Deadly Race to the Bottom of the Earth.
The race was on.
It was the early twentieth century, and the world was running out of places to explore. Roald Amundsen, a Norwegian explorer, was determined to be the first to reach the South Pole.
He wasn’t the only one. Robert Scott, a British naval officer, was also preparing his team to reach the southernmost point of the Earth.
Previously, Amundsen’s initial goal was to become the first person to reach the North Pole. But when he heard that American explorer Robert Peary was leading an expedition to the Arctic, Amundsen swiftly changed plans and set his sights on Antarctica.
He kept his plans a secret, leading the public and even his own team to believe that he was still heading to the North Pole. Amundsen feared that if the media and government knew his plans, it would hurt his chances of success.
It was only after the ship took off on June 3, 1910 from Oslo that he announced his plans publicly. Scott and his crew followed shortly after from Cardiff on June 15.
Born in 1872, Amundsen came from a line of shipowners and captains. He began pursuing his lifelong dream of exploring the wilderness by joining the Belgian Antarctic Expedition in 1897, where he first experienced winter in Antarctica.
He later led an expedition to the Northwest Passage, where Amundsen and his crew learned survival skills from the local Intuit people for two years. This would later prove invaluable for his South Pole expedition.
Robert Scott was born in 1868 to a family with naval and military traditions, prompting him to join the navy as a cadet at only 13 years old. In 1901, he led the Discovery Expedition to Antarctica as an opportunity to prove himself.
Although the crew lacked in Antarctic experience, they managed to journey along the coast to discover the Polar Plateau in their three-year journey. Scott came back a hero and was promoted to captain.
Two Approaches, One Destination
Scott’s two objectives were to gather scientific knowledge and reach the South Pole. Amundsen, however, had a singular focus: to be the first to reach the South Pole.
In his notes, Amundsen commented, “The British expedition was designed entirely for scientific research. The Pole was only a side issue, whereas in my extended plan, it was the main object.”
Amundsen iterated his sole intention repeatedly: “At all costs we had to be first at the finish. Everything had to be concentrated on that.”
Previously, Ernest Shackleton had unsuccessfully attempted to reach the South Pole on the Nimrod Expedition, coming within 112 miles of his destination. Since Shackleton’s route was proven and reliable, Scott decided to model his path after his predecessor.
Amundsen, on the other hand, planned a riskier route. He set up camp at the Bay of Whales on the Great Ice Barrier. While it was closer to the South Pole, the ice shelf could collapse and send him and his crew into the sea. If they survived that, Amundsen’s team would have to trek through an uncharted path and find an opening in the mountains to pass through.
Was it a risk worth taking? According to Amundsen, it was.
His camp location was 60 miles closer to the South Pole than Scott’s, which meant that time, energy, and resources would be saved — assuming that the unknown terrain wasn’t difficult enough to offset the decreased distance.
And while no one had camped at the Bay of Whales, previous expeditions had reported that ice levels remained unchanged for decades. Given this knowledge, Amundsen figured it was stable enough to set up camp.