The Gear That Won the Race to the South Pole

In 1910, two expeditions, one led by an adventurer, the other by a scientist, raced to become the first to reach the South Pole. Only one of the teams had the equipment and experience necessary to make it back alive.

These historic expeditions are the subject of a new exhibition at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City entitled "Race to the End of the Earth." With dioramas, replicas of the tents they stayed in, and actual gear from the expeditions themselves, the exhibition tells the story of these two groups, exploring uncharted territory in a time when there was thought to be little left of it to explore.

As dramatic as the setting was to begin with, the triumphs and tragedies of the race are especially poignant because of the distinctly different individuals involved: Norwegian Roald Amundsen, an adventurer in the classic sense who eventually made it to the South Pole and back without losing a single man, and a British scientist, Robert Falcon Scott, who sought the South Pole in the spirit of scientific inquiry but ultimately froze to death in its pursuit.

In its review of the exhibition, the New York Times outlines the two teams' different approaches, the gear they carried, and how these factors determined the their fates. The contrast is evident in the exhibition's replicas of the two teams' camps:

Based on photographs, a life-size replica of Scott's prefabricated base-camp "hut" is here, with wooden bunk beds for his crew, and Scott's own study. What a contrast it makes with Amundsen's setup: his camp was built over a network of underground rooms in the ice, making it unnecessary to go outside to work on equipment.

Amundsen had been to Antarctica before. But he had more than a predilection for polar exploration; he loved it. He was also the first man to lead a ship through the Northwest Passage, spending two years in the Canadian Arctic, learning from Netsilik Inuit. That proved crucial.

Those differences can be seen in much of the teams' equipment, such as Scott's woven, windproof jackets (which visitors to the museum can try on) compared to the reindeer and sealskin jackets Amundsen outfitted his group with in the Inuit tradition. The 19 Manchurian ponies and some 35,000 cigars that Scott brought along with him capture the spirit in which he set out: admirably noble but disastrously naive. The photo above shows members of Scott's team trying to fix one of their malfunction-prone motorized sleds.

More can be read about the exhibit and its fascinating subjects on the museum's site, and visitors to New York City can see the exhibition at the American Natural History Museum through the end of the year. [NYTimes and AMNH]

Image credit AMNH