1912's Race to the South Pole: Who Were the Players in the Great Race?

Antarctic Mania is seizing the world as we sit in the middle of the 100th anniversary of Rouald Amundsen's winning of the race to the South Pole, on December 14, and Robert Falcon Scott's arrival on January 17.

Every magazine and website has been writing articles about the heroes and villains of the great era of Antarctic exploration. Having been obsessed with the place for years, I will try and explain who the players are.

Wikipedia/Public Domain

Fridtjof Nansen never went to the Antarctic, but he set the model for how one explores in the cold. He was the first to cross Greenland, and then decided he would travel north in a special boat he designed with a strong rounded hull that ice couldn't get a grip on and crush. The walls were lined with a foot of cork for warmth, and Nansen drifted in the ice up to 86 degrees, the farthest north.

In later years, he was reported to have had an affair with Scott's widow Kathleen (denied vociferously by the Scott family) but did most definitely have one with Brenda Ueland, to whom he sent seriously NSFW photos that have been published in a recent book by Eric Utne.

In fact, in Norway right now, if you send a revealing photo of yourself, you are "Doing a Nansen."

Wikipedia/Public Domain

Roald Amundsen was the first person to get through the Northwest Passage in 1906, and was preparing for an assault on the North Pole when he found out that Peary and Cook beat him to it. (it is likely that neither did, they were both lying toads and charlatans). So he turned his boat around (Nansen's lovely little Fram), sent a telegram to Robert Scott, who was planning a British expedition, saying BEG TO INFORM YOU FRAM PROCEEDING ANTARCTIC--AMUNDSEN and booted it south. I described his attack on the South Pole earlier in Treehugger,:

Amundsen went to the South Pole the way the Americans went to the moon: design a trip to take as little as possible and throw everything you don't need anymore away when you are done. In space, it was the lunar module; for Amundsen, is was the dogs. You get there fast, but you don't leave much of a legacy.

He spent his winter shaving his skis, developing new faster ways to set up camp and to get food out of crates (putting twist-off lids on the tops) and working the dogs. When he would lay in a depot of supplies for the return, he would place flags for a mile on either side with labels telling how far to go, so that it was almost impossible to miss.

His was a fast and relatively comfortable dogsled ride to the pole and back.

Herbert Ponting via Wikipedia/Public Domain

If Amundsen was Apollo 11, Robert Falcon Scott was the International Space Station; a big expensive mission, with scientists and meteorologists instead of dog trainers and ski pros. He even brought newfangled snowmobiles, one of which promptly crashed through the ice and sunk. He did serious work, even on the slog to the pole. He and his men died on the return journey; Robert Gonzales lists 10 Mistakes That Caused the Most Punishing Nature Expedition in History in IO9. Scott even has the gall to blame his own men:

"Skis are the thing," Scott would lament in a diary entry written during his doomed journey, "and here are my tiresome fellow countrymen too prejudiced to have prepared themselves for the event".

As I note in TreeHugger, his reputation suffered severely in revisionist histories:

Anyone who has read Roland Huntford's 1979 book Scott and Amundsen: The Race to the South Pole is pretty much convinced that Amundsen was an exploring genius, learning from the Inuit how to dress, how to eat, how to use dogs and travel in comfort and style, and that Scott was a fool who used horses and automobiles unsuited for the campaign, and had nobody to blame but himself for his death. The Sunday Telegraph review said "In death, Scott became immortal. Now his reputation and character are torn to shreds." In the Spectator, they wrote "the plaster saint has been smashed forever!"

But in recent years, Scott's reputation has had a significant rehabilitation, thanks to the writing of Ranulph Fiennes in Captain Scott and Susan Solomon in the Coldest March, who blames the weather. Fiennes is particularly scathing of author Roland Huntford, but frankly, in my opinion, does not succeed in putting Scott back on a pedestal. Read more on this in One Hundred Years Ago Today: Scott Going South To the Pole, Amundsen Going North and Home.

Wikipedia/Public Domain

Ernest Shackleton is everyone's favourite Antarctic explorer. Charming and handsome, Management consultants write books like "Shackleton's way" and The New York Times just did glowing coverage of him in Leadership Lessons From the Shackleton Expedition.

No matter that he was thought by some as a quitter for stopping his challenge for the South Pole just 114 miles away, and never got to make his next big journey across the Antarctic because his ship got caught and crushed in the ice. (He had been warned not to go because of lousy ice conditions). Yet they run leadership programs based on his actions.

At its simplest level, Shackleton’s story is about 28 guys shipwrecked in Antarctica. But it’s really about so much more than that. It’s about how do you get the best out of your team? How do you stay motivated?

Puleeze. Boswell was a better management consultant 150 years before Shackleton: "Depend upon it, sir, when a man knows he is to be hanged in a fortnight, it concentrates his mind wonderfully"

But nonetheless, after this colossal failure, he redeemed himself to history by making an amazing journey in a small boat to South Georgia Island, then climbing over the whole island to get to a whaling station, find a boat and rescue every one of his men. If Amundsen was Apollo 11, then Shackleton was Apollo 13.

Mawson is on the right. Wikipedia/Public Domain

When it comes to courage and dedication and heroism, nobody can touch Douglas Mawson. Setting off on a survey and geological expedition with two other men, One fell into a crevasse, taking six dogs and almost all of their rations and their tent, never to be seen again. The two who were left sledged for 27 hours straight to get a spare tent and started eating the remaining dogs for food. They ate everything, even crunching the bones, until nothing remained. Then they started getting sick; according to Wikipedia:

There was a quick deterioration in the men's physical condition during this journey. Both men suffered dizziness; nausea; abdominal pain; irrationality; mucosal fissuring; skin, hair, and nail loss; and the yellowing of eyes and skin. Later Mawson noticed a dramatic change in his travelling companion.

Mertz seemed to lose the will to move and wished only to remain in his sleeping bag. He began to deteriorate rapidly with diarrhoea and madness. On one occasion Mertz refused to believe he was suffering from frostbite and bit off the tip of his own little finger. This was soon followed by violent raging—Mawson had to sit on his companion's chest and hold down his arms to prevent his damaging their tent. Mertz suffered further seizures before falling into a coma and dying on 8 January 1913.

The Inuit know better than to eat dog liver; it has a toxic amount of Vitamin A. Metz was a vegetarian and had trouble eating the tough meat, so he evidently ate more of the soft liver.

Mawson travelled alone for another 100 days, falling into crevasses, (his sled caught in the opening and saved him) starving, barely making it back, only to find that the relief ship had left a few hours before, and he had to wait another entire year to get home. An amazing story, told in Mawson's Will: The Greatest Survival Story Ever Written.

Wikipedia/Public Domain

Then there is Apsley Cherry-Garrard, the youngest to travel with Scott. He was rejected because he didn't have any notable skills for or experience, just a gentleman who wanted to go. He promised to donate £1,000 (like $ 50,000 today) if he was taken; they rejected him anyways. He donated anyways, and "Struck by this gesture, and at the same time persuaded by Dr Edward 'Bill' Wilson, Scott agreed to take Cherry as assistant biologist."

He did some terrible trips in the name of science, shattering most of his teeth from shivering. But the most important thing that he did was to write The Worst Journey in the World, one of the best books I have ever read, and available free for your Kindle or Kobo here. The first line of the book:

Polar exploration is at once the cleanest and most isolated way of having a bad time which has been devised.

He also demeans his own skills as a writer:

When I went South I never meant to write a book: I rather despised those who did so as being of an inferior brand to those who did things and said nothing about them. But that they say nothing is too often due to the fact that they have nothing to say, or are too idle or too busy to learn how to say it. Every one who has been through such an extraordinary experience has much to say, and ought to say it if he has any faculty that way.

He never recovered from his journey; he was depressed and sick, and refused to have children in case they inherited his mental illness, but he left a legacy much greater.

There are, of course, many others, from Herbert Ponting to Edward Wilson, who all deserve a page. It was, as Cherry-Gerrard notes, the worst journey in the world. TreeHugger Eva went there more recently, and did a wonderful series of posts and slideshows:

TreeHugger Goes to Antarctica, Meets Penguins, Seals, and More
Notes From Antarctica: It's Not Too Cold to Embrace Renewable Power
Notes From Antarctica: It's More Than Just Cold, Snowy, and Melting
Notes From Antarctica: It's All About the Treaty

Follow me on Twitter

Tags: Antarctica | Wayback Machine