Walking to the South Pole

The distance from the coast of Antarctica to the pole is about 700 miles each way. This is roughly the distance between Boston and Detroit. The vast majority of the route is entirely flat, white, and featureless. You will see no animals and no plants. It's freezing cold and the sun never sets. You are walking for 90 days.


The South Pole Today

South Pole Temp at time of writing: -81 degrees F. 

When Amundsen got to the south pole, there was nothing there. When Scott got there all he found was the stuff that Amundsen left behind a few weeks before.

Now, the giant "Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station" is home to 200 scientists (50 in the winter.) The station is a giant complex of buildings with its own airport. It sits in the middle of a featureless white plain on the antarctic plateau.

It's very cool. It used to be a dome, but now it's a big building on stilts. They even put up a goofy striped pole with a silver ball on top.

(scientists having fun)

  • It's dark for 6 months of the year and light for the rest. 
  • Winter = March through September 
  • Summer = September through March


Roland Huntford Hates Robert Falcon Scott

There is a distinct slant to this book in favor of Amundsen. There are a couple reasons for that.

Roland Huntford has spent the better part of his career dismantling the legacy of Robert Falcon Scott. Scott was basically a British naval officer who decided to get rich and famous by going to the south pole. He had no cold-weather experience, and no particular interest in the pole itself. He was just a plucky British guy with the right rank and a lot of determination.

But what he did was craft an image of himself as a heroic amateur explorer who, by way of luck, grit, and  British happy-go-lucky attitude, took on the most daunting challenge of his time. He did this through public speaking, political connections, friends in high places, and, most importantly, writing. Scott wrote books and made himself look very good. He also wrote his diaries in full-knowledge that they'd be published. So he left some of the bad parts out, glossed over difficulties, and presented a willfully distorted version of his cheery British exploration party.

In truth, says Huntford, Scott was a shockingly unprepared explorer and a terrible leader who marched his men to certain death. And he killed a bunch of ponies and WHY would you bring ponies to the south pole?

By placing Scott's diary (long-winded, out of order, full of complicated plans, countless accidents and missteps, ponies, zero margins of error, etc.) next to Amundsen's diary (precise, short, dry, frankly boring, describing a perfectly executed trip to the pole with basically no trouble at all), Huntford is trying to use Scott's own words to destroy him.

Huntford has been slammed for his take-downs of Scott because everyone loves the idea of the heroic/flawed Scott-figure. Amundsen was too good. He was too boring and he didn't have any crazy British adventures in the snow. So by using the diaries to prove his point for him, Huntford keeps his hands clean. Although, he does lay it on pretty thick in the footnotes. And the 30 page introduction tears Scott down before you even get to the diaries.


Race for the South Pole: Some Background Info

The year was 1910 and the world had been thoroughly explored, with one glaring exception: The South Pole. The Pole was the goal and the first man to reach it was guaranteed fame, fortune, and honor. Two men set out in ships, within weeks of each other, to claim the pole and immortality via history books.

Neither knew the other's plans. So, one important point: As Huntford puts it - "It is difficult now to conceive of the isolation possible on the earth before time and space were annihilated by instant communication." As those ships left port they "might have been adrift out in the cosmos...more alone than any space capsule today."

Imagine their surprise when, in a place where there are literally no people for thousands of miles, one ship sailed into a bay and found another already anchored there.

A race!

This is a story about two men, Robert Falcon Scott and Roald Amundsen, but behind their every move lies the ghostly presence of a third. A man who, two years before, had come within spitting distance of the pole. A man who proved it was possible. A man who found the way and drew the map. A man who became the first human being to see, and travel on, the South Polar Plateau. A man who came up just few miles short. The man. Ernest Shackleton.


Ernest Shackleton. Irish.
Farthest South: 88° 23′ S

Robert Falcon Scott. English.
Farthest South: 90° S

Roald Amundsen. Norwegian.
Farthest South: 90° S

Hey, guess who won.

Hey, guess who died.