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The Tragic Race to Be First to the South Pole

Posted: 28 May 2010 01:05 PM PDT

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NEW YORK CITY — In 1910, two men set out to be the first to reach the South Pole in a race that would be both heroic and tragic. The men had different reasons for their journeys, took different routes and made different decisions that would ultimately seal their respective fates, and those of their teams.

The American Museum of Natural History delves into this storied event to bring visitors as close as possible to this historic event and the people involved in their new exhibit, "Race to the End of the Earth," starting May 29. Artifacts, photographs, replicas and models give life to the two rivals and their treacherous 1,800-mile marches to the center of Antarctica.

Robert Falcon Scott set off from Wales on July 15, 1910 on what was originally intended to be a primarily scientific expedition, but which quickly morphed into a quest to make history on behalf of the British Empire.

Meanwhile, Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen, whose plan to reach the North Pole first had been thwarted by both Frederik Cook and Robert Peary, had secretly turned his sights on the South Pole. He left Oslo in June 3, 1910 with the intent of beating Scott to his goal.

In October, while docked in Melbourne, Australia, Scott received a telegram from Amundsen informing him simply that he was "proceeding to Antarctic." The race was on.

Scott's party carried on its plans to do scientific research on Antarctica, completing several geological expeditions and one arduous winter trek to collect Emperor Penguin eggs. On Oct. 24, 1911, the team began heading to the pole. In early January, Scott and four others left the rest of the group to make the final push. But when they reached the pole on Jan. 17, their celebration was ruined by the black flags Amundsen and his team had placed there about five weeks earlier.

The worst was yet to come for Scott, however. None of the the team of five that reached the pole would survive the return trip, succumbing to exceedingly harsh conditions they encountered on the way. But though he lost the race and his life, he won the hearts of his countrymen and inspired many throughout the world. Amundsen's accomplishment was tarnished by the perception that he had ruthlessly taken from Scott what was rightfully his and for which the English expedition paid the ultimate price.

Biologist Ross MacPhee, who curated the museum's exhibit, wrote in his beautifully written and illustrated accompanying book Race to the End, "Amundsen may have won the race, but the ensuing war of perception concerning who was the greater explorer continues to this day — was it Amundsen, the machinelike competitor who had but one goal in mind, or Scott, for whom scientific exploration was just as important as standing, for one brief moment, at 90 degrees S?" visited the "Race to the End of the Earth" exhibit at the American Museum of Natural History earlier this month as it was nearing completion. This gallery contains photos from this visit, images from earlier stages of the exhibit construction and historical photos of expeditions.

Scott's Sledge

Sledges (above) were crucial — they carried the men's food, fuel, clothing and sleeping bags. Unlike Amundsen, who used dogs exclusively, Scott's exploration and scientific teams usually man-hauled their heavily laden sledges, often over great distances. –AMNH

Image: AMNH/C. Chesek.