The Expeditions

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

Antarctic Explorers: Amundsen and Scott

The Explorers


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. (His backers thought he meant the North Pole, but Amundsen misled them.) 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. Had any one of these gone badly wrong, he might never have made it to the South Pole – or back.

Goals of the Expeditions

Amundsen's Singular Focus on Being First

3a11311r (Library of Congress)_t

For Amundsen, significance came from being the first to do something. His drive for success was not entirely a matter of ego. To continue to explore he needed to raise money–lots of it–and challenges that were easy or already accomplished by someone else sold no books and garnered little financial support. His Antarctic team consisted only of men with the skills and training that could help him to achieve his dream to be the first to stand at 90°S. He took no scientists, journalists, or others who might have had their own plans.

For Scott, Both Science and Status Mattered

3a12466r Castle Berg (Library of Congress)_t

For Scott, the significance of this journey was a more complex issue. Being first at the South Pole mattered, but so did science. Because he wanted his expedition to be both a triumph of exploration and an expansion of knowledge, he invited scientists to join him, at significant expense to his program. The observations and collections they made during the course of the Terra Nova expedition formed the basis for an extensive body of scientific literature that is still consulted today.