Conquest of the South Pole – As Tall as Giants, as Weak as Dwarfs

In the events that took place during the conquest of the South Pole, the qualities or defects of the protagonists seem to impose themselves on future generations as a veritable “parable of leadership”.

The glorious times of Alexander the Great and Julius Caesar were in the distant past. The crusades, in which intrepid warriors combined the impetus of conquest with the defence and propagation of the Catholic Faith, graced the pages of history. The years of Christopher Columbus and Ferdinand Magellan, when explorers reached an apogee hitherto unimaginable, were already seen as a nostalgic memory.

We are at the dawn of the 20th century, not the most promising moment for men with a vocation for discovery…

Was there a corner of the planet still inhospitable and unknown to man? Or, more to the point, could people be found with a valour similar to the heroes of the past, who embraced risk and the unpredictable as their daily lot?

The protagonists of the story

The polar regions presented man with a challenge – the last stronghold that civilization had yet to master. Many had already tried to explore these lands the 19th century, but the cold and ice had proved an insurmountable obstacle.

It was against this backdrop that three prominent figures appeared: the well-known Sir Ernest Shackleton; Robert Falcon Scott, an officer in the British Navy; and Roald Amundsen, a Norwegian explorer. Let us take a quick look at some of these adventurers’ achievements, before diving into the dispute over the pole.

In 1898, Roald Amundsen launched his career by taking part in a polar expedition. They were the first men to winter in Antarctica, crossing the 71st parallel and navigating uncharted areas.

On December 30, 1902, Robert Scott, leading another expedition to southern lands, reached the extreme point explored up until that time – 82°17’ South – after spending a long, hard winter in frozen territory. However, there were still many kilometres to go until the end of the world.

In 1904, Amundsen travelled to the Arctic with the aim of verifying the magnetic pole. Although it had already been discovered by James Clark Ross, he wanted to dispel doubts about its mobility. Following in Ross’ footsteps, the Norwegian explorer confirmed that the magnetic point of attraction was mobile. Otherwise, the operation was a fiasco, except for the fact that he learned a lot from the Eskimos about survival in polar regions, which would be extremely useful to him in his future endeavours.

In 1909, Shackleton advanced almost five hundred and eighty kilometres further than Scott’s previous record toward the South Pole, with just over one hundred and fifty kilometres to go before reaching the southernmost point of the planet.

Finally, in 1910, the outdone English officer Scott was preparing for another journey to Antarctica, but he was unaware of one very important detail: he had a rival, because Roald Amundsen was also about to set out to achieve the same goal.

It was thus a contest between two worthy opponents: both truly gigantic personalities.

Heading towards the Pole

It was June 7, 1910 when Amundsen set sail from Norway aboard the Fram; on June 15, Scott’s ship, the Terra Nova, departed.

While the Briton was on his way to Australia for a stopover, he received a telegram announcing the change in the Fram’s destination. Until then, Scott had been completely unaware of the existence of a rival, because the latter had kept the information under the strictest secrecy. Even though they were on the high seas, Amundsen’s men believed they were going to the Arctic. Scott therefore seemed unprepared for a showdown.

Landing and first months in Antarctica

After seven months on the water, the two giants landed on the continent to be explored. On January 4, 1911, the English settled in McMurdo Strait, while Amundsen, having arrived eleven days later, began to set up camp in the frozen Bay of Whales.

Both men had the same plan: to take advantage of late autumn to make headway over the ice towards the pole, building food depots in order to reduce the transport load and facilitate the journey. After that, they would have to wait patiently through the winter, and start the final push as soon as spring came.

However, from the moment they arrived, the leaders’ behaviour proved to be poles apart. According to Roland Huntford, one of the historians who recounted the event, “Amundsen’s landing had been carefully and thoroughly planned. Each of the men knew the plan that Amundsen was working towards.”1 In McMurdo Strait, on the other hand, “there were too many officers supervising, and the men never knew when or where to go.”2

Robert Falcon Scott in 1905

Scott was not a great planner. On another trip, he had even admitted: “I am very aware that I lack a plan; I have a few nebulous ideas, structured around the main objective, which is none other than to start from the known and explore the unknown. But I am completely prepared to discover that my inexperienced imaginings are impractical and to have to improvise plans on the spot.”3 This time, at least, he preferred to take advantage of the route previously mapped out by Shackleton.

The hallmark of a good superior is knowing how to give his subordinates to understand what they are doing, to encourage them to feel involved, to see where their actions fit within the greater and higher plan, and to know that the future of the work passes through the hands of each one of them.

For their part, subordinates need to be willing to obey without understanding, because apparent arbitrariness is often necessary and even beneficial. If this reciprocity is lacking, chaos or anarchy ensues.

It would be naive, however, to believe that only Scott was facing difficulties. Despite the initial advantage, problems soon surfaced in the relationships among the Norwegians too.

A hasty decision

After the intense period of winter, “Amundsen was restless.”4 He longed to leave as soon as possible. The news that Scott was transporting motorized sledges tormented his mind.

On September 8, the captain of the Fram decided to depart. The thermometer read minus 37°C that morning. As a rule, he should have waited for the temperature to at least stabilize, but the panic of losing the race had made him jump the gun. Attempts to dissuade him were in vain, for Amundsen’s mind was made up. They set off.

The result was tragic: strong winds, terrible blizzards and inclement cold – an average of minus 55°C. It became impossible to continue. Fortunately, the Norwegian leader came to his senses and decided to turn back. However, his worst fault was not that he left prematurely, but that he accelerated his return, racing his sled to the shelter and leaving the others behind.

A typical shortcoming of command is lack of concern for others. The leader must be willing to sacrifice himself, to put himself in the riskiest, hardest and most inhospitable position. He must follow the Divine Model of leadership who, having loved His own, loved them to the end (cf. Jn 13:1). Only then will he be able to say, like Our Lord: “Of those whom Thou gavest Me I lost not one” (Jn 18:9). By sheer good fortune, Amundsen did not lose anyone.

However, Johansen, an older man and in some ways more experienced than the captain, publicly criticized his attitude and questioned his leadership.

Amundsen listened calmly, but he could not allow an open revolt. He had to act energetically. He dismissed Johansen from the expedition to the South Pole and ordered him to “explore” King Edward VII Land.

A harsh measure, no doubt, but one in which a facet of the commander’s charity shines through: “What son is there whom his father does not discipline?” (Heb 12:7). Sometimes it is hard to punish, but a leader can never let his feelings overpower his reason. And in this case, a show of weakness would have brought ruin to the whole endeavour.

“Finis coronat opus”

Finally, on October 20 Amundsen set off towards the pole. On November 1, Scott also began his journey.

Roald Amundsen in 1899

There was no communication between the teams, which increased Amundsen’s fear and somewhat sustained Scott’s hope. Even though many of his operations had failed, the latter believed that the Norwegian would not risk an unknown path, but would also follow Shackleton’s directions. But in fact, when Scott began his march, the other was already more than three hundred and twenty kilometres ahead.

Amundsen, having learned from his mistake not to rush into things, repressed his inner tension at the fear of defeat, and led his entourage under a controlled routine. They walked about twenty-four kilometres a day, and the rest of the day was spent resting and eating. As the stores were well distributed, there were no serious incidents.

Meanwhile, the British trek was plagued with difficulties. The motorized sledges broke down completely after a few kilometres and were abandoned on the ice. The ponies, although they had been of great help to Scott, now had to be put down because they were no longer in any condition to advance. Transport then became very difficult, as the route was too long to drag all the equipment by manpower alone.

To try to make up for the setbacks, Scott began to constantly demand the utmost of himself and his subordinates, to the point of exhaustion. In his view, this was the only way to avoid failure. Was he mistaken in making this decision?

When a man leads others in the conquest of an ideal – or on the road to Heaven – he needs to understand that not everyone is able to walk at his pace. In most groups of this kind, there are the radicals, the good, the moderate and the lukewarm – not to mention the bad. Forcing someone to “pick up the pace” when there is no will to do so is madness: it generates friction, revolts and even worse stagnation. It takes a lot of tact to deal with such people; otherwise, the “weak link in the chain” will begin to break. Whether Scott pushed the envelope or not is for historians to debate.

In the end, because of a few individuals, he had to slow down – and failure came all the same.

The arrival

After almost two months of adventure, covering a distance of 1,126 kilometres, passing over high mountains of up to 3,600 metres, endless crevasses and chasms, Amundsen reached the pole on December 15. Before celebrating his victory, he made sure he was actually on the correct geographical coordinate, as his measuring devices were not at all sophisticated. He then sent three men in different directions to cover sixteen kilometres and set up a signpost, thus encircling the target of the conquest. That way, they would not err.

In the centre of the encampment, inside a tent, Amundsen left a letter for the King of Norway, wrapped in another for Scott, as well as some tools that could be useful to the British entourage. The cordial letter read:

Dear Captain Scott,

As you will probably be the first to arrive in this area after us, I kindly ask you to forward this letter to King Haakon VII. If you can use any of the items left in the tent, please do not hesitate to do so. With kind regards, I wish you a safe return.


Roald Amundsen

The letter was not a provocation. Amundsen truly had no idea if he would survive the journey home. But such cordiality must have resounded as the last blow to Scott when he read it. He was exhausted; he had used up all his strength to get there, and he was beginning to wonder if he would have enough for the inglorious journey back. It was January 17, 1912, more than a month after Amundsen’s victory.

Scott’s return resembled the retreat of a defeated army,5 Huntford declared. They had to return on foot, dragging their own sledges, in the blind hope that someone would come to their aid. They began the way back, accompanied only by exhaustion, pain and hunger.

Little by little, those robust men began to resemble corpses. It was not long before the first death occurred. With the death of a companion, they all felt their end was just as near.

There were just over two hundred kilometres to go when Scott, faced with the terrible weather conditions, decided to halt the march to wait for whatever may come. They remained confined inside their tent, which was gradually covered by snow, and they must not have been long in departing for eternity…

A column of incense

More than a hundred years have passed since those events. Monuments, literary works and tributes of all kinds rightly honour the heroism of these men. But before God, what was the value of Amundsen’s victory and what was the result of Scott’s sacrifice?

Scott’s team on January 17, 1912, after discovering Amundsen’s earlier arrival at the South Pole

Both are difficult to evaluate. From the acts of courage mentioned above, they were souls in whom heroism shone through unmistakably. However, they were sons of a society whose ideals were confused with ambition, and the Catholic Faith no longer governed people as it once had. The audacity of these figures could be compared to a column of incense, which fills the lungs with its perfume, but irritates the eyes and obscures the vision.

The constant blur between greatness and weakness makes these giants, from a certain point of view, dwarfs, because where holiness is lacking, demonstrations of valour are of little or no value. On the contrary, the bravery of an intrepid spirit, when purified by an upright conscience, blossoms into the greatest saints. 



1 HUNTFORD, Roland. O último lugar da Terra. São Paulo: Companhia das Letras, 2002, p.398.

2 Idem, p.396.

3 FIENNES, Ranulph. Capitán Scott. Juventud, 2003 (e-book).

4 HUNTFORD, op. cit., p.477.

5 Idem, p.611.



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