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There & back – Ben Saunders and Tarka L’Herpiniere: lessons from Scott’s last journey

February 10, 2014

I’ve been studying the early C20th Antarctic expeditions for a number of years, the brave, heroic quests of Shackleton, Amundsen and Scott to 90-degrees South – the South Pole – fascinate me.

This Heroic Era of Polar exploration was captured by the ‘race to the Pole’ between Amundsen and Scott, where Amundsen beat Scott and returned safely, crew intact. Sadly, Scott and his crew ultimately perished during their attempted return.

Last week, Ben Saunders and Tarka L’Herpiniere completed the trek of 1,795 miles, replicating Captain Robert Falcon Scott’s unfinished home journey of his ill-fated expedition. Enduring temperatures of -46C (-51F) on their 105-day journey, Saunders said it had brought them ‘close to the brink’, as they set a world record for the longest polar journey on foot in history.

Retracing Scott’s original 1911-12 route, Ben and Tarka started at Scott’s Hut on the north shore of Cape Evans on Ross Island. They traversed the Ross Ice Shelf, before climbing 8000ft on one of the world’s largest glaciers, the Beardmore Glacier, on to the Antarctic Plateau, and onwards to the South Pole. From the Pole it was back the way they came, finishing 900 miles later back where they began at the coast. Here’s the video blog and web site: and

I’ve always felt a combination of awe and profound respect for the endurance, tenacity and fortitude of Scott and his team. When Scott, Edward Wilson, Henry Bowers, Lawrence Oates and Edgar Evans reached the Pole, they found a Norwegian flag planted by a rival team led by Roald Amundsen. You can only imagine their sheer anguish.

Scott set off from base camp on 1 November 1911 but were beaten by Roald Amundsen’s Norwegian team who reached the Pole on 15 December 1911; 33 days later on 17 January 2012 Scott’s party arrived, but all five perished on their 700 mile return. A search party found Scott’s tent, diary and three bodies on 12 November 1912. Scott was thought to be the last to die

Antarctica is the coldest, windiest, driest, highest-altitude continent on earth. It’s 98% covered by ice, which is on average 1 mile thick, and the ice contains 70% of the Earth’s fresh water.

Antarctica experiences 24-hour daylight in summer (October–February), and 24-hour darkness in winter (March–September). The sun sets in March for the winter and rises again in October. The first known man to set foot on Antarctica was Henryk Bull in 1895. He landed at Cape Adare with a party from a whaling station.

Despite Scott and Amundsen’s shared aim to reach the Pole first, they differed in how they organised their expeditions. From the type of men they chose to the food and equipment they took, the differences were marked.

In extreme and hostile conditions of the Antarctic, getting the smallest details right or wrong can mean the difference between life and death. The two leaders and expeditions have often been compared, so what lessons can we take from their amazing efforts into the vision, strategy, planning and execution required for our own business adventures?

Single-minded focus on achieving a single, clear goal Amundsen was solely focused on reaching the Pole first, everything he did had this goal. This competitive focus enabled Amundsen to spend all his energy and time on the journey south. Amundsen had one goal, and one goal only: to be the first to reach the South Pole.

Scott had a dual agenda of exploration and science, and the complexity of doing both contributed in part to his demise. At one point during Scott’s return trip, his team had just five days of food left, with the next depot – a pre-laid cache of food and supplies – five days away. The margin between the men and starvation was thin, and weather conditions were ideal for making up time. But Scott decided instead to stop and take geological samples, requiring 8 miles of work that did not get the team any closer to the life-saving food at the next depot.

Amundsen understood the importance of channelling all of one’s energy into a single aim, saying: Our plan is one, one and again one alone – to reach the pole. For that goal, I have decided to throw everything else aside. We shall do what we can without colliding with this plan

Pick and lead a tight team Scott’s expedition was large compared to Amundsen’s hand-picked party. Over 60 men manned the initial party, and 25 men comprised the shore party, who would winter at base camp. Amundsen picked 19 men for his expedition but only nine wintered in the hut they built on the ice shelf.

Scott had yet to pick his Polar team from the shore party and, in fact, did not settle the matter until he was about 150 miles from the Pole. Amundsen planned and told eight of the men who would go to the Pole at the outset.

The only man Amundsen feared in his party was Hjalmar Johansen, a famous Arctic explorer in his own right. When Amundsen set off too early in September 1911, the party was forced to return to the hut, and Johansen was appalled by the disarray and publicly chastised Amundsen. He was dropped with two others from the polar party – Amundsen would not tolerate people who publically criticised his leadership.

In contrast, Scott included Captain Oates in his Polar team, despite the fact that the two men clashed publically. In letters home to his mother, Oates was candid in his criticism of Scott and this conflict was yet another strain on Scott’s leadership.

Prepare for the best – with a plan to fail Amundsen spent years planning his expedition and went over the details again and again, leaving nothing to chance. He designed his own goggles, skis and dog harnesses.

Amundsen brought the same attention to detail to one of the most crucial parts of his preparation: the positioning of the depots on the way to and from the Pole. Because the men could not carry all the supplies and food needed for a 1500-mile journey, depots were placed at intervals along the route before the actual expedition began.

Amundsen spent a year creating a depot-laying plan for the expedition. He laid out his depots with regularity along each line of latitude, and packed them with ten times more food than Scott’s. Scott did plan, but he was unprepared for the unexpectedly cold temperatures he and his team would face, and their slower than expected progress.

Perhaps Scott’s greatest depot-laying mistake concerned the placement of ‘One Ton Depot’, the furthest depot was supposed to be laid at the 80th parallel. But the men were tired and Scott decided to drop the remaining supplies right where they were, 37 miles shy of the target. This decision would prove fateful. On their return from the Pole, Scott and his hungry and exhausted men laid down to die just 12 miles from One Ton Depot. Had it been placed as originally planned, the men would have reached it, and perhaps survived.

Scott’s journal was filled with descriptions of bad luck. In reality, the two expeditions faced much of the same lousy weather. One succeeded while the other failed. What we do with our luck good or bad is completely within our control. It’s what you do with it that counts.

Leadership style Ultimately, the main difference between the Norwegian and British parties was leadership. Scott was a complex, sensitive and introspective man with considerable literary skills and charm. His concept of leadership was honed by his training as an English naval officer, which was inevitably hierarchical and formal.

Amundsen was more of an innovative individualist – a professional explorer with a genuine passion for snow and ice. He was also complex, particularly in his tangled relationships, but his competitive focus and drive was unparalleled.

Perhaps the most impressive characteristic of Amundsen’s leadership was his engagement. Whether it was the unusual design of the team’s clothing, the ambience of the pre-fabricated Norwegian cabin that he brought along to create a more congenial base-camp environment, or the lack of sentimentality when it came to assembling the final Polar team, Amundsen was always in the middle of the conversation.

While Scott’s style was frequently casual and accepting of compromise, Amundsen was demanding, unreasonable, and without compromise. In the end, that attitude may have made the difference between life and death.

I personally greatly admire Scott’s courage and character and his stoicism when facing death. Make no mistake about it, Scott had heart and bravery in spades, but Amundsen was the superior hands-on tactician.

Work smarter, not harder. One of the biggest difference between Scott and Amundsen was the form of transportation chosen for their journeys. Scott gave himself four different options – ponies, dogs, motor sledges (primitive snow mobiles) and man-hauling.

The logistics of Scott’s expedition were complex; he started out with 16 men, 23 dogs, 10 ponies, 13 sledges, and 2 motor sledges. The party was slowly winnowed down to the five men who man-hauled the rest of the way to the Pole. In contrast, Amundsen’s expedition was very simple: 5 men and dogs all the way there, and all the way back.

The advantages of using dogs as much as possible was clear – they were quick and fast, scampering over the snow and taking the burden of hauling off the men; Scott often marched 9-10 hours a day, while Amundsen rarely went more than 5-6, and yet in that shorter amount of time, he would sometimes cover twice the ground Scott had.

Never rest on your laurels, be restless, always improving. While Scott and his crew spent the winter months relaxing, Amundsen’s team maintained 8-hour days customising equipment and working. Both expeditions used the same sledges, but Amundsen’s were modified to reduce the weight considerably, and he took tips from the Inuit Indians on clothing, opting for a style and material that promoted air circulation and helped sweating and heat retention/loss.

Amundsen’s constancy of purpose and unrelenting focus into his endeavour brought him success, and in many ways is a tribute to learning. Amundsen learned from anyone who could help, regardless of the source of their knowledge or station in life.  Amundsen was a devoted student of the lessons of the Netsilik Eskimos, who lived in the Canadian arctic, with whom Amundsen had spent substantial time studying their diets, clothes, and their survival skills.

Jim Collins draws upon the comparison and contrast between Amundsen and Scott in his book with Morten Hansen, Great by Choice: Uncertainty, Chaos and Luck – Why Some Thrive Despite them All: It’s what you do before the storm comes that most determines how well you’ll do when the storm comes. Those who fail to plan and prepare for instability, disruption, and chaos in advance tend to suffer more when their environments shift from stability to turbulence.

Passion Another key point differentiating Amundsen and Scott was their mentality for the expedition itself. What Scott saw as a job to complete, Amundsen enjoyed passionately, and was likely to bring that passion to his men. Evidence of this can be seen in their respective diaries. On 12 November 1911, where Scott wrote Great God! This is an awful place! Amundsen’s diary read Shining white, bright blue, utterly black illuminated by sunlight, the country looks like a fairy tale. Precipices, peaks on peaks, so cragged and so wild, it lies unseen and virgin-like

Passion makes up the elusive 5% that good teams need to become great. Responsibility towards a job brings compliance, passion for the job brings a higher level of commitment. For example, Amundsen’s team travelled 15-20 miles every day, regardless of whether the weather or other circumstances were favourable. In contrast, Scott would sometimes drive his team to exhaustion on good days and then sit in his tent and complain about the weather on bad days. Passion stops work looking like work, and puts vision as the driving and motivating force.

Despite this, Scott had passion, a quote from his last letter to his wife, written a few days before he died said a lot about the man: How much better it has been than lounging in comfort at home.

The expedition Scott died hoping to achieve – the most poignant journey of the golden age of Antarctic exploration – has now been completed by Ben Saunders and Tarka L’Herpiniere, pushing the boundaries of human potential. The 2014 Scott Expedition is the next chapter in one of the greatest stories of polar exploration ever told, resonating with rich lessons for your business in the memory of Amundsen and Scott. This closing video captures the essence of your business efforts: There and back on your journey, with each step, try to reach a bit further forward than you think you can.

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