I have always been fascinated by stories of human exploration and endurance, and in particular the 1911 to 1912 race to be the first to reach the geographic South Pole – between the expeditions led by Norwegian Roald Amundsen and British Robert Falcon Scott – was riveting. Even though Amundsen was the first to do so successfully, the tragic demise of Scott and his Terra Nova expedition received comparatively more attention in the aftermath and in the decades after, especially in the United Kingdom. Roland Huntford’s “Race for the South Pole: The Expedition Diaries of Scott and Amundsen”, however, is not only critical of these attempts to rehabilitate Scott’s reputation, but by drawing directly from the unedited diaries of the two expeditions contrasts how the two men prepared for the gruelling journey, laboured to prepared, as well as chose and treated their teams.
In summary, even taking into account Amundsen’s faults and mistakes, he was by far the superior polar explorer. And in this vein to romanticise Scott’s tragic failure – with the death of his entire party of five – is to ignore his ignorance, irresponsibility, and his ill-preparedness.
Huntford pulls no punches from the get-go: “Scott was leading a cumbrous undertaking with unclear aims. Amundsen, a raid focused on a single goal. ‘At all costs we had to be first at the finish’, as Amundsen himself put it. ‘Everything had to be concentrated on that’”. Following this brief prelude, the diaries of Amundsen, Olav Bjaaland (a Norwegian ski champion, whose diary entries supplement that of Amundsen’s in the book), and Scott tell their own stories, and in-between these chronological narratives are explanations of technical terms or methods as well as commentaries of their respective progress. Defenders of Scott, for instance, often point to the foul and unexpected weather conditions as the factor for Scott’s defeat, yet it was pointed out that “Amundsen faced an average temperature of –21.8°C on the way to the Pole whereas Scott faced –18.2. Amundsen had 15 days of gale force winds out of a total journey of 99 days. Scott, six out of 139”.
An inevitable criticism of “Race for the South Pole” is the juxtaposition of his praise for Amundsen and his unreserved admonition of Scott, though this is probably in the context of “apologists” seeking “to dismiss the magnitude of Amundsen’s victory” while “rallying round the myth and advancing a cult of mindless gallantry”. Contestation of their reputations and legacies is likely to continue, but at the same time one finishes the book and the diaries of Amundsen and Scott with a better understanding of (and appreciation for) what both men and their teams experienced in the harsh and freezing conditions of Antarctica, and they had to endure to achieve their goal of reaching the South Pole.