On Dec. 30, 1902, three men — Robert Falcon Scott, Ernest Shackleton and Edward Wilson — stood on the Antarctic ice sheet, looking south. They were farther south than any human beings had ever been before. The three men were weak and weary, and increasingly ravaged by scurvy. They had achieved a victory of sorts, but now they had to turn around. Their new direction was north, their destination was their home base, and their primary battle was one of survival.
Shackleton was particularly weak, and on occasion Scott and Wilson had to drag him on a sled. By the time they reached the expedition’s base on Ross Island on Feb. 3, 1903, Shackleton had begun to recover and it was the other two who were particularly afflicted. Nonetheless, Scott ordered Shackleton be invalided home on the expedition relief ship, Morning, which would soon be departing. Devastated and resentful, Shackleton resolved to return on his own terms; six years later, he set a record for the farthest south yet achieved — in fact, at that time, it was the highest latitude yet reached north or south. He and three companions had closed to within 97 miles of the South Pole; but, having pushed this far, it was obvious to all involved that they could go no farther if they hoped to return alive. And so, on Jan. 9, 1909, Shackleton — later telling his wife he would rather be “a live donkey than a dead lion” — turned around.
His record would last for less than three years. On Dec. 8, 1911, a Norwegian team of five people, led by Roald Amundsen, had been sledding south, en route to the South Pole, for a little more than six weeks. The going was good, and spirits were high. Amundsen knew that Shackleton’s record was close, and he had given one of his companions, who was responsible for monitoring their progress and location, the Norwegian flag so that he could hoist it on his sled when Shackleton’s latitude had been reached. In his diary, translated into English for the first time in Roland Huntford’s book The Race for the South Pole, Amundsen recorded:
The weather had improved more and more, and the sun was in the process of breaking through in dead earnest. My snow goggles bothered me from time to time. Light airs from the S. made them cloud over, making it difficult to see. Then suddenly I heard a stout, hearty cheer behind me. I turned around. In the light breeze from the S., the brave, well-known colors were flying from the first sledge, we have passed and put behind us the Englishman’s record. It was a splendid sight … My goggles clouded over again, but this time it was not the south wind’s fault.
That night, Amundsen noted that the sunshine was such that it was “pure summer inside the tent. Everything of ours that is damp, dries in the course of a few hours.”
Three hundred miles to the north, Scott, himself battling to reach the South Pole, was in a less agreeable mood. The temperature was warm — too warm. The going was hard, and the group’s mood was sombre. The night before Amundsen’s achievement, Scott, trapped in a tent for several days because of a snowstorm, wrote:
Little or no improvement … [T]o feel the wet clinging dampness of clothes and everything touched, and to know that without there is but a blank wall of white on every side – these are the physical surroundings. Add the stress of sighted failure of our whole plan, and anyone must find the circumstances unenviable. But yet, after all, one can go on striving, endeavoring to find a stimulation in the difficulties that arise.
Amundsen was less than a week from the South Pole. Scott would reach the Pole too, eventually, but for him, the achievement would be a disappointment and the beginning of a desperate battle for survival that he would not win.