitude 82 or 82.30.”
That final polar party ended up consisting of Scott and four other men—one extra than he’d originally intended, “Birdie” Bowers (among the group of three who’d fetched the penguin eggs the previous winter), who lacked skis—“manhauling” their provisions. They reached the South Pole on January 16, 1912 to discover the Amundsen party’s tent already there.
Realizing they’d been soundly beaten in what had become the great race to the South Pole, the discouraged Scott party began trekking back toward their Ross Island base. Weather didn’t help them: Modern studies suggest initial unseasonable warmth and associated heavy snowfall, and then unseasonable cold may have been at play over the period Scott’s polar group was traveling.
One of the party, Edgar Evans, was severely injured in a fall during the descent of the Beardmore Glacier on February 4, 1912; significantly hampered, he ended up falling again on February 14 and died close to the foot of the glacier.
The remaining party lingered where Scott had requested relief from the dog teams, which for a variety of reasons didn’t show up. Weakened due to their extreme physical effort in challenging conditions—and, later analysis suggests, suffering from inadequate rations and likely the effects of scurvy—the men continued northward. Around the 16th or 17th of March, Captain Lawrence Oates, who’d been laboring along with severe frostbite, left the party’s tent in a blizzard, saying (Scott’s diary reports), “I am just going outside and may be some time.” He was not seen again.
Another blizzard pinned the remaining three men in their tent pitched on March 19th and located a mere 11 miles away from One Ton Depot, the farthest supply cache they’d established. On March 29th, Scott’s final diary entries include the lines “It seems a pity but I do not think I can write more—” and “For God’s sake look after our people.”
It was not until November 12th of that year that the tent of the polar party, and the three bodies within—those of Scott, “Birdie” Bowers, and Edward Wilson—were discovered. The search party collapsed the tent and marked it with a memorial cairn of snow, topped with a cross; they also endeavored unsuccessfully to find Oates’s body, and left a memorial marker for him as well.
Upon the Terra Nova’s final departure in January 1913, the crew raised a nine-foot-tall wooden cross on Observation Hill, which overlooks the original Discovery camp of Hut Point. The cross—still standing today—includes the names of the lost polar party and the concluding line of Alfred, Lord Tennyson’s poem “Ulysses”: “to strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.”
Several years later, members of Ernest Shackleton’s Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition erected another memorial cross to Scott’s party at Windvane Hill on Cape Evans.
The exploits of Amundsen and Scott down at the bottom of the world in the austral summer of 1911-1912 are further memorialized in the name of the U.S. research base situated the South Pole: the Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station.
Both expedition leaders have been hailed as heroes—and also roundly criticized. Initially feted for leading the first successful expedition to the South Pole, Amundsen received some blowback following the announcement of Scott’s death, as some perceived the Norwegian’s last-minute change of plans to shoot for the Antarctic rather than the Arctic pole as perhaps not playing fair.
And Scott, long celebrated as a tragic but noble figure, has been severely reassessed in recent decades, with many questioning his preparedness and judgment. More than a few critics, for instance, have criticized his choice of using ponies for transport and not enough dogs, and for devising a meal plan that appears, in retrospect, woefully deficient for sustained physical exertion amid the extreme environment of the Antarctic Polar Plateau.
There were other potentially significant differences between the two competing expeditions. Taking to heart what he’d learned from the Inuit in the Arctic, Amundsen garbed his party in furs, benefitting from their natural breathable insulation. Scott’s men wore layers over wool undergarments, and suffered from poor ventilation and resulting stiff, downright hard clothes due to frozen sweat.
At the same time, modern analysis of the unusual weather patterns of the Antarctic summer of 1911-1912, and recognition of the failure of the support dog teams to meet Scott’s returning polar party as he’d directed, have also softened some of the criticism that’s been levied against his leadership.
And Scott’s Terra Nova expedition did indeed fulfill some of its purpose in collecting scientific data in the Antarctic. Most poignantly of all, his doomed polar party collected plant fossils around the Beardmore Glacier that ended up contributing mightily to our understanding of plate tectonics and Antarctica’s geologic history. This clutch of fossils was found alongside the Scott party’s bodies: testament to the value the beleaguered men placed on delivering that collection to the scrutiny of science.
Distressed by Scott’s fate—and how it ended up coloring his own pioneering achievement at the South Pole—Amundsen would go on to pursue further polar exploits, including flyovers of the North Pole. He disappeared in 1928 on an attempted Arctic rescue flight seeking survivors of the Italia, an airship that crashed northeast of Svalbard after circling the North Pole.
Another legacy of the race to the South Pole is the concept of the 20-Mile March, now widely touted among business influencers and thought leaders. This stems from the understanding that Amundsen insisted upon a consistent, 15- to 20-mile slog each day toward the South Pole, whereas Scott’s team pursued a more stop-and-start rhythm, traveling far when conditions were ideal and holding back when they were suboptimal.
The idea is that the steadier and more incremental progress toward any goal—geographic or otherwise—is the way to go, versus the Scott approach of banging out forward motion only when everything falls in place.
Well, take that for what it’s worth. The striking difference in outcome between the Norwegian and British expeditions for the South Pole in 1911 and 1912 seems to invite fine-tuned comparisons and sweeping conclusions. The real story—and the conclusions to be drawn from it—are obviously more complicated.
The “Amundsen vs. Scott” saga continues to captivate modern-day Antarctic travelers. You’re roughly retracing the footsteps of these legendary explorers simply proceeding into Antarctic waters.
All the more so for those comparative few who cruise to Cape Evans or McMurdo Station, or venture by plane to the South Pole itself, where the Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station stands and one can reflect on the bravery, endurance, and ambition of those first two parties of human beings to ever reach this staggeringly remote realm.
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