South Pole: Roald Amundsen, Robert Falcon Scott Still Race

100 Years since Amundsen beat Scott to the pole.

ByPeter Gwynne,
December 16, 2011, 3:18 PM

Dec. 18, 2011 — -- 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.

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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