The Race to the South Pole

The “Race for the South Pole,” for those who choose to think of it as such, began one hundred years ago today—October 19,1911—when Roald Amundsen and his four companions set off from Framheim with four sledges pulled by 52 dogs. They won the “race” handily arriving at the South Pole on December 14, nearly a full month ahead of their nearest competitors, British Captain Robert Scott and his four men. The Norwegians “won.”

But is it really a race, when it was only declared by one of the contestants, and that after he was well aware of his opponent’s entire plan from start to finish, and the intended pace of it? The goals of the two were entirely different: one to reach the pole as one part of a large and far-reaching of inestimable scientific significance, the other to reach it first. Each achieved his end. In that light, which of the two can be said to have “won,” or for that matter to have “lost.”

There were others at work in the Antarctic in 1911-1912.  Have Filchner’s ill-starred plan to cross the Antarctic continent or Shirase’s industrious probe into uncharted territory been forgotten because they were not a part of the grand scheme to conquer the Pole?

This does not take away from Amundsen’s great accomplishment of “discovering” the South Pole (its location on the planet, and the nature of the plateau on which it stands, was entirely known). But it does wish to strip from him any laurels that may seem his, for winning a “race” which his opponent never entered. Each leader, and each expedition, has its fans and adherents. To cast either of them in the context of a “race” does a disservice to both.

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