It was the strangest of all races. Two teams of five men each—one British, the other Norwegian—set out at the beginning of the 1911 Antarctic summer, both bent on becoming the first explorers to reach the South Pole. The British team was led by 43-year-old Robert Falcon Scott, the Norwegian by 39-year-old Roald Amundsen. Each man had already made bold expeditions to the Antarctic region.
Yet because the two expeditions had chosen to build their coastal base camps 600 miles apart, at either edge of the vast Ross Ice Shelf, their paths would never overlap, and the two teams would never catch sight of each other. There was no way to know who was leading the race.
After wintering over in Framheim, Amundsen’s team set out on October 18. Scott’s party did not depart from Cape Evans until November 1. The two parties had about the same distance—roughly 800 miles in a straight line—to cover to get to 90 degrees south. Yet their traveling styles were utterly different, and those differences would spell victory and defeat. Amundsen used dogs to haul his sledges, while the men skied; to supplement the rations they carried, they would kill and eat the dogs when they succumbed to exhaustion. Scott experimented in vain with ponies and motorized tractors, but ended up heading for the Pole with his men in harnesses, pulling their heavy sledges themselves. At the last minute, unwilling to exclude the plucky “Birdie” Bowers from the party as it neared its goal, Scott ended up launching his final push with four pairs of skis for five men. Bowers had to plod along in his boots, plunging deep into the snow at every step.