On… Luck

By Simon Hartley, Be World Class.

On 14 December 1911, Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen and his team became the first people to reach the South Pole. They beat Captain Robert Falcon Scott’s British expedition by over a month. Captain Scott’s diaries tell a tale of ‘misfortune’ and ‘bad luck’. Taken at face value, we might believe that it was ‘luck’ that separated the two explorers. However, if we take a look beneath the surface, we see a different picture.

Here’s an excerpt from Chapter 9 of How To Shine (published in 2012 by Capstone), which reveals a little more.

“Amundsen was not only the first to reach the South Pole, but also survived the return journey. Scott, by comparison, reached the pole over a month after Amundsen and perished (along with his team) on the way home. Roland Huntford (1999) analysed the differences in the approaches taken by the two men in his book, The Last Place On Earth. His study suggests that the difference in their result was not down to ‘luck’. Amundsen’s preparation and planning was extensive. He served an apprenticeship with Eskimos and practiced their methods. He was able to draw on the Eskimos vast experience of living in polar environments. As a result, he gained a valuable insight into the tiny details that make all the difference. Amundsen learned the importance of reducing perspiration, because moisture freezes in sub-zero temperatures. Therefore, he opted for loose fitting clothing (to increase evaporation) and chose to move relatively slowly. He also chose to use dogs and sleds, which have been tried and tested in polar environments for centuries. In addition, Amundsen reasoned that some of the dogs would inevitably perish, but that they could be used as food for the other dogs in the pack.

By comparison, Scott opted to use ponies and motorized sleds. Neither had been extensively tested or used in a polar environment. The ponies perished and the engines of the sleds froze and cracked. Scott and his team ended up pulling their sleds themselves, which no doubt caused them to sweat profusely. In addition, Scott took one tonne of supplies for a team of 17 men. Amundsen took three tonnes for five men. Amundsen also marked each of his supply depots with miles of flags, which gave him a 10 kilometre target, should he lose his bearings slightly. His flags were black, to make them visible against a white background. Scott placed a single flag at each supply depot making it far harder to identify. Ironically, Scott’s remains were found within just a few miles of a supply depot.

There are dozens of examples such as these. They tell us that Amundsen prepared for the most extreme of eventualities, accounted for the error-margins and built in considerable insurance policies. Captain Scott, on the other hand, cursed his ‘misfortune’.”  Pages 162-163

Captain Scott’s diary entries have multiple accounts which tell of his ‘bad luck’. On one occasion he broke his thermometer, a tool that was incredibly important for altitude calculations and navigation. Amundsen also broke thermometers, but took multiple spares.  Scott’s last diaries entries indicate that he was unaware that he was within touching distance of his supply depot when he died. If he had prepared as Amundsen did, he might have survived.

Are you as ‘lucky’ as Roald Amundsen or as ‘unlucky’ as Robert Falcon Scott?

What could you do to become luckier?

To find out what differentiates world class performers including record breaking polar explorer, Ben Saunders, read How To Shine.


Hartley, S.R. (2012) How To Shine; Insights into unlocking your potential from proven winners, Chichester; Capstone.

Huntford, R. (1999) The Last Place On Earth, New York; Modern Library.