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« the Amundsen factor #3 | Main | the Amundsen factor »

the Amundsen factor #2

Though Amundsen had won his race to the South Pole almost before Scott had begun (he was 200 nautical miles ahead of Scott when the latter started) he made mistakes, some of them just as ‘foolish’ as Scott’s.

I use inverted commas because anyone engaged in pioneering a new route will make mistakes. When an historian who has never made a long journey in unknown terrain criticises the efforts of these early explorers, you can either be amused or annoyed- either way it seems hindsight is always 20:20. Roland Huntford- whose biographies of Shackleton, Scott and Amundsen are always brilliantly informative and excellently written- suffers from the desire to point out and jeer every time Scott puts a foot wrong. He appears to find everything British laughable and everything Norwegian admirable. He puts Amundsen and his co-explorer Bjaaland on a pedestal and he despises Scott. 

There is a photograph in Huntford’s ‘Race for the South Pole’ of Scott and Amundsen. One in furs and the other in a cloth coat. Tacitly the book is supporting the recurrent myth that the British, in their Burberry cloth jackets, were wearing the wrong clothes for a march on the pole. Yet Amundsen wore clothes made from exactly the same cloth as the British! It is true Amundsen started out wearing furs, which were useful when they were ski-jorring (being pulled along on skiis while attached or holding onto the sledge) because the lack of body movement made them colder. But once they had to actively ski, furs were too warm and too heavy to just carry. Once Amundsen and his team encountered the barrier and were ascending to the polar plateau they ditched their reindeer furs. At the pole Amundsen wore a ventile cloth anorak cut to allow lots of movement. He only kept a fur hood which he had cut off his reindeer coat.

My kids came home from school and told me Amundsen beat Scott because he had dogs. It isn’t that simple. It was initially settled by Mear and Swann in 1986 and many subsequent expeditions (indeed all current expeditions as dogs are banned in Antarctica- crazy I know) that manhauling is a perfectly acceptable form of polar transport. If Scott had only manhauled, things might have been different. But he used dogs, ponies and motor tractors as well. All this made for exceptional planning problems. Add in the fact that his polar party- for reasons of service etiquette included the unfit Oates- was enlarged at the last minute from four to five- which made all the prepacked rations the wrong quantity. When the supply teams returned they over consumed from already-opened ration packs and most importantly already-opened paraffin cans.

If there is a single biggest failure in Scott’s expedition it was probably the fact that his fuel supplies were too low to start with and were further reduced massively by paraffin ‘creep’. At very low temperatures paraffin becomes a strange semi-solid that can creep up the inside of a can and out of a poorly secured bung. Lead soldered seams can also open at low temperatures. Amundsen had his cans silver soldered and once opened, Bjaaland soldered a tap on a can so that the precious liquid wouldn’t creep out. Scott was eating semi -frozen rations by the end and sitting in freezing tent because he had not enough fuel. It was not the food he needed at one ton depot but the fuel. Amundsen, with his experience of five years in the arctic knew that fuel supplies were hugely important- for warmth, cooking and for melting snow to avoid dehydration. He took ten times the weight of supplies that Scott did.

It is interesting to look at the expedition structures and how responsive each man was to information and advice from below. Both Scott and Amundsen were desperate to not leave the Antarctic empty-handed. Here we see the germ of ‘overloading’ the mission ie. losing focus. In Scott’s case this meant proposing his 13 day side journey to the western hills and glaciers. Amundsen proposed a similar pre-pole journey to King Edward VII land only to be dissuaded of it by the other expedition members. Because his position was less authoritarian than Scott’s, he backed down. There was some give and take in how things were decided. Scott, as naval officer, simply drafted orders from his desk in the Discovery Hut and expected them to be followed. Evans pointed out that they would better off going 150 miles in the direction of the pole than poking around in the wrong direction- whatever the geological benefits. Scott overruled him.

One can easily get caught up in Scott v. Amundsen as it’s so fascinating. However I am just as interested in what we can learn about the ‘Amundsen factor’. How, while still making errors, Amundsen was never floored in the way Scott was.

Amundsen’s major ‘error’ was to leave too early for the pole when it was still very cold. He was mislead, to some extent, by Scott and Shackleton’s previous temperature readings from the warmer McMurdo sound. But the major cause was over eagerness to move.

His error in starting out too soon when the weather was too cold became apparent very quickly. After five days they turned tail and returned to the hut- some of the men with frost nipped heels. Yet this failure was turned to his advantage in many ways. First it precipitated a bitter argument between Amundsen and Johansen, who was the more experienced polar explorer but resented Amundsen’s leadership. The mutinous comments made by an irate Johansen gave Amundsen the right to remove this troublesome explorer from the polar team. He had already been worried about Johansen’s instability but had lacked a hard reason to exclude him. But it had to be done- emotional ructions use up far too much energy to be countenanced on a serious expedition. A second benefit of the early start was that the ski-boots were revealed as over tight- these were taken apart and restitched to make them more comfortable. Given that tight boots are the single easiest way to get frostbitten feet this was no small advantage.

Perhaps the Amundsen factor is best revealed in the way Amundsen takes ‘bad luck’ and turns it around. Scott constantly bemoans his misfortune in his diaries. If there is a storm Amundsen is philosophical but Scott is depressed. So much so one is tempted to suggest- “What did you expect? It’s the south pole!”

To believe that luck is needed in any enterprise is the wrong footing to start out on. Of course you are probably going to need a ton of luck along the way, but you need to be able to visualise success without it. This Amundsen did, with massive quantities of supplies and meticulous planning for every eventuality. Scott bemoaned his luck because he relied on it. When his luck ran out he lacked the inner perspective to turn things around.


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