How to Survive the South Pole
Updated: Sep 10, 2021
Why did some South Pole explorers survive while others died? It depends on how willing they were to eat dogs. I’m Peter McGuire and this is my unlikely explanation
A little before the turn of the last century, advancements in technology and technique allowed humanity to explore the most isolated places on the surface of the Earth: the north and south poles. When looking into this topic, I found that surprisingly few explorers died on polar expeditions. The amount of planning and expertise that went into these operations made them surprisingly effective at preserving life even if the expedition, in general, fell apart. The same cannot be said for the sled dogs. They died in astounding numbers. In this episode, I want to look at how to survive extreme expeditions and in specific why ask Amundsen and Shackelton survived Antarctica while Scott did not. Decisions related to how important animal lives were in comparison to human lives played a major role. But to understand these expeditions, we should first ask, what drives people to visit these extreme, inhospitable environments?
There are several human societies that exist on the verge of extreme environments. I’m talking about extreme elevation, latitude, or climate (places like deserts). A distinction should be understood between living in a place and being able to survive a place. There are environments on earth that even the hardiest people can only survive for multiple days or even hours without significant equipment. No one lives above 17 thousand feet. No one lives south of 55 degrees or north of 80 degrees. You also don’t see people who live in the arctic mounting expeditions to the north pole, nor Nepalis trying to summit Himalayan mountains. The interest in exploring completely inhospitable places comes from complex, settled societies. It’s likely that no one had ever been to the top of Everest before Hillary, presumably because there was no reason to be there. There was nothing to eat, nowhere to sleep and the exposure can kill you in minutes. Where humans do live in extreme places, they follow food. The kind of vegetation that grows in extreme places is often indigestible to humans, but they can survive in an ecosystem with the other animals by living off their meat and using their bodies for tools and clothing. People who live near extreme environments tend to travel long wide circuits over the course of the year, circuits that bring them to places with edible vegetation or seafood or plentiful water so that the group can replenish. They develop their unique survival methods for the more extreme parts of their route so they can catch and eat prey.
Many explorers rely on the support of people who are more familiar with the area than they are. This lends a huge advantage to explorers who are journeying to distant but populated lands. Consider exploring firsts like Columbus crossing the Atlantic, Magellan circumnavigating the world, or Lewis and Clark surveying the continental U.S. These explorers didn’t have to invent new ways to survive in these areas. They could rely on the techniques and the material support of people they met along the way. After the populated world was mapped, explorers turned to unpopulated lands, but still relied on human help. Cook and Peary relied on arctic peoples when trying to reach the north pole. Edmund Hillary relied on Himalayans in general and the Nepal-Indian sherpa Tenzing Norgay in particular when he climbed Everest in 1953.
The impulse to explore the most isolated places on earth has little to do with the usual reasons why humans move around such as the availability of food, overcrowding, or strife. Instead, it grows out of the concerns of complex, settled society. There are commercial and political reasons to explore. Most early expeditions were to establish trade routes or map territory. There are scientific reasons to explore. Through exploration, we have revealed the shape of the earth, how materials and organisms react in extreme conditions, and, through polar expeditions, in particular, gathered important data on how exactly gravity works. But the impulse to explore also has a very human objective, which is prestige. You can think of it in terms of a game. A game is a system where certain rules are put in place to create an arbitrary competition. Exploration puts that on a global scale. The prestige of exploration comes from the game. Now that we can determine the tallest mountain, who will be the first to reach it? Now that we can determine latitude, who will be the first to reach the poles? It’s our ideas about what accomplishment means that lends prestige to feats of exploration. World firsts are firsts because we first needed to invent a reason to attempt them.
Exploration takes the basic human behavior of bringing along rations on the hunt in case the gathering isn’t good and elaborates. To survive the unsurvivable, you must package up a miniature version of your habitat and bring it with you. We see this at its most extreme in the case of manned spaceflight. Every ounce of weight represents an enormous additional cost in fuel, so scientists create the smallest, most efficient habitat that a human can survive safely. To mount an expedition, you must bring along the material necessities: food, water, shelter, and in extreme cases, air. But you also need your culture in the form of the tools and knowledge that you possess. To navigate an ocean away from land, you need the right instruments and math. To navigate through space you need even more instruments and math. To journey through truly inhospitable lands you need to take along both material necessities and intellectual ones.
For me, the most interesting part of exploration is the stories. Explorers face overwhelming odds in conditions that most people never contemplate experiencing. That fascination with the edge of survival, with the scrappiness that’s required to overcome threat after threat to your life, is what’s so fascinating these stories.
The men who ventured to the poles were attempting a similar sort of thing to journeying into space. This is actually a backward way of putting it but the great explorers of my childhood were spacemen, so that’s my point of entry. When you look at exploration, there’s a sort of ladder of inhospitableness. On the bottom rung there are expeditions to foreign lands that have already been settled and on the top run so far are journeys to outer space or the deep sea. For example, if you were a sailor exploring the New World or Asia in the 17th century, you would face great danger from storms, you could run out of food and you could become marooned without rainwater to drink. These are no small dangers. But in a ship, you can get propulsion from the wind or oars, you can fish for food and (every now and then) it will rain. There are possibilities for survival. At the most extreme, there is space travel, where there’s no food, no water, no air, and if you run out of fuel, you drift forever on that trajectory through foodless, airless, waterless space. Polar exploration tends more towards the latter case simply because the poles are so inhospitable to life.
The exploration feats of the early to mid-20th Century represent an important stepping stone into the truly inhospitable. So, what are the considerations when striking out into the inhospitable? First, let’s think about how to approach the south pole.
Antarctica is a huge island, about twice the size of Australia, and completely barren. We now know that life died out in Antarctica around 15 million years ago. Cooling and ice started accumulating in earnest when the landmass separated from South America sometime between 20 and 40 million years ago and circular winds and currents formed which keep Antarctica’s cold isolated from warm air and water. At the turn of the century, there were no permanent stations on the continent, although Antarctic islands further north had semi-permanent whaling stations. Semi-permanent stations weren’t erected on Antarctica itself until 1929 onwards by the airman Richard Byrd who I discussed in the North Pole episode of this podcast. Keep in mind that, this far south, south essentially means inward towards the pole and north means outward.
The continent is made of two lobes of land with ice shelves filling in the watery space between them. Ice constantly runs down off of the mountains of the landmass, which replenishes the enormous ice shelves as their edges break off into Circumpolar Current. The ice shelves are fairly stable and allow closer access to the pole because they are where the continent is skinniest, so to speak. Because they are ice and constantly drifting outward, there’s no use in mapping the features of the ice shelf. So every expedition needed to scout and locate an appropriate site to make base camp. Most picked a spot on the Ross Ice Shelf, on the New Zealand side. Most but not all. Shackleton in 1914 tried to sail even closer to the pole on the then-less-explored side that faces South America.
In either case, if you want to reach the pole, you need to make a naval landing. So, the first thing you might want to consider is your vessel. This isn’t as important when you’re traveling to survivable lands but, again, space travel helps us understand the importance of this component. Apollo 13 experienced a malfunction that made the command module unlivable and they only survived by using the lunar module, a self-contained system that duplicated much of the command module’s life support. There is no question that the crew would have died if there had been no lunar module attached to their vessel. Redundancy of systems was a major part of the NASA design philosophy and it saved lives. Redundancy would no doubt have prevented the great hardship of Shackelton’s failed 1914 expedition.
When Shackelton attempted to march across the Antarctic continent in 1914 and he did actually bring two ships but the second one was intended to supply the second half of his journey and the two ships could not contact each other or any other help. It was not yet possible to send a radio signal far enough. Imagine an Apollo 13 without the room of trained, focused scientists on hand to troubleshoot the problems. So, when Shackleton’s ship, The Endurance, became stuck in the ice and eventually sank, Shackelton had to rely solely on his supplies, crew, and wits. They had to camp on a plate of ice for several months as it drifted away from the Antarctic, watching their mortally wounded ship sink slowly beneath the ice for three weeks. After months, they drifted near enough to an Antarctic island to make the hop by lifeboat and then survived for three months on this frozen, barren island while Shackelton and three others searched for help in the surviving lifeboat.
The problem was with the construction of his vessel itself. The Endurance is reckoned to be one of the strongest wooden ships ever built, if not the strongest, but it was still crushed by the Antarctic ice. The vessel that took Roald Amundsen, a Norwegian polar explorer, used, The Fram, was objectively less strong but survived in ice much better. This is because The Fram had a wide and shallow shape that caused it to be pushed upwards by colliding ice instead of being crushed by it. The Fram was specifically designed to be frozen in ice as a strategy to reach the north pole. She proved herself on her maiden voyage, spending three years trapped in ice and allowing the rotation of the polar ice to bring her within five degrees of the North Pole. The Fram had been built to reach the North Pole and, in fact, Amundsen had every intention of taking her there. Instead, he became the first man to reach the South Pole, an irony he commented on when he reached it. This also requires explaining and it gives us insight into the motivations that drove these men.
When Amundsen first pitched his 1910 expedition to financial backers, it was with the goal of charting the Arctic sea and performing scientific experiments at the North Pole. Robert F. Scott was at the same time preparing an expedition that was expected to be the first to reach the South Pole. Scott even sent Amundsen duplicates of his scientific instruments so readings from the North and South poles could be compared. But then the Cook and Peary that I discussed in the first episode of this podcast announced that they had reached the North Pole and Amundsen quietly changed his plans. He wasn’t sure if his financial backers, mostly governmental and scientific, would support this change. After all, not only had Peary not taken scientific readings at the North Pole, his astronomical observations weren’t even released to the public. Amundsen did not announce his intentions to go to Antarctica to backers (or his crew) until the last possible moment, as they left their last port of call in Europe. In doing so he took on personally a great financial and professional risk. He wrote in his announcement that he hoped his achievements would atone for the offense. This gamble shows us that Admunsen was not nearly as interested in the geographic or scientific goals as his backers. He wanted to be first to a pole. Ironically, he may still have been the first to the North Pole.
The motivations of his British counterparts are more complex. There were two British explorers seeking to claim the South Pole as their conquest: Earnest Shackelton and Robert Falcon Scott. By the way, how great of a name is Falcon? The men met on a 1901 expedition to Antarctica aboard the Discovery. Scott, a naval officer, led the expedition and Shackelton secured a position as the third officer because of his excellence in the merchant navy, which was considered a semi-official branch of the British navy. Scott, Shackelton, and Edward Wilson made an attempt on the South Pole amongst their attempts to map Antarctica. They knew this would mostly be to develop techniques and routes for later expeditions. They made it to 82 degrees south, which was no small feat. However, on the return trip, Shackelton became disabled by a combination of physical and mental breakdown and when they returned to the ship, Scott ordered Shackleton to return home immediately. This was interpreted as the result of Shakleton’s insubordination, low morale, or physical breakdown. This slight started a feud between the two men and between Shackleton and the naval establishment. Scott wrote in his account that he and Wilson had carried Shackelton in a sledge, which Shackleton found deeply insulting. A cold war developed between Scott and Shackelton where they spoke highly of each other to the press while waging public relations warfare.
In 1907, Shackelton was the first of the two to return south. His Nimrod expedition set a new record for furthest south at 88° 23′, so, about 97 miles from the pole. He also climbed Mount Erebus and identified the location of the south magnetic pole. This expedition was considered a huge success and Shackelton gained great acclaim and celebrity. The only shadow that hung over it was cast by Scott. Scott had insisted that Shackelton not use the same anchorage that he’d used for their Discovery expedition, calling it his own “field of work”. Shackelton attempted to honor this request but was unable to find another suitable landing area. It seems that Scott and the naval establishment held a grudge about the landing site made showing-up Shackleton a greater priority.
I have to say, as a modern observer, this seems absurdly petty.
In 1910, Scott set out to Antarctica on the Terra Nova. His statements to the press made it clear that his first priority was reaching the pole. He brought along scientists to collect weather data and perform experiments but Scott stated that the geographical work of reaching the pole and mapping Antarctica was his first priority. Despite this, he remained so committed to the scientific goals that his insistence on collecting and lugging fossils as his supplies dwindled is a contributing factor in his death. Which frankly makes him a hero. His fossils were eventually used as proof of tectonic plate theory.
Scott’s expedition reached the south pole on January 17th, 1912. Instead of the pristine snow that he expected, he found black flags and a tent. They’d been left there by Amundsen. Inside the tent was a letter from Amundsen to his king, the king of Norway, with a note asking Scott to deliver it. It’s quite the power move and pretty rude. But it does give us clear evidence that Amundsen was the first to the South Pole. When Scott’s body was found the following year, he had the letter with him. His journal does not dispute that Amundsen had reached the pole first, despite the great personal pain it caused him.
The motivation behind Shackelton’s Trans-Antarctic expedition of 1914 is a little harder to justify. He planned to land on the coast of the Weddell Sea, march across the South Pole, and then rendezvous with the rest of his crew on the Ross Ice Sheet. He too brought scientists but it seems pretty clear that his goal was to one-up Scott by reaching the South Pole and surviving. But, since simply reaching the South Pole had already been done, he needed to justify new geographic goals for the expedition, hence the landing on the less-explored side of the continent. He was not able to undertake this journey because this is the expedition where his ship was crushed by the ice and sank. Shackelton never made it to the pole and for much of the twentieth century went forgotten. In the 1980s, scholarship turned on the memory of Scott, finding fault with many of his decisions on his fatal south pole expedition and Shackelton’s memory was revived as the more committed and personable adventurer. Since then, views have more or less leveled out.
So, motivations ranged from barefaced ambition to slightly disguised ambition as part of a pissing match that continued on after one of the participants’ death.
I think it’s time now that we get into the details of exploring Antarctica. Let’s think for a moment what getting to the South Pole entails. Scott’s route was about 862 miles (1,387 km) from the edge of the Ross Ice Shelf to the South Pole. The explorer James Clark Ross called the ice simply The Barrier. This snow and ice that slides off of the continent rises in some places four stories up from sea level. Simply finding a place to land on it is difficult. Amundsen described the Ice Shelf this way in 1911 "Along its outer edge the Barrier shows an even, flat surface; but here, inside the bay, the conditions were entirely different. Even from the deck of the Fram we were able to observe great disturbances of the surface in every direction; huge ridges with hollows between them extended on all sides. The greatest elevation lay to the south in the form of a lofty, arched ridge, which we took to be about 500 feet [150 m] high on the horizon. But it might be assumed that this ridge continued to rise beyond the range of vision"
Once you cross this terrain, you come to the Beardmore Glacier, which is a 125 mile-wide (200 km) glacial valley that cuts through the Transantarctic Mountains. From there you must travel another 400 miles (650 km) across the relatively flat and featureless Antarctic Plateau to reach the pole. The Plateau consists of hard, windswept snow and contains some of the coldest and windiest places on Earth. There are constant blizzards during the five months of darkness called winter, so expeditions can only happen in the summer, when the sun doesn’t set and the south pole reaches a balmy negative 15 degrees Fahrenheit. In Celcius that’s also very cold.
Walking through deep snow and living on prepackaged rations is hard on the body. Man-hauling a sledge requires around 6,000 to 7,000 calories a day. Scott’s rations provided at most 4,500 calories a day, mostly of protein and fat like seal meat that they would stew. Hikers and climbers of today know that carbohydrates and sugars are much more effective for fueling the body than protein. So, even at the best of times, the members of Scott's polar party were depleting their bodies by around 1,500 calories a day. As the situation grew dire, they went to half and then quarter rations while still attempting to travel upwards of ten miles a day through deep snow. Despite the 1,000 pints of lime juice Scott brought to Antarctica, scurvy ravaged all of his and Shackelton’s expeditions. Scurvy causes anemia, exhaustion, spontaneous bleeding, pain in the joints, ulcers, and makes it difficult to heal from wounds. These are not the symptoms you want to be fighting off when you are spending all day, every day hiking.
If you want to know details of why dogs are so important for traversing this kind of terrain, please listen to the first episode of this podcast, which discusses expeditions to the North Pole. These expeditions are mounted in a sort of pyramid structure. Men walking through deep snow and ice can only carry so much on their backs and in sled, far less supply that is necessary to survive the five months that the expedition takes. So, you send out teams to set up supply depots along the way. Dogs are very effective at hauling over ice, much more so than men, and they can also haul humans in sleds much faster than humans can walk. That said, dog teams require tremendous skill and experience to manage correctly and they must be fed, which further increases the supply that is required.
Scott had used sled dogs for parts of his Discovery expedition of ‘01 but came away unimpressed. He brought twenty-five dogs and they all succumbed, mostly due to handler error. A problem you see over and over with the dogs is feeding them. Food for the dogs adds weight to the sledge and preparations usually underestimated how much dog food would be needed.
For the Nimrod expedition of ‘07, Shackelton hedged his bets and used a combination of motorized sleds, dogs, and ponies. He used the dogs mostly for depot laying and didn’t use dog teams on the south pole attempt itself. Most of the pones he brought along died.
For his 1912 South Pole attainment, Scott tried a similar combination. As with Shackelton, he found that the motorized sledging was ineffective in the deep snow. Scott was apparently astonished at the strength of the ponies but there are some key biological differences between dogs and ponies. Unlike dogs, ponies sweat, which makes them difficult to keep warm between marches in the constant cold. Dogs pant and have fur that keeps their skin protected from the cold of the snow. Snow stays on the outside of their coat, insulated from their body heat, so their skin is less likely to get wet. Ponies are heavier than dogs and have small hooves that concentrate the stress of each step on the ice to a small area. As a result, they are far more likely to break through ice and snow and become bogged down (or at the least expend more effort than dogs over the same terrain). The issues with the sledges and ponies slowed Scott’s party down and forced them to lay resupply depots farther north, farther from the pole than planned. Scott’s inability to reach his depots on the return trip was a major factor in his death. After the slower-than-expected start, the expedition shot and butchered the ponies, which had been their plan from the outset.
Scott used dogs mostly for depot laying but they contributed to his death in their own way. During the pole attempt, Scott gave orders to the dog teams to restock the supply depots and then meet his party at 82°. Various injuries and the ever-present effect of scurvy prevented the dog teams from restocking the depots further south. As a result, Scott had less fuel than expected to keep warm on the trek back from the pole. The dog team that was sent to pick him up reached the major supply depot (laid north of where it should have been) and found that it hadn’t been stocked with dog food. The driver knew that he couldn’t continue south to find Scott without starving the dogs to death so, rather than attempting to find Scott, he waited at the depot until the food ran out, and then he returned to the coast. Scott was just seventy miles south of the depot when the dog team left and he ultimately died just eleven miles south of the depot. Had the dogs been sacrificed, Scott could have survived.
Amundsen and his team had no such compunctions about dogs. He never considered any other method for crossing the ice. He was from Norway, which had a strong tradition of dogsledding, and had developed his methods in the arctic where using ponies or heavy machinery on the ice was unthinkable. He couldn’t understand the British aversion to using dogs and suggested that it was a matter of incompetence. From what I can tell, he was right. Amundsen brought four sledges with 52 dogs. 45 of them made it up the glacier that marked the edge of the Antarctic plateau. Here they set up a camp that they called the butchers’ shop and butchered 27 of the dogs. The dogmeat became rations for the other dogs and the men and likely prevented the scurvy that plagued the other expeditions. The cause of scurvy had not yet been identified but eating fresh meat was known to prevent it. This is because most animals produce their own Vitamin C. In fact, primates are some of the only mammals that don’t create Vitamin C.
Ultimately 11 of Amundsen’s dogs survived the trip to the south pole and back. They were donated to the Australasian Antarctic Expedition which started later that year. After a pack of the dogs fell into a crevasse with most of the expedition’s provisions, the six remaining dogs from the original 52 were eaten. Ironically, eating these dogs caused the men to overdose on a different vitamin, Vitamin A, from the dogs’ livers, which contributed to the death of one member. Seems like a terribly ignominious end for dogs that had done so much.
In Britain, Amundsen was widely criticized for eating his dogs but the rest of the international community didn’t make much of it. The way the whole expedition was conducted certainly speaks to an element of Amundsen’s personality: his ruthless efficiency. That’s the next factor I want to examine: character or leadership.
Character is one of those things that’s hard to quantify but has a very real effect on the success or failure of an expedition. All three explorers that I’ve talked about faced opposition from crew members. How each reacted shows us differences in their character. You’ll recall that Amundsen borrowed his ship The Fram from earlier North Pole expeditions. As a sort of gentleman’s agreement, when he borrowed on the ship he agreed to hire Hjalmar Johansen. Johansen had been on the original expedition of The Fram and came close to achieving the first attainment of the North Pole but hadn’t quite made it. He was an expert dogsledder and skier but his friends had become concerned about his drinking and restlessness in the absence of employment. Amundsen’s expedition seemed like a perfect occupation to keep him out of trouble.
When they arrived in the Antarctic, Amundsen was so anxious to get a head start on Scott that he initially set out much too early, in September, which is still more or less winter in the antarctic. Keep in mind that in the Antarctic winter happens from February to October and during winter there is virtually no sunlight. This false start caused some bungling: dogs froze to death, supplies were lost, and, as a blizzard approached, Amundsen broke off a smaller party to rush some of the supplies and fuel back to base. Johansen felt abandoned and when he made it back to camp seventeen hours after Amundsen, fighting through a blizzard, they had a heated exchange. As a result, Amundsen revised his polar party to exclude Johansen due to his violent insubordination. In Amundsen’s account of the expedition, he doesn’t credit Johansen with contributing anything. Shortly after his return to Norway, Johansen returned to heavy drinking and the next year committed suicide.
What does this incident tell us about Amundsen? At worst, we can accept Johansen’s charge that he abandoned members of his party and put them in unnecessary danger. At best, we can see Amundsen as ruthlessly practical, trying to preserve as many men and supplies as possible, risking some lives to save the overall expedition. Consider that this kind of ruthlessness would likely have saved Scott and his two surviving crewmembers. But between Johansen and the dog slaughtering, Amundsen seems to have put achieving goals ahead of protecting all members of his team.
Scott, on the other hand, acted according to the ideals of the British Naval officer corps. He maintained strict hierarchies on his expeditions, even separating officers from enlisted men in their overwintering quarters and insisting on keeping his crew on regimes of exercise. Despite this, he was also known to make impulsive decisions. Despite having done months of calculations regarding the supplies he would need for the final polar push, he decided at the last minute to bring another man on, which further stretched his poor supply. It seems that all o Scott’s officers took for granted the imperative to rescue men over stocking Scott’s supply caches. Scott refused to leave any member of his five-man polar party behind, which slowed their pace drastically when two of the men became sick and slowly died. And then there’s his decision to collect and haul thirty pounds of fossils even as one man was on the verge of death and the others had begun to flag. I respect it, I respect it a lot, but it’s not a decision that Amundsen or Shackelton would have made. Scott’s character has been the subject of quite a bit of debate, some historians calling him “a great historic hero” and others “one of the worst of the polar explorers.” In the end, I think he embodied the English gentleman-officer of his time: he stood on formality, insisted on exercising his mind and body in equal measure, and in the end, overestimated his abilities and the abilities of his crew.
A member of Scott's team on the Terra Nova Expedition, in his history of Antarctic exploration, wrote: "For a joint scientific and geographical piece of organisation, give me Scott;[...] for a dash to the Pole and nothing else, Amundsen: and if I am in a devil of a hole and want to get out of it, give me Shackleton every time". Shackleton reminds me of Teddy Roosevelt or Ernest Hemingway. As opposed to Scott and Amundsen, who were primarily funded by governments and geographic societies, Shackelton funded his expeditions with private investors, which took considerably more PR work on his part. He was a member of the merchant navy, the commercial shipping system of the British empire, not a member of the British navy proper. As such, he did not stand on the formality that defined Scott’s expeditions. He made no distinction between how officers and crewmen lived.
He had lost face with his apparent breakdown down on the Discovery expedition, the incident that started his feud with Scott. On his Nimrod expedition, he had failed to reach the South Pole but he was credited with shrewd and selfless decision making and got all of his men home safely. He apparently gave his own rations to his men when the situation became dire, which won him tremendous respect. But the best story of his heroism is his Trans-Antarctic expedition of 1914. So, let’s return to the first image of polar exploration I gave you: You’re Shackelton standing on the polar ice, 1,500 miles from help, and your ship has sunk. What do you do now?
If you’re Shackelton, you shoot the carpenter’s cat. It was a humane act, but the fact remains that you really really did not want to be an animal on these expeditions. Shackelton ordered the weakest animals shot to spare them the slow death of starving or freezing on the ice. He attempted two marches to reach solid land faster but the ice was too uneven to make any meaningful progress, so they camped out and waited for the drift to carry them to sea. During this time, the carpenter, Henry McNish, staged a brief mutiny. McNish’s cat had recently been shot. It’s also that this point that they ate the dogs. Finally, the ice began to break up and the crew sailed in lifeboats to the nearest land: a desolate, rocky, windswept island. By now food was low, morale was low and several members were in failing health. As a result, Shackleton’s most precious resource was time.
He had McNish modify one of the lifeboats to make it more seaworthy, cannibalizing the other lifeboats to reinforce one. Shackelton selected a crew of five to join him in a desperate attempt to reach South Georgia Island, which he knew had a camp for whalers that operated during the summer. Winter was now setting in, but Shackelton still considered South Georgia their best hope. For his party, he selected a navigator, three of his strongest sailors, and McNish. Although McNish was relatively frail at this point, this was likely a canny move by Shackelton to separate the person with the lowest morale from a group that would need to camp in awful conditions on the island for a few more months. I think that Scott or Amundsen would have seen McNish as a greater liability to bring the rescue mission than leave behind, but Shackelton understood that morale would be a deciding factor in the survival of the polar island camp and McNish posed a greater danger to their survival than his own. Shackelton took only enough provisions to reach the island, not allowing himself any room for error at sea.
They succeeded in making the open-boat journey across the freezing expanse of ocean, facing waves of up to 60 feet tall in a 22-foot-long modified lifeboat. They managed to find South Georgia Island after sixteen days and landed utterly exhausted. Unfortunately, they’d landed on the south side of the island and the whaling camp was on the north side. Unwilling to risk another sea voyage, Shackelton and the two strongest men made a 36-hour march across the mountainous and unmapped, icy island and finally reached the harbor. In the two years since the expedition left, the camp on South Georgia island had become staffed year-round. They had finally found help. Shackleton quickly rescued the rest of his crew on South Georgia, but saving the rest of the crew took time. The British Admiralty had no ship nearby to spare. It was now 1916 and the British navy had more pressing concerns, so Shackelton appealed to various South American governments to lend him ships and he cobbled together volunteer crews. On his third attempt, he finally found an ice-free passage back to Antarctica and rescued the encamped crew. This is considered Shackelton’s greatest feat: not a single man died.
Of the crew of The Endurance. If you recall, there was another crew laying supplies on the other side of the continent. The Aurora also faced great difficulties and sadly, three of the men on that half of the expedition perished before Shackelton could mount their rescue, which he did immediately after rescuing The Endurance crew.
The five men of Scott’s polar party were not so lucky. They froze to death 11 miles south of their resupply depot after trying to wait out a blizzard for ten days. Scott wrote a message to the public that ended with, “Had we lived, I should have had a tale to tell of the hardihood, endurance, and courage of my companions which would have stirred the heart of every Englishman. These rough notes and our dead bodies must tell the tale, but surely, surely, a great rich country like ours will see that those who are dependent on us are properly provided for.” In November of that year, 1912, members of the expedition found Scott’s tent and gave the three remaining men a burial under the snow.
So, considering all the factors I’ve mentioned: vessel, logistics, motivation, and character, why was Scott’s expedition fatal when Shackelton’s and Amundsen’s were not? This question is difficult to answer in part because Scott died just eleven miles away from his big supply depot and, had he made it there, there’s a good chance he would have survived. And as historical forensic investigators, there’s lots of ways for us to find Scott’s eleven more miles. As we move from broad reasons to specific reasons, tons of what-ifs pop up. There’s motivation: even though Scott had suffered setbacks that he knew had increased his danger, he pressed on, perhaps driven by the hope of beating Shackelton and Amundsen. There’s decision making: Scott decided to put the major supply depot north of its intended location and decided to bring five men instead of four to the pole, which caused logistical issues. There’s weather, the summer of nineteen eleven to twelve is confirmed by ice cores to be one of the coldest Antarctic summers in recent history. Scott died after being trapped in his tent for ten straight days because of a blizzard. Had it cleared up sooner, he might have survived. Then we get down into very practical things. Scott’s expedition wasn’t as familiar with dogs and skiing as Amundsen’s was. He relegated dogs to support duties which made his trek take longer. He didn’t eat dogs or feed them to each other, which would have alleviated some of his logistic issues. And then we find a wide array of accidents. One of the men on the final trek, Evans, injured his hand which made him less useful, slowed the party down, and contributed to his death. There were several accidents and injuries sustained by the returning support parties which caused depots to not be resupplied as planned. And then finally there’s the dog team that went to rescue Scott but turned around early because of the lack of dog food. They could easily have bridged those last few miles.
So, I think we need to add one more factor to our list here. There’s climate, motivation, skill, logistics, decision making, and there’s also luck. Scott didn’t die because something went wrong, he died because so many things went wrong in exactly the right way. He did have redundancy of planning and support, but the mishaps ultimately overcame his expedition’s resiliency. Had any one or two things just gone right, he would likely have survived.
This has been my look into surviving the south pole. I hope I’ve given you some more insight into the ideas surrounding exploration in addition to the south pole conquest in specific. And next time you think about exploring, spare a thought for the ponies, Mrs. Chippy, the cat, and all the poor dogs. They made the real sacrifices and we should honor them. I’m Peter McGuire and this has been my unlikely explanation.