Polar Lessons

Robert Falcon Scott, comfortable that greatness was within his grasp read with alarm and apprehension the telegram while harboured in Melbourne and shat himself. The message was direct and to the point “Beg to inform you Fram proceeding Antarctica – Amundsen”. Scott must have stood on the deck of Discovery and panicked. To the uninformed this message may appear obscure but to observers in the know this was the shot across the bow that would set up one of the greatest adventure races of the Twentieth Century.

Amundsen was an accomplished Norwegian polar explorer with a highly regarded reputation. He was the first one to navigate the Northwest Passage. His original quest was the North Pole. While at sea in his ship Fram he learned that the Americans Robert Peary and Matthew Henson had already beaten him in this quest. This came as a telling blow to the Norwegian crew who had trained and prepared for almost two years for this expedition. Amundsen’s dilemma was simple – who remembers the second person to the pole?

Roald Amundsen was a sporting man and he knew that the South Pole was still up for grabs. No one had claimed that yet.  He also knew that Scott was in Australia preparing to plant the British flag in that prized spot.  His option was as controversial as it was bold; he turned Fram southwards and sent Scott a polite communication telling him he had a race on his hands.  Lessons in leadership and competitiveness come in plentiful supply thanks to this intriguing story.

Remember the task at hand – a race of about 3000 kilometres over ice, climbing over a monsterous mountain range.

Lesson 1 – Choose your team well.

Something Scott failed to do.

Mainstay of Scott’s Team was Dr. Edward Wilson, there was a problem with him – he had been diagnosed with TB and was not in great physical shape. Then there was Evans. Petty Officer Edgar Evans – Dr, Wilson advised Scott not to take him along – why? He was a drunk. Look then at the third member Captain Lawrence Oates. His story will be told later, but he hated Scott. Here is a quote from the Captain’s diary; “Myself, I dislike Scott intensely and would chuck the whole thing if it were not that we are a British expedition. He is not straight, it is himself first, the rest nowhere.” Initially the team comprised of four men, the three mentioned and Scott as the leader.

Scott took an extreaordinary decision on the ice already deep into his expedition. It was to be a fatal move that resulted in an agonising tragedy. With enough provisions for four Scott inexplicably on a whim added a fifth member to the party – Henry Bowers. This guy was a beaut – the crew had to carry him back onto the Discovery while in New Zealand. He was not known for his sobriety. Scott’s team is made up of an indigent doctor, two drunks and a guy who hates him. Hardly a winning combination.

Consider Amundsen’s outfit.

The Norwegian team was also made up of four men plus the leader. Amundsen put Olav Bjaaland out front. He was a national skiing champion and knew just how to set a good pace over long distances. Helmer Hansen and Sverre Hassel were skilled dog handlers who spent years learning this complex skill form the Inuit’s in Alaska. Finally Oscar Wisting a close friend of Amundsen. They skied the breadth of Greenland together and knew each other’s temperaments.  Amundsen has a champion skier, two skilled dog handlers and a close friend as his team. Where would you put your money – Britain or Norway?

Lesson 2 – Completely focussed on the goal.

At times Scott got side tracked and saw great value in the scientific nature of the expedition. He spent hours collecting samples. Even on his way back from the Pole – almost at death’s door he scrambled off to pile on more rocks onto overburdened and exhausted men.  Reaching the Pole first was a priority, of course, but somehow Scott got lost in the scientific fog when it came down to it.

Amundsen was completely focussed and an extract from his diary says it all; “Our plan is one and again one alone – to reach the Pole. For that goal I have decided to throw everything else aside.”

Lesson 3- Attitude is everything

We are lucky, both protagonists left diaries with some notable differences. Scott is an eloquent writer and leaves behind a well written account that is peppered with moaning and excuses. Whenever the weather was bad he bewailed the fact and often stayed the day in his tent not venturing out.

Amundsen by contrast was not good with words and has a very matter-of-fact style. One thing that does come through in this man’s simplistic tale is the gratitude he felt each day there was good weather. His plan was simple – again from his diary;  “We will cover one degree of latitude each four days”

There are many other lessons we can draw from this absorbing tale, but already I have overstayed my welcome and indulged too long in your patience, so I will end off here by giving the results of this intriguing race. Of course Amundsen won. It took Amundsen 57 days to get to the Pole travelling an average of 23 kilometres a day. Scott took 78 days once he set out, pity he started out so late – but that’s another story. Amundsen’s return journey took 43 days and the records show that he was fitter and had put on weight since he embarked on his epic journey.


About Tom Cottrell

A struggling author, pilgrim and citizen of Planet Earth.
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One Response to Polar Lessons

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

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