The Race to the End of the Earth
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The Race to the End of the Earth

I recently visited the Royal British Columbia Museum for their exhibit on the British and Norwegian South Pole expeditions of 1911/1912 (no permanent URL: temporary one at ).  The basic story is well known in Canada: how two expeditions both arrived in Antarctica in hope of being the first to the South Pole, how the Norwegian expedition traveled quickly to the pole and returned safely, and how the British came late, ran out of food and fuel, and froze just short of a supply cache.  I have been thinking about the story they tell about this expedition (which is definitely not one of the areas of my expertise).

Canadian patriots often criticize the British for not learning how to survive in the North from the Inuit then applying their knowledge in the South.  I didn’t know just how poorly they were prepared.  The British expedition relied on four kinds of traction: mostly nineteen ponies, but also three tracked vehicles, twenty-five dogs, and their own feet.  Since the ponies had wintered in the Antarctic, and the motor vehicles broke down or fell into the sea, this put very great demands on the men. The final stages of the haul to the pole and the whole march back were done by men on foot and skis hauling sledges with belly-bands.  The Norwegians just used dogsleds.  The British also wore mostly woolen clothing and patent sungoggles, whereas the Norwegians wore fur anoraks and leather sungoggles.  The British fuel tins leaked, possibly because they had not tested their fuel cans in sufficiently cold and windy conditions.  Every volunteer for the polar expedition showed great nobility and courage, but sometimes those virtues are not enough.

I also could not help thinking of the coming world war.  Europeans would have all too many opportunities to display stoic courage in the coming years, and tracked vehicles remained alluring but imperfect.  The late John Keegan once wrote a detailed comparison between infantry and mountaineers, but it seems to me that arctic and antarctic exploration has some similarities to soldiering as well.

I also did not know that the British polar party under Scott was just a small part of a large group which used its time in Antarctica to do scientific research.  The British expedition included a number of scientists who came home with their sketches and measurements and penguin eggs.  In the story as they tell it, the Norwegian expedition under Amundsen was less interested in scientific research.  If the British pole party had not earned immortal glory for their courage in the face of disaster, they would have earned a quieter kind for their contributions to human knowledge.

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