Are Ponies in the Antarctic a Good Strategy?

Interesting fact: Money and resources aren’t a good replacement for strategy. While they are the lifeblood of nearly any endeavour, they are also easy to squander. This was the case in the discovery of the South Pole.

Roald Amundsen was a native Norwegian who grew up fascinated with exploration. Even before he decided to lead the Norwegian expedition to the South Pole he was the leader of the first expedition to navigate the famed Northwest Passage.

Robert Falcon Scott was a Commander in the Royal Navy. He came from a fairly wealthy and prosperous family and decided to seek out the South Pole as a way of distinguishing himself during peacetime.

Robert Falcon Scott, British Royal Navy Commander

Do you see the difference already? Amundsen was driven by passion which led him to dedicate his entire life’s energy to the task of exploration. Scott was chasing glory which proved to be his undoing.

During Amundsen’s trip through the Northwest Passage he spent time in Greenland among the indigenous peoples where he learned their tactics for survival and travel in hostile, arctic conditions.

This led to him to use tools that had already been adapted to the task at hand including sled dogs for transport and waterproof seal skins for his clothing. Being a native Norwegian he was already familiar with cross-country skiing as an efficient method of transport that saves time and energy.

Scott’s methods were wildly different. He looked down on the Inuit methods as savage and instead opted for technology that, to him, was more civilised. Instead of seal skins he wore heavy wool that quickly became waterlogged. He eschewed the use of sled dogs in favour of ponies. He refused to learn how to ski, forcing his team to use manpower for hauling. He literally said this:

In my mind no journey ever made with dogs can approach the height of that fine conception which is realised when a party of men go forth to face hardships, dangers, and difficulties with their own unaided efforts, and by days and weeks of hard physical labour succeed in solving some problem of the great unknown. Surely in this case the conquest is more nobly and splendidly won.*

Oh, he also brought two prototypes snowmobiles, made of metal, that had never been tested. He left the creator and engineer of these machines in England, seemingly as a final “screw you” to logic.

Roald Amundsen:

-had dedicated his life to arctic exploration.

-used already-proven technology and methodology.

-had a clear-cut goal, and spent years planning and trimming the fat from his expedition.

Robert Falcon Scott:

-was in it for the glory.

-decided to try out untested technology and methods in one of the most unforgiving climates on the planet.

-made his plans up as he went including bringing a fourth person on the final journey to the pole when they’d only brought food enough for three.

What happened? Scott’s snowmobiles stopped working. His ponies fell through the ice.  His body was found along with his other three members eight months later, frozen on the Antarctic wastes.

Amundsen made it to the magnetic South Pole, planted his flag, and made it home safely, not a single life lost.

Amundsen has a sea named after him, as well as a crater on the freakin’ moon. Scott… has a pretty cool middle name.

The moral of the story? Set a clear goal ahead of time, do your research and planning, and learn from those who have gone before you. There’s no sense in charging blindly ahead and throwing resources at the problem in the hope it will eventually work out.

*Ref: The Last Place on Earth (1999) by Roland Huntford

-Lewis Glassey is a writer for StratPad