Scott, Amundsen and the persistent thrill of the "Race to the End"

The story of Scott and Amundsen racing to the South Pole at the dawn of the 20th century only gains dimension as time passes. The mythical (you could say tabloid) aspects are as captivating as ever, but it’s the humanity that bleeds out from the details over time that has us returning to the story 100 years later. I recently read “Race to the End: Amundsen, Scott and the Attainment of the South Pole,” an illustrated account of the competing expeditions, and the one that didn’t make it back.  It was a compelling and emotional retelling of the events that left Robert Falcon Scott and four of his fellow British explorers dead in their tent, not long after being beaten to the Pole by Roald Amundsen’s Norwegian team.

This version of the story includes all the elements of grand turn-of-the-century adventure: gross nationalism, wealthy benefactors, worldwide media coverage, and, of course, grisly death. It may be as close to a Jules Verne story as reality has given us.

But author Ross MacPhee, curator at the American National History Museum, approaches the subject matter with the eye of an archivist, charting out the known events, testimony and physical artifacts in front of him and connecting the dots. He also takes care to consider the emotions and motives of the men, who are all very human and fall along the entire scale of heroism. Neither Ross nor Amundsen fits the cartoon characters they have been portrayed as, and MacPhee handles the questions of character with delicacy. Created to accompany a 2010 exhibit, it’s also beautifully illustrated with photos and paintings from the period, as well as artifacts kept from the expeditions.

I’ve always been more drawn to Amundsen’s journey, in part because of the contrast with Scott’s cascade of incorrect decisions and overconfidence. Amundsen was also a brazen explorer, but he was intensely careful. He planned meticulously, took no chances, and made it there and back with relative ease (relative). Only to have his life nearly ruined from the backlash after Scott’s death. He was driven, calculating, smart and a total bastard. His ship “Fram” (forward) had a specially designed hull to smash through ice. They ate the meat of their dogs when they died, dug a compound of tunnels into the snow for shelter during the winter, and maintained reverence toward the situation at hand, still somehow peppered with humor, till the end.

Amundsen, the man and the explorer, was far from perfect, but there’s a seriousness and devotion with which he approached exploration that I admire. My favorite excerpt in the book is after he and his men made an astounding 44-mile, 10,000-foot climb to the polar plateau, with dogs and a literal ton of supplies in just four days.

The wildness of the landscape seen from this point is not to be described; chasm after chasm, crevasse after crevasse, and great blocks of ice scattered promiscuously about, gave one the impression that here Nature was too powerful for us…. It was not without a certain satisfaction that we stood there and contemplated the scene. The little dark speck down there—our tent—in the midst of this chaos, gave us a feeling of power and strength.

That’s the persistent appeal of stories about exploration, geographic or otherwise. The combined terror and thrill of facing the very edge of things. It’s the combination of being a speck amid chaos, but a speck that’s put a flag down. You can imagine Amundsen and his men standing on that peak staring into nothing and feeling all but helpless, but with a dizzying sense of glory at having dared to face what’s out there and living to share the story.