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Freeze Frame Scott Polar Research Institute

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Surface Transport

There are many types of surface transport available to explorers today. In practice, they may use a combination of types of transport for specific purposes or to suit particular conditions.

In the heroic age, transport strategies were often only put in place when in the polar regions. It was only once in these areas that the transport could be fully tested. For example, on his last expedition Captain Scott used different types of transport as he headed for the South Pole supported by teams man-hauling, dog driving, and teams using ponies and motorised sledges to transport their supplies southwards.

The use of animals for transport in the polar region is a contentious topic. British explorers during the heroic age had numerous problems with their animal transport, partly due to the fact that they did not follow the experience of indigenous people who had been using animals as transport for generations. Today the use of animals as transport in Antarctic is no longer possible as the Antarctic Treaty bans all non-native species from the continent.

Snowshoes(top)

Snowshoes are used in the polar region to allow their wearers to walk over snow without sinking too deeply. A snowshoe consists of a light frame with webbing laced to it and straps that can be affixed to the wearer’s boots. By spreading the user’s weight over a much greater area this reduces pressure on the snow and so prevents the wearer from sinking.

They are thought to have originated in central Asia in 4000 B.C. and developed in Canada and Alaska into the design we know today. Traditionally they were made from wood which would be bent into the required shape and fixed with a couple of cross pieces before babiche or rawhide thong was used to create a web between the pieces. There are different shapes and sizes of snowshoes; they average around 25cm wide and 100cm long.

Many polar expeditions have used snowshoes to help them walk across snow. Some expeditions have gone as far as to produce snowshoes for ponies, as they especially struggled in soft snow, sinking up to their bellies. However, contemporary accounts suggest that they had quite a lot of trouble getting them onto the ponies’ feet!

Snow shoes are still used today but tend to be made from synthetic materials such as metal and plastic.

Skis(top)

Skis allow their users to travel greater distances faster and more easily than walking. Skiing is an ideal form of transport in the polar regions, with their vast landscapes of snow and ice. During the heroic age of exploration we begin to see the use of the ski outside Norway. The ski is thought to have originated in Norway but was not popular outside Scandanavia until Nansen used skis to cross from one side of Norway to the other. He published an account of his trip which popularised skiing across Europe.

Skis in this period were very different from the skis we know today. Skis would be made from wood, usually ash or hickory. Woods that had a consistent grain and few knots were favoured for their reliability. Bindings would be used to fix the skier’s boot or finnesko onto the ski; this would consist of a system of straps to anchor the ski to the boot. In later years skis would be made from a number of wooden layers glued together; today skis are made from a range of materials including fibre glass and titanium.

Skis are usually long and thin, and are curved upwards at the front to prevent them getting stuck in the snow. Typically skis are used in conjunction with poles which aid the skier’s balance. Scott remarked that the use of poles with skis also made man-hauling their sledges easier.

It is during the heroic age that we see skis embraced as a form of polar transport. Many of the explorers of this period had to learn to ski once in the polar regions. Scott went as far as to bring a Nowegian ski expert, Tryggve Gran, on his British Antarctic Expedition 1910-13 so that he could teach the men how to ski once in the Antarctic.

Sledges(top)

The sledge is one of the oldest forms of transportation, first used more than 16,000 years ago in areas of Scandinavia, Russia, and Siberia. People in the Arctic regions devised various methods by which dogs or reindeer could be used to pull the sledge and its cargo. However, early European explorers to the Arctic regions were slow to adopt these methods.

There have been various designs for sledge runners ranging in length and width, with some curved upwards at the front and others at the back also. ‘Edge-runners’ used in deep snow were sledge runners that were larger in height than width and ‘ski-runners’ which unsurprisingly resembled a ski, and with width greater than height, were used for small sledges travelling over mixed terrain. Usually the sledge runners would be coated with steel or iron to reduce friction with the snow surface. Either struts of timber or a woven lattice between the sledge runners would then support the sledge’s load. If the sledge were to be pulled by dogs, there would be upright handle bars at the back of the sledge to aid the dog driver with manoeuvrability.

Whilst explorers tried out different sledge designs, their lack of experience in dog handling proved very problematic. The Norwegian explorer Fridtjof Nansen carefully studied Inuit sledge design before developing his own version, which was stronger and lighter, based on broad-based ski runners which were wider apart than the traditional Inuit design, allowing the sledge to carry a greater weight without sinking into the snow. The sledge was made from ash and the runners made with elm coated with steel on the bottom. The Nansen sledge, as the design was to be known, had the advantage of being able to ride on many different types of surface.

The Nansen sledge was popular amongst European Antarctic explorers. Many explorers during the heroic age struggled to use sledges, but this was more to do with how the sledges were pulled (dog versus man-hauling debates) rather than the sledge design itself.

More recently some sledges been made of fibre glass, making use of its strength and lightweight properties.

Dogs(top)

The use of dogs as transport in the polar regions has been a hotly debated topic. In the Arctic regions indigenous people have long experience in using dogs to pull their sledges. Many of the explorers during the heroic age lacked this knowledge or experience. In the Heroic Age of Exploration, the use of dogs to pull a sledge was not fully adopted and many British explorers preferred to rely on man-hauling as opposed to dog driving. Many of the hardships faced by British explorers during the heroic age have been put down to this decision.

However, there were valid reasons behind such a decision. First, without spending a considerable amount of time learning how to handle the dogs, it is difficult for a novice to control them. Many expeditions took dogs but did not place much reliance on them. They would be used to support rather than replace a man-hauling team. Dogs could have been more useful if their handlers had the proper experience and training. In more recent times, explorers such as Sir Ranulph Fiennes have been advised that dog sledging is still one of the best forms of transport in the polar regions, but that without a couple of years training it is not to be attempted.

Roald Amundsen’s use of dogteams is often cited as the deciding factor in his being first the achieve the South Pole, beating Captain Scott who relied on man-hauling for the last stage of the journey south. This is a little over simplistic; Scott used dogs as transport for his support teams, as well as trying several other transport methods. Scott was of the opinion that whilst dogs were a fast form of transport, they were not always a reliable option. The cause of this opinion can be seen in his accounts of the British National Antarctic Expedition 1901-04.

In 1902 Scott, Shackleton and Wilson attempted to reach the South Pole. Taking dogs with them; they intended to try both man-hauling and dog driving to reach the South Pole. The journey started off well, but unbeknown to the men, the dogs were ill and getting weaker all the time. Scott had been ill advised and had taken Norwegian stockfish to feed the dogs, a form of dried fish, which had not been treated with the same care as the man food and spoiled as they journeyed through the tropics. They planned to feed the dogs with the fish whilst on their sledging journey but found that, as the fish was contaminated, the more they ate, the more ill the dogs became. Scott recorded his feelings on the matter stating that:

“To see them now with both ends at the maximum depression was a severe shock to our inexperience … It is all very heartbreaking work.”

Instead of the day’s sledging ending when the men were exhausted, it was stopping when the dogs were unable to go any further. Eventually the dogs were relieved from any pulling duties and walked alongside the men who hauled the sledges. In addition, Scott and his men also had problems viewing the sledge dogs as working animals, as distinct from pets. A typical practice of dog driving is to feed the weaker sledge dogs to the stronger to maintain their strength; this is something Scott had great problems in doing. When forced by tainted food to feed the dogs to each other, Scott found himself unable to kill the animals to which he had become attached.

This experience may be partly the cause of Scott’s preference for man-hauling over the use of dogs. On the 1910-13 British Antarctic Expedition, Scott again used dogs as support transport for the man-hauling teams, and again had a difficult start with the dogs:

“I’m afraid we can place little reliance on our dog teams and regret ruefully on the misplaced confidence with which I regard the provision of our transport. Well, one must suffer for errors of judgement”

Over time, Scott developed a more positive experience of dog driving and in fact took the dogs further on his journey south than he had previously intended.

Apsley Cherry-Garrard was instructed to use dogs to ride out to One-Ton Depot to meet Scott and the South Pole party on their return. Scott had given strict instructions that the dogs should not be sacrificed as food for each other, as they would be vital to carry out the next season’s work. Following his orders, Cherry-Garrard returned to the main base when the dog food ran out. He could not have known that Scott, Wilson and Bowers were dying only 2-3 days dog driving away. Cherry-Garrard never recovered from a survivor’s guilt brought on by this experience. He could never fully accept that there was nothing he could have done to save the South Pole party.

Ponies(top)

Dogs were not the only animals used on Antarctic expedition in the heroic age. Ponies were also used to transport supplies. Explorers such as Scott and Shackleton were of the opinion that ponies would be more reliable and more efficient than dogs. This was over-optimistic and, on the whole, the use of ponies did not prove more successful than the use of dogs.

The ponies taken were sourced from Northern China and Manchuria, as these ponies would be accustomed to hauling heavy loads at low temperatures. The ponies were typically used to support the man-hauling parties by carrying their supplies, but they were never intended to be used instead of man-hauling. However, the selection of ponies proved to be problematic. Shackleton had taken ponies southwards in 1907; Scott observed this as something he could emulate in his 1910 expedition. Scott noted that on Shackleton’s expedition all the ponies that died before the season began had been dark in colour, and so deduced that these were weaker or more susceptible to disease than their lighter counterparts. Scott therefore instructed his men to only buy lighter coloured ponies. However, the lighter ponies are more difficult to find than the darker ones, and so they had to take what was available, and these proved to not be of very good quality. When laying the depots for the attempt on the South Pole, Scott ran into a number of problems; one of these concerned the ponies. Scott sent back men and the four weakest ponies, as if they had continued they would have had to have been shot. In sending them back, Scott hoped that with some care these ponies would be fit for the following season’s work. Scott had planned to lay One-Ton Depot at 80°S but was forced to make it at 79°29’S. He, Wilson and Bowers were to perish eleven miles from the depot, and ever since there has been speculation that, had it been laid at 80°S, they may have made it.


The diaries of Scott and Shackleton contain frequent comments concerning the state of the ponies. The journey to Antarctica was a stressful one for the ponies, and were shot en route, having become too distressed during the sea journey. Once in Antarctica, their diet was not ideal and Shackleton lost four ponies that had been eating sand to make up for a lack of salt in their diet. There were also incidences of ponies falling through ice flows; two ponies were killed on Scott’s last expedition as they fell into the sea. The men tried to rescue them but, frightened by killer whales, they could not get the ponies back on the ice and instead were forced to kill them with ice picks to prevent them being eaten alive.

Due to problems of this nature and prior to work even beginning, these early expeditions had to manage with fewer ponies than planned. Shackleton remarked on this when he was making his second attempt on the South Pole. They could not transport as many supplies as they had hoped, as four of his ponies had died eating sand. He concluded that 650lbs was the maximum a pony could carry and that therefore they could have taken more supplies if they had more ponies.

Once the ponies began their work there were further problems. Both Shackleton and Scott found that the ponies had a tendency to sink in the snow. At times this was up to their bellies, which made the going very slow. On his final expedition, Scott took snowshoes for the ponies, which made a great difference as long as the ponies could keep them on their feet. Like the men, the ponies were also troubled by snow blindness and visors were made for them. These hauling expeditions were very tough going on the ponies, and as each one fell behind it had to be shot. The men wanted to keep up the pace, but also to prevent any unnecessary suffering of the animals. Typically, only one pony would be shot at a time; the men would build a snow mound leeward of the camp so that the smell of blood would not drift into camp and this would also act to shelter the other ponies from the sight of the killing. Usually a pony would be killed with a single shot to the head from a revolver.

The meat from these animals, as well as their rations could be added to the men’s diets – without these additions it is unlikely some of the men would have survived. Shackleton’s British Antarctic Expedition 1907-09 relied heavily on the pony meat they had stored along the route when making their attempt on the pole. Desperately short of rations, it is doubtful whether they would have made it back without these additional caches of meat. Shackleton records in his diary that they discovered a cube of the pony Chinaman’s blood frozen at one of their depots:

“We dug it up, and found it a welcome addition to our food. It was like beef-tea when boiled up”

Today the dilemma of whether to take dogs to Antarctica or not has been resolved by the Antarctic Treaty which forbids dogs being used in Antarctica, as they are a non-native species. Dogs are still used in the Arctic alongside modern motorised transport.

Man-hauling(top)

During the heroic age, man-hauling was the most frequently used mode of surface transport. Men would be strapped into harnesses in teams and would drag their sledges behind them. Sometimes the men would be on skis, at other times on foot. Man-hauling was regarded as the most noble and reliable form of polar transport during the heroic age. Many of the sledges would be decorated with intricately embroidered flags, which would help distinguish one man from another when heavily wrapped up in polar gear. One of the flags on the British National Antarctic Expedition 1901-04 was embroidered with the words: ‘No dogs admitted’.

When man-hauling, the amounts carried were very strictly laid down. It was only possible to haul a certain load and only the bare minimum could be carried. If the sledge party were to travel for more than six weeks, support sledging parties would either lay depots in advance or accompany the main party for part of the way.

Man-hauling was exhausting and monotonous work for the men involved. As a method of transport it highlighted the weaknesses in the men’s diet and clothing. Today it is recommended that the calorie intake of anyone man-hauling should be around 6000-8000 calories per day. During the heroic age, calorie intake amounts were often half this and so the men were expending more energy than they were replacing and hunger, followed by weakness, became a severe problem.

Man-hauling also highlights problems in polar clothing during the heroic age. Whilst the Antarctic climate is extremely cold, the men wearing many layers and dragging their sledges would sweat profusely. This sweat would then make their woollen clothes damp, which would cause their clothes to conduct heat away from the body rather than retain it. The wearers would become cold and ice has even been known to form between layers in such situations.

Much is made of the fact Scott chose to man-haul to the South Pole, whereas Amundsen chose dog teams and went on to be the first to the pole. It is fair to say that even if Scott had used dogs he still may not have been the first to the South Pole, due to his inexperience in dog handling compared with Amundsen. However, Oates did remark that Amundsen must have had a comfortable trip compared to their man-hauling.

Today, some embarking on polar expeditions do still man-haul their sledges, but with a whole host of motorised transport types to choose from, man-hauling is no longer the only alternative.
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