In December 1911, two groups of explorers dressed in sealskin coats struggled across the white expanse of the Antarctic. Two expeditions, one headed by Norwegian Roald Engelbert Amundsen, and a second one led by Britain’s Robert Falcon Scott, were racing one another to reach the South Pole. By the start of the 20th Century, most of the planet had been explored. The last bastion was the South Pole, at heart of the Antarctic. Amundsen and Scott knew they shared the same goal. Each knew only the other stood in his way.
The two men chose different strategies. Scott set up base camp at Cape Evans, while Amundsen used Whale Bay, about 100 kilometers closer to the pole. On October 19, 1911, Amundsen and his four-man team left their base camp on skis, sleds, and accompanied by 52 dogs. Nearly two weeks later, on November 1, Scott’s five-man team began its own push. Scott opted for Siberian ponies and motorized sleds, a choice that would prove fatal. The motorized sleds were unreliable. The ponies couldn’t adapt to the brutal cold and had to be put down. After that, Scott and his team were forced to pull their sleds on foot. Meanwhile, Amundsen struggled forward, killing his own dogs in order to conserve food. The only animals he spared were those strictly necessary for task at hand. On December 14, 1911, after a 50-day, 1,000-kilometer trek, Amundsen’s team finally reached the South Pole. Scott got there a month later, on January 18, 1912.
To his chagrin, he found a Norwegian flag and a tent already set up there. Inside was a victory letter from his rival. As Amundsen successfully made his way home, Scott’s team bogged down. Discouraged and exhausted, expedition members died of starvation and exposure while trying to get back to the base camp. Their bodies were discovered months later. The conquest of the South Pole emphasized human tenacity at its most indomitable, with men ready to challenge even the daunting Antarctic.
Amundsen’s success gave him immediate historical stature. But Scott, who froze to death famished and alone, also left an indelible mark as a man who died in the name of a dream.