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the Amundsen factor #3

As the great mountain explorer Bill Tilman often remarked, the quantity and quality of food on an expedition is supremely important. Indeed it can make or break morale.

Amundsen knew this, which was why he was the expedition cook. Amundsen also simplified rations down to only four ingredients – pemmican, biscuit, milk powder and chocolate. No coffee or tea which he regarded as ‘dangerous stimulants’ on an expedition. To coffee addicted Norweigians this is harsh indeed, yet my own experience of too much coffee on a trip that involves long sustained work, is that you over exert at the beginning and crash later on- and on any trip involving the possibility of frostbite when you drop your vigilance, you cannot risk that. An interesting example of Amundsen’s attention to detail.

Having four ingredients in a ration pack simplifies things amazingly. Chocolate plus milk makes a drink. Biscuit plus chocolate makes desert. Biscuit plus pemmican makes dinner. Pemmican plus milk plus biscuit makes a slightly different dinner. Monotonous- maybe- but with added fresh(ish) seal meat it was perfectly adequate. Scott did not capitalise on the fresh seal meat possibilities- as a result all his team were suffering the onset of scurvy by the end.

If you know what is in each pack you don’t have to open it to find out. Very important in sub-zero temperatures when you have mitts on. There is also less chance of waste with opened and discarded packs being pilfered from.

After quantity and quality of food is regularity. On a good expedition you eat at the same time every day. There is nothing more hateful than sitting around for an hour at the end of a hard day waiting for the bloody cook.

When Amundsen packed the food he insisted it be done with great care. Milk was poured into little bags which were inserted between the other ingredients to fill in the gaps. The ration pack containers themselves were made wood painted black. These could then be used to make marker poles which stood out against the snow. A line of such poles either side of a supply cairn enabled its easy discovery during poor conditions.

The cook has the chance to build morale or depress it with his cooking. With his instinct for making every element of the expedition work optimally, Amundsen certainly understood the key role of the cook. One can generalise from this and see what role, in any project or operation, touches everyone on each day in a significant manner. It could be quite lowly- a secretary or receptionist – yet their effect could quite outweigh their apparent ‘insignificance’.

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