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Female Polar Explorers Revisit Tragic Race to South Pole

NEW YORK — A century has passed since the race to be the first to reach the South Pole pitted Englishman Robert Falcon Scott against Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen. Only one man came back alive.

 This week, as part of ongoing centenary celebrations of the tragic contest that claimed Scott's life and made Amundsen a hero, three modern-day polar explorers gathered to discuss their own exploits at the bottom of the world.

And to talk about their feelings, the panel moderator joked.

"We get to talk about that, we're three women up here," said moderator Ann Bancroft, an American explorer and the first woman to cross the ice to both the North and South Poles.

Bancroft introduced Liv Arnesen, a Norwegian explorer and the first woman to ski solo to the South Pole in 1994, and Felicity Aston, a British explorer who recently returned from leading the largest, all-female expedition to ski to the pole.

But before discussion got underway, Bancroft introduced the only two men who'd be joining them on the stage at the American Museum of Natural History: Robert Falcon Scott and Roald Amundsen, sporting thick boots, goggles and Amundsen's now-famous fur coat.

Actors from Wabash College in Crawfordsville, Ind., dressed in turn-of-the-century Antarctic gear, delivered dramatic readings of excerpts from Scott's diaries and Amundsen's triumphal account of his polar journey.

Amundsen, played by Adam Phipps, and Scott, played by Geoffrey McKinney, performed three separate times throughout the evening, complete with costume changes and a planting of the Norwegian flag. On Arnesen's side of the stage, appropriately enough.

The real-life explorers said Scott and Amundsen's tale had fueled their own lust for antipodean adventure. Aston made the point that, as tragic as it is, perhaps it is precisely because Scott perished that the story still evokes such a strong response, even 100 years after the fact.

"Would it still hold such a fascination if Scott had got back alive?" Aston asked. "That story is such a part of our national psyche we'd be different people."

In addition to serving as inspiration for explorers, Aston, a trained meteorologist who worked in Antarctica for three years, said another remarkable aspect of Scott's journey is the valuable information he gathered.

"What shocked me when I first started in the field is that I'd read papers, and some of the data came from Scott's expedition," Aston said.

There's still very little data on Antarctica in comparison with many other regions on the planet. "You still can't get accurate forecasts there," Aston said.

However, despite financial hurdles, the years of planning that such adventures require, and the 100-mph (160-kph) winds that can spring up out of nowhere in Antarctica, all three women have managed to make multiple voyages there.

Arnesen, an inscrutable Norwegian who smiled every time she mentioned how much she loved to ski, said trekking the desolation of the frozen continent is almost a meditative experience.

"It's a great way of traveling, carrying everything you need," Arnesen said. "It's a free and good life."

Earlier in the day, Bancroft and Arnesen paid a visit to the museum's Scott and Amundsen installation — Race to the End of the Earth, on view through Jan. 2 — where they both took a quiz featured at the end of the exhibit, designed to test if visitors are cut out for South Pole travels.

"We didn't get the highest score," Bancroft said, and laughed. "Almost, but not quite."

Arnesen and Bancroft, who have traveled across the continent together several times in the past, are planning an expedition for 2011; Aston has written a book about her adventures there, to be published next year.

 This article was provided by OurAmazingPlanet, a sister site to LiveScience.

Andrea Mustain was a staff writer for Live Science from 2010 to 2012. She holds a B.S. degree from Northwestern University and an M.S. degree in broadcast journalism from Columbia University.