Ronald Amundsen and Captain Robert Falcon Scott each led a team of adventurers competing to reach the South Pole first. Note how each team leader prepared BEFORE they hit the trail. Each planned for a three-four months’ expedition and had 56 percent of good days of weather, and expected a 1400-mile trip (think New York to Chicago and back) without any means of modern communication onboard. Can you determine which team returned first?
Captain Scott, 43, led a British Expedition to the South Pole nine years earlier, reaching 82 degrees South, 530 miles from the South Pole. A member of the Royal Navy instead of a scientist, he trained on torpedo boats though one he captained ran aground in 1893. Seeking to become an explorer, he befriended the man who would select the team leader. The dogs his team trained prior to the expedition died of disease, which might have encouraged him to switch to ponies. On the first expedition, he squabbled with Ernest Shackleford, a well-known Artic explorer who had sought the pole with Scott in 1901. The disagreement came regarding the territory each man had staked out for exploration.
For the expedition, Scott:
- Selected ponies as the beast of burden
- Placed a single flag at their depot destinations
- Used untested “motor sledges” to carry the supplies
- Complained about his “bad luck” in his journal
- Brought one thermometer for key altitude-measurements and exploded “in an outburst of wrath and consequence” when it broke
Amundsen, 39, showed a fascination for discovery. At 28 purchased a small, Gjoa ship and became the first in 1900 to sail through the tiny islands of Northern Canada from the Atlantic to the Pacific Ocean. Shortly after he determined to enter a sailing race in Spain, two-thousand miles from Norway and bicycled the distance. Then he sought to participate in the trek to the North Pole, but Perry and Cook had claimed it. So he angled himself into the leadership of the Norwegian set out to conquer the South Pole. It bothered him little that Scott announced his intention first or that the Norwegian Queen, Maud, was British and might not smile upon his competing with her countrymen’s adventurer. Amundsen moved forward. His intensity marked him among the explorers and drew on this in training, to overcome whatever obstacles might suddenly appear in his way (like a 9,000-foot mountain or a glacier in the middle of the route.) Before arriving in Antarctica, Amundsen laid down the gauntlet to Captain Scott, who was in Australia purchasing final provisions for his expedition. “Beg leave to inform you Fram (Amundsen’s ship) proceeding to Antarctica. Amundsen”
- Posted 20 flags four miles out, so in a blizzard his crew would still find the route to the depot on their return
- Built buffers for distance, time, weight of sledges to carry provisions and amount of food necessary
- Plotted a route that placed his base camp 60 miles closer to the South Pole than Scott’s camp, shortening the arduous over-land travel coming and going
- Embraced the possibility of change, presuming unfavorable conditions and chance events
- Built a contingency plan should something happen to him so the expedition could be successful without him
Amundsen’s team reached a sunlit, -10 F degree South Pole on December 15, 1911 at the same time Scott, who started five weeks later, was 360 miles out as the British Expedition man-hauled supplies through the ice and snow. Scott’s team saw the Norwegian flag on the South Pole on January 17, 1912 and recorded their “bad luck” at the time. The Norwegian team reached the sea on January 25 on the exact day Amundsen had built into his plan for their return.
Scott’s crew, had nobly performed hundreds of scientific experiments as intended for their expedition, collecting wildlife and rock samples. This ate up valuable time, but did result in 15 bound volumes of never-before discovered biological, zoological, and geological findings and transformed use of a camera on an expedition. This was the Royal Society’s intention for the expedition, Captain Scott tacked on a desire to race to the South Pole.
Unfortunately, no one from the British Expedition survived to provide a personal account. The findings came from documents left behind. Captain Scott and his crew all were stuck in their tents in a blizzard just 11 miles from their base camp. Scott and the last two died of hypothermia March 29, 1912. Eight months later their frozen bodies were found in the snowbank that drifted over their tent.
Sadly, the Scott party also learned that ponies do not hold up in the snow and had to be shot. Sweat on the horses turned to ice on their hides. The mechanized sleds sounded like a great idea but broke down in the extremely cold. The human team was forced to pull the supply sleds, which proved to be too heavy a burden. The single flags by the depots made it too easy to miss the mark, particularly in a blizzard, which wasted time and energy.
While Amundsen’s crew had good weather on their return, they were also traveling a month earlier, when better weather could be expected. March 1912 brought -40 below weather and blizzard conditions in Antarctica for Scott’s exhausted team.
Investing Time in Preparation
Amundsen invested the time and developed the skills needed to survive and lead a team in the Artic. He had lived among the Eskimo to learn how they survived in sub-zero temperatures, ate raw dolphin meat, dressed in loose fur. Amundsen noted the Eskimos’ slow movements to prevent excessive sweat that could turn to ice in sub-zero temperatures. The Eskimos also taught him how they used dogs to pull their sleds, how much dogs could transport, and the amount of food men and beasts needed in the cold. He built redundancy into everything he did, so when one system failed, he could develop a work-around to save the day and his team.
Amundsen’s philosophy: You do not wait until you are in an unexpected storm to discover that you need more strength and endurance. (Jim Collins, p. 15)
The Artic explorations were a century ago when self-reliance substituted for reaching out on social media. Conditions were such, though, even if Scott’s team could have reach out, it is unlikely help could have reached them in time. But these explorers, not entirely unlike us, seek to succeed in uncommon times and in a place we do not entirely recognize.
Jim Collins, a student of leadership for over twenty years, talked about the need to be “hypervigilant” in good times and bad—even in calm, clear, positive conditions. It is a certain type of “productive paranoia” that leader’s practice or can learn to duplicate. He believes that conditions will –absolutely with 100 percent certainty—turn against each of us without warning, at some unpredictable point in time, at some highly inconvenient moment.” P 29 Collins
That is why it is wise to think and strategize about the “horrible what-ifs” that impact a state, a nation, a continent, and in this case an entire world in lightning fast action.
Ronald Amundsen set the standard: “Victory awaits him who has everything in order—luck people call it. Defeat is certain for him who has neglected to take the necessary precautions in time; this is called bad luck.”
Ronald Amundsen, The South Pole (McLean, VA: IndyPublish, 2009), 192.
Jim Collins, Great by Choice, (New York: HarperCollins, 2011)