The Race to the South Pole

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Katie Lambert: Hello, and welcome to the Podcast. I'm Katie Lambert.

Sarah Dowdy: And I'm Sarah Dowdy.

Katie Lambert: And some say that the only frontier that we have left to explore is space but Sarah and I were talking about it earlier and we think the depths of the ocean should be at the top of the ocean should be at the top of that list instead.

Sarah Dowdy: You do kind of have to argue for that though. There aren't that many places left on earth to explore and it's been that way for at least a 100 years or so. By the time we get into the 20th Century, there's not really that much out there that we have no clue about.

Katie Lambert: Or at least not stuff that's very easy to reach. But in 1909, Robert Peary announced that he'd reached the North Pole so all those young men keen on making the history books realized that they had to adventure elsewhere and these roving explorer eyes had to settle on something else, the natural choice, the South Pole.

Sarah Dowdy: Yeah, so, we have two big players in our South Pole story. One is Robert Falcon Scott; one Roald Amundsen and it's interesting because there's going to be one man here whose name is forever linked to the South Pole and one who people don't even really know much about.

Katie Lambert: And it's not what you might think as far as the winner and the loser go. So, let's talk a little bit more about these two guys. Robert Falcon Scott was a British Naval Officer who had participated in another Antarctic expedition on the Discovery, which was 1901-1904 with Ernest Shackleton and Edward Wilson. They tried to reach the South Pole but their dogs died and they almost died, too. So, that went really well.

Sarah Dowdy: And our other player, Roald Amundsen, is actually Roald Engelbregt Gravning Amundsen. So, that's a -

Katie Lambert: That was a valiant try, Sarah.

Sarah Dowdy: That's my attempt at Norwegian. So, yes, this is obviously a Norwegian explorer and Amundsen has also had his shot at Antarctica before though. He was first mate on an expedition there and in 1903 he commanded the first single ship to make it through the northwest passage, which if you've listened to anything we've said about the northwest passage or if you've read my article about exploring the northwest passage, you know that that is a very impressive feat indeed.

Katie Lambert: It's quite the coo.

Sarah Dowdy: It took people forever to make it all the way through.

Katie Lambert: But more importantly on his travels he learned as much as he could from the Canadian Inuit's on how to survive in polar weather which will come in handy when you're traveling to the South Pole. So, as we mentioned, Peary reached the North Pole in 1909, or at least he announced that he did. Nowadays, we're not actually so sure if he did make it when he said he did, but at the time, the man had the spotlight and he was American, which made it worse, in the eyes of Scott who was quoted as saying, "What matters now is that the South Pole should be attained by an Englishman."

Sarah Dowdy: Yeah, but Peary reaching the North Pole also throws Amundsen for a loop because he had been planning a North Pole trek so, hey, what's the point if somebody else has already done it first. That's what they're thinking. They're not really appreciating the full extent of what you can learn from going to these places.

Katie Lambert: So, Scott had already been planning this South Pole trip and Amundsen knew it so he's tricky. He tells everyone that he's still going to the North Pole when he sails from Oslo in June 1910. Scott leaves 12 days after him from Wales and Amundsen didn't even tell the men on his ship that they were going to the South Pole instead of the north until October.

Sarah Dowdy: I'm going to say he's pulling a Napoleon here going to Egypt.

Katie Lambert: And he tells Scott about it in a rather cryptic telegram that read, "Beg leave inform you proceeding Antarctica." And even though it was rather unclear, Scott said, "Amundsen is acting suspiciously. In Norway, he avoided me in every conceivable manner. Let me say it right out. Amundsen was too honorable to tell me lies to my face. It's the Pole he is after all right."

Sarah Dowdy: So, Scott knows that the two of them are in a race -

Katie Lambert: The race is on.

Sarah Dowdy: Yeah, the race is on. So, Amundsen sets off on the Fram with some very experienced sled-dog drivers, which is going to come in handy; Scott's ship is called the Terra Nova and his aim isn't just to reach the South Pole. He also does want to make some contributions to science. Sorry if I suggested otherwise a minute ago, but he wanted to collect specimens and bring back information about the rocks and the minerals and the animals and possibly plants, if any exist, in this extreme environment that people have very little idea about.

Katie Lambert: So, he brought 12 researchers with him on his ship and one fantastically named grad, Apsley Cherry-Garrard paid to join them.

Sarah Dowdy: I think that could be a howstuffworks freelancer.

Katie Lambert: No, I'm putting that on my possible baby names list. Amundsen, on the other hand, brought a lot of sled-dogs, but Scott, after this dying dog expedition, the Discovery, decided that ponies and man-hauled sledges were a better idea which is mystifying to me because it seems like you would make it as difficult as possible, a man hauling, you know, 800 pounds over hundreds of miles in these step glaciers, mistake.

Sarah Dowdy: I think this might be a new podcast theme, too, bringing really inappropriate transport on your long arduous expedition.

Katie Lambert: Champagne safari.

Sarah Dowdy: It happens over and over. So, Amundsen plans to use dogs to help transport everybody, you know, he's got experience with them after all but he also plans to eat them along the way, which I don't think Scott would like that very much, as an Englishman.

Katie Lambert: No, it was below him.

Sarah Dowdy: He certainly wouldn't like that idea but -

Katie Lambert: Uncivilized.

Sarah Dowdy: - it is - if we look at it practically and we look at it - you know, considering the reality of what it's like in Antarctica, it's a practical idea.

Katie Lambert: It made sense for Amundsen. So, both ships arrived at the Ross Ice Shelf in January 1911 and set up their bases. Scott called his Cape Evens and it was at McMurdo Sound. And Amundsen set up his at Whales Bay, which he called Framheim. And the crucial difference was that Amundsen's base was almost 90 miles closer to the Pole, but least you think that this is Scott being stupid, which you might think a couple times in this podcast, Shackleton had already taken this route, the one that he was planning on taking before -

Sarah Dowdy: The longer route.

Katie Lambert: Right. So, it was at least a little bit better known to him and he thought that might be an advantage.

Sarah Dowdy: Yeah, exactly. So, now we get to the preparation point because they've made it but it's obviously too close to Antarctica winter to set out -

Katie Lambert: It's approaching.

Sarah Dowdy: - to set out for the Pole. So, Antarctica has two seasons basically, summer and winter but since they do have -

Katie Lambert: One is cold and one is colder.

Sarah Dowdy: Since they do have a little bit more of these warmer summer months left, they have a little time to start preparing for this big trek they're going to be doing later. And they're taking the long hike.

Katie Lambert: Right. Exactly. And there's no time to go back. They'll need this along the way. And they also set up near some ice caves so they'll be able to still work on stuff even in the worst weather. Scott tries to do this, too, but he's working with the ponies, not dogs and guess what, ponies don't really do that great in snow. Dogs are faster and they're not as quick to freeze and honestly, Scott should've brought more of them and when someone suggest they use the ponies to feed the men or the dogs, Scott says the ponies are our friends, I'm not going to kill them.

Sarah Dowdy: My little pony.

Katie Lambert: Which is - yeah, it's sad right now, it gets sadder but some of the ponies die anyways. They're just not suited to these temperatures. And, well, the Brits didn't even bring the right clothes. They brought wool versus the reindeer and seal skins that the Norwegian team brought because, of course, Amundsen had learned from the Inuit's and realized hey, they don't starve or freeze to death so let's quite being so snooty and listen to what they have to say, which again, Scott and his men thought might be a little beneath them.

Sarah Dowdy: So, Scott's men may have been dressed in wool but they also had a pretty hefty supply of opium pills for the journey.

Katie Lambert: And also cigars. 35,000.

Sarah Dowdy: This is, again, kind of like the champagne safari. Bringing things that you -

Katie Lambert: The caviar and the frogra.

Sarah Dowdy: - do not need. Your truffles. You probably don't need 35,000 cigars on your trip.

Katie Lambert: And their supply depots during this time aren't quite set up as well as Amundsen's are. They've got one. One-ton depot with a black flag to mark it because, you know, that's really easy to spot when you're snow-blind, just this little black flag in the middle of nowhere.

Sarah Dowdy: It's not. So, now we enter the waiting period. Preparation has ended, it's winter.

Katie Lambert: And it's just weeks and weeks and weeks of complete dark, like, as in no light at all. And of course it's extremely cold so you have to find something to entertain yourselves to keep from getting cabin fever and going totally nuts so how would you do it, Sarah, if you were in Scott's expedition?

Sarah Dowdy: Well, if I were in Scott's expedition, I would be watching movies and reading books and listening to the gramophone, maybe reading some poetry, painting, having interesting intellectual discussions with my peers.

Katie Lambert: Or maybe you would adopt an emperor penguin chick like Wilson did or learn to make a lovely seal consume with the rest of your expedition.

Sarah Dowdy: Which, these do sound like pretty good ways to avoid cabin fever. Unfortunately, they aren't the most practical things to be doing because meanwhile, at their camp, the Norwegians are working on maintaining their equipment, maintaining their dogs, keeping up their health. They had their eyes on the prize.

Katie Lambert: So, on September 8th, Amundsen decides let's do this. It's warm enough. The winter is finally ending, he thinks. So, he takes eight guys and 86 dogs out but they do have to turn back a bit when it becomes too cold and foggy. They're stuck at a supply depot for a while and they make it 45.5 miles in nine hours which is so much faster than Scott can do with ponies and man-hauled sledges.

Sarah Dowdy: Dogs are definitely the way to go. I wonder how you'd get the lot to be the man-hauled sledge driver.

Katie Lambert: I don't know but I don't want it. And, as a side note, during this time, this journey occasioned a quarrel, some say a mutiny from one of his men, Johansen and Amundsen dismissed him and basically erased his record with the expedition when he came back. Like, just wouldn't even acknowledge that he'd ever been there and Hjalmar Johansen later committed suicide mostly because of that.

Sarah Dowdy: Yeah, so, by October, we have the Norwegians finally heading back out again. This time, they have five men, four sledges and 52 dogs and they get pretty nice weather for Antarctica at least. They make it and they're ahead of schedule and Amundsen plants the Norwegian flag at the Pole on December 17th, 1911 and he writes in his journal, "So, we arrived and were able to plant our flag at the geographical South Pole. God be thanked."

Katie Lambert: And they make it back to their Bay of Whales base at the end of January 1912. They covered 789 miles in 99 days and to Tasmania on March 7th, 1912 where they can announce their big win so Norway had triumphed over Britain but no one knew yet what had happened to Scott's expedition. So, let's go back to our man.

Sarah Dowdy: Catch up with Scott. So, he leaves later than Amundsen. Two weeks. It doesn't sound like very long but it's a crucial amount of time that puts his return journey right in the middle of a particularly awful winter and the motor sledges break pretty happy. The ponies keep them only going about 5 ½ miles a day and they switch to those awful sounding man-hauled sledges. Finally, two ponies fall through the ice and are eaten by killer whales which, I mean, I don't think you can make that up. That's a - kind of the craziest part of this journey.

Katie Lambert: Yeah, I read that in a Wall Street Journal story by Mark Yost and I wrote it all in caps on my outline. Although I do have to say, I think I screwed up the chronology a little bit. The motor sledges broke at the beginning of their journey and not at the end so they were already pretty tired by this point and by December 31st, only five of the men were left. The others had all returned to base or to a supply depot. We've got Scott, Wilson, Bauer's, Oats and Evans and Scott finally reaches the Pole January 18th and there he found a letter to the King of Norway from Amundsen asking Scott to deliver it to the king to let him know that he'd gotten there and told him he could use any of the supplies that he'd left and he wished him a safe return. Yours truly, Ronald Amundsen!

Sarah Dowdy: Yeah, read the letter. It's just so - just imagine this guy finding this after all the trouble he's gone through.

Katie Lambert: Okay. So, Dear Captain Scott, as you probably are the first to reach this area after us, I will ask you kindly to forward this letter to King Haakon VII, no idea if I said that right, if you can use any of the supplies left in the tent, please do not hesitate to do so. I wish you a safe return. Yours truly.

Sarah Dowdy: Yours truly. So, they do use the supplies but what a crushing disappointment for the Brits.

Katie Lambert: Oh, heartbreak.

Sarah Dowdy: Scott writes, The Pole, yes, but under very different circumstances from those expected. Great God! This is an awful place and terrible enough for us to have labored to it without the reward of priority.

Katie Lambert: So, now they would have to make this grueling return journey without even the prospect of this victorious trip home, which isn't a great place to be psychologically, but, you know, at least they collected some rocks on the way back. They weren't in as much of a hurry as they should've been. They decided if they weren't first anyways, they might as well -

Sarah Dowdy: They might as well bring something back.

Katie Lambert: - stick around and pick up more heavy things to put on their man-hauled sledges.

Sarah Dowdy: Which is a bad idea?

Katie Lambert: Clearly, I'm stuck on that whole sledge thing. But the weather had gotten much, much worse and this arctic winter was even worse than it was, of course, in the summer but this one was particularly bad according to the records that we have. Probably somewhere in the negative 40s or negative 50s Fahrenheit! And the men were probably starving. They were working at as fast a pace as they could manage but they were nearly out of food so their caloric intake is not going with the energy expenditure.

Sarah Dowdy: You'd need a lot of energy to haul the sledge, too.

Katie Lambert: And it's also possible that they had scurvy but that's a point of debate. So, the first man to die was Evans. He had fallen behind and when they finally went back to check on him, he was very disoriented and said that he'd fallen and he went into a coma and died in February but the next is perhaps the best known.

Sarah Dowdy: Oats, and he was already severely frost-bitten and exhausted and starving and on his 32nd birthday, which was March 17th, he said to the men, I'm just going outside and it may be some time.

Katie Lambert: Which is probably, again, the most quietly heartbreaking goodbye.

Sarah Dowdy: It's kind of the most British thing you could say, too, and so he thought that they might have a better chance at survival without him and Scott writes, "Oats died like a good Englishman." And, so, we have three left. And they're hit by yet another blizzard and this one lasts for nine whole days and they're out of food, they're freezing, you know, they're in this light tent kind of contraption. Hardly anything to weather a blizzard in!

Katie Lambert: But they're only 11 miles from one-ton depot.

Sarah Dowdy: Which is so frustrating?

Katie Lambert: That would take Amundsen and those dogs like half an hour probably. So, they're only 11 miles away but they know they're gonna die and Scott writes a final letter home to his country.

Sarah Dowdy: He writes 11 letters actually. This is the one that he wrote to the British people. "We have shown that Englishmen can endure hardships, help one another and meet death with as great a fortitude as ever in the past."

Katie Lambert: And then we have an excerpt. His last diary entry which was March 29th! "Every day we have been ready to start for our depot 11 miles away but outside the door of the tent it remains a scene of whirling drift. We shall stick it out to the end but we are getting weaker of course and the end cannot be far. It seems a pity but I do not think I can write more." And that is the last thing that Robert Falcon Scott ever wrote.

Sarah Dowdy: So, their bodies are found in November 1912 along with their writings and the specimens they had collected, which 35 pounds of rock so -

Katie Lambert: Yeah, that weight on that sledge.

Sarah Dowdy: It's unfortunate but people are moved by how these men died and the public raised $7 million for their families according to a New York Times article by Edward Rothstein. And Scott left behind a little baby and a wife and his widow is actually given the knighthood that would've been bestowed upon him had he lived.

Katie Lambert: And people were so enamored with this romantic tragedy that Amundsen's triumph was overshadowed despite it being this huge accomplishment because Scott's story is simply more interesting. Amundsen was incredibly capable and efficient but, you know, he's just missing that certain 'Je ne sais quoi' that Scott had.

Sarah Dowdy: Well, everything went perfectly with his mission. It's - there's - after you run through the details of what happened, there's not much more to tell.

Katie Lambert: Or perhaps his reputation just has a dearth of cigars. And we should note that while Scott's expedition may be argued to be a spectacular failure, the scientific aspect of it was successful. Those 35 pounds of rock meant a lot because we learned quite a bit from all of their observations on glaciers and the mapping they did and all the specimens they collected including that little emperor and penguin chick. So, my introduction to Captain Scott was in Ann Fadiman's Ex Libris, which if you haven't read it, please, please go buy it. It's not a book about polar expeditions. It's about the love of books and what she calls her Odd Shelf, the one that's home to all of your strange obsessions and for her, it's polar expeditions and the romance of the failed but gallant British explorers and it was from Fadiman that I knew Scott's literary picks for the journey were Russian and Polish novels.

Sarah Dowdy: Chilly novels.

Katie Lambert: While Oats prepared a five-volume work on Napoleon's campaign and Iberia and Wilson was a lover of Tennyson. And it made me go back to the question that can make or a break a date and maybe even a friendship if you're very snooty. What are your desert island or polar icescape book picks?

Sarah Dowdy: I think they'd have to be a different kind of list for each.

Katie Lambert: All right. We'll give you two. And since Oats had five volumes, we'll let you have five choices. You can email us at with something about books in the subject title. You know we love a good read and we do read all of your emails so drop us a line. And that brings us to listener mail.

Sarah Dowdy: So, since we've already talked about possibly eating ponies and ponies getting eaten by killer whales, I feel like we should come back with something a little more positive.

Katie Lambert: A happy pony.

Sarah Dowdy: A happy pony; a happy horse story. And this email is from Lauren. She was writing in reply to our episode we did a while back on famous horses of history. She wrote this interesting tidbit is a perfect example of how history directly effects current actions. You may know that horseback riders, especially those of us who ride English, always get on the horse from the left side. It's strongly frowned upon to mount from the right and some horses even become spooked if mounted on the off side. The reasoning for this dates back to medieval times. Horses were taught to be mounted from the left so that knights who wore their swords from their right hip pointing to the left toe could properly mount the horse. Despite our obvious lack of swords in current riding attire, we still persist in doing things the old fashion way.

Katie Lambert: And this is the kind of trivia that we really love. So, again, our email is We also have a Twitter feed at mistinhistory and a Facebook fanpage if you want to keep up with what we're doing on a day-to-day basis and we have some really great survival articles on our website. Stuff like how to build a shelter and how to find water in a desert if you'd like to search for them on our homepage at

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