Racing to Win: The Conquest of the South Pole

Jan 11, 2014 | Updated Mar 12, 2014

Last week, as 52 passengers were rescued from a ship stuck in Antarctic ice for 10 days, I was reminded of an earlier expedition to the dangerous, seductive and, at the time, largely unchartered continent of Antarctica: the race to discover the South Pole. In 1911-1912, a rivalry unfolded between two explorers and their respective teams and nations: Roald Amundsen of Norway and Robert Falcon Scott of Britain. Each man hoped to be the first to reach the pole and return safely, thus claiming the honor for his country. It was a contest of nationalism, ego, speed, survival and, above all, leadership.

Under Amundsen's command, the five-man Norwegian team succeeded brilliantly. Using dog sleds and skis, the men traveled the 700 miles from base camp to the Pole in 49 days, covering an average of about 14 miles a day over terrain that included climbing and crossing the 10,000-foot Transantarctic Mountains and avoiding hundreds of crevasses. On December 14, 1911, they arrived at the southernmost point on earth, a destination that had eluded many explorers before them and proudly planted their country's flag. Despite having traveled in the chill of Antarctica's summer when the thermometer hovered as low as -50 degrees (Fahrenheit), the men were energized, physically and mentally -- a result of Amundsen's meticulous logistical planning, disciplined energy management (of men and dogs) and his thoughtful leadership, day after day.

As they headed north to return to base camp, the Norwegians could rely on the route they had carefully staked out -- using black flags and cairns built of snow -- on their outbound journey. The five men and dogs traveled efficiently by night to avoid the snow blindness that besets men facing north in the Antarctic summer. They slept during the day, often spending up to 16 hours in their sleeping bags -- on their leader's orders -- to ensure the men were rested physically and mentally. They also ate well, living off food and fuel that had been cached in the snow (and prominently marked) when they had traveled south to the Pole.

When the team grew closer to base camp, the pace accelerated, spurred on by the extra weight the men were able to shed by jettisoning unneeded food and fuel supplies. On January 26, 1912, Amundsen and his four teammates arrived back at base camp. They were 10 days ahead of schedule, in high spirits, healthy and well nourished. Measured against virtually any standard, the journey had been a tour de force.

Roland Huntford, author of several books on Antarctic explorers, including The Last Place on Earth (New York: Modern Library, 1999), which reconstructs the 1911-12 race for the South Pole, called Amundsen's expedition "his masterpiece, a culmination of the classical age of Polar exploration and perhaps, the greatest snow journey ever made."

By marked contrast, the British team, led by Scott, arrived at the Pole on January 17, 1912, more than a month after Amundsen's expedition had laid claim to the place. Scott and his four companions had traveled roughly the same distance south as their rivals, both teams setting out -- two weeks apart -- from different points on the northern edge of the Ross Ice Shelf. But where the Norwegians had been healthy and focused when they arrived at the South Pole, Scott and his men were debilitated and dispirited after an exhausting journey. Although the British team had left base camp with ponies to pull the sledging loads, the animals proved ill-suited to the terrain and had to be shot before the expedition reached the Transantarctic Mountains. From that point on, some 300 miles north of the Pole, the British party had man-hauled their sledges. It was backbreaking work with the men pulling an average of 200 pounds apiece, made more difficult by the absence of snowshoes and the party's lack of systematic training in using skis.

Scott and his men were inadequately clothed and most likely suffering the early symptoms of scurvy, a result of poor nutritional preparation. Most ominous, as they stood at the Pole and surveyed the Norwegian flag -- unmistakable evidence that their rivals had won the race -- the British leader and his four companions were hungry. The British explorers were each burning up more calories per day hauling sledges than Scott had budgeted for in stocking rations. Adding to collective concern about their condition and the 700-mile return trip to base camp was the knowledge that Scott had laid only two food and fuel depots along the 210-mile expanse between the northern edge of the mountain range and 80 degrees latitude (by comparison, Amundsen had laid seven along this distance). Finally, although Scott had originally planned to make the final assault on the pole with three other men, he had decided at the last minute to include another. Five men, instead of four, had thus made the push toward the Pole; five men now had to get back safely to base camp. But since Scott's team had planned, carried and cached rations for four men, the caloric arithmetic did not add up.

During the first three weeks of the return journey, heading north with the polar wind behind them, the British team averaged a brisk 14 miles a day as they hauled one sledge. But it soon became apparent that the men were marching for their lives. Scott had cut his food rations too fine, supplies ran low and the team consistently had to drive themselves hard to reach the next depot, frequently struggling to find the caches they had laid on the outward journey but had not adequately marked. Many days they marched 12 hours or more. Scott did not think to switch to traveling at night in order to have the sun behind him and avoid snow blindness, so the British explorers found the visibility poor and often strained to find the tracks they had originally made heading south. Exhausted and depleted, all five men seemed to have suffered the cold more intently than the Norwegians, who were well fed, rested and clothed.

By early February, all five British explorers -- dehydrated and, in two cases, injured -- were slowly starving. On February 17, one of the five, Edgar Evans, died in his sleep, a victim of frostbite, intermittent paralysis and hunger. The remaining four men toiled on, struggling to reach the depots as travel slowed to six to seven miles a day. In mid-March, another member of the party, Titus Oates, succumbed to gangrene, starvation and temperatures that hovered between -22 degrees and -40 degrees Fahrenheit. Unable to walk any distance and knowing that his companions were too weak to pull him on the sledge, Oates climbed out of the tent and into the whirling snow. He was not seen again.

By March 21, Scott and his two remaining companions had hauled their sledge to within 11 miles -- a bit more than a day's march -- from the next depot, which was located between 80 and 79 degrees latitude south. Weak, ill and starving, they were about 130 miles south of base camp. A blizzard struck. Hemmed in by the storm, the three men lay down to die in the tent. Their bodies, diaries and last letters were found seven months later. In Scott's letter to the public, he blamed the weather, the terrain, Oates's sickening, and fuel shortages at the depots for the failure of the mission.

How did two leaders and their teams, starting from roughly similar locations and times and racing for the same goal over similarly unchartered terrain come to such radically different ends? Why did one group succeed so completely and the other fail so miserably? For an in-depth look at the two expeditions, the men who led them (virtually) side-by-side and the key insights that remain as relevant in today's turbulence as they did in the life-threatening conditions of early 20th-century Antarctica, read my full article for athenahealth Leadership Forum: "Racing to Win: How Two Antarctic Adventurers Lead Very Different Expeditions."

Originally posted on the athenahealth Leadership Forum. To read the full article and other posts on leadership please visit