The first ski race to the South Pole
And you thought the Birkie was tough
The race was over. It had been for many months. The winner was in Madison, Wisconsin, as part of his American lecture tour when the news arrived. He was a Norwegian named Roald Amundsen. What wasn't known until that day was the fate of the competition led by British Naval officer Robert Falcon Scott. The probable outcome had gnawed at everyone's mind. No one could have survived the Antarctic winter, unless the supply cache at One Ton Depot had been reached.
Ironically, no competition had been planned at all. Scott was making his second attempt to reach the South Pole in hopes of furthering his career. His compatriot Ernest Shackleton, who had been a member of his 1902 expedition, got within 100 miles of the goal on his own attempt in 1909 before turning back. Shackleton realized that while they could score the historic triumph, his party didn't have enough supplies to make it to base camp near the edge of the vast Ross Ice Shelf. As he later told his wife, "I thought you would rather have a live donkey than a dead lion."
Amundsen, already famous for the first ship crossing of the Northwest Passage from Greenland to Alaska, had focused on the Arctic, hoping to attain the goal of his famous countryman Fridjof Nansen by reaching the North Pole. He even obtained Nansen's permission to use the Fram, a specially designed polar exploration ship.
The turn of the 20th Century saw a scramble to fill in blank spaces on the world atlas. There weren't a lot left. And without navigation devices we now take for granted, and with wireless radio and small-scale motorized transport in their infancy, the unexplored terrain was tough to conquer. None would be more so than the geographic points where all lines of longitude converged at the North and South poles.
In 1909, as Amundsen prepared for the North Pole, news arrived that two different American expeditions, one led by Frederick Cook and one by Robert Peary, had reached the pole. Telling no one but his brother Leon of his decision, Amundsen doubled the number of sled dogs to 100 and sailed into the Atlantic. Instead of following plans for a North Pole expedition, he turned south.
Amundsen's brother dispatched a somewhat cryptic telegram to Scott who had reached Melbourne, Australia. "Beg leave to inform you Fram proceeding to Antarctic." Scott knew right away that the trip would now be a competition, a "race" as he called it. No longer a challenge to achieve what he and others had been unable to do, but a race to be the first at the South Pole. Despite this reality, Scott did little to change his plans or preparations.
With dogs & skis
Dogs and sleds didn't mean Amundsen's crew would get a ride to the pole. They were all expert cross-country skiers and each would ski behind a sled. One - usually Olav Bjaaland, who had recently triumphed in Chamonix in the French Alps - would ski ahead giving the dogs something to chase.
Scott had skis as well and some dogs. He bought his sleds from the same Norwegian supplier as Amundsen. But he was relying mainly on Mongolian ponies and "motor sledges," caterpillar-type tractors, to lay supply caches on the flat ice shelf, which reached about half the way to the pole. The rest of the journey they would "man haul" the sledges, marching on their skis, four men tethered to a sled up a 100-mile-long glacier and across the 10,000-foot-high plateau.
Scott had taken the motor sledges to Norway to test them. But instead of taking them up on the Hardanger Glacier, where Amundsen had trained and polar conditions were found, he ran them around on the valley snow near Lillehammer and pronounced them perfect for the job. On the Antarctic ice shelf they would break down constantly, however. The motley Mongolian ponies also proved unreliable as they had to Shackleton. Ultimately, Scott would have only a tenth the amount of supplies per man cached or hauled as Amundsen.
Their routes in this race would not be the same. Scott started from the traditional British base at McMurdo Sound at one end of the Ross Ice Shelf. After studying historic accounts, Amundsen chose an entirely new site at the other end in the Bay of Whales, about 700 miles from the pole, 60 miles closer than Scott.
Greater distance and man hauling were just a few of the many self-imposed handicaps in Scott's disjointed plan. When his party reached the pole on January 17, 1912, he found the Norwegian flag and a note from Amundsen stating he had arrived on December 14, 1911. It was not a cheery day for Scott nor would the return slog be. Two men were lost before Scott and his two remaining companions made final camp just 10 miles short of One Ton Depot.
Scott did have Norwegian help preparing for the expedition in the form of athletic and enthusiastic Tryggve Gran. Scott had seen him ski in Norway when testing a motor sledge that broke an axle. Gran took it to a workshop 16K away and was back in five hours. Gran agreed to join the expedition and tried to organize ski lessons at the Antarctic base camp, but found little interest.
Artifacts left behind
At the ski museum in Holmenkollen near Oslo, one exhibit shows artifacts from the epic contest that took place half a world away. There's one of Amundsen's sleds, tents and his lead sled dog (stuffed). They have his skis, too. Gran led the search party when the Antarctic spring returned in fall of 1912. To symbolically complete Scott's journey, Gran skied back to the base on Scott's skis.
There were photos of Amundsen and Scott on their skis in the exhibit. Amundsen in Eskimo furs, Scott in his ill fitting, poorly designed, cloth pullover. And Scott is holding his poles the wrong way, a common error of novice skiers. Held right, the final push with the pole strap gives practically free glide. Over the incredible distance to and from the pole, a few more inches of glide per ski stride would have gotten them to One Ton Depot.
After removing journals and personal effects for the families, Gran's party collapsed Scott's tent, committing it to the ice flow that centuries ahead in time would reach the ocean. News of Scott's fate had to wait until the search party skied back to base, took a ship to New Zealand and a telegraph station.
Triumph & disaster
Norway was a newly independent nation. Amundsen was a hero upon his return, a symbol of triumph over the British lion. He had not planned a "scientific" expedition per se, rather a thoroughly executed one that would document new territory and the conditions found there. Every inch he covered had been blank on the map, including the previously unknown mountain range his party crossed. Their contribution to knowledge about Antarctica was huge.
Scott would follow the same route as three previous attempts. Only the last 97 miles to the pole, beyond Shackleton's furthest effort, was new.
The American TV media seems to practice what I call "get a Brit" journalism when they want a show to have an authoritative ring. It's a long-standing tradition. And one of the first and best British experts was Alistair Cooke. In the 1950s he hosted and narrated a show called "Omnibus" which featured documentaries mainly on cultural and historic subjects. One recounted the Scott-Amundsen contest.
Even to my young mind it was clearly difficult for the proper Cooke to deal with the many questions about Scott's thinking. Why did he refuse to abandon the 30 pounds of rock samples? Did he want his failed race to the pole cloaked in the guise of a scientific expedition? Why did Scott take a fifth man on the last leg, further straining spare supplies? Did he already realize they were doomed? Scott's journal was clearly written so readers would view him as a martyr.
When a journalist asked the distraught Amundsen, in Madison in February 1913, for his reaction to the news about Scott, he responded, "I would gladly forego any honor or money if ... I could have saved Scott from his terrible death."
Fifteen years later Amundsen would find an icy grave as well when he left in a seaplane to search for the crew of an Italian air ship that had crashed in the Arctic. Ultimately the crew was rescued, but no trace of Amundsen's plane was ever found.
In the annuls of polar exploration, there are nearly as many questionably competent leaders like Scott as there are accomplished ones like Amundsen. The unforgiving environment and primitive technology spelled the end for bunglers as well as ones who had bad information or simply made the wrong choices.
Lessons for Birkie skiers
Is there anything to be learned from the Scott-Amundsen race by Birkie skiers? Probably not, but here are a few thoughts. Use your pole straps correctly. Leave the cute rocks balanced on their cairns. Stapling a few extra energy gels to your race bib could make a big difference. Dropping out is sometimes the best idea. And mostly, winning is not much fun when your competition dies, even if it isn't your fault.
Right now there is a commemorative race going on between two teams following each route to the South Pole. You can follow it daily online at scottamundsenrace.org. Most likely both teams will survive.
Phil Van Valkenberg lives in Golden Lake, Wisconsin, near wonderful cross-sountry ski trails within the Kettle Moraine State Forest. On cold winter nights he curls up with his collection of gruesome tales of Arctic and Antarctic adventures. He is rereading The Last Place on Earth, Roaland Huntford's account of the Scott-Amundsen competition.