Race to the pole

Today – a history lesson featuring the people involved and the task ahead.

The race to get to the South Pole first had all the makings of a novel of intrigue, deceit and even tragedy. At the turn of the last century Polar Quest was not exactly a game played by computer geeks in a darkened room. It was a real life-and-death competition that pitted larger than life people against one another. At stake was national pride and big egos. Huge heroes.  In 1902 these guys were the astronauts of the 60’s.

Our story begins with three protagonists – two British and one Norwegian. Robert Falcon Scott was a Naval man. Scott was only moderately successful with his calling and was not well regarded by his superiors. Many thought he lacked the qualities of a good leader and tended to make spur-of-the-moment and rather stupid decisions. The fact that he rammed another ship while on watch during exercises didn’t help either. He saw Polar exploration as a short-cut to his over-extended ambition.

The other Brit – Earnest Henry Shackleton was a feisty Irishman. There was no love lost between Shack and Scott. He got the sack from Scott’s first failed expedition to the pole when they got to 82°17”S. That was December 1902; they were unprepared for the enormity of the task and were forced to turn back. Earnest returned home ostensibly in disgrace. He was markedly different to Scott. He was well liked; he drank too much, smoked too much and did have a few extra-marital affairs.  But there was something about old Ernie – although he failed in every polar undertaking, of the three protagonists he was the only one to be knighted. Put that one down to the gift of the gab and friends in high places.

The Norwegian – Roald Engelbregt Gravning Amundsen was self-effacing and modest. A secretive man, many in Norway think of him as deceitful and by no stretch of the imagination a hero – more a scoundrel. He told his backers and sponsors that he was going to conquer the North Pole and only once at sea he changed the plan and headed south. It’s not really difficult to see why the good folk of Norway had their reservations. It’s not difficult to see why Scott shat himself when he got the news.

What was involved in getting to the pole? The exercise involved a trek of around 1400 kilometres there and the same distance back. To put that into perspective it’s like walking from Joburg to Cape Town and then back again. It goes without saying that the conditions were extreme and that you would have to pack quite a lot of lunch. Bank on being on the ice for over a month so pack a jersey as well.

Ernie gave it another crack in January 1909 and got to 88°23”S. That’s just about 140 kilometres from his goal when he wisely turned back. He did the calc and knew that if he continued, no one on that expedition would have survived. Which is more than what you could say about Scott – but that’s another story.

More to follow…

About Tom Cottrell

Tom is a struggling author, pilgrim and citizen of Planet Earth.
Gallery | This entry was posted in The Hell of it and other essays and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to Race to the pole

  1. Pingback: Antarctica – Closing off. | Tom Cottrell

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