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The Epic Race to the South Pole: Scott vs. Amundsen

The contest to be the first to reach the South Pole in the early 20th century was a quest that captured the world‘s imagination. It was the culmination of the "Heroic Age" of Antarctic exploration, a period of daring expeditions fueled by nationalism, scientific zeal, and public fascination with the mysterious frozen continent at the bottom of the globe. Two towering figures came to define this era and the race itself: Britain‘s Robert Falcon Scott and Norway‘s Roald Amundsen. Their expeditions launched in 1910 with the same goal, but vastly different approaches. One would end in tragedy, the other triumph, in a dramatic saga of human endurance that still resonates today.

The Lure of the Antarctic

By the dawn of the 20th century, the poles were the last uncharted regions on the planet. The Northwest Passage had been navigated, the source of the Nile found, but the vast Antarctic continent remained terra incognita. Penetrating its icy expanses represented, as historian Max Jones describes, "the last great terrestrial journey to be made" (Jones, 2011, p.18).

The South Pole, an almost mythical point on the map, exerted a powerful pull. "In an imperial age, polar exploration had a romantic resonance, fired by a spirit of adventure, a desire for national prestige, and an interest in geographical and scientific discovery," writes historian Stephanie Barczewski (Barczewski, 2007, p.62). Reaching it would bring fame, glory, and a place in history.

Scott: The Gentleman Explorer

Robert Falcon Scott, born in 1868, embodied the archetype of the British gentleman explorer. A career navy officer, he had some polar experience, having led the Discovery expedition to the Antarctic in 1901-1904, coming within 480 miles of the pole. But as polar historian Roland Huntford asserts, Scott was "more imbued with the camaraderie of the mess-deck than the urge to explore" (Huntford, 2010, p.114).

Nevertheless, Scott assembled a new expedition in 1910, aiming to claim the pole for king and country. His Terra Nova expedition was a large-scale affair, with a complement of over 60 men including scientists and a professional photographer. Scott‘s intentions were as much focused on scientific study as reaching the pole. He wrote: "The main objective of this expedition is to reach the South Pole, and to secure for the British Empire the honour of this achievement" (Scott, 2009, p.52).

Amundsen: The Viking Explorer

In contrast to Scott stood Roald Amundsen, born in 1872 to a family of Norwegian shipowners. Amundsen was singularly focused on polar exploration and had spent years in the Arctic, becoming the first to successfully navigate the Northwest Passage in 1906. He learned invaluable skills from the Inuit, particularly their use of sled dogs and animal skin clothing (Alexander, 1998).

Originally, Amundsen‘s expedition plans were focused on the Arctic. But upon hearing of American explorers‘ claims to have reached the North Pole, he secretly changed his objective to the South. "I knew my countrymen would feel very hurt if I threw away what they consider my special gift for Polar Exploration," Amundsen later wrote (Amundsen, 1913, p.8). With a small, handpicked team of experienced polar hands, he aimed for efficiency and speed.

A Study in Contrasts

Amundsen and Scott‘s expeditions were a study in contrasts from the outset. Scott‘s team was large and had multiple scientific objectives beyond reaching the pole. They used a combination of ponies, sled dogs, and experimental motorized sleds. Scott held a Victorian belief in the superiority of man-hauling, writing "no journey ever made with dogs can approach the height of that fine conception" (Scott, 2009, p.184).

Amundsen, in contrast, relied exclusively on expertly trained sled dogs, a decision reflecting his years of Arctic experience. He also carefully planned his route and placement of supply depots. "From first to last, the Norwegians‘ polar journey was a model of organization and foresight," writes Huntford (Huntford, 2010, p.247).

The differences were evident from the moment they set up base camps in January 1911. Amundsen established his at the Bay of Whales, 60 miles closer to the pole, a decision Scott derided as "a piece of land which anyone else would have considered a handicap" (Jones, 2011, p.112). Scott set up at McMurdo Sound, familiar from his previous expedition but further from the goal.

The Race Begins

On October 19, 1911, Amundsen‘s party of five, with four sleds and 52 dogs, set off from their base at the Bay of Whales. They benefited from clear weather, expertly laid depot cairns to guide their return, and the performance of their sled dogs. "We have never had to wait a single day on account of bad weather," Amundsen wrote in his journal (Amundsen, 1913, p.187).

Scott‘s motor sleds quickly broke down, and the ponies struggled in the conditions. He made the fateful decision to take five men on the final push, though he had only planned for four. The larger team meant more supplies were consumed. They also faced severe weather and navigation issues. "The weather is a constant anxiety, otherwise arrangements are working exactly as planned," Scott wrote on December 7th (Scott, 2009, p.276).

Triumph and Tragedy

On December 14, 1911, Amundsen and his team reached the South Pole, planting the Norwegian flag. They had covered nearly 900 miles in 56 days. Amundsen allowed himself a brief moment of celebration before focusing on the return journey, which they completed in just 43 days, arriving back at the Bay of Whales on January 25th, 1912.

Scott‘s party did not reach the pole until January 17th, 1912, over a month after Amundsen. "The worst has happened…All the daydreams must go…Great God! This is an awful place," wrote a devastated Scott upon discovering the Norwegians had preceded them (Scott, 2009, p.376).

Demoralized, cold, and hungry, Scott‘s team now faced a return journey of over 800 miles. Petty Officer Edgar Evans died at the base of the Beardmore Glacier, and Captain L.E.G. Oates deliberately walked out of the tent into a blizzard, hoping to give the others a chance of survival. But by March, Scott and his remaining two men were pinned down just 11 miles from a supply depot, out of food and fuel. Scott wrote his last words: "We shall stick it out to the end, but we are getting weaker, of course, and the end cannot be far" (Scott, 2009, p.410). Their frozen bodies were found in November 1912.

Legacy and Lessons

News of Amundsen‘s triumph and Scott‘s tragic demise reached the world almost simultaneously in early 1913, igniting a media frenzy. In Britain, Scott was mythologized as a heroic martyr, celebrated for his nobility and sacrifice. "His story was about character as much as achievement," writes Barczewski, "a moral tale that was seen to represent something profound about the British national character" (Barczewski, 2007, p.185).

Amundsen‘s achievement, while acknowledged, was often overshadowed in the press and public imagination by the drama of Scott‘s fate. But his success is undeniable – he was the first person to reach both poles and to navigate the Northwest Passage, a trio of accomplishments unmatched in the annals of exploration.

In the decades since, historians have dissected the race to the pole and the divergent fates of Scott and Amundsen. Amundsen‘s meticulous planning, use of dogs, and singular focus on the pole have been heralded. Scott‘s leadership and decision-making have been questioned, with some historians like Huntford arguing his expedition was doomed by his own incompetence (Huntford, 2010).

But others assert this comparison is overly simplistic. Both men made significant contributions to Antarctic science and geography. "The Terra Nova expedition was not a straightforward journey to the pole but a huge scientific enterprise that sought to map the unknown Antarctic coastline and mountain ranges, study the weather, collect geological and biological samples and data," argues Jones (Jones, 2011, p.10). Indeed, despite the death of Scott and four companions, the Terra Nova expedition amassed a wealth of scientific data that advanced Antarctic geology, geography, and biology.


The race to the South Pole between Amundsen and Scott was a defining episode of the heroic age of Antarctic exploration, one that continues to resonate more than a century later. It was a contest between two very different men – Amundsen the meticulous planner and Scott the romantic idealist – that ended in starkly contrasting outcomes.

While Amundsen‘s achievement has been overshadowed by the mythos surrounding Scott‘s tragic end, the Norwegian‘s success was a testament to expertise, innovation, and sheer determination. Scott‘s expedition, while fatally flawed in aspects of its planning and execution, nevertheless expanded geographic and scientific knowledge of Antarctica immensely, a legacy often obscured by the drama of the pole race.

Ultimately, the stories of Amundsen and Scott speak to the enduring human fascination with the planet‘s final frontiers and the lengths people will go to explore them. They also reflect the complex interplay of factors – preparation, experience, technology, leadership, and sheer chance – that spell the difference between success and failure in extreme environments. More than a century later, their epic race to the bottom of the world still has much to teach us about the nature of exploration and the human spirit that drives it.