Planning and the race to the bottom

In 1911, British explorer Robert Falcon Scott and Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen went head to head for the honour of being the first man to reach the South Pole. It proved to be a dramatic journey for both of them – ending in victory for Amundsen and tragedy for Scott.

They set off within days of each other. Scott with experience on his side – he’d attempted to reach the South Pole before but had been forced to turn back due to the sub-zero conditions. It was always Scott’s intention to return and, with the support of the British Admiralty and the government, he secured a grant of £20,000. Scott recruited men from his previous voyage and from Ernest Shackleton’s ship Nimrod, which had recently returned from the Antarctic.

Amundsen was a respected explorer and was determined to beat the Brits. He had been preparing for years and kept his plans secret. Amundsen had undergone an intensive and long-term fitness regime, including travelling from Norway to Spain by bicycle. He planned for extreme scenarios and his studies of the Inuit people yielded actionable insights, such as the need to move slowly in cold conditions so sweat wouldn’t form inside your clothing and turn to ice.

Amundsen had also learned that dogs can thrive in sub-zero conditions and spent time with the Inuits in northern Canada learning to dogsled. Meanwhile, Scott travelled with a team of ponies, which were entirely unsuited to the sub-zero conditions, and also motor sledges, which were untested and quickly failed. The Amundsen party ran their teams of dogs to the pole and back, while Scott’s team pulled their sledges themselves – the Brits faced the tortuous journey with stoicism and dignity, but moved far more slowly and exhausted themselves in the process.

Amundsen laid down emergency supply caches along the route and marked them with highly-visible black flags. The Norwegians stored three tons of supplies for five men. In contrast, Scott stored one ton for 17 men. Amundsen insisted on carrying extra supplies in case they missed every one of his supply caches, so that they could still complete the journey.

Amundsen also brought four thermometers. Scott brought just the one, which soon broke. While both men knew there was no way to mitigate all of the risks involved, the Norwegian stress-tested his plans and prepared for the worst. In contrast, Scott appears to have been more reliant on good fortune and one of his final diary entries complains about bad luck.

On 15 December 1911, Amundsen and his team planted the Norwegian flag at the South Pole having reached it reached it on the day they’d planned. At that time, Scott’s expedition was still 360 miles away. Weak from exhaustion, hunger and extreme cold, Scott’s last diary entry is dated 29 March 1912. Sadly, he died in his tent along with two of his men.

It’s a tragic tale, but also a cautionary one especially for those of us starting to consider what next year’s plan looks like. We must remember to start with the problem we’re trying to solve and exploring the best direction of travel before prioritising tactical activities and allocating budgets.

Dean Gray | Founder, CEO


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