The Great Polar Explorers

Scott, Shackleton and Amundsen, the great Polar explorers, have left stories of adventure and heroism that have, arguably, never been surpassed. But what drove these three men and why did Amundsen succeed while Scott failed and why did Shackleton survive while Scott did not?

Robert Falcon Scott was an Establishment man through and through. This gave him all the advantages of the British class system at the turn of the century but also laid a heavy burden on him. A Royal Navy officer tasked with maintaining the Empire’s prestige in exploration, Scott seldom spoke of why he wanted to go to Antarctica. Like many men of his class Scott had a peculiar attitude towards some animals. Those that are considered companions animals such as dogs were pets, not beasts of burden. Horses were close to every Englishman’s heart: they could be trained for any task. So Scott decided to use sturdy little Siberian ponies for his polar trip. For some reason he decided there was no need to send Captain Laurence Oates, the horse expert, to buy them. As a result when the ponies arrived Oates said they were as good as useless. What was also an obvious fact, but one that Scott dismissed, was that ponies are herbivores. Vast quantities of hay would have to be transported to the Antarctic to feed them.

When Scott started his polar expeditions neither he nor any of the men on his team knew how to ski. A Royal Navy officer he had few qualifications for polar exploration. With the breezy attitude of his class he felt that they could easily learn to ski when they arrived in Antarctica. Which they did. In contrast Amundsen’s team were all able to ski before they left Norway: they had all been skiing since childhood. In addition, Amundsen’s team had, due to the weather in Scandinavia, vastly more experience in severe cold and blizzard conditions. Once again, Scott felt that his team would acclimatise quickly once they arrived in the Antarctic.

When Scott’s team were approaching the south pole in 1911, they could see something dark up ahead. Were their eyes paying tricks on them? Was it some bare rock? As they got closer they could see it was the remains of a tent with a tattered Norwegian flag. They had reached the south pole, the pinnacle of polar expeditions, only to find out they had been beaten by Amundsen by about 32 days. The photograph taken at the pole shows the emotion on the men’s faces. They were in desperate straits. Five men with no ponies, they had all died, barely enough food to last them to the next food cache and only a four man tent. Emotionally and physically they were exhausted and Captain Oates was already injured. The trek back would see all five of the team die in the icy wastes.



Ernest Shackleton wrote of the Antartica as the enemy, the great white beast. He said he was drawn to explore the area after a vivid dream. He was not part of the British Establishment having been born and raised in Ireland before the family moved to England. With a background in the merchant navy, he remained something of an outsider. Being outside the British class system gave him a freedom that was not open to Scott. This freedom would play a crucial role in Shackleton’s attitude in his later polar expeditions.

Shackleton’s first expedition had been as an officer on Scott’s trip of 1901-4 from which he was sent home early on health grounds. In 1907-9 during the Nimrod expedition, Shackleton and his team established a new record Farthest South latitude at 88°S, only 180 kilometres from the South Pole. After the race to the South Pole ended in December 1911, with Roald Amundsen’s conquest, Shackleton attempted to cross the Antarctica from sea to sea, via the pole in 1914. The expedition’s ship, the Endurance, became trapped and crushed in the pack ice. The crew escaped by camping on the sea ice and then launched the lifeboats to reach South Georgia Island, an ocean voyage of 1,330 km. Led by Shackleton everyone survived. In contrast to Scott, Shackleton readily adopted many of the methods being developed by the Norwegian team, especially the use of dogs, in his later exploration work.



Shackleton was determined to defeat the Antarctic but when he and his team ran into difficulties he turned back. He wasn’t an Establishment man and thus free from the weight of expectation, he had the freedom to turn back. He was not willing to sacrifice his men to the white beast.

What is most notable about the work of the Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen is the preparation, which took over two years. Every part of their kit was tested and re-tested before they set off. Their clothing was made from sealskin designed to mmimic the clothing of Greenland Inuits. Their sledges and skies were made from Norwegian ash and American hickory. The combination of these two woods giving the greatest amount of movement without slippage. They developed tents with built-in floors that required only a single pole, vastly superior to the tents used by Scott. And for cooking on the move, they used the Swedish Primus stove which took up less pace on the sleds. Most notably Amundsen used dogs instead of ponies. As carnivores the dogs and could be fed on seals, fish and penguins. Once in the interior of Antarctica, when the dogs were worn out and no longer able to pull their sleds they were slaughtered and feed to the other dogs. A rationale solution to feeding them. For the trip to the south pole Amundsen’s team used one hundred North Greenland trained sled dogs.


Roald Amundsen was a skilled explorer, a good leader and had spent years preparing for the south pole expedition. His success in reaching the pole was one that unfortunately was eclipsed at the time by the tragic death of Scott. It has now, quite rightly,   been recognised for the remarkable achievement it was.

Should Scott be blamed for the actions that cost him and his team their lives? Or was he a victim of his time and class that coloured his decisions regarding sled animals, early preparation and stopped him from learning from the previous Norwegian expeditions? Did Scott care more concerned for success than the lives of his men? In contrast, was Shackleton too concerned with safety rather than pushing on his exploration? Amundsen achieved what neither Scott nor Shackleton could. Was that down to leadership, luck or superior equipment? The final word rests with Shackleton who called Amundsen ‘perhaps the greatest polar explorer of today’.


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3 Responses to The Great Polar Explorers

  1. Difficult questions, Mary. Hindsight is always golden. I have always felt sorry for the incredible hardships all members of Scott’s team suffered, both animal and human.


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