It was the year 1911, and the world was running out of undiscovered places.
Roald Amundsen, a Norwegian explorer, was determined to be the first to reach the South Pole, the bottom of the Earth.
But he wasn’t the only one. Robert Scott, a British naval officer, was also preparing his team to reach the southernmost point of the Earth.
Previously, Amundsen’s initial goal was to become the first person to reach the North Pole. But when he heard that American explorer Robert Peary was leading an expedition to the Arctic, Amundsen swiftly changed plans and set his sights on Antarctica.
He kept his plans a secret, leading the public and even his own team to believe that he was still heading to the North Pole. Amundsen feared that if the media and government knew his plans, it would hurt his chances of success.
It was only after the ship took off on June 3, 1910 from Oslo that he announced his plans publicly. Scott and his crew followed shortly after from Cardiff on June 15.
Born in 1872, Amundsen came from a line of shipowners and captains. He began pursuing his lifelong dream of exploring the wilderness by joining the Belgian Antarctic Expedition in 1897, where he first experienced winter in Antarctica.
He later led an expedition to the Northwest Passage, where Amundsen and his crew learned survival skills from the local Intuit people for two years. This would later prove invaluable for his South Pole expedition.
Robert Scott was born in 1868 to a family with naval and military traditions, prompting him to join the navy as a cadet at only 13 years old. In 1901, he led the Discovery Expedition to Antarctica as an opportunity to prove himself.
Although the crew lacked in Antarctic experience, they managed to journey along the coast to discover the Polar Plateau in their three-year journey. Scott came back a hero and was promoted to captain.
Scott’s two objectives were to gather scientific knowledge and reach the South Pole. Amundsen, however, had a singular focus: to be the first to reach the South Pole.
In his notes, Amundsen commented, “The British expedition was designed entirely for scientific research. The Pole was only a side issue, whereas in my extended plan, it was the main object.”
Amundsen iterated his sole intention repeatedly: “At all costs we had to be first at the finish. Everything had to be concentrated on that.”
Previously, Ernest Shackleton had unsuccessfully attempted to reach the South Pole on the Nimrod Expedition, coming within 112 miles of his destination. Since Shackleton’s route was proven and reliable, Scott decided to model his path after his predecessor.
Amundsen, on the other hand, planned a riskier route. He set up camp at the Bay of Whales on the Great Ice Barrier. While it was closer to the South Pole, the ice shelf could collapse and send him and his crew into the sea. If they survived that, Amundsen’s team would have to trek through an uncharted path and find an opening in the mountains to pass through.
Was it a risk worth taking? According to Amundsen, it was.
His camp location was 60 miles closer to the South Pole than Scott’s, which meant that time, energy, and resources would be saved — assuming that the unknown terrain wasn’t difficult enough to offset the decreased distance.
And while no one had camped at the Bay of Whales, previous expeditions had reported that ice levels remained unchanged for decades. Given this knowledge, Amundsen figured it was stable enough to set up camp.
Amundsen and Scott’s preparations were finally put to the test when they set out from base camp on October 19 and November 1, 1911, respectively.
Based on his time with the Inuit, Amundsen decided to use only dogs for transportation. Dogs were fast, fairly cold-resistant, and his team was experienced with the animals. A five-person team set out with 52 dogs and four sledges, with the intention of killing some dogs along the way to provide fresh meat for crew and other dogs.
Scott relied on numerous methods of transportation: two dog teams, 10 horses, manually pulling the sledges (“man-hauling”), and motorized sledges, a new technology. His plan was to set out with 16 men in three teams and have most of the teams turn back, leaving only a team of five to complete the final run to the South Pole. Scott’s team would also rely partially on dogs, along with horses, for their diets.
Both teams started off strong. Amundsen’s crew traveled at a fast pace with the help of their dogs. Along the way, they used supplies dropped off earlier in the year for sustenance.
When they reached the mountains, they managed to find an opening through a steep glacier. After four days of struggle, the dogs and crew made it through, reaching their destination on December 14. Amundsen and his team were the first ones to reach the South Pole.
Scott’s team used their hands to haul some of the supplies, which was considered a noble and proud choice. Seeing no trace of Amundsen’s team, Scott believed that they were ahead in the race. Scott’s team took geological samples, analyzed them, and made notes along the way for their scientific research.
Unfortunately, Scott’s motorized sledges proved unreliable, breaking down partway through the journey. The horses, too, were unsuited for the harsh environment. Susceptible to cold, the horses slowed down progress and all had to be shot.
Scott decided partway through the journey that the dogs would not be suited for the steep terrain, so he sent them back to camp. Now, man-hauling was no longer a noble decision; it became a necessity. The men would be pushed to the limits of their endurance and strength.
Finally, Scott and his four other crew members reached the South Pole on January 17, 1912 — only to find that Amundsen’s team had arrived a month earlier. Sorely disappointed, they only had a long, arduous return to look forward to.
But the worst was yet to come.
By this time, Amundsen and his crew were a week away from reaching base camp. 11 dogs and all of the crew arrived safely on January 25, packed their things, and headed to Australia, where Amundsen would announce his success to the world.
Meanwhile, the struggle was just beginning for Scott and his team. Summer was coming to an end, and the crew was racing to beat the oncoming winter season. Unfortunately, they were hit with unexpected blizzards and freezing temperatures, slowing their progress.
Depots containing food and supplies were spread out thinly. Despite expending more energy to haul heavy sledges, the crew was forced to divide their rations. In short, the men were beginning to starve.
Two of the crew, Evans and Oates, succumbed to frostbite. The remaining three, Scott, Bowers and Wilson, knew that it was crucial to reach the One Ton depot for food and provisions.
Despite their efforts, the blizzards swirled around them, holding them hostage in their tent. Scott and his crew eventually died from starvation and the cold. They were only a day’s travel from the depot.
If the motorized sledges worked, Scott’s team might have needed less food to sustain themselves. If Amundsen had taken Shackleton’s route, Scott and his crew might have saved themselves the effort of reaching the South Pole. If the weather had stayed calm, Scott’s team might have survived.
Yet it wasn’t to be.
In our lives, events sometimes take an unexpected turn for the worse. Had the train run smoothly, you would have showed up on time for the interview. Had customers paid on time, all the company expenses would have been covered.
Bad things happen. And while most of them are unexpected, many of them are avoidable.
Scott’s decisions to use horses and the unproven motorized sledges slowed them down. Man-hauling drained them of their energy and upped their needed calorie intake. And while the amount of food and supplies at the depot were barely enough for ideal conditions, they were not sufficient for the team in their current state.
One mistake wasn’t fatal. But the culmination was.
Similarly, making one bad decision may not be damaging in the long run — like a poor financial investment — but a series of mistakes can make it hard to recuperate from the losses.
Amundsen didn’t simply prepare for the expedition. He overprepared.
His team designed their own gear and tested them out, refining them repeatedly until they were as well-suited to the trip as possible. Compared to mass manufactured equipment, the customized gear was better suited and tailored according to each crew member.
Amundsen also carefully planned out how the depots would be placed. As a result, each depot had more than enough food for each member. To make sure that they would be easily spotted, a pathway of black flags were placed from one depot to the next.
These are only a few examples of the lengths that Amundsen went to make sure his crew was safe and well-fed. He read journals and reports meticulously, was willing to learn from the experienced Inuit people, and built buffers into the journey in case of unexpected events. He did not leave things up to chance.
You can build buffers for those big events in your life. You can put away small savings on a consistent basis for emergencies. You can test out a speech on others and revise it until it becomes captivating and memorable. You can set the submission date for an application days before the actual deadline in case any issues pop up.
Shackleton’s escape from death in Antarctica may have convinced Scott that taking a similar approach would be the safest bet. But a series of factors, along with his own pride, worked against him.
Pride kept him from seeking the help of people experienced in that environment. Pride kept him from using more reliable modes of transport to haul the supplies.
And while it’s easy to shake your head at him, here’s the truth: everyone is susceptible to letting emotions get in the way of goals. The time, experience, and knowledge spent on preparation are only useful if you’re willing to apply what you’ve learned.
As Roald Amundsen wrote (and this goes for everyone): “Victory awaits him who has everything in order.”
Originally published on Medium.
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