The Great South Pole Race – A Rivalry in the Antarctic

The Great South Pole Race – A Rivalry in the Antarctic

The year is 1911. The prize is becoming the first person to reach the (geographic) South Pole. That really seemed to be the next big thing back then. In less than 2 years, 5 expeditions went there with the same goal during what we now call the Heroic Age of Arctic Exploration. However, we are only focusing on two of them today because these are the two that went on into legend. These are the two that partook in the Great South Pole Race.

Roald Amundsen

Roald Amundsen

In one corner, we have an expedition simply known as the South Pole Expedition, headed by Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen, a man who made a very successful career out of braving the icy unknown. By the time his career is over, he will have a lot more acclaims to his name, but for the time being we are only looking at his expedition with the goal of being the first to reach the South Pole.

In the other corner, we have the British Terra Nova Expedition led by explorer and Royal Navy Officer Robert Falcon Scott. He had a small team of five men, just like Amundsen, also intent on being the first to reach the South Pole, and was just a few weeks behind. Scott actually had quite a large expedition of 65 people (compared to Amundsen’s 19), but both only led small teams of 5 to the South Pole while the others were fulfilling various other objectives.

There were many differences in these two expeditions. For starters, they set up camp in different areas, with Amundsen being much closer. However, what ended up being the true difference maker was the method of transportation. Scott’s expedition was very well-funded. He had sledging dogs, ponies and motorized sledges. Scott had used dogs in a previous expedition and was unhappy with the result. The motor sledges could have been Scott’s ultimate upper hand. Unfortunately, when selecting the men to take part in the trek, Scott left out the engineer most experienced with them. Consequently, the sledges broke down early on in the expedition and nobody was around to fix them.

Robert Falcon Scott

Robert Falcon Scott

Amundsen chose to use only sled dogs. Scott didn’t like to use dogs because they were actually too fast. Unless the men were on skies, they couldn’t keep up with them and neither Scott nor any member of his team was experienced skiers. That was not the case with Amundsen’s team. Not only did they all know how to ski well, but the frontrunner was a man called Olav Bjaaland who was a gold medalist champion skier.

Let’s eliminate the suspense altogether and tell you straight away that Amundsen’s party was the first to reach the South Pole on December 14, 1911. The Terra Nova expedition was more than a month behind, reaching the South Pole on January 17, 1912 only to find that the Norwegians beat them to it. Nothing left to do now but go home. Well, this is where things took a turn for the worse. While Amundsen and his men all made it back, Scott’s entire expedition died on the way back.

Sout Pole Expedition Roald Amundsen

Amundsen’s team at the South Pole

Ever since then, it has been widely debated why one expedition succeeded and the other one failed. As it turns out, there were quite a lot of minor differences between the two teams and, almost always, Amundsen’s was better off. However, in a bizarre twist of fate, it is exactly this tragic demise that ensured Scott’s name in the history books. Amundsen was the first to the South Pole; he is the one who deserves the fame and the glory, but nowadays he is far less known than his British counterpart. That is because history loves a good tragedy. Robert Scott became “Scott of the Antarctic” and achieved everlasting fame.  Documentaries and movies have been made about his expedition so, as it turns out, it might be Scott who had the last laugh.