South Pole Expeditions Then and Now: How Does Their Food and Gear Compare?

A new Antarctic expedition is retracing the 1911-1912 route of Captain Robert Scott.

Captain Robert Scott's South Pole team unloads supplies from the Terra Nova.

The plan: Four months, 1,800 miles (2,900 kilometers) on foot, in temperatures down to -58 Fahrenheit (-50 Celsius), along the same route to the South Pole that claimed the lives of British polar explorer Captain Robert Scott and his men more than a century ago. (Read "Race to the South Pole" in National Geographic magazine.)

That's what British polar adventurer Ben Saunders and teammate Tarka L'Herpiniere are facing in an Antarctic journey that will take them from Scott's historic hut on Ross Island, over the Ross Ice Shelf, up the massive Beardmore Glacier, and across the freezing Polar Plateau.

If successful, the Scott Expedition, which launches this weekend, will become the longest unsupported human-powered journey in polar history. (Follow the team's progress on their blog.)

Polar travel has come a long way since Scott's day, of course. For a start, he didn't have freeze-proof laptops, electrolyte drinks, or a mobile satellite hub. Here's how the gear and food of the two South Pole expeditions compare.

Diet. The staple food of Scott's five-man party was pemmican, a mixture of dried beef and fat, to which water was added. Researchers have calculated that the team's rations, which also included pony meat and lots of biscuits, were 2,000 to 3,000 calories short of the daily intake necessary to keep up with the extreme physical demands. (See "Rare Pictures: Scott's South Pole Expedition, 100 Years Later.")

By contrast, Saunders and L'Herpiniere will consume almost 6,000 calories a day—a combined total of 1.3 million calories for the trip. The largely freeze-dried menu includes porridge and cream for breakfast, energy and protein bar snacks washed down with hot carbohydrate and electrolyte drinks, and chicken curry with added fat for dinner.

Diet is the main difference between then and now, according to Saunders. "We've invested many years of trial and testing into customizing a diet that will give us the sustenance we need to cover the full 1,800 miles," he said.

Ian Stone, a researcher in polar history at the Scott Polar Research Institute in Cambridge, U.K., described the new expedition as "a hellish prospect."

And, he noted, since the trek won't have any support from others along the way, the pair can't accept so much as a cup of tea at the U.S. Amundsen-Scott South Pole research station, which now marks the South Pole, before they turn around. (Read a first-person account of visiting the South Pole.)

Sleds and Weight. Saunders and L'Herpiniere will be hauling handmade carbon-fiber sleds with Kevlar bases. Lightweight yet tough enough to withstand banging into rock-solid ice, the sleds are specially designed so they can be shortened as the pair drops off supplies for the return trip.

Though Scott had wooden sleds, the outward journey as far as the Polar Plateau involved a mixture of transport: motorized sledges, as well as ponies and dogs for hauling loads. In fact, Scott's expedition wasn't unsupported. (See pictures of more modern Antarctic expeditions.)

"They started off with a large number of men who gradually went back to base having pulled most of the heavy loads, so the actual Pole party didn't have as much to pull," polar historian Stone noted.

Whereas Scott's South Pole team each dragged 200 pounds (91 kilograms),  Saunders' and L'Herpiniere's sleds will start out carrying 440 pounds (200 kilograms) of weight. While benefiting from a century of innovation in polar equipment, "we're going to be hauling significantly heavier loads," Saunders said.

The duo has gone to extreme lengths to reduce weight—cutting off clothing labels, replacing metal zip-pullers with nylon loops, trimming the corners off freeze-dried food packets, drilling holes in toothbrush handles, and so on.

Skis. The Scott Expedition will be using skis that are designed for competition ski mountaineering. Significantly lighter and shorter than touring skis typically used for polar environments, they're also extremely strong. The skis have been customized by adding a nylon skin to the undersides to provide extra traction for the heavy loads.

Scott's team used wooden skis. Well, four of the five did, as Stone pointed out. The fifth member, Henry Bowers, was a last-minute inclusion to the South Pole party, despite not having his skis with him.

"The poor sod had to walk all the way from the top of the Beardmore Glacier to the South Pole and back," Stone said.

Not that the others were very proficient on skis, unlike the Norwegian team, led by Roald Amundsen, which beat Scott to the South Pole by four weeks.

"Amundsen's people were all consummate skiers," Stone added. Fortunately, so are Saunders and L'Herpiniere.

Clothing. Saunders and L'Herpiniere will be protected by high-tech mountaineering clothing with outer fabrics that have been specially tailored for the Antarctic's dry environment.

All water is frozen or falls as snow, so a rainproof membrane isn't needed, Saunders explained. Breathability, however, is crucial—pulling a 440-pound (200-kilogram) sled generates an awful lot of heat, even at -49 Fahrenheit (-45 Celsius), he said.

Scott's South Pole expedition was kitted out by Burberry, whose polar garments consisted of wool and cotton. Amundsen's team also wore natural fur. "If you see a picture of Amundsen's expedition, they all look very furry, but Scott's expedition looks as if they're about to climb some peak in the [English] Lake District," Stone observed. (Find out how Amundsen won the race to the South Pole, in his own words.)

Communication. Once Scott's team was on the Polar Plateau, they were on their own with no means of communication. The story of their fateful journey was gleaned only after Scott's diary was retrieved from the tent in which the last survivors died.

Saunders and L'Herpiniere will stay connected and provide regular updates (including photos and videos) using laptops connected to a mobile satellite hub. The ultralight laptops are modified so they have no moving parts and can cope with being repeatedly frozen to at least -40 Fahrenheit (-40 Celsius). (See pictures from the Amundsen and Scott expeditions.)

Powered by portable solar panels that attach to the sleds or tent, the laptops also provide the luxury of watching pre-downloaded films in the evening.

"We've got a bit of a mix—everything from Breaking Bad to Love Actually," Saunders said.

"It's hard to know exactly what you're going to be in the mood for before you leave, so we've catered for all eventualities."