Good Luck or Bad Luck!

The year – 1910

Two brave men

Two different rule book

Two different routes

Many different decisions

BUT One Single Goal


Who will get glory for themselves and their country? Who will succeed?


finally, what is GOOD LUCK and what is BAD LUCK?

The stage is set….

1910-The South Pole- the last great, undiscovered frontier on planet Earth.

Robert Falcon Scott, a British explorer aims to bring glory to the British Empire by becoming the first man to reach the South Pole. July 15, 1910 carrying the weight of expectations of his countrymen he set sail from Wales.

Meanwhile, the Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen,  had his sights firmly fixed on the North Pole. But as a couple of Americans, Frederick Cook and Robert Peary, laid separate claims to that Pole in 1909, Amundsen decided to turn south. June 3, 1910 he hits the waters and set sail from Oslo, heading south.

His destination- the South Pole. His goal- To be the first to reach the South Pole.

January, 1911- both finally arrive at the edge of the Antarctic continental shelf. One way distance to the South Pole approximately 800 miles- roughly the distance from New York to Chicago or from Delhi to Mumbai in harsh sub-zero conditions. 

October 19, 1911, Amundsen set out from his base, in Bay of Whales, Antarctica, with four companions, 52 dogs and four sleds, 11 days ahead of Scott. Amundsen’s charts a route through unknown land whereas Scott’s route is the same as that chartered by Earnst Shackleton in 1907 until 88° 23′ S.


December 14, 1911, Amundsen and his four-man team became the first people to reach the South Pole, beating Robert Scott’s team by 35 days. They raised the Norwegian flag in victory leaving behind a tent with spare equipment for Scott, and a letter addressed to the King of Norway about his accomplishment. He and his men, along with 11 surviving dogs, made it back to base on January 25, 1912.  Amundsen’s entire team of 19 in the end return safely to Norway.

Scott reached the Pole only to face the crushing realization that the Norwegians had been there first. He and his four men perish on their grueling 700-mile return trip.

What happened? What differentiated the heroic and tragic journey of Robert Scott from that of Amundsen. Same goals…two different outcomes!

What lessons do they hold for us mortals…What elements from this saga  parallel and hold lessons in our own dealings. Someone is successful, someone is not. We scratch our heads and wonder why. Was it good luck or bad luck or was it something else?or was it Divine intervention?

The Norwegian triumph was clearly achieved through superior planning, better use of resources and a more thorough understanding of what was needed to undertake “the worst journey in the world.”   and then executing the plan out with methodical, dogged discipline and consistency.

Focus: Amundsen had one laser focused goal. He said “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.” Scott’s expedition, on the other hand, had dual purposes: to get to the Pole first and to gather scientific information about the Antarctic. These goals were often times in conflict. For instance, with only five days of food left till they hit the next stored food on the way Scott decided instead to stop and gather 30 stones, adding 35 pounds to the sledges, which in turn taxed their limited reserves.

Discipline: Amundsen decided to take a disciplined travel plan. Amundsen, set base camp at the Bay of Whales, and chose the straightest never before attempted path to the South Pole. He ended shaving 120 miles round-trip from his journey but also but also ended up being an easier path than Scott’s. In contrast, Scott blindly copied the earlier plan used by Ernest Shackleton. Amundsen plan to shave off roughly one quarter of a degree every day traveling along a line of longitude. This gave him roughly 15 miles every day of travel-come good or bad weather, or unexpected circumstances like one of his dogs or men falling into a crevasse. This gave his team a minimum goal to reach everyday. “Traveled completely blind,” he wrote in his journal, “nonetheless we have done our [daily] 20 miles.”  Scott, on the other hand, did not have a consistent goal for how far he hoped to go each day. He let the daily weather conditions and his fluctuating feelings of motivation dictate the pace. On ideal condition days, he might push the men to trudge for 9 hours at a time. When the weather turned ugly, he might decide to not leave his tent at all, even though Amundsen was out in similar conditions.

Planning: Amundsen left nothing to chance. Amundsen prepared rigorously for years in advance of the journey. During his previous expedition to be the first to travel through the Northwest Passage- the area between the Arctic and Canada, he learnt from the Inuits and Netsilik Eskimos on how to survive in sub-zero terrains- how they moved, what they wore, and every detail for survival. His equipment was field-tested at base camp and refined again and again. He designed his own goggles, skis, dog harnesses, and pemmican. Besides carefully selecting his team members with unique skill sets, they crafted backup pairs of custom skis for each man, modified the skis’ bindings to be more efficient and lighter without sacrificing sturdiness, created better designed and lighter tents (Amundsen’s tents could be put up with one pole; Scott’s required five), lightened the sledges, and sewed their clothing and remade their boots four times until they fit perfectly and wouldn’t chafe.  Scott’s men did refine their equipment somewhat during the winter, but spent a good deal of the time writing letter, playing sports, and attending evening lectures given by each other. Nothing compared to what Amundsen undertook.

Uniqueness of your path: Choosing your drivers:  There is no one size fits all- the form of transportation chosen was one of the biggest factors for failure and success of the expeditions. Scott, charted the course followed by Ernest Shackleton during his unsuccessful expedition in 1907, and decided to use horses for a quarter of the trek and then man-hauling for the rest. However, of the 19 ponies brought nine were lost before the journey began. The horses were ill-suited to the harsh Arctic conditions without snow-shoes which were left behind at base camp. Horses sweat through their hides, which then froze into sheets of ice and they had to be covered with blankets and covers to be kept warm. Moreover, their heavy weight and small hooves made them sink deep into anything other than firm ice. The man-hauling was physically taxing and took enormous toll on the men.  For the British, man-hauling was a source of pride, a test of manhood—they liked the purity of it, the struggle between man and nature; Scott and his men actually looked forward to turning back the dogs and getting into the harnesses for the push to the Pole. Scott wrote: “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…Surely in this case the conquest is more nobly and splendidly won.”

vintage south pole explorers pulling sledge over snowy landscape

After learning how Netsilik Eskimos during his earlier trip through the Northwest Passage in 1903, he decided to use dogs for transportation. The Norwegians correctly estimated that dog teams could go all the way. Dogs ran quickly in the snow and ice and were low-maintenance haulers. They could be fed a variety of foods, and they kept warm by digging holes to bed inside. Dogs do not have sweat glands – they cool themselves via panting, making them less vulnerable to the cold. The Norwegians sacrificed the weaker animals along the journey to feed the other animals and the men themselves.

Captain Roald Engelbregt Gravning Amundsen at the South pole under the Norwegian flag, December 14, 1911.

They also made great companions in the harsh terrain and drudgery and greatly helped uplift the men’s sagging morale.Finally, because dogs can travel in colder conditions, they can run both earlier and later in the summer season than ponies, allowing Amundsen to start for the Pole two weeks before Scott—a huge advantage.

Attention to details- assessing his key driversAmundsen brought the same attention to detail the positioning of the depots- the life line for the expedition- on the way to and from the Pole. Because the men could not carry Depots were placed at intervals along the route before the actual expedition began, as the men could not carry all the supplies and food they’d required for the 1500 mile journey. Amundsen had spent a year creating a depot-laying plan for the expedition, and still felt it had not been enough time. He laid out his depots with regularity, along each line of latitude, and packed them with ten times more food (and including 42,000 biscuits) than Scott’s. While Scott and his men died partially from starvation, Amundsen’s team actually gained weight on their return from the Pole. Scott created his depot-laying plan once he landed at McMurdo Sound and gave his men just a week to divvy up the supplies and calculate how much to stash at each depot.  Man-hauling has been estimated to burn 7,000 calories a day, and even up to a 11,000 when pulling uphill. Yet each man’s rations provided just 4,500 calories a day, leaving them weakened and demoralized.

Amundsen stored three tons of supplies for five men, versus Scott, who stored one ton for seventeen men.  Amundsen carried enough extra supplies to miss every single supply depot and still have enough to go another hundred miles. Scott ran everything dangerously close to his calculations, so that missing even one supply depot would bring disaster.  A single detail aptly highlights the difference between their approaches: Scott brought one thermometer for a key altitude measurement, and he exploded in “an outburst of wrath” when it broke; Amundsen brought four such devices given its importance to the expedition’s success.

Both knew that the paraffin fuel canisters both men took on their expeditions were known to have leaking problems. Amundsen soldered the canisters shut, while Scott kept the standard leather washers. On their return from the Pole, Scott and his men were dismayed to reach their depots, only to discover that much of the paraffin had evaporated, forcing them to eat frozen food and leading to dehydration (they didn’t have enough fuel to melt the snow). One of Amundsen’s canisters was found in the snow 50 years later–still 100% full. But perhaps Scott’s greatest depot-laying mistake concerned the placement of “One Ton Depot.” During the depot-laying march before the main expedition began, the furthest depot was supposed to be laid at the 80th parallel. But the men were tired and the ponies were floundering, and Scott decided to drop the remaining supplies (2,200 lbs of them, or about one ton) 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 have been saved.

Self imposed constraints-Working smarter not harder:

Rest and relaxation- an important part of the march. 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. Amundsen kept up his 15-mile-a-day pace for three-fourths of his journey to and from the Pole. It’s not that he couldn’t have easily pushed the team and their dogs to do more — they were healthy and eager — but he deliberately chose this pace so as to not exhaust his team and run the risk of injuries and sickness. Amundsen’s men passed most of their “down time” resting in their sleeping bags — up to 16 hours a day. But Amundsen saw this rest as a vital part of the overall plan.  He said “…What concerns me is that we all live properly in all respects during the winter. Sleep and eat well, so that we have full strength and are in good spirits when spring arrives to fight towards the goal which we must attain at any cost.” For Scott, impatience was one of his weaknesses; he didn’t like sitting around and any kind of delay made him feel anxious. He also felt that if an effort didn’t tax you completely, it hadn’t been enough. Even after a long day of marching, he might decide to keep on pushing. Scott pushed his men so hard on the way out to the Pole that the men did not have enough strength left for what turned out to be an even more arduous return journey.

How do these elements apply to our own journey?

Each individuals, each enterprise’s journey is unique and required to be tailored to our unique environment and conditions. One can gain insights from prior successes and use them as inspirations only and to carve our own unique journey’s. Do we have the self-restraint to avoid getting distracted and running out of mental and physical fuel? Do we have balance in our lives? Are we giving so much to our professional lives that our personal lives are in tatters and falling apart? And above all, do we have the grit and discipline to do the 15-mile march day-in-and day-out hail, snow or sunshine till the goal is reach?  If yes, glory awaits us. The victor in life’s race is usually the doggedly consistent tortoise and not the sprint-and-snooze hare. What’s your 15 Mile March? While you can’t control everything that happens in your life, you can control whether you put in your 15 Mile March for the day.

“I may say that this is the greatest factor—the way in which the expedition is equipped—the way in which every difficulty is foreseen, and precautions taken for meeting or avoiding it.

Victory awaits him who has everything in order — luck, people call it. Defeat is certain for him who has neglected to take the necessary precautions in time; this is called bad luck.”

-Roald Amundsen

The Amundsen–Scott South Pole Station:

A US scientific research station at the Geographic South Pole, the southernmost place on planet Earth.- named in tribute to these two brave men and their quest (Wikipedia)


  1. Comparison of the Amundsen and Scott Expeditions. Wikepedia

  2. Race to The End: Amundsen, Scott, and the Attainment of the South Pole Hardcover – May 4, 2010 by Ross D. E. MacPhee

  3. The Worst Journey in the World (Penguin Classics) Paperback – February 28, 2006by Apsley Cherry-Garrard (Author), Caroline Alexander (Introduction)

  5. Jim Collins and Morten in their book ‘Great by Choice: Uncertainty, Chaos, and Luck–Why Some Thrive Despite Them All

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