The Expeditions main content.

The Expeditions

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


Both Roald Amundsen and Robert Falcon Scott were pursuing the same goal in their race to the South Pole: to be first. Each was faced with the daunting task of convincing investors, scientific organizations, and governments to fund their respective journeys. Scott promoted scientific advancement in his efforts, while Amundsen spoke of the significance of his attempt on the pole for the international prestige of Norway. (That's what he said, but his backers thought he meant the North Pole; to find out why he misled them, read "Amundsen's Expedition.") Neither Amundsen nor Scott was new to polar exploration. Nevertheless, the conditions they faced after arriving in Antarctica were challenging even for them. Whether each team was laying out caches of supplies, waiting out the harsh winter, or making ready for the final push to the pole, almost every day brought new concerns and risks.

Amundsen was a meticulous planner; he realized that success was sure only if he correctly estimated the risks he would face, leaving little to chance. Scott also planned out his polar journey, but failed to leave a wide enough margin of safety in critical areas. His approach was also very different. His support teams, dogs, ponies, and tractors worked more or less independently rather than in concert--like so many ill-fitted moving parts in a machine that had to work smoothly if it was to work at all.

It is easy from the distance of 100 years to fault Scott for being disorganized in his preparations and insufficiently aware of the dangers he would face, while praising Amundsen for being the master explorer who foresaw every difficulty. The reality was different, for Amundsen had his own large portion of luck: his base at Framheim did not collapse into the sea, he found a quick way up and over the Transantarctic Mountains, and he and his men managed to get out of the crevasses they fell into. But had anyone of these incidents gone badly wrong, he might never have made it--or made it back.