Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen becomes the first man to reach the South Pole, December 14, 1911, five weeks ahead of the British Terra Nova Expedition, which was expected to be the first group to reach the Pole.
The Unseen Story
It wasn’t that Amundsen was the better explorer, per se, nor did he have more money behind him. Robert Falcon Scott, the leader of the competing British party, did not simply have a weak team or bad luck. It was the sum of every decision each made along the way that made the difference between life and death, failure and success: the initial announcement of an expedition to the Pole (Amundsen kept his ambitions secret, while Scott broadcast them around the world); the start date (Amundsen left 11 days before Scott); the location of the team’s base camp (Amundsen’s camp was 60 miles closer to the South Pole); the training of expedition teams (all of Amundsen’s team members were expert skiers and most were also navigation experts); the transportation plan (Amundsen went with dogs, and assumed that the strongest would eat the weakest along the way, while Scott took a mix of dogs and ponies); the daily schedule (Amundsen had his men and dogs conserve their strength along the way, resting up to 16 hours a day, while Scott overworked his team; the Amundsen group also traveled when the sun was behind them to avoid the snow blindness that plagued Scott’s group); fuel use (Amundsen soldered his fuel cans to avoid leakage, while Scott did not take this precaution and ultimately ran out of fuel); the placement of food stashes for the return trip (Amundsen put less food in each one, and laid them two times closer together than Scott to mitigate issues with snow drifts covering the food); and various other decisions, from the planning of rations to the choice of navigation tools. While Amundsen has often been portrayed as a super-human who won out over the forces of nature through sheer determination and force of spirit, what ultimately enabled the Norwegian to succeed while Scott perished was a fiercely pragmatic approach and incredible attention to detail.