Remembering The Race To The South Pole

In 1911, two groups of explorers set out to be first to reach the South Pole. One claimed victory, and the other perished on the return trip. Ross MacPhee of the American Museum of Natural History and polar explorer John Huston discuss these scientific pioneers.

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IRA FLATOW, host:

Next up, we're talking this hour about Race to the Earth, this exhibit that opens up at the American Museum of Natural History. [POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION: The exhibit is called "Race to the End of the Earth."]

And if you want a vacation, that's the place to go, because they're talking about the coldest place on Earth: Antarctica. In fact, it's a - let me set the stage for you. It's 1910, two teams of explorers are gearing up for one of the most epic races in exploration history - the first person to reach the South Pole. It's really an international battle. You've got naval officer Robert Falcon Scott, who leads the official British expedition. You've got Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen, who is crafting his plans in secrecy for a race that would get underway the next year, in 1911.

And the race for - between Scott and Amundsen, it's a controversial topic. It's been one for the past century. It's very funny. When you talk about this, people take the - tend to take sides about who is the most heroic figure here. And historians and scientists are still trying to figure out what really happened during that Antarctic summer of 1911. Why did one team, the Norwegian team, end up with an easy victory, smoking cigars at the South Pole, and the other team, Scott's team, ending in a tragic failure, all five members of the team freezing and starving to death on their way back, trying to get home?

So we're going to be talking to the curator of a new exhibit on that race and a polar explorer to shed some light on this moment in history a century later. Our number - 1-800-989-8255 is our number. This is SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR.

And I'm Ira Flatow with Dr. Ross MacPhee. He is curator in the Department of Mammalogy in the Division of Vertebrate Zoology at the American Museum of National History here in New York. He's also the author of a new book, "Race to the End," a great book about Antarctica and that race. Thanks for being with us today.

Dr. ROSS MacPHEE (American Museum of Natural History): Thank you, Ira.

FLATOW: As someone who was in Antarctica and the South Pole over 30 years ago, people like - I understand people still are talking about this race.

Dr. MacPHEE: Yes. And I think...

FLATOW: It's amazing, 100 years later.

Dr. MacPHEE: And they'll be doing it for another 100 years, I'm sure. It's because the contest between the British and the Norwegians to stand first at the South Pole has all the elements of a heroic quest. You have two men - if we're only going to talk about Scott and Amundsen for the minute...

FLATOW: Mm-hmm.

Dr. MacPHEE: ...who are about as different in personality as you can imagine. You have two different ways of achieving the goal - one, in the case of the Norwegian, was to use dogs, dogs, dogs. And in Scott's case, sort of a confusion of ways of getting there - ponies, sledges, dogs; in the end, man-hauling. Talk about the pleasure principle - can you imagine six or seven hundred miles worth of man-hauling just to say that the British race is not degenerate if we can still pull this off?

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. And Amundsen sort of fools everybody. I mean, he keeps it in secret, that he's headed to the North Pole, turns around, says I'm going to the South Pole and sort of keeps it secret to the end.

Dr. MacPHEE: Yes, but he had his reasons. He wanted, in fact, to be the first at the North Pole. He was Norwegian, after all, and the Arctic is the center of their exploration activity. The trouble is, he opened the newspaper in September of 1909 to find not one but two Americans had claimed to have already been there. This was Robert Peary and Fred Cook. So he had to make a decision.

His whole life was based on being first, dramatically first, in these geographical quests. The last big trip that still remained was to make it first to the South Pole. He knew that Scott had already planned and was just about ready to disembark for Antarctica. So he had to do it all in secret, otherwise he felt he would be stopped.

FLATOW: And one of the main differences, I think, is that Amundsen really was a very experienced polar explorer. And he took a lot of what he knew from the native people who lived in the Arctic regions.

Dr. MacPHEE: There's no question that preparation was everything. And yes, as you say, he had an enormous amount of experience as an Arctic explorer. He had spent quite a bit of time with a Netsilik Inuit in his conquest of the Northwest Passage, which incidentally the British had tried to conquer in the 19th century in expedition after expedition, but it was a Norwegian who was first.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm.

Dr. MacPHEE: And in opposition to that, there was Scott. Scott had been to Antarctica before. He'd been there in 1901, 1904 as commander of the Discovery Expedition. And you would have thought, as a result of that, he'd get it, he'd get it that the best way to proceed was how Amundsen and the other Scandinavian explorers worked in the Arctic. But in the end, he did not. But...

FLATOW: Because it's almost, you know, a cliche to say because that's not the British way to do it that way. He sort of looked down at Amundsen as, you know, using a lesser culture to help him get what he wanted.

Dr. MacPHEE: He did indeed, and there's no two ways about it. This is immediately before the First World War. And the way to think about this in part, I think, is that our modern world, our real 20th century, didn't begin until the ridiculousness that went on...

FLATOW: Yeah.

Dr. MacPHEE: ...in the trenches of 1914, changing everybody's perception of themselves and of culture.

FLATOW: All right. We're going to take a break and come back more and talk about Scott, Amundsen, the new book "Race to the End," with - it's a very good read. 1-800-989-8255. Stay with us. We'll be back with your questions after this break.

(Soundbite of music)

FLATOW: You're listening to SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR. I'm Ira Flatow. We're talking with Dr. Ross MacPhee, who is author of "Race to the End." It's a companion book to the American Museum of Natural History exhibit, a wonderful exhibit over there on the race to the South Pole, Scott and Amundsen.

And Scott often gets blamed for being a poor planner, doesn't he? I mean, a lot of people say he just was not prepared. Is that a fair assessment?

Dr. MacPHEE: He was a very complex man. I would like to start there. Of course he is criticized for being much less prepared than Amundsen. Amundsen was a clear thinker. He knew what he wanted to do and there was no fuss, there was no muss. There was just one way, his way, which turned out to be the best way of doing everything. Whereas with Scott, he demanded from his men that they offer suggestions but nothing else. He was not interested in debating.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm.

Dr. MacPHEE: He knew what he wanted to do in his own way, but his own way was confused. Just in the matter of transportation, he thought ponies, because Shackleton had used ponies, was a good idea, but dogs weren't because the kinds of dogs that were sledge dogs were not like the dogs you'd see back in Britain shaking their tails and licking your hand. They were brutes by comparison.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. And you had to eat your dogs.

Dr. MacPHEE: And you had to eat your dogs, which was not what a proper English gentleman was interested in doing. As far as Amundsen was concerned, man-hauling, which is what the British ended up doing after all the other modalities failed, was an abomination. He couldn't understand why anybody would want to haul a sledge packed with 800 pounds worth of goods and fuel and so forth over hundreds and hundreds of miles.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm.

Dr. MacPHEE: But that's what the British ended up doing and added largely to the problem, because their nutrition was bad, not only in its quality but also just in the amount of calories they were getting. They were getting probably only three-quarters of the intake that they needed relative to their output.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm.

Dr. MacPHEE: So along with everything else, there was probably looming starvation, perhaps even scurvy, although this is another thing that's greatly debated. But there's no question that they were impeded by their view of how a proper English...

FLATOW: Mm-hmm.

Dr. MacPHEE: ...expedition should be run.

FLATOW: A few years ago a scientist came out with a research paper looking backwards on the winter, that winter of 1911, and she wrote that, you know, we can't blame it all on Scott because the records show that was an incredibly brutal winter in Antarctica that year. And he also went late enough that would push him closer to that winter, didn't he? He went a few weeks after...

Dr. MacPHEE: Yes...

FLATOW: ... Amundsen had started.

Dr. MacPHEE: The important thing to realize about Antarctica is that it doesn't have seasons in the same sense that we have...

FLATOW: Mm-hmm.

Dr. MacPHEE: ...in the Northern Hemisphere. There's a cold season and then a very much colder season. The cold season, otherwise summer, lasts in a way that the average human would react to for maybe three months, four months at the outside, and it's bounded on either side by terrifically cold temperatures. What Scott's problem was, as you just said, Ira, was that he started late. He started in November. Amundsen started two weeks earlier than that. And Amundsen was back at his base camp 99 days later. He was therefore out during the maximum summer period, before any problems of scurvy or whatnot could show up. Scott was out at least 150 days before finally dying. And he was in that period, at the end of March, beginning of April, where the transition between anything resembling summer and active winter comes on very strong.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. What's the ultimate irony of this is that the losers, Scott and his party, they perished out there on the ice, never made it back, they would become the legend, the folk hero myth of the British Empire, where the winner, Amundsen, as you point out in your book, the victor - he faced severe financial problems and - and as you write, become one of the most unhappiest men in the world, never receiving the recognition from the British Empire that he really thought he deserved.

Dr. MacPHEE: Right. Well, you have to bear in mind, this is Britain against Scandinavia. I assure you, in Norway right now, Amundsen is the hero and Scott is the bumbler. The important thing to realize, I think, about Amundsen was that he was - he was very single-minded. You have to be if you're going to be successful at this line of work.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm.

Dr. MacPHEE: It wasn't that Scott was not interested in being first at the pole, but he had other kinds of things that he wanted to have accomplished. He wanted, for example, both of his expeditions to be regarded as primarily scientific in intent, whereas Amundsen was only interested in the brass rings, because that's what brought in the book contracts and the speaking engagements and so forth, which is how he made his money.

And with Scott, consequently, he spent a lot of treasure in ensuring that he had scientists out on the ice doing the work that they eventually in some cases became quite famous for. And this is something that should not be lost sight of, even though we see the Scott expedition as being eventually a tragedy. It wasn't from a scientific perspective. There was a lot of information and data gathered on both the discovery and the Terra Nova expedition, the second expedition on which he died, that sort of set the stage for all later Antarctic scientific work that continues right up to the present.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. 1-800-989-8255 is our number. I'm talking with Ross MacPhee. He's curator in the Department of Mammalogy at the American Museum of Natural History where there's a new exhibition on the race to the South Pole, Race to the End of the Earth, and the author of new book "Race to the End."

I want to also bring on you another guest. John Huston is a polar explorer. He was part of a team that reenacted the Amundsen-Scott journey for a BBC documentary called "Blizzard" in 2006. And for 72 days he used the same kind of skis Amundsen used. He wore the same kind of sealskin clothing. He ate the same type of rations. He joins us by phone from Chicago. Welcome to SCIENCE FRIDAY, John.

Mr. JOHN HUSTON (Polar Explorer): Thank you for having me.

FLATOW: And you were on the winning team too. Is that right?

Mr. HUSTON: That's right. The Amundsen team prevailed again in 2005 in the reenactment race.

FLATOW: Now, you didn't do this in Antarctica, did you?

Mr. HUSTON: No. In the early '90s, the U.N. passed a decree that no more non-indigenous animals are permitted in Antarctica.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm.

Mr. HUSTON: So, of course no sled dogs. So we used Greenland as a venue, which of course is much cheaper to reach logistically for a major film project.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. And did you actually climb up the 10,000 feet that these other two teams had to go from sea level to the South Pole, which is so high above, you know - it's altitude sickness. Did you have that also to contend with in Greenland?

Mr. HUSTON: Our expedition actually started on the ice cap around 7,000 feet and then we went through the mountains to mimic Amundsen's route, which is roughly 1,400 miles, and then we ended up - yes, at 10,000 feet on the ice cap. And the Greenland ice cap and Antarctic ice cap are different in some ways but, by and large, an ice cap is an ice cap.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. And did they suffer the same fate, your two teams?

Mr. HUSTON: Yes, they did. In fact, the modern Amundsen team, which I was a dog musher on, we finished the expedition in 72 days, which is a good deal faster than Amundsen did. And the modern British team struggled mightily and they were pulled off the ice after 99 days. And I believe their pace was a good bit behind Robert Falcon Scott's original pace, which was an incredible pace for the work that he was doing.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. Did you kind of feel like you got into the mind of Amundsen when you were on this?

Mr. HUSTON: Yes, I think so, as close as one can. I mean, we have a modern safety network. There were two snowmobiles following us, doing the filming. And the degree of the unknown is much different in the modern world where people have been on Greenland before. With Amundsen, every step he was taking toward the South Pole was brand new. But yes, we really felt that he did plan a fantastic expedition and we reaped the benefits of that.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. As a polar explorer, you've been both to the North Pole and the South Pole using modern equipment. What did you learn about how much easier that might be after this reenactment?

Mr. HUSTON: Well, the historic equipment, it works. It keeps you warm. It propels you forward. The skis were fantastic, eight-foot wooden skis. It's just quite a bit heavier and it takes a little bit more on expedition maintenance. We spent a lot of time sewing in the tent to keep small holes from becoming gaping holes.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. And did you have any feelings of either claustrophobia or agoraphobia out there, all this expanse of desert?

Mr. HUSTON: Yeah, so it was an incredibly boring expedition. I mean, the Greenland ice cap is - except for the mountains, we basically had 60 days of the exact same terrain every day. And the same routine, same exact diet and menu every day. And you are unable to leave on a polar expedition. So it takes a lot of mental energy to stay focused and to kind of not panic because it is a claustrophobic feeling because you cannot control all your circumstances. You can't go inside to the warm fire and warm up. You have to warm yourself up.

FLATOW: That was one of my experiences when I was at the pole in 1979, was just looking out from horizon to horizon and there's no place to go.

Mr. HUSTON: That's exactly right, no place to go. So be happy where you are.

FLATOW: You could run screaming into the night if there were one. But there wasn't any...

Mr. HUSTON: Right.

FLATOW: ...and try to get away. How did you - I know that you had some experience with Will Steger and his party earlier. Is that how you got into this?

Mr. HUSTON: Yeah. I worked in Ely, Minnesota, as an Outward Bound instructor for several years in 2000-2005 and then really became a huge fan of polar exploration history stories, Amundsen and Scott. And I started teaching Amundsen's leadership philosophies to my Outward Bound students. And then, this opportunity came along, I was a perfect fit. But, yes, I have worked with Will Steger on several different expeditions as well.

FLATOW: And how was this - this was made for the BBC, the film, correct?

Mr. HUSTON: Yes.

FLATOW: How was it received in Great Britain?

Mr. HUSTON: It was funny. I was in Britain right around the time that it aired and I happened to be on a train. And I overheard a couple in the seats in front of me talking about the show and they seemed to think that, wow, Amundsen kicked their butts again. But I think that - I don't know. It is a controversial topic and people do come down on one side or the other. And Ross, I think, did a fantastic job of kind of playing both sides of that in your book. As far as the British reaction to the documentary, I don't have a good answer beyond it.

FLATOW: Yeah. Has it been played in this country, in the U.S.?

Mr. HUSTON: It played on The History Channel in December of 2006.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. So we can try to find it - or hopefully someday, well, maybe the anniversary coming up, maybe they'll replay it.

Mr. HUSTON: Yeah, it's available online. You can buy the DVDs. It was also a big hit in Norway as well.

FLATOW: I can imagine, in Norway. Any more polar explorations coming up or Antarctic explorations?

Mr. HUSTON: No. I skied unsupported to the North Pole in 2009. That's the first Americans to reach the North Pole unsupported on ski. So after that, that's kind of the granddaddy of polar expeditions.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm.

Mr. HUSTON: I'm taking a few years off and writing a book about it...

FLATOW: Right.

Mr. HUSTON: ...and doing public speaking, and we'll see what the next expedition is soon.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. Well, we'll watch for you to water ski on the North Pole one of these days.

Mr. HUSTON: Yeah. Behind a sailboat, right.

FLATOW: Yeah. Thanks for taking time to be with us.

Mr. HUSTON: My pleasure, thank you.

FLATOW: John Huston is a polar explorer and part of the team that recreated Amundsen's journey for the BBC documentary "Blizzard." And I also want to thank Ross MacPhee for taking time to be with us. Thank you, Ross.

Dr. MacPHEE: A pleasure, Ira. Thank you.

FLATOW: And good luck on this terrific - it's a terrific exhibition. He's curator in the Department of Mammalogy in the Division of Vertebrate Zoology at the American Museum of Natural History, and author of "Race to the End."

I'm Ira Flatow. This is SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR.

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