Robert Scott vs Roald Amundsen: A Race Against Hunger

It was almost exactly a hundred years ago, on 29th March 1912, that Captain Robert Falcon Scott, blizzard-bound in a tent, addressed his journal for the last time. ‘I do not think we can hope for better things now,’ the leader of the British Antarctic expedition wrote. ‘We shall stick it out to the end, but we are getting weaker of course, and the end cannot be far. It seems a pity but I do not think I can write more.’

Eight months later his frozen body and those of the other two remaining members of his team were found by a search party. The men had been only eleven miles from food and fuel.

Much has been written about Scott’s ill-fated last expedition and the cumulative misfortune and misjudgment that cost him the race to the South Pole and ended in tragedy. Unusually bad weather, the loss of ponies, the decision to man-haul sledges rather than using dogs, oversights in navigational planning – these and many other factors contributed, but one key to the team’s undoing was a misunderstanding of the nutrition required.

Scott had based his reckonings on earlier expeditions but didn’t fully take into account the extra energy needed for long periods of man-hauling at high altitudes. Nor did he build in extra quantities of food required to bridge delays due to blizzards. Also, his last-minute decision to include ‘Birdie’ Bowers as the fifth man in his polar party stretched already meagre food supplies.

According to records, the daily sledging ration per man was 450g of biscuit, 340g of pemmican (a rich, greasy cake made of pounded dried beef mixed with suet), 85g of sugar, 57g of butter, 20g of tea and 16g of cocoa (about two dessert-spoonfuls). The staple meal of the day would have been pemmican boiled up with melted snow, biscuit and curry powder to make a thick stew known as ‘hoosh’ to which any available meat would also be added.

Given the concentrated fat content of the pemmican, this allowance was thought to provide around 4,000 calories, but even when supplemented with meat from ponies that had served their purpose, it was far short of the 7,000-plus calories we now know that a man pulling a 90-kilogram sledge across treacherous terrain in freezing conditions would burn.

A deficiency of vitamins was another problem, specifically a lack of vitamin C, which causes scurvy, leading to a breakdown in connective tissue and the reopening of old wounds, haemorrhaging, bleeding gums, loosening of teeth, fatigue and disorientation. And just to add to the misery, having lost a lot of cooking fuel from defective containers, the men couldn’t melt enough snow to drink and so became increasingly dehydrated.

Scott’s journals reveal that when he and his team arrived at the Pole, where they suffered the huge psychological blow of finding Norwegian Roald Amundsen had beaten them to it, they were already ravaged by malnutrition and, pondering the return trip, he wrote: ‘Now for the run home and a desperate struggle. I wonder if we can do it.’Amundsen’s crew, by contrast, actually gained weight on their expedition (‘we were sound and healthy as we had never been before’ he wrote) and took unused supplies home as mementoes.

The Norwegian team’s polar rations were 400g biscuits, 375g pemmican, 125g chocolate and 75g dried milk – less biscuit and more pemmican than in the British allowance, and no butter or sugar. However, there were crucial differences in the staple foodstuffs themselves. The Norwegians’ pemmican recipe, for example, on Amundsen’s instructions, also contained oats and dried vegetables, providing roughage, while their biscuits were enriched with oatmeal and yeast, yielding valuable B-complex vitamins.

The Scott party’s biscuit  (manufactured by Huntley & Palmer) was made with white flour, which is low in vitamin B. The Norwegians were also consuming a lot of fresh seal and penguin meat, lightly cooked, which preserves its rich vitamin C content (although that wasn’t known at the time), while when the British team ate it they overcooked the flesh to mute its strong fishy flavour.

At base camp too, the rivals were poles apart, nutritionally-speaking, the winter before they set out.  Scott’s men stuck mainly to tinned meat and white bread and were as a result showing signs of malnourishment soon after setting out. Just six weeks in, Captain Lawrence Oates was already limping due to the effect of scurvy on an old war wound. Amundsen, on the other hand, was acutely aware of the importance of diet having seen at first-hand the effects of scurvy on a previous expedition and the Norwegians were busy building up their resistance with seal and vegetable stew, wholemeal bread and cheese, and buckwheat cakes with vitamin C-packed whortleberry and cloudberry preserves.

On Christmas Day, 1911, having trekked for nearly two months and believing they were close to being the first men at the South Pole, Scott and his team set up camp and enjoyed one of their last square meals: pony hoosh, followed by a sweet stew of chocolate, raisins and arrowroot, a lump of plum pudding, and a handful of caramels and crystallised ginger each, all washed down with pannikins of cocoa. Scott, who actually put off describing the meal in writing until Boxing Day, having been ‘too replete’ the night before, wrote in his journal: ‘We have all slept splendidly and feel thoroughly warm – such is the effect of full feeding.’ Little did he know that Amundsen had planted his flag two weeks earlier and was already well on the way home.

Arriving back at ‘Framheim’, their base camp, in the early hours of January 25, the Norwegians celebrated the end of their 1,860-nautical-mile round trip with a hurriedly-prepared breakfast: ‘Then the coffee kettle was put on, and the perfume of hot cakes rose as in old days,’ Amundsen recalled. This ‘heavenly’ fare was followed by a glass of schnapps.‘That gathering round the breakfast table at Framheim after the end of the trip,’ Helmer Hanssen, another of the returning party, wrote, ‘belongs to the moments in one’s life one never forgets.’


Scott’s Last Expedition, (John Murray, 1923)

The South Pole, by Roald Amundsen (John Murray, 1912)

Scott of the Antarctic, by Elspeth Huxley (Atheneum, 1978)

A First-rate Tragedy, by Diana Preston (Mariner, 1999)

The Worst Journey in the World, by Apsley Cherry-Garrard (Chatto, 1922)

Kevin Smith’s new novel, “Jammy Dodger”, will be published in September 2012

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