Amundsen who? It’s almost inconceivable that the man who breezed up first to the South Pole and left a note pinned to his tent for Scott to find could be so much less famous than the men who inched their way up and then staggered back to die, however heroically, in their tracks.
The last Scott heard from Amundsen before leaving for the Antarctic, in 1910, was that he was making a trip to the Arctic. Then, a marvelously brief telegram reached them in Melbourne:
Madeira. Am going South, AMUNDSEN.
Cherry has the analysis:
The telegram was dramatically important, as will appear when we come to the last act of the tragedy. Captain Roald Amundsen was one of the most notable of living explorers, and was in the prime of life – forty-one, two years younger than Scott. He had been in the Antarctic before Scott, with the Belgica Expedition in 1897-9, and therefore did not consider the South Pole in any sense our property…. When he reached Madeira he sent this telegram, which meant, ‘I shall be at the South Pole before you.’ It also meant, though we did not appreciate it at the time, that we were up against a very big man.
They put the telegram at the back of their minds for the next several months. They were down on the ice, just returned from the Depot Journey that had taken eight of their ponies and seen Scott plunge down a crevasse to the length of his harness. Campbell had sent word from his side-expedition eastward:
‘Every incident of the day,’ Scott wrote, ‘pales before the startling contents of the mail-bag which Atkinson gave me – a letter from Campbell setting out his doings and the finding of Amundsen established in the Bay of Whales.
For an hour or so we were furiously angry, and were possessed with the insane sense that we must go straight to the Bay of Whales and have it out with Amundsen and his men in some undefined fashion or other there and then.
Amundsen had chosen a starting point 60 miles closer to the pole than Scott, and his dogs were able to start nearly two weeks earlier than Scott’s ponies.
From Campbell’s eye-witness report:
The Norwegians are in dangerous winter quarters, for the ice is breaking out rapidly from the Bay of Whales which they believe to be in Borchgrevink’s Bight, and they are camped directly in front of a distinct line of weakness. On the other hand if they get through the winter safely (and they are aware of their danger), they have unlimited dogs, the energy of a nation as northern as ourselves, and experience with snow-travelling that could be beaten by no collection of men in the world.
“The energy of a nation as northern as ourselves”! Here is just a hint of that colonial racism that simmered just below the surface in polite society. Cherry himself, two pages later, casually drops a slur of bewildering dimensions, dressed up as a compliment:
The truth was that Amundsen was an explorer of the markedly intellectual type, rather Jewish than Scandinavian, who had proved his sagacity by discovering solid footing for the winter by pure judgment.
It’s the natural arrogance of a culture that thinks itself at some sort of pinnacle of evolution (sound familiar to anyone?). The French were just as bad, 50 years later. Here’s Mario Marrett, a French explorer who spent a winter with the emperor penguins along with seven men. One was Australian:
An interesting thing that struck me was that he was the only one of us to fix up a photograph of someone dear to him – in his case his wife….
On consideration I came to the conclusion that the simple, direct, and almost naive way in which Dovers pinned his heart on his sleeve had something healthy and vital about it. That sort of thing is probably typical of an unsophisticated pioneering people. Americans, Australians, and Canadians all have something simple and natural in their behavior which makes us people of older civilizations seem sophisticated.
Moving on: In the end, it was indeed Amundsen that reached the pole a month ahead of Scott and in very much better shape, behind a horde of dogs and without man-hauling his sledge a single mile.
I have described what it had cost Scott and his four companions to get to the Pole, and what they had still to suffer in returning until death stopped them. Much of that risk and racking toil had been undertaken that men might learn what the world is like at the spot where the sun does not decline in the heavens, where a man loses his orbit and turns like a joint on a spit, and where his face, however he turns, is always to the North. The moment Scott saw the Norwegian tent he knew that he had nothing to tell that was not already known.
There’s quite a bit more dissection of Amundsen strategy vs. Scott strategy. It’s not all pro-Scott revisionism, but most of it is. There’s the chivvying at Amundsen:
The very ease of the exploit makes it impossible to infer from it that Amundsen’s expedition was more highly endowed in personal qualities than ours.
But the main excuse? Science:
We were primarily a great scientific expedition, with the Pole as our bait for public support, though it was not more important than any other acre of the plateau.
He goes even farther, a bit fancifully, here:
The practical man of the world has plenty of criticism of the way things were done…. He is scandalized because 30 lbs. of geological specimens were deliberately added to the weight of the sledge that was dragging the life out of the men who had to haul it; but he does not realize that it is the friction surfaces of the snow on the runners which mattered and not the dead weight, which in this case was almost negligible. Nor does he know that these same specimens dated a continent and may elucidate the whole history of plant life….
he has no patience with us, and declares that Amundsen was perfectly right in refusing to allow science to use up the forces of his men, or to interfere for a moment with his single business of getting to the Pole and back again.
Here you realize that even though the “practical man” is right – that Amundsen was wiser, more experienced, more practical, more deserving – Cherry (and Scott) had their own degree of perverse rightness, too.
but we were not out for a single business: we were out for everything we could add to the world’s store of knowledge about the Antarctic.
Somehow, it comes off as both preposterous and admirable.