In the late part of October, and early part of November, 1911, two expeditions set out from opposite sides of Antarctica, in an attempt to be the first humans to reach the South Pole. Robert Falcon Scott led a large British team from one side, and Roard Amundsen led a Norwegian team from the other. 99 days after departure, Amundsen’s team returned, having achieved their goal and with all team members alive. 150 days after departure, the last members of Scott’s team died, a mere 18km from a life-saving cache of supplies.
Their two journeys, like their outcomes, could not have been more different. Many books have been written about these competing expeditions and experts identify multiple, significant, reasons why Scott’s team failed so miserably.
I’m a sucker for expedition stories. More than once I’ve been caught up in a great book about expeditions, crazy adventures and limit-pushing humans. I’ve written about an early South Pole expedition by Ernest P. Shackleton — an amazing story of faith, human endurance and survival. One of my favorite books is a collection of gut-wrenching survival stories from men and women who risked everything to conquer the unknown.
Part of my pleasure in such stories is that I live vicariously through these expedition leaders. After all, I have no desire to summit Everest, cross Antarctica or skydive from space, “just because it’s there” or because my adrenal glands demand that I push the envelope further and further. I’m content to read the stories of others, from the comfort of my couch.
But another part of my pleasure, larger than the first, is that these stories stir up a desire to embrace life more fully — to live it to the fullest. The video of a climber sipping a cup of coffee early on the morning after he has ascended Everest is so compelling to me. He sits drinking a hot cup of coffee, totally silent, because there are no words for him to express the sensation of being on the highest point on earth. He is richly satisfied and deeply reflective. Later he would say, “If I can conquer Everest, there is no obstacle that can stand in my way.”
The story of a kayaker who lost his best friend while trying to survive the some of the most challenging waters in the world, on the Blue Nile, pierces my heart on many levels. As he reflects on the adventure he completed, the friendship he lost and the uncertain future he faces, he is forever changed. The adventure changed him.
I watch these movies and read these stories and wonder: what can I learn from these stories that could change my life? How can I, vicariously, learn from the experiences of these great adventures?
The story of Scott and Amundsen is no exception, and here are four Overboard Life lessons from their journeys:
- Victory usually comes thru careful planning. Amundsen was a calculated explorer. He knew every expedition would be confronted with unpredictable circumstances, and he planned for them. His expedition to the South Pole was carefully calculated, stores of food and supplies were laid out in excess (for every seven supply depots that Amundsen’s team set up, Scott’s team set up two!) and details of navigation were carried out with extreme precision and redundancy. He knew the weather would be a difficult beast to tame, he didn’t want his planning to feed the monster.
- Goals are achieved by steady progress. Amundsen’s team marched 20 miles a day, every day, regardless of weather conditions. He carefully calculated the energy of the men and animals in the expedition, and concluded that it was better to achieve a certain distance each day, rather than base their travel on the weather. Scott’s team, on the other hand, pushed hard on good weather days, and sat dormant on the nastiest of days. According to journals, Amundsen’s crew frequently enjoyed 14-16 hour periods of rest, and their plentiful stores aloud them to nourish their bodies during down times. Scott’s crew sometimes sat for days, and their lack of rations limited their ability to recoup after long hard days of hiking. The steady progress of the Norwegians was a big factor in their success.
- The best moments in life usually flow out of our God-given make-up. Amundsen’s expedition moved across the Antarctic on their strengths: their knowledge of sled dogs, and their skill with skis. Scott’s team tried ponies (of which few on their team had any significant experience using ponies in arctic conditions!) and motor-sleds, neither of which had been used with much success in the past (though Shackleton’s team had some success with ponies). The Norwegians chose to rely on their God-given strengths and abilities, and they achieved their goal.
- You can’t pay the price, if you don’t know the cost: To be the first humans at the North Pole, Amundsen counted the cost carefully. His previous experience had prepared him for the rugged journey, and he knew the goal wouldn’t be achieved by a casual commitment. They left camp with 52 sled dogs and returned with 11. Why? Because they counted on the fact that they could kill the dogs and eat the meat along the journey. He knew the trip was going to require devotion, even to the point of choosing to kill off their beloved animals.
Check out part two, on Monday, April 11th, to read the conclusion to this blog post!