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The Race to the South Pole: Why Did Roald Amundsen Win?

Updated on December 26, 2016
Roald Amundsen, first man on the South Pole
Roald Amundsen, first man on the South Pole | Source

There is an old Greek saying: Only the fool learns from his mistakes, the wise man learns from others'. This could be used to perfectly describe the race to the South Pole between the Norwegian Roald Amundsen and the British Robert Falcon Scott. Scott should have had the advantage, having tried to reach the Pole one time before, but did not make sure to put his experiences to good use, nor did he properly immerse himself in the ways of traveling in the snowy and icy plains of the South Pole. Amundsen, however, made sure to read Scott's published diaries and used them in his planning for his first attempt.

Robert Falcon Scott
Robert Falcon Scott | Source

The Outset

The South Pole is hottest in December, and so both teams naturally went at that time. Scott started at Cape Evans, one he was familiar with. He, therefore, knew the route, but the climate in the area made it difficult to start as early as he would like. Amundsen started in Framheim in the Bay of Whales—this was a little more south than Cape Evans, giving Amundsen 1285 kilometers to travel, 96 kilometers shorter than Scott. Amundsen could also start earlier, but his route was not as well mapped as Scott's. He believed from the little information available that his route would allow him to spend less time in the freezing mountain ranges and give him better weather. The last part definitely came true, although whether by luck or planning might be debated. Anyway, Amundsen was of the philosophy that luck is something you can plan. It is also possible, though, that Scott was faced with unusually bad weather on his return trip.

Amundsen carried everything on his journey with skiing and dogs. He was very familiar with these, and they did their job. Scott went with a lot of different methods—he had dogs, ponies, modern motor-sledges, and skis, but problems occurred. The ponies did not perform well on the Pole, something demonstrated by another man called Shackleton, an early rival of Scott. One of his three motor-sledges fell into the water, and in the end, the other two were not even used. Nansen had recommended dogs to Scott, but Scott was reluctant. He saw no way to use the dogs without having to kill them underway when they got too tired, something he refused to do. Without killing them he believed they posed no major advantage. He half-heartedly brought some dogs along but did not spend time learning how to command and use them. The same with skiing, which he did not consider very useful. Some time was spent training, but ultimately Scott went with having men pull the sledges, romanticizing the hard labor of men and how it would overcome anything.

On Morals

Amundsen had speed and him and his team could spend about 16 hours a day resting, a valuable recourse. He still made it back from the Pole by late January, when it was still relatively hot. Scott planned to be back in March, frighteningly late.

But it should be said that Amundsen did not only win because he did things Scott did not think to do, but also because he did things Scott refused to do on moral grounds. Amundsen had his dogs, and one of the advantages with dogs is that they eat meat. Amundsen could hunt food and give it to the dogs and the people, something which lowered the amount of rations needed and kept certain diseases away. But Amundsen had a more cynical side: when ever a dog became tired or troublesome, he would kill and share the dog-meat between the other dogs. This was cruel, but effective, and armed with this and a superior knowledge of skiing(he even had a champion skier as front runner) , Amundsen was ready to set out.

The Rations

Then there is the matter of rations—a lot of food was stored in depots, but Scott had problems also here. First, when setting out the initial depots, he did not manage to get as far south as he had wanted, so the One Ton Depot ended up being out of reach for Scott's team when they returned from the Pole. The depots were also badly marked, making them difficult to find: one time they searched for hours before finding one. Amundsen had caught on to this problem from Scott's diaries and made sure to mark his depots properly.

Another thing related to depots was the fuel. Fuel is of extreme importance, giving warmth and allowing you to melt snow to water. Scott had on his original expedition constantly found that there was less fuel in the depots than what he had expected. However, on his second trip, he did nothing to fix this. Amundsen, again, understood Scott's problem better. The fuel simply vaporized and slowly went out of their containers in the many months of waiting. Amundsen sealed the containers properly, and while Scott struggled with the cold, Amundsen always had enough warmth.

Scott had also miscalculated how much energy one man needed, and the people on his team were constantly hungry. In addition to this, there was little fresh food on Scott's menu, so B and C vitamins were sparse. Doctors had at this time come to the conclusion that illnesses such as scurvy could be prevented with fresh food, but Scott did not listen and his men soon caught it. And one more problem: Scott had originally planned for four people on the final team. But then, for reasons no one really knows, he included a fifth member at the last minute, while the expedition had already started. This changed the rations plan and the amount of fuel needed. Some suggest Scott did this because he was not confident in his abilities to calculate the latitude, which would mean he could miss the pole. Others say he wanted a “regular guy” among all the officers, to have the British working class represented in the glorious task. Scott was a man who cared a lot about appearances.

Scott and his team on the South Pole. Their faces reflect the grief of discovering they have lost.
Scott and his team on the South Pole. Their faces reflect the grief of discovering they have lost. | Source

The Victory

With all of this, the race had been decided before it started. It was decided over the papers Amundsen and Scott used to plan their expeditions. Amundsen had speed, time to rest, food, warmth, water and shorter distance on his side. Scott should have had experience, but it turned out that even his hard-earned knowledge benefited Amundsen more. Scott should be respected for his decision to not let his trip be fueled by the murders of dogs, but maybe he should have realized that he was ill prepared to face the South Pole. Amundsen arrived at the Pole the 14th December, 34 days before Scott. As planned, Amundsen returned to his ship in the end of January. Scott died in the end of March on the way home from the Pole. If nothing else, his determination was not lacking.


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      jelly bean 3 years ago

      i think that Scott made some very wrong decisions

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