The heroic age of Antarctic exploration had many facets to it, but ultimately, one of the biggest prizes was to become the first person to reach the South Pole. Those who were the first would achieve glory and have their names cemented in the history books: those who failed risked losing their lives in their attempt.
Despite the danger, it was a glittering enough prize to tempt many. In 1912, two of the biggest names in polar exploration, Robert Scott and Roald Amundsen, launched competing expeditions in their race to reach the South Pole. One would end in triumph, the other in tragedy.
Here is the story of Scott and Amundsen’s race to the South Pole and its legacy.
Captain Robert Scott
Beginning his career in the Royal Navy, Robert Falcon Scott was appointed leader of the British National Antarctic Expedition, better known as the Discovery expedition in 1901, despite having virtually no experience of Antarctic conditions. Although Scott and his men experienced some knife-edge moments, the expedition was generally viewed to be a success, not least because of the discovery of the Polar Plateau.
Scott returned to England a hero and found himself welcomed by increasingly elite social circles and offered more senior Navy positions. However, Ernest Shackleton, one of his crew on the Discovery expedition, had begun to launch his own attempts to fund Antarctic expeditions.
After Shackleton failed to reach the pole in his Nimrod exhibition, Scott launched a renewed effort “to reach the South Pole, and to secure for the British Empire the honour of this achievement”. He organised funds and a crew to embark on the Terra Nova, taking with him observations and innovations based on his experiences on the Discovery expedition.
Born into a Norwegian maritime family, Amundsen was captivated by John Franklin’s stories of his Arctic expeditions and signed up to the Belgian Antarctic Expedition (1897-99) as a first mate. Although it was a disaster, Amundsen learned valuable lessons about polar exploration, particularly surrounding preparation.
In 1903, Amundsen led the first expedition to successfully traverse the fabled Northwest Passage, following several failed attempts in the mid-19th century. During the expedition, he learned from local Inuit people about some of the best techniques to survive in the freezing conditions, including using sled dogs and wearing animal skins and furs rather than wool.
On his return home, Amundsen’s primary mission was to raise funds for an expedition to try and reach the North Pole, but after hearing rumours that he may well have already been beaten by the Americans, he decided to reroute and head to Antarctica, aiming to find the South Pole instead.
The race begins
Both Scott and Amundsen departed Europe in June 1910. It was only in October 1910, however, that Scott received Amundsen’s telegraph informing him that he was changing destination and heading south too.
Amundsen landed at the Bay of Whales, whilst Scott chose the McMurdo Sound – familiar territory, but 60 miles further from the pole, giving Amundsen an immediate advantage. Scott nonetheless set out with ponies, dogs and motorised equipment. The ponies and motors proved next to useless in the harsh Antarctic climate.
Amundsen, on the other hand, successfully created supply depots and had brought with him 52 dogs: he planned to kill some of the dogs en route to eat as one of the few sources of fresh meat, along with seals and penguins. He also came prepared with animal skins, understanding they were much better at repelling water and keeping men warm than the woollen clothes favoured by the British, which became extraordinarily heavy when wet and never dried out.
Victory (and defeat)
After a relatively uneventful trek, marred only slightly by extreme temperatures and a few quarrels, Amundsen’s group arrived at the South Pole on 14 December 1911, where they left a note declaring their achievement in case they failed to return home. The party returned to their ship a little over a month later. Their accomplishment was announced publicly in March 1912, when they reached Hobart.
Scott’s trek, however, was fraught with misery and difficulties. The final group reached the pole on 17 January 1912, over a month after Amundsen, and their defeat severely knocked spirits within the group. With an 862-mile return journey to go, this had a major impact. Combined with bad weather, hunger, exhaustion and less fuel than expected in their depots, Scott’s party began to flag less than halfway through the journey.
The party was meant to be met by a support team with dogs in order to ensure they could manage the return, but a series of bad decisions and unforeseen circumstances meant the party did not arrive on time. By this point, several of the remaining men, including Scott himself, were suffering from severe frostbite. Stuck in their tent due to blizzards and only 12.5 miles from the depot they were frantically racing to find, Scott and his remaining men wrote their farewell letters before dying in their tent.
Despite the tragedy surrounding Scott’s expedition, he and his men have been immortalised in myth and legend: they died, some would argue, in pursuit of a noble cause and showed bravery and courage. Their bodies were discovered 8 months later and a cairn erected over them. They had dragged 16kg of Antarctic fossils with them – an important geological and scientific discovery which helped prove the theory of continental drift.
Over the course of the 20th century, Scott has come under increasing fire for his lack of preparedness and amateurish approach which cost the lives of his men.
Amundsen, on the other hand, remains a figure whose legacy basks in quiet glory. He subsequently disappeared, never to be found, flying on a rescue mission in the Arctic in 1928, but his two most important achievements, the traversing of the Northwest Passage and becoming the first man to reach the South Pole, have ensured his name lives on in the history books.