The Race to the South Pole
Following years of preparation and establishing supply depots en route, two teams of brave and hardy explorers from Norway and Britain set out within days of each other to race to become the first to travel the approximately 850 miles to reach the the south pole. National pride and glory was at stake.
The Norwegian team of eight, led by Captain Roald Amundsen, left the Bay of Whales on September 8, 1911 with a caravan of sledges and ninety North Greenland sledge dogs, the best available. However, within days, the temperature dropped to -57C(-70F) and the dogs and men were getting frostbitten.
Amundsen decided to return to base and left again for the pole on October 19, this time with only fifty-two dogs. From the beginning, the Norwegian team paced themselves and their dogs, resting regularly each hour and only traveling five to six hours each day.
The British team of sixteen, led by Captain Robert Falcon Scott, left Ross Island in four parties of four each. The first party of four left on October 24, 1911 with two motorized sledges full of supplies to be taken to the Beardmore Glacier, about 200 miles away. The other three parties with the dogs and ponies left on November 1 and caught up to the motor party at the glacier on November 21.
Amongst the many challenges and problems Scott's team faced:
- The motorized sledges broke down after only 50 miles of travel, so the 740 pounds of supplies had to be man-hauled the remaining 150 miles to the Glacier meeting point.
- Scott realized only whilst on his journey that skis would have been a better option for his team, but blamed his team. As he wrote in his journal: "Skis are the thing, and here are my tiresome fellow countrymen too prejudiced to have prepared themselves for the event".
- A blizzard forced them to camp for five days and break into rations intended for the next stage of their journey.
- The ponies were soon frozen with ice and in an advanced stage of exhaustion and had to be shot.
- Scott had brought only one thermometer needed for an altitude measurement device, and became enraged when it broke.
- Scott only flagged the supply depots and left no other markings on his route, leaving himself vulnerable to missing the depots and not knowing more precisely how far away they were.
- At the last minute, Scott added one member to the final four man party going to the pole, which used up more of their rations than planned.
- Scott had allowed no contingency in supplies, so missing even one supply depot would be disastrous.
Scott attributed most of the problems he encountered to "bad luck".
Amundsen and his team faced very similar problems and challenges, but he had prepared for them well:
- He had trained and planned extensively for polar expeditions, by bicycling two thousand miles from Noarway to Spain to build his endurance, eating raw dolphin meat to determine its usefulness as an energy supply and living with Eskimos to learn how they survived the snow, ice, winds and extreme cold. He learned how they used dogs to pull sleds and wore skins and loose clothing and moved slowly to avoid sweating that can quickly turn to ice.
- Even though Shackleton, another famous Arctic explorer had previously deemed the ice at the Bay of Whales unstable, Amundsen studied Shackleton's records and concluded that the Barrier there could indeed safely support a site. This gave Amundsen the valuable benefit of a 60 mile shorter journey than Scott.
- Amundsen used dogs, who don't sweat like ponies and were much more suited to the extreme conditions and snow than the ponies and motor sledges used by Scott. The weaker dogs were also able to be killed and used as food for the remaining dogs, unlike the ponies who do not typically eat meat.
- Amundsen brought four thermometers to cover exactly the kind of accident that Scott had.
- Amundsen flagged not only each supply depot, but placed 20 black pennants in precise increments for miles on each side, giving a wide target in case he was slighly off course on his return journey. To further mark his course, Amundsen left packing case remnants every quarter of a mile and a black flag hoisted high on a bamboo pole every eight miles.
- Amundsen recruited a team of experienced skiers, including a champion skier as a front runner, who was also a skilled carpenter and ski maker. Others chosen were veterans of previous expeditions, expert with dogs, and in at least one case an expert cook.
- Amundsen provided for almost ten times the amount of supplies per person than Scott, and carried enough supplies so that his party could miss every single depot and still go another hundred miles.
- Having been first mate on a failed voyage (on the Belgica) before, Amundsen learned many lessons there, including the importance of keeping up morale. Accordingly, he planned for leisure time with a library of around 3,000 books, a gramophone and a large quantity of records and a range of musical instruments.
The winner (and loser)
The Amundsen team reached the south pole on December 14, 1911 and made a successful journey home, with all men returning safely to home base on January 25, precisely as he had planned.
Scott's final party of five reached the South Pole on January 17, 1912 and were of course dismayed to find that they had been beaten to the pole by 33 days. Due to extreme conditions and a lack of adequate supplies, they all perished on their journey home. Scott and the remaining two survivors of his team were found dead in their tent, just ten miles from their next supply depot.
"Amundsen’s expedition benefited from careful preparation, good equipment, appropriate clothing, a simple primary task (Amundsen did no surveying on his route south and is known to have taken only two photographs), an understanding of dogs and their handling, and the effective use of skis. In contrast to the misfortunes of Scott’s team, Amundsen’s trek proved rather smooth and uneventful.
In Amundsen’s own words:
Leadership Lessons Learned"I may say that this is the greatest factor—the way in which the expedition is equipped—the way in which every difficulty is foreseen, and precautions taken for meeting or avoiding it. Victory awaits him who has everything in order — luck, people call it. Defeat is certain for him who has neglected to take the necessary precautions in time; this is called bad luck."— from The South Pole, by Captain Roald Amundsen." Source: Wikipedia
There are many useful leadership lessons that can be learned from these two brave explorers and their expeditions under very similar circumstances but with vastly different results, among them the importance and value of:
- Focussing on the key goal and avoidance of distracting and less important goals
- Thorough planning and preparation
- Providing reserves for contingencies
- Thoughtful and measured implementation
- Selection of the most appropriate resources and team for the job
- Detailed risk management (and not taking foolhardy risks)
- Learning from your mistakes (and those of others)
- Keeping up the morale of your team
And here is one final leadership lesson from Amundsen: Be flexible and adaptable.
When Amundsen started his journey in 1911 with his full crew on the ship Fram, he was not planning to go to the South Pole at all. He had planned to go to the North Pole and received funding and access to the Fram for only this journey. When he learned that Cook, then Peary had both just reached the North Pole he switched his goal to the South Pole, which he only announced to his crew when they reached port in Madeira, Portugal. By staying flexible and adaptable, and re-planning thoroughly and executing diligently, he was able to replace the older and now worthless goal of reaching the North Pole and achieve the new renowned and even more worthwhile goal to be the first to reach the South Pole.
What are some of the leadership lessons that you have learned from your own experience and that of others?
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The following books are good sources for information about the Amundsen and Scott south polar expeditions, providing an interesting variety of perspectives:
The Last Place On Earth by Roland Huntford
Race to the Pole by Sir Ranulph Fiennes
The South Pole by Captain Roald Amundsen
Journals: Scott's Last Expedition by Captain Robert Falcon Scott
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