South Pole: Roald Amundsen, Robert Falcon Scott Still Race

PHOTO: Capt Robert Falcon Scott, top row center, and his ill fated South Pole expedition team pose at the pole in this Jan. 17, 1912 file photo.
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On December 14, 1911, a five-man Norwegian team led by Roald Amundsen became the first explorers to reach the South Pole. Another five-man expedition reached the pole just 34 days later, this time a led by British Navy Captain Robert Falcon Scott.

But a century later, both teams still seem to be competing against one another.

While Amundsen's team traveled faultlessly back to their base on the edge of Antarctica and then on to civilization, Scott and his companions all died on their return from the pole. Today, both teams in the race to the Earth's southern extremity leave behind legacies that impact the modern understanding of the so-called heroic era of exploration, as well as the scientific understanding of the forbidding continent of Antarctica.

Initially, Scott was seen as a tragic hero, particularly in Britain and other English-speaking countries. Many observers outside Scandinavia regarded Amundsen -- who had secretly changed his destination from the North to the South Pole -- as a usurper who had unsportingly jumped in on Scott's long-planned mission.

Shifting Reputations

Then in 1979, a book by Roland Huntford, a British journalist with long experience in Scandinavia, painted an entirely different picture. In "Scott and Amundsen," Huntford portrayed Scott as an incompetent martinet and Amundsen as a perfect team leader who serenely achieved results.

"Scott was the parade ground automaton waiting for orders, while Amundsen wanted to give each man independence and make him feel that he was worth something," Huntford said. "Amundsen made sure that his men never approached the outer limits of exhaustion; he had enough food and a large margin of safety. Scott took delight in exhausting himself, as the English idea was exhaustion and suffering."

"Huntford's book was the first to take a contrary view of Scott," said Heather Lane, keeper of collections at the Scott Polar Research Institute in Cambridge, England. "Possibly more influential in changing public perception was the BBC drama based on it."

Recently, views have begun to change again.

Some historians point to the two ventures' contrasting goals. While Amundsen sought only the pole, they say, Scott's expedition included several prominent scientists who carried out significant research in other parts of Antarctica while the five-man team undertook its polar journey.

"While Scott's objective was to get to the pole, he was completely committed to running a first-rate scientific expedition," said Edward Larson, university professor of history at Pepperdine University in Malibu, Calif.

In addition, some meteorological studies have made Scott a more sympathetic leader, by suggesting that his party encountered unprecedentedly bad weather on their return from the pole.

"The work done by recent biographers and historians has enabled a far more balanced view of Scott's achievements to come to the fore," Lane said.

Fateful Decisions

Amundsen's change of destination lies at the crux of the debate over the two men's reputations.

A fearless explorer who had led the first party to navigate the Northwest Passage above Canada's and Alaska's Arctic coast, Amundsen originally planned to sail from Norway on a route that would take him around the tip of South America and then north for an attempt on the then undiscovered North Pole.

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