Fergus O'Connell Novelist & Writer

Leadership Lessons from the Race to the South Pole: Why Amundsen Lived and Scott Died – read the opening.

Chapter 1 Eyes on the Prize



Antarctica is a mass of ice and rock that contains the South Pole.  It is the fifth largest continent on the planet and lies almost entirely within the Antarctic Circle.  Apart from a small international scientific staff that works in and from a base at the South Pole, Antarctica is essentially uninhabited by humans.  It is surrounded by the Southern Ocean – the southern bits of the Atlantic, Pacific and Indian Oceans.  Getting there by ship can be fraught with danger since these seas are amongst the most hostile on the planet with mountainous waves and vicious winds.

Antarctica is the coldest place on the planet.  A temperatures of -89°C (-129°F) has been recorded there in winter.  In summer the temperature generally stays below 10°C (50°F) but can rise to 15°C (59°F).  The results can be sunburn, frostbite and snow blindness.  Nice huh?

Antarctica is also the windiest and driest place on earth.  Contrary to what you might have thought, it doesn’t often snow there.  The interior, for example, receives as little as 10 centimeters of snow a year.  Mostly what happens is that the existing snow gets blown around by the wind – and we’re not talking about gentle breezes here, though these can happen.  The strongest wind ever recorded in Antarctica was 327km/h (199 mph), so by ‘snow gets blown around’, think anything from drift to blizzards to whiteouts.

The Antarctic ice sheet covers 98% of the continent’s land and is an average of a mile (1.6 km) thick.  About 70% of the world’s fresh water is locked up in the Antarctic ice cap.  You can see then why it would be a problem if it were to melt.  The Antarctic is pitch dark during the winter and the sun never sets during the summer.

There is no animal or bird life in the interior of Antarctica – only along its coasts.  Here can be found penguins, seals, whales, orcas, squid and various fish and smaller creatures like mites, lice and krill.  There are also numerous varieties of birds – flying ones, as opposed to penguins.

The South Pole stands on a plateau at an elevation of over 2,700 meters above sea level.  Because of Earth’s rotation, the air is denser over the Equator and thinner over the Pole.  As a result of this, the effective altitude of the Pole is about 4,200 meters.  This means that working at these altitudes is almost like being on top of Mont Blanc (which is 4,810 meters) – but not just for the few hours it might take to summit it and come back down again.  Rather, going to the South Pole overland means you will be doing gruelling physical work at these altitudes for weeks.  (Working at altitude can result in headaches, shortage of breath, nausea, fatigue, loss of memory, lack of concentration, lack of appetite and inablility to get to sleep.  It just keeps getting better and better, doesn’t it?)

At the very end of the 19th century, explorers were just opening up Antarctica.  The Belgica expedition (1897 -1901) was the first to spend a winter in Antarctica when the ship from which the expedition took its name was caught in the polar ice.  The first expedition to winter properly on the Antarctic continent was the British Southern Cross expedition (1898 -1900) led by Norwegian, Carsten Borchgrevink.  Together with nine men, Borchgrevink landed on the Antarctic Continent, erected a hut and spent a winter there.

This then, was the state of play, as the 20th century opened and our story begins.


The Race Begins

At half past eight on the evening of 9 August 1910, the ship Fram, carrying nineteen men and ninety seven Greenland sledge dogs, weighed anchor and slipped quietly away from its moorings on the small island of Flekkero off Kristiansand in Norway. The ship’s captain, Roald Amundsen, wrote in his diary.  ‘A wonderful feeling to cast off at last, and head for the goal.  Clear and calm.  Hot as the warmest summer’s day … All well.’  Once out in the open sea, the ship would turn south.  Its destination was Antarctica.

Two months earlier on 1 June 1910, the converted whaler, Terra Nova, had also set sail – this time from the West India Docks in London.  The send off was very different.  Captain ‘Bob’ Bartlett, a man who had been with the American Polar explorer, Robert Peary, saw the send off and wrote, ‘There were gold lace and cocked hats and dignitaries enough to run a Navy.’  The Terra Nova stopped in Cardiff in South Wales to pick up coal.  Finally on 15 June, again amidst great hoopla, it departed.

A fifty six second British Pathé clip of the ship’s departure exists.  You’ll find it on YouTube.  The clip is captioned ‘CARDIFF.  The ship “Terra-Nova” leaving harbor towards the South Pole.’  In it a tug tows the Terra Nova out of Cardiff’s Bute Docks.  Crowds of well wishers line the flag-bedecked quayside, wave their hats and cheer (silently – it’s a silent movie.)  Surprisingly, there are some women on board the ship – they’re visible near the stern – in ankle length skirts and hats.  But no, it’s not what you might be thinking!  These are the wives of some of the ship’s officers who travelled as far as New Zealand with the ship.

One of the men on board the Terra Nova, Trygve Gran, a Norwegian, wrote, ‘Never before or since in time of peace have I heard such an uproar.  As [sic] that which made the air tremble as Terra Nova glided out through the docks.’

Decorated with flags from topmast to deck the ship carried sixty four officers and men.  It would pick up its animals – Siberian ponies and sledge dogs – later on in New Zealand.  Once clear of the Bristol Channel, it too turned south.  It’s captain, Robert Falcon Scott, was not on board – he would also catch up with it in New Zealand. However, its destination was the same as Amundsen’s – Antarctica.

Both ships were journeying to the frozen continent with a common purpose – to land a team there and to have some of that team become the first men to stand at the Geographic South Pole.  The South Pole was the ‘prize’ – the last great unattained goal of terrestrial exploration.  The race was on.