200 Years. 200 Stories. Story 150: “Race to the End ”

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illustration of Scott's Antarctic party huddled in a tent
Image courtesy of Scott Polar Research Institute, Cambridge, UK.

Race to the End

This year is the bicentennial of the Academy of Natural Sciences of Drexel University, but 2012 also marks another kind of milestone. The last great race on earth, to the geographical South Pole, was conducted exactly 100 years ago, in the austral summer of 1911–1912.

Two teams were in contention: one British, led by Robert Falcon Scott, the other Norwegian, headed by Roald Amundsen. More interested in promoting the scientific investigation of Antarctica than winning garlands, Scott did not suspect he would have competition in his effort to conquer the pole until he learned that Amundsen and his team had secretly constructed a base camp only a few hundred miles from his own. The distances the two teams had to cover were similar, but their leaders were very different in personality and preparation. Amundsen, already an experienced arctic explorer, was famous for his meticulous preparation and concentration on single goals. Scott, trying to do or oversee many things at once, simply wasn’t in the same league. Amundsen proposed to rely on dogs for transportation, sacrificing the weaker ones as he went along to add to the food supply for his men and surviving animals. Scott refused to use dogs in this way; he relied instead on ponies, motorized sledges, and, in the end, man-hauling, in which men pulled their heavy sledges like so many beasts of burden. Hauling was slow, physically exhausting labor. Unsurprisingly, Amundsen and his dogs beat Scott to the pole by four and a half weeks. In the end the delays occasioned by man-hauling were literally fatal. The entire English team died on the return trip, suffering from severe exhaustion, exposure, and starvation.

In exploration, success and failure often stand only one bad decision apart. In his run for the pole, Amundsen took chances, just as Scott did, and he and his men could have easily come to grief as well. Yet, a century later, who won or lost is no longer the issue; it is for their stories of striving, seeking, finding, and never yielding that we remember them best.

Join us on Wednesday, February 1, for an author talk and book signing by Ross D.E. MacPhee, author of Race to the End: Amundsen, Scott, and the Attainment of the South Pole and curator of mammals at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City.

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