Challenges to Antarctic Expeditions

Part of the Race to the End of the Earth exhibition.

Amundsen and Scott: Different Paths, Same Goal
Captain Robert Falcon Scott (center) standing on deck of ship with wife Kathleen Scott (left), and another man (right).

Explorers Use Different Means to Reach the South Pole

Amundsen and Scott faced very similar challenges. Each had to travel roughly 1,800 miles to the pole and back, carry or depot enough food, fuel, and equipment to make sure they could make it, and be completely self-reliant for most or all of their journeys.

Scott had a slight advantage because he was familiar with the terrain he and his team faced. He had traveled a significant distance over the Ross Ice Shelf in his 1902 attempt on the pole, and he had explorer Ernest Shackleton's report detailing where to ascend the Transantarctic Mountains and what kind of conditions to expect on the polar plateau.

Amundsen, though, was the more experienced polar traveler. He had spent time with the Netsilik Inuit of northern Canada and had learned their methods. His base camp was also a little closer to the South Pole than Scott's, a minor but still real advantage.

Norwegian Transportation Goes to the Dogs While the British Hedge Their Bets

Each team had to depend on their understanding of the best travel methods and the Antarctic climate. For Amundsen, the question of how to travel had only one answer: he would use "dogs, dogs, and again dogs." For Scott, the question was more complicated. He knew that some Arctic travelers had used dogs with great success, but he was also skeptical that a team of dogs could handle some of the more difficult sections of the journey (such as the ascent of the Beardmore Glacier). So he took a only a few dogs, largely for the purpose of helping to lay depots.

So what was his alternative? Shackleton had used ponies during his Nimrod expedition. Ponies struggled to cross much of the Ross Ice Shelf, but Scott understood from Shackleton's experience that they could pull greater loads than dogs so he planned to use them over level surfaces. When they reached the mountains, the ponies could be sacrificed and cached for later consumption. Scott also understood that the future of Antarctic travel belonged to the machine.

He brought tractors outfitted with caterpillar treads – then a novelty – to help move goods to depots. Unfortunately, this method failed spectacularly because the tractors had not been adequately tested against Antarctic conditions. They broke down and had to be abandoned.

Failing dogs, ponies, and tractors, what was left? Man-hauling. Strangely enough, this was the preferred method for generations of Royal Navy expeditions in the Arctic: men harnessed to sledges pulling like beasts of burden. Scott planned to ascend the Beardmore, take the pole, and return to the base of the mountains entirely by man hauling – a 700-mile trek.

He and his companions were forced to travel much further across the Shelf than originally planned, mostly due to miscommunication. Those mistakes left Scott and his crew vulnerable to a difficulty both teams faced--the Antarctic climate. For Scott's team, the consequences proved to be costly.


Antarctic Weather Cripples the Best-Laid Plans

Antarctica has only two seasons: a cold one and a really, really cold one. The months around the summer solstice are the warmest but since 98 percent of Antarctica is ice-covered, the warming effect of increased sunshine is very temporary. After the solstice, the amount of sunshine begins to decrease and temperatures begin to plummet – especially at night. On the Ross Ice Shelf, overnight temperatures can drop to -40° beginning as early as March.

Both Amundsen and Scott had previously overwintered in Antarctica and both knew or should have known about how suddenly cold conditions could descend upon them.

Amundsen resolved to make it to the South Pole and back during the period from late October to late January, when conditions would be optimal. In fact he arrived back at Framheim about 10 days earlier than planned and was already heading home on the Fram by the end of January.

Scott, by contrast, allowed for a longer period out on the ice, telling his men that he might not be back until the end of March. Worse, he made several errors in judgment about travel time, the health and nutrition of his men, and the plummeting temperatures and steadily deteriorating conditions of the coreless winter of Antarctica. For Scott, these missteps proved fatal.