South Pole: Roald Amundsen, Robert Falcon Scott Still Race


But that target became moot in September, 1909, when Amundsen learned of claims by two Americans, Robert Peary and Frederick Cook, that they had reached 90 degrees north. Today, most Arctic historians regard both claims as false.

Burdened by debts incurred in furnishing his expedition, Amundsen decided that he needed a spectacular achievement to appeal to his creditors. He chose the South Pole -- but initially told only his close friends.

That represented a direct challenge to Scott, who, in 1909, had announced his intention to try for the pole. He was in Australia, en route to Antarctica, when learned of Amundsen's new target.

Scott had already led an Antarctic expedition early in the decade, while another British explorer, Ernest Shackleton, had led a party to within 100 miles of the South Pole in January 1909.

Amundsen and Scott relied on markedly different forms of transport.

"Amundsen's technique was the combination of skis and dogs," Huntford said. Indeed, his team included a champion cross-country skier.

Scott, meanwhile, opted for motor sledges, Shetland ponies, and just a few dogs. But the sledges malfunctioned and the ponies couldn't cope with the snowy surface. That left Scott's men with the slow and energy-sapping endeavor of hauling their own sleds. And they used skis only reluctantly.

In speed, that meant advantage Amundsen.

"Whereas Scott was following a track that Shackleton pioneered and mapped to within 100 miles of the pole, Amundsen was blazing a new trail over terra incognita. He was explorer and ski racer rolled into one," Huntford said.

Scott's critics note that for nine days in late March, 1912, he and his two surviving companions stayed in their tent, during what Scott described as a blizzard, rather than marching toward a nearby food depot. That decision, they say, provides evidence of his poor organization.

But meteorological studies reported in 2001 by National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration scientist Susan Solomon suggested that a stretch of excessively cold weather beginning in late February, rather than poor planning, led to the polar party's deaths.

That assessment remains controversial, however. Among others, Polish physicist Krzysztof Sienicki has recently challenged that view.

Scott's Strong Science Effort

Even supporters of Scott admit that Amundsen bested him at polar travel. However, Larson said, "Scott had attracted a very, very good team of scientists."

"Chief scientific officer Edward Wilson [who died with Scott] wrote: 'We want the scientific work to make the bagging of the Pole merely an item in the results,'" Lane said.

In his book "An Empire of Ice", Larson outlines the expedition's scientific achievements, from studying the movement of glaciers to mapping the continent's snow-free "dry valleys" and collecting Emperor penguins' eggs in the dark Antarctic midwinter.

"Scott's expedition came back with a wealth of fossil fish and plants and evidence of a plant that is the link to ancient flora," Larson said. "There's an enormous amount of research now on very small microorganisms in the Antarctic soil and lakes, based on a foundation of work on Scott's expedition,"

In addition, present-day scientists use the amounts of contaminants in the dead bodies of penguins left behind by the expedition as examples of the levels of atmospheric contaminants at a time and place unaffected by human activity. Other work laid the foundation for modern research on Antarctic microorganisms and historical temperatures.

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